Its Time to Think Differently About Getting Into College

By: Stephen Davenport

That Harvard will eliminate Early Decision got so much play in the news recently tells us how important a college education is to Americans. And it was good news which Americans recognized, that a great university took this step to level the playing field. (If you missed the news: "Harvard University, breaking with a major trend in college admissions, plans to eliminate its early admissions program next year, with university officials arguing that such programs put low-income and minority applicants at a distinct disadvantage in the competition to get into selective universities.")

But those of us who've worked for years in secondary schools and watched the way the college admission process tortures kids and their families, want a more fundamental correction than the elimination of a process that in itself signals what's wrong, that, though there are a great many good colleges and universities to choose from, too many kids want to go to too few of them, and too often for the wrong reason.

Ask ambitious students in public and private secondary schools across the nation to name the fifteen to twenty best colleges or universities and all their lists will be remarkably alike. Now ask them why these particular schools are on the list and others are not and the answers will frequently be not in terms of education but in self-perpetuating terms of competition: "we know these schools are great because they are hard to get into, which is why so many people like us want to get into them", a conception which in turn makes them harder to get into which makes them greater, and on and on. "If I get into one of the schools on that list, I'll feel good about myself. If I don't, I won't and will have to settle for a lesser school."

To be sure, the schools on that list are excellent, but what do we mean by "best"? How much wiser to start with a longer, more inclusive list of excellent schools and then ask what kind of experience do I want in college? Small classes, or lectures by famous teachers? Professors as teachers or T.A's? Do I know what I want to major in and if so, which schools have strong departments in that major? Urban or rural? Big school or small? Single sex for women? Far away from home and family influence so I can discover who I really am, and will I like the weather there? Or close to home and my family? Religious or secular? Will I get some guidance or will I be on my own? Is this a party school? Can I be a varsity athlete there, or is it too big-time for me?

How do I want to live: off campus and commute, or in a traditional college community? Diverse enough to stretch me or will most of the students be like me? And then, of course, when these and any other pertinent questions are answered: how much can my parents and I afford, how much financial aid do I need?

When choosing a college or university to which to apply becomes for more families a matter of seeking a match, rather than winning a race, we'll begin to wonder why we ever needed Early Admissions.

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