Monday, June 09, 2014


Ask the Administrator: Avoiding the Death March

An occasional correspondent writes

Gaining admission to elite colleges is hard, and seems to be getting harder.

Applicants who are not flat-out brilliant compete against a large pool of very very well-prepared youngsters. The standard expectations of academics, sports, and (now) community service are demanding, and keep getting more so.

But suppose one wanted to do an end-run around all that, and get a high-quality education that has real credibility without the Ivy League death march. What would you recommend?

My own thinking is that it might make sense to go off and do something else after high school, so that when you do apply to college, you are not in the same "bucket" as all the prepped-to-the-hilt highschoolers. Military service, perhaps.

I’d start by asking what the goal is.  Phrases like “high-quality education” and “real credibility” can mean a lot of different things.  And I’d focus less on making the student unusual than on finding the right fit for the student.

It’s true that some high schools have developed high-pressure cultures in which students are put through paces that most of us would find ridiculous, all to avoid the shame of being relegated to a “safety school.”  Most of the New York Times articles about the competition to “get into college” take those schools as the frame of reference.  They have to; the entire conceit wouldn’t make sense if it were about getting into an open-admissions institution.

To oversimplify, I’ll read “high-quality education” to refer to student learning, and “real credibility” to refer to market value.  (In this case, “market value” refers to graduate and professional schools, as well as employers.)  The two don’t always go together, which is a blessing and a curse.

It’s a blessing, in that you can find “bargains” and unusual fits that make sense for a particular student.  It’s a curse, in that the student may subsequently still need to prove more, and may have a harder time with the first hurdle. After the first hurdle, though, the exchange value of the high-toned undergraduate degree wanes pretty quickly.  

For the intelligent high school student who isn’t quite as good at application-padding as the rest, honors programs at state or community colleges can be excellent options.  Honors programs usually provide talented and driven peers, dedicated faculty, small classes, and some level of cachet, and they do it all at public tuition levels.  Many of them have strong “feeder” relationships with schools at the next level up, so you can pay less upfront and still finish with the high-toned degree.

In other cases, the issue is finding the school with the right specialization.  We usually apply that kind of analysis to graduate institutions, but it’s not out of place for undergrads, either.  For a student with a specific curricular interest, the right school may not be the one that’s generally considered more impressive.  Middlebury is generally considered a notch below Swarthmore, for instance, but if you want to focus on languages, Middlebury is the better choice.  (That was true decades ago, anyway.  I don’t know if it still is.)  

Treating military service as a form of application padding strikes me as risky.  If you want to serve in the military for its own sake, by all means, do.  But if you’re using it instrumentally, I’d advise thinking hard about what it actually entails.  Tours of duty are simply not comparable to serving as secretary of the Spanish club.  Using the former to avoid the latter suggests a certain lack of perspective.  It’s possible to treat extracurriculars lightly in a way that it just isn’t with military service.  And the way we treat our veterans casts serious doubt on the effectiveness of military service as a means of upward mobility.  I wouldn’t treat it as an “end-run.”  It’s much too serious for that.

The question of the exchange-value of the degree is tougher.  Here, there’s no substitute for homework.  If your ultimate goal involves a graduate or professional degree, what is the college’s track record as a feeder?  (If you’re starting at a community college, what’s its record as a feeder to desirable four-year colleges?)  If your goal is to work in a particular field, what’s the college’s track record placing graduates in that field?  

The good news is that choosing a college is more like choosing a car than choosing a mate.  Some cars will suit your needs better than others, but many different ones will get you where you want to go.  

Good luck!

Wise and worldly readers, what do you think?  Is there a better strategy?

Have a question?  Ask the Administrator at deandad (at) gmail (dot) com.

Also, prestige varies regionally. I used to live in a southern city that was home to the flagship campus of the state university system. Most people in that city -- including well-educated people -- would be hard-pressed to name more than three Ivy League institutions. Many of them would see "University of Pennsylvania" as being at the same level as "University of Georgia" or "University of North Carolina."
I'm having trouble with the context. Is this message from a HS student, the student's parent, or a prof looking for advising insight? I'll assume the former and try to provide the latter. However, I would prefer to know what sort of career or degree the student has in mind.

First, I'll second your advice concerning the alternative of an honors program degree from a flagship R1 state university. But it is a mistake to think that the school can provide the drive and initiative (extracurriculars are a surrogate measure of that) to achieve your goals. And perhaps way beyond your goals. A university president and a prof at a Name Brand medical school (to pick just two people I knew in college) did not have those as their goals when undergrads when I first met them, and I'm pretty sure one of them would not have gotten into an Ivy.

An education is what you make of it. You do need some top-quality options, which might not be available in your field of interest at every university (or even every selective college). That is the reason for looking at programs rather than schools.

I don't get the point about military service as a better angle into an Ivy. Every vet in my CC classroom brings life skills that most HS kids lack, but I can't see many of them choosing an Ivy where they would be much less likely to have another Marine sitting next to them. Ditto for working several years as a bartender or brewer or whatever.
Reading this post, two comments come to mind:

1) instead of 4 years (or more) of military service, I would argue that students would be better served by a post-high school gap year program (The Franklin Project initiative of the Aspen Institute is trying a big-tent approach to public service as an expectation for the 18-28 year old cohort and does include military service as well as Americorps). At any rate, the students I work with who do a year of service, an internship, work, etc. are almost always more focused about what they want to study, more mature in their interactions with others, and more articulate about their interests and skills.

2) Curricular interests are particularly tricky at the age of 17-18. I'm sure many of your readers changed their majors (I know I did), so asking a 17 year old to commit to a college because of a specific academic course of study assumes that the student is likely to keep that interest. How many recovering pre-meds did we all know in college?

I absolutely agree that there are many paths to what you want to do. I would submit that selecting the college where you are more likely to find the experiences, people and academic breadth to figure that out is important. Beyond that, I would advocate picking the college that is both a fit for your temperament and your pocketook.
SamChevre says:

After the first hurdle, though, the exchange value of the high-toned undergraduate degree wanes pretty quickly.

In my fields (finance/accounting/programming), that's only somewhat true. If you want to be CFO of a mid-sized company, definitely; an accounting degree will let you start in a company's accounting department, and work from there. If you want to work on Wall Street, not so much; analyst jobs go to Ivy and equivalent graduates.

Similarly with programming/computer science. A lot of jobs are available to graduates generally, but Google and Microsoft seem to hire at entry-level almost exclusively from the MIT/Stanford equivalents.

In both cases, "they'll hire anyone with demonstrated passion and capability"--but really, almost all the hires come from a small network of elite schools.
FWIW, Middlebury also appears to have a terrific undergrad economics department, better than any I know of at any small liberal arts school. My impression is that an undergrad econ major at Middlebury would compare favorably to any school in the country.
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