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Education

Erika Christakis has an idea for how we might be able to shed some light on what's needed to succeed not only in college, but in life. (Nati Harnik/AP)

It’s April, ‘tis the season of embittered commentary about the “unfairness” of the elite college admissions game. High school senior, Suzy Lee Weiss’s acrid reflections in the Wall Street Journal, “To (All) the Colleges That Rejected Me,” simply express, with more wit and rage than most, what tens of thousands of American kids and their families are asking themselves: Is this system rigged?

There might be a better way. Last year, Vassar College inadvertently sent acceptance letters to 76 students who were supposed to have been denied admission. The errors were corrected within hours, though not soon enough for some excruciating heartache to those whose fortunes were cruelly reversed. But this fiasco could have been an opportunity for an interesting experiment to see what would have happened to those accidentally-accepted-but-actually-rejected students if they had been allowed to enroll.

We’ve tacitly encouraged these capable, talented teenagers to hustle and conceal, to exaggerate and weasel, and sometimes even outright cheat, their way into a coveted berth on the Ivy League ship…

It’s an open secret that a large percentage of applicants to elite universities are fully qualified to attend. So, admissions committees of these colleges could safely agree to accept five or ten percent of the applicant pool randomly, without telling anyone who they are, and then track them over a period of 10 or 20 years. Such an experiment could shed light on the experiences and preparation needed to succeed not only in college, but in life. How would those randomly chosen students fare academically compared to their carefully selected peers? Would their majors and transcripts look different? Would they pursue different careers? Would they be the “creative change agents” we keep hearing about in glossy college brochures? Might they become more loyal alumni donors? Who knows?

But it’s worth answering these questions.

Most educators are sick of the admissions arms race and its downstream effects on an increasingly stressful, truncated high school experience. As elite colleges tap an ever-broader and deeper applicant pool, including more international and low-income students than ever before, high-performing students are turning to increasingly baroque methods to distinguish their high school records. Spearheading a non-profit while maintaining a 4.0 GPA feels like yesterday’s news; these days, students feel like they need all that, plus two deaf parents and a history of childhood cancer.

As Ms. Weiss noted, “Colleges tell you, ‘Just be yourself.’ That is great advice, as long as yourself has nine extracurriculars, six leadership positions, three varsity sports, killer SAT scores and two moms. Then by all means, be yourself!”

It’s no surprise that those spurned by the Ivy League (which would be 94.2 percent of Harvard’s applicants this year) are frustrated. But underlying the frustration is also a nagging sense that the costs of reaching for the college admissions brass ring may simply be too high.

It’s become a cliché to bemoan the anxiety, neediness, and self-doubts of young people, but as a Harvard College administrator living and working (as a “house master”) among 400 high-achieving undergraduates, I see the toll every day that our punishing demands on young people have produced.

By the time they get to college, our students have already spent four years (or, more) on a hamster wheel of adult expectations, so we should hardly be surprised that they lack the confidence or gumption to pursue their own dreams. When I propose something mildly subversive to a student, like spending a sophomore summer doing manual labor rather than working in an investment bank or at an unpaid internship in Washington, all too often I’m met with a look of horror, as if I’ve suggested they jump off an ocean liner in the middle of the Pacific, during a cyclone and with no life boat.

How would randomly chosen students fare academically compared to their carefully selected peers? Would their majors and transcripts look different? Would they pursue different careers?

And why should they feel otherwise when we’ve tacitly encouraged these capable, talented teenagers to hustle and conceal, to exaggerate and weasel, and sometimes even outright cheat, their way into a coveted berth on the Ivy League ship? What do we expect when we’ve encouraged high school seniors to do every single thing except be themselves?

Skeptics will quibble that a totally random process would be untenable; some applicants simply lack the preparation to succeed. In that case, the admissions committees could do an early initial screen to weed out people who don’t meet a basic threshold test. But the experiment will only work if it’s done in good faith, and that would require accepting students randomly.

If we find, as some educators already suspect, that the skills that get a kid into an elite college are not necessarily the skills for a vigorous, intellectually and personally meaningful life, then this high school rat race is for naught. That’s a frightening thought, but it might be just the course correction we need to convince parents and their children that there is more to life than what’s found within Ivy-covered walls.

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