Monday, July 13, 2009

College Prep

Sometimes words don't mean what they seem to mean.

We had a lovely vacation in a part of the world we'd never visited before. Our neighbors stay there with some frequency, and we met up with them for dinner one night. They have two daughters, one of whom sometimes babysits TB and TG, and the other of whom is entering her junior year of high school this Fall. Her mother is trying to get her to add some clubs and activities to her schedule, to improve her college applications. A snippet of the conversation:

Neighbor Mom: I'm encouraging her to join some clubs to round out her college application. If she waits until senior year, it'll be too late.

TW: Honey, what do colleges look for?

DD: I dunno. We take everybody.

(awkward silence)

At which point, I realized that the word 'college' has different meanings.

In some circles, 'college' is an undifferentiated term for a place that other people go to get the kinds of jobs that other people get. It's probably some kind of racket, though the exact workings are hard to detail.

In some circles, 'college' is a place to find a mate, go to football games, and/or party. It's a sort of way station between childhood and adulthood, with no particular connection to the outside world. It's an expected stage of life – it's just what you do after high school – regardless of whether you have any idea what you're doing there.

For some, 'college' is a place to get trained for a job. One college is pretty much the same as any other.

And for some, 'college' is a credential that carries a certain amount of prestige. The prestige, typically, is inversely related to the ease of getting in. (Groucho Marx' line “I would never join a club that would accept me as a member” is a nice summary of this view.) In these circles, phrases like “safety school” and “early decision” and “rounding out the application” carry real meaning.

As a student, I was very much in the last camp, and spent plenty of time and angst trying to get into a sufficiently snooty liberal arts college. (It worked.) But as a professional, I work at an open-admissions college at which the concerns of that last camp are mostly irrelevant. (Mostly, but not entirely; we do a booming business in transfer, including to some pretty prestigious places.)

Each of these points of view has something to be said for it, and each has its own flaws. What struck me, though, is that most people hold one view and consider it pretty much the last word. In some circles, it goes without saying that college is Other. In others, it goes without saying that college is about competitive prestige and getting into the most exclusive one you can. When confronted by an out-of-place viewpoint – like the community college guy shrugging his shoulders at the question of 'what colleges want' – there's just a silence. Although far too gracious to say “that's not what I meant,” the meaning was clear.

The variety of definitions may help explain why the public discourse about higher ed is so deeply confused. People use the same words to mean very different things. If your definition of higher ed is all about exclusivity, then political battle cries of “college for everyone!” are unintelligible at best. If your definition is about job training, then the very idea of an expensive liberal arts college is absurd. If it's about living in dorms and getting away from home, then a community college (or any commuter school) doesn't really count. If it's about upholding tradition, then the prominence of cultural radicals at prestigious places must really grind your gears. If it's about critical thinking, then the culture of college-as-job-training must be like fingernails on a chalkboard.

Wise and worldly readers, when you were 16, what was 'college' to you? And what is it now?