March 25, 2019

If the Shoe Fits: College is More Than Getting In

Watching the college admissions scandal dominate recent headlines, and seeing well-meaning parents behaving as though they have fallen under some sort of evil spell, it is hard not to feel that we have drifted into a collective fairy tale. There is something about Lori Loughlin and her two daughters trying desperately to fit themselves into the mold of USC students that is strangely reminiscent of Cinderella’s stepmother and stepsisters desperately trying to squeeze into the glass slipper, knowing that if they somehow force it to fit then everything will be perfect. In the original version of the Grimm’s tale, the process by which the sisters attempt to make the shoe fit involves the fairly gruesome mutilation of the feet, yet the unfortunate stepsisters may have gotten off better than Lori Loughlin’s daughters did in suffering the violence done to their characters by their mother’s vain attempts to force them into a college that was not right for them. For while the bribery of coaches and admissions officers was certainly inappropriate and illegal, forcing students into a college where they simply do not fit is equally inappropriate.

From the perspective of a student, facing the daunting task of evaluating colleges and deciding where to go, it is natural to focus on getting accepted. A student’s willingness to do whatever necessary to fit into whatever mold of applicant they think that their dream college is looking for is a sign of dedication. But this desire to fit into a mold in the first place inevitably leads to one of two unfortunate outcomes: the student is unsuccessful and winds up miserable; or worse yet, they are successful wind up at a college for which they are ill-suited.

As an example of the first scenario, about ten years ago I had a student who had convinced himself from an early age that the only school that would make sense for him was Harvard. When the thin letter came in the mail he was devastated. Asked where he would be going instead, he said, with regret in his voice, “Yale.” While such students typically recover and become successful, the fate of those who succeed in “getting in” to a college for which they are not well prepared can be devastating. There is a well-documented body of scholarly data showing that students who show up significantly underprepared fall behind from the start, do worse on assessments and spiral into anxiety and self-doubt, making learning even harder.

Over time, this problematic situation results in substantially higher dropout rates, as students convince themselves that maybe they didn’t belong in college after all. In reality, they just needed a college with a better fit. If college were free, such an outcome would still be a tragic loss of time and opportunity. But for many students, the cost of college will be the most expensive purchase they (or their parents) ever make. Leaving college with debt and no degree can lead to a lifetime of digging out of a hole and a permanent reduction in their standard of living. College is fundamentally a service, purchased by (or for) the student. The question to colleges should not be “What can I do to convince you to let me in?” but rather, “What will you do for me if I choose to go there?”

Watching parents approach college applications as though it were the ultimate measure of their own self-worth obscures the fact that the student is ultimately the one who will be attending and it is the student who must do the work once there. Moreover, the only time anything associated with college should be seen as a measure of worth is at the end of the process, when one looks back on collegiate accomplishments. And even then it is not a measure of future value, but a demonstration of capability.  

Amidst the intensity of the application process, it is easy to lose track of the purpose of a college education. Too often college admission is seen as an end in itself. But the goal of an education is not to get into college. Getting into college by itself is of little value. It is graduating from college that is important—and even then it is not graduation that is important, but the education that one gains from the experience of having been in college and the ability to take that education into the world to accomplish one’s goals. Whether the goal is career success or self-knowledge, the time in college is spent as a means to the ultimate end. While there is no guarantee that everyone will live happily ever after, keeping this in mind and remaining focused on the reasons one is pursuing a college education is the only way to keep one’s dreams from turning into nightmares.

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