RIGHT? (errr... no)
“Do I have to go to the most competitive school I get into?” This question from my high school senior took me by surprise. “No – selectivity makes little difference for a child in your circumstances*. I hope you’ll evaluate your choices by fit – which school will give you a place where you can learn, have a community, and find ways to make the world a better place”.
This exchange highlights our privilege . Some people hate this word but just because you don’t like it doesn’t mean it’s not true. While I’ll never say that the college process is easy (hysterical laughter), we certainly have had an easier time than others. We have a solid plan for paying – this, due in part to “head start assets” (Shapiro, p. 62)** provided from her grandfather. This allowed my daughter to apply to colleges she really liked with less focus on receiving aid. Clearly, this is an enormous advantage - and many of her peers are similarly fortunate.
However, even though students in these communities have a serious layer of protection (privilege) heading into college applications, the general vibe is one intense competition. Students tease (mock?) those who applied to schools with higher acceptances rates .
One child I’m thinking of is very focused, identified their goals as a sophomore, and chose a school perfectly suited to them and to their future. That’s a recipe for success but not seen as such because going to the most competitive, most selective college is what you strive for. It doesn’t matter whether that school fits the child.
Does this matter?
I hear you asking, why does this even matter – if my kid does ok at that highly selective school – it shouldn’t make a difference, right? Well, unfortunately it does. First, kids in these communities are not ok. They are really, really not OK. And, no - for the love of all that's good - it’s not the pandemic! (though this certainly made the existing issue worse).
We have ton of data that shows that affluent students who go through middle and high school focused on maximizing their academic success (high GPA, high test scores, high “rigor”) are more likely to experience “elevated levels of maladjustment” (Luthar, Barkin, Crossman, 2013) such as increased substance abuse, higher levels of crime, cheating, and depression, anxiety and other mental health struggles including eating disorders, and cutting.
However, efforts to launch high schoolers into the most elite institutions doesn’t only impact our children. Our communities are interconnected and when we double down and pour resources into our children, we do so at the expense of other children. This is our privilege footprint, we opportunity hoard*** and reduce resources and opportunities for other children.
Take Action - Stop Playing the Game
This is actually a win-win-win-win – it’s good for everyone. If you live in a community like those described above – you do not have to play this game. Ease up on grades, test scores, and “the best college”. Your child will be healthier, happier, and ironically, more successful later in life. AND you’ll free up resources for kids who can really benefit.
* Who actually benefits from “elite” schools? Students from low-income backgrounds while students from middle- and high-income families do not. (Income Segregation and Intergenerational Mobility Across Colleges in the United States - link below)
**Head start assets are “resources that can put a family on an economic and social path beyond the means of their salaries” (Shapiro, p. 62)… for example, reducing the number of college loans a student will have as the enter adult – all the education, none of the cost.
*** Opportunity Hoarding is “helping our own children but hurt others by reducing their chances of securing those opportunities” (Reeves, p. 13). Ie. SAT prep course, Private college counselor, overriding a teacher recommendation regarding Honors class placement
TLDR - Too Long Didn't Read
Going to the “best school” doesn’t necessarily provide any benefit to middle- and upper-income students.
When we put resources into boosting our children up the ladder (for minimal gain) we hoard opportunities which other students could truly benefit from.
Solution – you can let go of these ideas. Your child will be OK.
TSWM - Too Short Want More
Down the Rabbit Hole with Liz
What the heck makes a
college “elite” anyway?
After all, who decides what makes an “elite” college better than all the others? Well, U.S. News and World Report ranks schools. So does the Princeton Review… and others. Of course, they have a methodology which is… let’s be charitable… murky at best. (link to each).
Rankings are problematic for many reasons but let’s focus on two
1. How rankings are calculated
2. Who actually gets into so-called “elite colleges”?
Lies, Damn Lies, and Statistics
We already know that SAT scores are predominately linked to a student’s family income. And for many years, college rankings have used SAT scores as a proxy for college quality – implying that students from wealthier backgrounds are better capable and more worthy of attending these elite colleges. My professional opinion is - Ugh!
The “peer assessment score” (basically a reputation score) is even more problematic. Here’s the rundown. US News and World Reports sends an email survey to each college/university President, Provost, and Head of Admissions and asks them to:
1. Rank their peer schools on a 1 to 5 scale
2. Based on their “their view of the school’s reputation for undergraduate academic quality” –
even if they’ve never visited, know no one at the school, and know nothing about the
school. Rigorously objective, right? (Insert your fave laughing emoji here) Robert Morse
of the US News and World Report rankings
3. The “peer assessment score” has the largest impact on a school’s ranking among all data considered (Listen all about this in Lord of Ranking - link below)
Deeper Down the Rabbit Hole - Examples
1. Reed College does not share their data with USNWR – and pays the price
2. Rowan College raises their reputation with free Hot Sauce (Lord of the Rankings)
Sources and Resources
Reed College and USNWR
Gladwell podcast Lord of the Rankings
Reeves – Are You a Dream Hoarder? – Play the Game -
The Right Way to Choose a College
Income Segregation and Intergenerational Mobility Across Colleges in the United States