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Saturday, February 5, 2011

The Scam that Nobody Should Buy Into

This article will save you money if you actually buy into the premises of a recent article in the Journal about college admissions that had me rolling my eyes.
It is no secret that the children of certain families (and we all know who we are) are primed to take a disproportionate share of the places at the best—or at least the most prestigious—colleges. .... But just in case our children don't quite have the stats to make it into, say, Georgetown or UNC on their own steam, you can bet that we, as parents, will do everything in our power to make it happen. We are all caught up in a crazy arms race, where the order of the day (to borrow a useful term from the Cold War) is 'escalation dominance.'

The rest of the article is an account of the battery of test prep and college visits that are supposed to help get someone get into a good school. The focus of the article is the cost of these measures and how parents will stop at nothing to procure them. Towards the end, the author, Jennifer Moses, tries to make it sound as though this is absolutely necessary to have a child get into a good college. As if it is some sort of necessary affliction one must suffer to have a successful child:
And if all of the above isn't stomach-churning enough, there is for-hire college counseling, which steps in when your kid, like mine, has a major freak-out, convinced that, without specialized help, he will end up having to go, God forbid, to Rutgers (where his father is on the faculty). The private college counselor told our son exactly what he'd heard from his regular guidance counselor and from us. But she also gave him an Office Depot filing system to help keep things organized, tips about how to get a campus interview even for schools that don't do on-site interviews (ask a professor to meet with you) and why it's important not to have a cellphone message that says things like, "Hi, butt-face, talk." But compared to the SAT tutoring, she was a bargain, a mere $701.25 to date.

Is going to a so-called "better" college worth it? Is the system fair? The first question is the subject of seemingly endless study, which almost always concludes: It depends. The second question is easier to answer: Of course it isn't fair. Despite diversity goals, scholarships, loans, all kinds of waivers of application fees, and various other leg-up programs, the entire application system is so unjust that it makes the House of Lords look like a New England town meeting.

Having been through the college process at a competitive high school (and then again when I transferred from NYU to Cornell), I have been witness to the insanity that in instills in all parties involved. This article brought back the insipid conversations I would overhear in the halls and on message boards. I've been there, so let me give my side of the story:

Getting into a good school does not have to cost an arm and a leg. If it does, you're doing it wrong. If you've been a good student for eighteen years, colleges will take notice. If you have been slacking off, the chances that a decent standardized test score will change everything are slim. I suggest everyone try hard, maybe enroll in an SAT prep course or get a good book because there is a method to taking standardized tests. It is not, however, some sort of "club secret." Virtually everything I heard in my prep class could be found on the internet for free. The only redeeming quality for the pricetag was that it forced me to pace my studying in a way I probably wouldn't have on my own.

"Extras," like checking out the prospective school in person, shouldn't be looked upon as some sort of critical step to "getting in" - you should have a vested interest in seeing what a campus is like before you submit yourself to possibly live there for four years anyway! Take it easy, one of the best roadtrips I've ever had was with my Mom to check out the college of William & Mary and Gettysburg College over the course of one weekend. I didn't fly out to Stanford or Cal, I happened to be living in the area that summer and thought it would be fun to see what colleges were like. It was. A $700 college counselor? Here's a tip for free: don't look like a jerk on the internet. Ever.

I know some tales of nepotism and, sure, it happens. I knew a girl that had a high school GPA that reflected her partying habits who now attends a very prestigious school. It's really no secret as to how she got in. However, a conversation with her makes it incredibly obvious that her enrollment is a joke and her facebook statuses certainly reflect how painfully bad she was fit for the job. My point being that you should strive to go to a school you academically belong to. Sure you can dance your way through by paying out the nose for a coach ... or a college, but a loftier goal would be getting into a college where you will actually learn and improve.

College admissions is a bit of a crapshoot today because of the high-volume. There are dozens and dozens of people with a similar resume applying to nearly every one. If you are well-credentialed to get into a certain type of school, though, I propose you increase your odds by sending out applications to schools of a similar caliber - just in case. For the most part though, don't think it is the end-all-be-all if you don't get into Notre Dame or Middlebury. I saw too many of my friends thinking their self-worth was correlated to their admissions packets, probably because of the hype around this industry and articles like this. It isn't. The most important thing I got from the college admissions process was the opportunity to give myself an evaluation of my wants, needs, and abilities that I had never bothered examining before. You cannot buy that from some sort of wonk or agency - though don't think people won't try to sell it.

Also, as an aside, I was particularly peeved at the Rutgers slight by the author's son. If Ms. Moses' son is considering graduate school, Rutgers would really be an excellent choice to make so that he doesn't come out of his academic career loaded down with tons of debt. (For the record, Rutgers was my second-choice since it has such a fantastic philosophy department. For those who are curious, I attended NYU for two years because of the reputation of their phil. department - as well as the merit scholarship I received.)

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  1. Great article!

    And W&M was my alma mater - I still miss the scenery there (as well as the school).

  2. Thanks! I had loved W&M since I found out that Thomas Jefferson went there. It's a really gorgeous campus!

  3. And check out the Chancellor's list :P


    Are you studying Phil. now, Kathleen?

  4. Ah, so cool! Thanks, I didn't know that bit about it :-).

    Yep, I'm studying philosophy and history! I've had a really exciting academic career in college.

  5. My piece of advice: do not spend your future finances to get a degree - on other words, SAY NO TO LOANS. Be sure you have a solid job, or a good prospect for a job, that is related to or resultant from the degree you choose, one that will give you a descent salary on graduation. That is called ROI - return on investment. If you can't pay back your student loans while living independently after college, then you are not making a living wage - i.e. a descent salary.

    Getting a degree in Business Administration, for example, will not be worth $80K+ in tuition for 4 (or more) years, because you won't make that (or anything close) even if you graduate from Harvard. You won't be able to pay rent, pay bills, and pay back the loans. The debt burden is too high. Taking out loans to pay for college is hocking your future. Pay as you go, find ways to save or go in-state, seek out and receive grants, scholarships, and WORK (for MONEY) while you go to school. Then you will have some practical experience to round out your "sheep skin" and be of real value to an employer.

    Just my advice after seeing dozens of clueless, disillusioned graduates, broke parents, and jobless 20-somethings, wondering why they can't pay back their loans - and how they ever will.

  6. A good combination, Kathleen.

    I only recently picked up some Christopher Dawson, and he is now one of my favorite philosophers of history, right above Christopher Lasch (who, though I think some of his ideas may have been off, was correct and even prescient about many things).

    Do you have a specific focus?

  7. Thanks, I like it. Dawson is excellent! I've done a lot of history of phil (for fairly obvious reasons, I like to hit as many birds as I can with one stone). Lasch has good style, but I can't say I've read enough to really compare the two. Technically I have no focus if you mean a topic that I've taken a lot of classes in, though I read books outside of class so I guess that helps broaden my perspective. My favorite living philosophers are Michael Heumer and Tom Nagel, so I guess that reveals a bit about my interests :-). I'm also taking a really cool class on epistemology and probability which discusses Bayesian rationality. I'm really fascinated by that.

  8. Wow - the last sounds fairly complicated.

    I enjoy reading John Haldane and Roger Scruton, who are both very good writers. I am reading Scruton's Modern Philosophy now, which is excellent thus far. I have also enjoyed G.E.M. Anscombe, David Bentley Hart, Robert Louis Wilken, Maritain, Pieper, Rene Girard, and (the little I've read of) Remi Brague.

    I tend towards the Tomistic, and range from anthropology into philosophy and theology, as they tend to run into one another at a certain point in the past, or so I've observed.

  9. Just forget about an private schools though if you're white, male, and not-rich. Most of the college assistance, e.g. grants and scholarships, are not for you. Check out breakdowns of college graduation rates by demographic sometime.