1. I noticed as long ago as the 90s when I was on the admission committee at Amherst that we seemed sometimes to be asking prospective freshmen to be graduate students rather than serious inquirers interested in continuing their educations. It seems clear that this state of affairs has only intensified. I believe, although I have no empirical evidence, that this greater intensity can be connected to the increased amount of binge drinking, drug use, and so on that provide intense experience that stands in for actual involvement with life as it happens. (Self-advertising: See the current issue of the Journal of College Admission for an article I wrote as well as several others on college admission and adolescence.)
2. Several years ago I developed and proposed a “mechanism” based on the Lending Tree concept (“When banks compete, you win”). Students would put their applications into an online information “bank” and state what colleges they’d like to be accepted at; colleges would view those applications and make decisions. Students who didn’t hear anything could lower their expectations and see what happens. There’s more, but I think you get the idea. To my way of thinking this would put some of the control in the students’ hands and enable them to focus on other things, but I know it’s a lot more complicated than that. It would also take the fun of “selectivity” out of the process, of course…
3. Much of the frenzy is based, it seems to me, not on the issue of getting into college, but on getting into a particular college. The Amherst alum who called me in 1994 wanting to find a good school for his second grader so she could get into Amherst was trying to control an outcome far narrower than anyone can reasonably expect to control. (I don’t know what finally happened to her–she may be at Amherst now.) If students, children, were being educated well and encouraged to make the most of their lives, instead of being molded to have particular lives, we might all be better off. (Incidentally, Jon R. mentioned AP Frank with the 17 APs– his mother sat in the hall of their home watching him and his brother do their homework; she also couldn’t understand why the HS didn’t offer AP gym; and when Frank got to Harvard, he spent a great deal of his time trying to construct a social life that had been entirely missing from his life BH. An extreme tale but cautionary nonetheless.) Trying to engineer specific life results 15 or 10 or 5 or even 2 years into the future is where we go really, really wrong. That’s why I’ve objected so strongly to recent books that have come out showing people how to do just that.
4. As colleges have increasingly become brands instead of institutions (and this is not a new phenomenon by any means–see Paul Fussell’s book Class) and as the US has increasingly become a brand-name crazed country, the phenomena have merged to create the bizarre phenomenon we see before us. In this weekend’s Chicago Tribune a front page story was about how pre-K and other elementary schools are harder to get into than Harvard, statistically speaking. This follows on well-known stories from New York City about similar phenomenon. And on NPR this morning a story about how schools, trying to bring unstructured time back into kids’ lives (because it’s critical for children to develop their own ways of working out problems and rules), are structuring ways to do it. All told without irony.
5. I’m going to let Shakespeare have the final lines here.
After hearing his daughters Regan and Goneril lavish fulsome praise on him (telling him exactly what he wants to hear) and granting them two thirds of his kingdom, Lear turns to his youngest daughter, Cordelia, and asks her how much she loves him. Her answer will determine her inheritance, as college applicants’ answers determine their own “inheritance.” Poor Cordelia only has what anyone with any sense would realize was the most essential love of all. And we all know what Regan and Goneril do with Lear once they have his power…
Act I, Scene i
Lear: …what can you say to draw
a third more opulent than your sisters? Speak
Cordelia: Nothing, my lord.
Lear: Nothing will come of nothing. Speak again.
Cordelia: Unhappy that I am, I cannot heave
My heart into my mouth. I love your Majesty
According to my bond, no more nor less.
Lear: How, how, Cordelia? Mend your speech a little,
Lest you may mar your fortunes.
Cordelia: Good my lord,
You have begot me, bred me, loved me. I
Return those duties back as are right fit,
Obey you, love you, and most honor you.
Why have my sisters husbands if they say
They love you all? Haply, when I shall wed,
That lord whose hand must take my plight shall carry
Half my love with him, half my care and duty.
Sure I shall never marry like my sisters,
To love my father all.
Lear: But goes they heart with this?
Cordelia: Ay, my good lord.
Lear: So young, and so untender?
Cordelia: So young, my lord, and true.
Lear: Let it be so, thy truth then be thy dower!
For, by the sacred radiance of the sun,
The mysteries of Hecate and the night,
By all the operation of the orbs
From whom we do exist and cease to be,
Here I disclaim all my paternal care,
Propinquity and property of blood,
And as a stranger to my heart and me
Hold thee from this for ever.
I loved her most, and thought to set my rest
On her kind nursery.—
So be my grave my peace as here I give
Her father’s heart from her!
Let pride, which she calls plainness, marry her.