Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Things Are More Complicated Than "Don't Send Your Kid To The Ivy League"

As I've mentioned before, I am a history teacher and college counselor at Wyoming Seminary,  a highly regarded prep school with an international reputation for preparing its graduates for higher education. By nearly any measurement, Wyoming Seminary students are successful in the college admissions process and generally speaking most parents (who after all pay the bills) seem satisfied with the outcome of their children's secondary education. There is, however, a spectre haunting our admissions office--no, not that one--the spectre of the Ivy League.  

Some people have complained that not enough of our students wind up attending the most elite universities.  There are several reasons why this is so, most notably that very few of our students apply to those colleges (though 36% of our students were admitted to colleges that accept less than 1/3 of total applicants, which I call "elite" colleges).  While many people refer to "the Ivy League" as short hand for the most selective colleges, the picture is more complicated.  Out of over 3500 institutions of higher learning in the United States, most accept the majority of applicants; only 42 accept 20% or fewer (and the list ranges from the Ivies to places you might not expect, including conservatories such as Curtis Institute at 5% and Juilliard at 7.5% and Historically Black Colleges and Universities such as Rust College at 14% and Albany State University at 20%).

But an article recently published in the New Republic has spurred further discussion about this issue. William Deresiewicz is a former instructor at Yale and author of the forthcoming "Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and The Way to a Meaningful Life". His article raised numerous interesting topics and generated heated disagreement on the internet.  The following will summarize Deresiewicz's ideas along with some thoughts and observations of my own. 

Deresiewicz's main points are:

  • Students who have "won the race" to gain admission to elite colleges are clueless, sheltered and narrow-minded automatons.
  • College is the best time/place to be a learner, and the best colleges should be the best at teaching, but they are not
  • Students at these schools are risk-averse and generally unhappy, probably because the admissions process (including proximate aspects like the application, and more distant ones like the curricula and experiences at prep schools like mine) is narrow and empty and the concept of a "well-rounded" teen (not to mention a "pointy" one) is wildly out of whack
  • The elite colleges in America are products of the economic inequality in the country and actively work to maintain this by focusing on admitting so many people who can afford to pay their stratospheric tuitions. 

Deresiewicz has been occupied for years on the topic of the "disadvantages of an elite education", having written self-consciously about being unable to converse with the "short, beefy [plumber] with a goatee and a Red Sox cap and a thick Boston accent" who had come to fix his pipes. While Deresiewicz may have opted to see a therapist to deal with his anti-social awkwardness he seems to have chosen to write about his problems instead.  I think we learn quite a bit about William Deresiewicz c. 2008 when he observes:

"My education taught me to believe that people who didn’t go to an Ivy League or equivalent school weren’t worth talking to, regardless of their class. I was given the unmistakable message that such people were beneath me. We were “the best and the brightest,” as these places love to say, and everyone else was, well, something else: less good, less bright. I learned to give that little nod of understanding, that slightly sympathetic “Oh,” when people told me they went to a less prestigious college."

In other words, he is a (recovering?) elitist who believes that his own experiences were typical. Six years later he still seems to be hung up on this idea, admitting:
"I should say this subject is very personal for me.  Like so many kids today, I went off to college like a sleepwalker.  You chose the most prestigious place that let you in; up ahead were vaguely understood objectives: status, wealth--"success."  What it meant to actually get an education and why you might want one--all of this was off the table.  It was only after 24 years in the Ivy League--college and a Ph.D at Columbia, ten years on the faculty at Yale--that I started to think about what this system does to kids..."

Ignore the self-conscious resume listing (I guess it is a hard habit to break) and note how artlessly Deresiewicz changes from first person ("I went off to college") to second person ("You chose the most prestigious place that let you in"); he still seems to believe that all Ivy League survivors have shared his experiences.  Personally, I doubt this. A former student at our school (who was the valedictorian as well as a captain of multiple sports teams that won multiple state championships and a dedicated leader of multiple community service efforts) is in her final year at at an Ivy League school.  She responded to Deresiewicz by writing:

"I am who I am because of my education at Wyoming Seminary and the University of Pennsylvania - I've been stretched to my limits and challenged each and every day in these environments (not "pandered" to or given "higher marks for shoddier work" like the original New Republic article states). Penn has allowed me to integrate my science learning with the humanities and explore a whole new academic world.... Above all, Penn has helped me unlock my passion for service and work to integrate that into all of my activities and my future career... "

I am usually reluctant to assume that experiences are universal, and so I am hesitant to accept that Deresiewicz's hangups have caused scores of thousands of elite college alumni to become social cripples when confronted with "inferiors". I prefer to believe that a person who has pursued education for the right reasons (personal growth and self-actualization) will be open to others, and if they were raised right, they will as we say in Yiddish, be a "mensch", not a "bulvan".  Oh, and the way to converse with the plumber?  Ask him how he is doing, offer him something to drink, and make banal observations about the Red Sox, who were on their way to winning the World Series. It's not rocket surgery.

Another of Deresiewicz's concerns is that elite colleges are focused on the economic "return on investment" for their graduates (high paying jobs) rather than what he thinks should be their emphasis: teaching students how to think and how to "build a self".  He rhapsodizes that:
" is only through the act of establishing communication between the mind and the heart, the mind and experience, that you become an individual, a unique being--a soul. The job of college is to assist you to begin to do that. Books, ideas, works of art and thought, the pressure of the minds around you that are looking for their own answers in their own ways. 
College isn't the only chance to learn to think, but it is the best.  One thing is certain: If you haven't started by the time you finish your B.A., there's little likelihood you'll do it later. That is why an undergraduate experience devoted exclusively to career preparation is four years largely wasted."
Leaving aside that if one aspires to be a professor and professional writer Deresiewicz' ideal college experience IS "career preparation", it seems that Mr. Ivy League is concerned that people without college degrees (or with the wrong kind of degrees) may think that people who don't have no soul. All they are fit for is to become plumbers (and probably Red Sox fans)...

In all seriousness, the question of return on investment (ROI) is a real one, and one that families and students should be concerned about; college is expensive, and with the level of college loan indebtedness growing so rapidly, people need to know how they will repay their financial obligations. And I agree that students in college should be given exposure to new ideas and ways of thought and expression. Fortunately, most colleges know this and make it hard to avoid. 

Deresiewicz argues that elite colleges are "technocratic", and only "train [students] in the analytic and rhetorical skills that are necessary for success in business and the professions."  As a result, he believes that (except for the sciences) these schools treat students as "'customers', people to be pandered to instead of challenged...the result is higher marks for shoddier work." Grade inflation is a problem at elite colleges, perhaps because professors believe that anyone good enough to get in to their school is above average.  I am willing to stipulate that it is probably a problem that the most commonly awarded grade at Harvard is straight A's.  On the other hand, as a proud graduate of Hampshire College, I have never believed that grades have any meaning in the first place, so I can't get too worked up about this. 


Deresiewicz frets that students at elite colleges are so worn down by pressure that it causes psychological damage.  He refers to a woman whose boyfriend at Yale who faces the "stigma of eating alone and whether he's networking enough" and realizes that there is "a bigger social reward for being able to talk about books than for actually reading them."  The psychological issues facing college students have become a serious issue everywhere, not just at elite schools and their causes are more complex than Deresiewicz seems to think. To Deresiewicz:
"Look beneath the façade of seamless well-adjustment, and what you often find are toxic levels of fear, anxiety and depression, of emptiness and aimlessness and isolation.  A large-scale survey of college freshmen recently found that self-reports of emotional well-being have fallen to their lowest level in the study's 25-year history.
So extreme are the admission standards now that kids who manage to get into elite colleges have, by definition, never experienced anything but success.  The prospect of not being successful terrifies them, disorients them. The cost of falling short, even temporarily, becomes not merely practical but existential. The result is a violent aversion to risk.
 ...There are exceptions, kids who insist, against all odds, on trying to get a real education.  But their experience tends to make them feel like freaks. One student told me that a friend of hers had left Yale because she found the school "stifling to the parts of yourself that you'd call a soul."
Despite having "been on the faculty" (he never calls himself a professor, so he may not have been on the tenure track) at Yale for a decade, Deresiewicz cannot find a student able to directly speak about the experience; instead the anecdotes meant to generalize about a widespread problem come from someone's boyfriend, and another student's other friend.  Note also, the confidence with which Deresiewicz asserts that students at elite colleges have "never experienced anything but success".  How can he possibly know the life experience of thousands of people?  As a college counselor I get to know my students very well, and just because a kid can be popular and earn good grades in high school doesn't mean that their lives are easy, or an uninterrupted upward trajectory.  Honestly, sometimes the nerve of this guy makes me wonder if he knows how to talk to anyone, even if they are trim, clean-shaven and think baseball is an uncouth variation of cricket. 

Deresiewicz' essay begins with a fly-on-the-wall description of a meeting of Yale's admissions committee, trying to evaluate candidates from eastern Pennsylvania. He says he was told that "successful applicants could either be 'well-rounded' or 'pointy'--outstanding in one particular way--but if they were pointy, they had to be really pointy: a musician whose audition tape had impressed the music department, a scientist who had won a national award."  He goes on to refer to them as "Super People" who have "a double major, a sport, a musical instrument, a couple of foreign languages, service work in distant corners of the globe, a few hobbies thrown in for good measure: they have mastered them all, and with a serene self-assurance that leaves adults and peers alike in awe."

According to Deresiewicz, these super people have reduced their lives to college essays. Having gone a couple of paragraphs without pontificating, he huffs:

"From learning to commodify your experiences for the application, the next step has been to seek out experiences in order to have them to commodify.  The New York Times reports that there is now a thriving sector devoted to producing essay-ready summers, but what strikes one is the superficiality of the activities involved: a month traveling around Italy studying the Renaissance, 'a whole day' with a band of renegade artists: a whole day!
I've noticed something similar when it comes to service. Why is it that people feel the need to go to Guatemala to do their projects of rescue or documentation, instead of Milwaukee or Arkansas? When students do stay in the States, why is it that so many head for New Orleans? Perhaps it's no surprise, when kids are trained to think of service as something they are ultimately doing for themselves--that is, for their résumés. 'Do well by doing good' goes the slogan. How about just doing good?"
When Deresiewicz defines "superficiality" he immediately cites kids who spend "a month traveling around Italy studying the Renaissance"--what a bunch of posers! I would probably refer to people who make broad generalizations without doing any actual research, but what do I know?  And I am not at all sure what his beef is against Guatemala. But what really gets me about this passage is his snarky dig at the "slogan" about doing well by doing good.  This is pretty much the foundation of philanthropy in our culture, but Deresiewicz seems to think that it is just something that shallow, callow, wealthy, hyper-achieving teenagers like to say to themselves after dooming Milwaukee to more years of desperation without community service projects. 

I am beginning my nineteenth year working at prep schools, and having spent more than seven of those years as a college counselor I think that I might have just as good a sense of the college admissions game as Deresiewicz got from his couple of hours observing in the spring of 2008.  To me, admissions to the most elite schools is by definition (to paraphrase Deresiewicz) very difficult to attain.  Colleges with admissions rates of 33% or less (not to mention the schools with single digit acceptance rates) are able to take their pick of students.  If they wanted to, they could admit nothing but valedictorians and National Merit Finalists. But the thing is, they don't want to. According to this article from Stanford University's (with an admission rate of 5.1%) alumni magazine:
"There is no formula," [Director of Admissions Richard] Shaw says. For the alumni of a school that resides on the forward boundary of the digital frontier, where arrays of 1s and 0s have transformed life as we know it, this is unsettling. Even perfect test scores don't guarantee admission. Far from it: 69 percent of Stanford's applicants over the past five years with SATs of 2400—the highest score possible—didn't get in. 
Moreover, applicants aren't just competing against other stellar scholars. They're also competing against circumstances. "Whether or not one young person gets in is not necessarily determined by what they've done and what their characteristics are and their abilities and so on," says Provost John Etchemendy, to whom Shaw reports. "It also depends on the overall mix of people who have applied that year and bubbled to the top. So one year, being a tuba player might be really important. And another year, well, there are already these five even better tuba players and we don't need another." 
Cardinal head football coach David Shaw, '94, doesn't sign quarterbacks only. He tries to build a team. So, too, does Rick Shaw. That's where the word "holistic" comes in. Stanford, in addition to wanting superior scholars, also wants to bring in a pre-built community populated by kids from every stop on the geographic, socioeconomic and talent spectrums. 
"When [Stanford] takes students," says [Stanford alumnus Ralph] Figueroa, who, as an admissions officer at Wesleyan University was profiled in The Gatekeepers (2002), "you can often see they are not taking just a number. They are taking the personality, the talent. They are taking the contributions that aren't always obvious at first glance. I see it firsthand with my own students who apply—who gets admitted and who doesn't." 
Shaw acknowledges that part of the evaluation is subjective, which makes a denial of a superior candidate all the harder to accept. "We leave behind extraordinary young people. There's not a constituency that isn't upset. That's not only true for alumni children. My consolation prize is that I know those kids are going to be fine. They may be disappointed for a while, but they will wind up at very good schools and do very well."
The Stanford article also admits that each applicant only gets about 15 minutes of review as part of the "holistic" admissions process (except for legacy students, who get looked at twice). So with that in mind, and considering that grades and test scores will probably be pretty much the same for most applicants, is it any wonder that we advise students that the way to differentiate themselves is through their personal statement? It is also why we urge students to apply to a diverse list of schools. I tell students that they should only apply to schools that they want to attend, but that they should make sure that some of the schools they apply to have more welcoming admissions rates.  22% of students nationwide apply to more than seven colleges, though at our school the average number of applications is nine. With this being the case, students should be able to apply to one or more "reach" schools while still making sure that they will have a safe place to land regardless. 


Deresiewicz's final point is probably the most serious one, and is something that I wrestle with regularly. As he writes: 
"Let's not kid ourselves: The college admissions game is not primarily about the lower and middle classes seeking to rise, or even about the upper-middle class attempting to maintain its position. It is about determining the exact hierarchy of status within the upper-middle class itself.  In the affluent suburbs and well-heeled urban enclaves where this game is principally played, it is not about whether you go to an elite school. It's about which one you go to. It is Penn versus Tufts, not Penn versus Penn State. It doesn't matter that a bright young person can go to Ohio State, become a doctor, settle in Dayton and make a very good living. Such an outcome is simply too horrible to contemplate.
This system is exacerbating inequality, retarding social mobility, perpetuating privilege, and creating an elite that is isolated from the society that it's supposed to lead. The numbers are undeniable. In 1985, 46% of incoming freshmen at the 250 most selective colleges came from the top quarter of the income distribution. By 2000 it was 55%. As of 2006 only about 15% of students at the most competitive schools came from the bottom half. The more prestigious the school, the more unequal its student body is apt to be....
The major reason for this trend is clear. Not increasing tuition...but the ever-growing cost of manufacturing children who are fit to compete in the college admissions game....Wealthy families start buying their children's way into elite colleges almost from the moment they are born: music lessons, sports equipment, foreign travel ("enrichment" programs to use the all-too-perfect term)--most important, of course, private school tuition or the costs of living in a place with top tier public schools. The SAT is supposed to measure aptitude, but what it actually measures is is parental income"
Once again it is easy to dismiss Deresiewicz's feigned shock at the horrors of living in Dayton (what does this guy have against the midwest?  It's not like people there have Boston accents). But he is right that there is heated competition among America's rich (and nouveau riche) to get their children a leg up. I know: I work at a prep school (located next to a city where 33% of school age children are in poverty) with day student tuition and costs of $25,000 year; despite having a very generous financial aid budget, most of my students are "upper middle class" and have parents who are professionals. I have always found it important to make sure that my students knew that their experiences were not universal. That said, there are more than a token number of students at my school who come from very disadvantaged backgrounds, so I try not to generalize. 

It can be a challenge when students debate about whether to include information in their applications that inadvertently reveal clues about their family's finances (ranging from detailing yearly vacations in the Caribbean to describing school-year part time jobs) because one would hope that colleges would admit students based on their merits; unfortunately, most have to take finances into account.  While many top-tier, wealthy institutions have been increasing financial aid recently, their "sticker prices" continue to rise. Perhaps as a result of this, most low-income students don't even apply to four-year colleges

Income inequality is a major problem, and as a teacher I consider it my duty to make sure that my students understand it.  But I do not agree with Deresiewicz that "the education system has to act to mitigate the class system, not reproduce it." Some of his suggestions, such as "placing more value on the kind of service jobs that lower-income students often take in high school and that high achievers almost never do" and "[colleges] should refuse to be impressed by any opportunity that was enabled by parental wealth" seem reasonable.  Similarly, I tend to agree that things would be better if colleges "stop cooperating with U.S. News." But his other suggestions range from the silly ("[p]references for legacies and athletes ought to be discarded") to the picayune ("colleges should put an end to résumé stuffing by imposing a limit on the number of extracurriculars students can list on their applications") to the virtually impossible ("SAT scores should be weighted to account for socioeconomic factors"). 

Deresiewicz closes his article by saying "I used to think that we needed to create a world where every child had an equal chance to get to the Ivy League. I've come to see that what we really need is to create one where you don't have to go to the Ivy League, or any private college, to get a first-rate education."  This is an admirable sentiment.  It implicitly recognizes that students at Yale U and students at State U will have large classes taught by graduate assistants.  What I have learned from following the careers of my former students is that talented motivated people go to private colleges AND public ones; and that talented, motivated people will make the most of their opportunities wherever they wind up.  The problem of income inequality is inextricably tied up with America's broken political system; that is why so many underfunded public schools fail to provide for their students and why so many Americans struggle amid falling wages and disappearing opportunities. Regardless of their good intentions, private colleges will not be able to change this. 

I find Deresiewicz's article thought-provoking, but as you can tell, most of my thoughts are derisive: to me he seems insufferably stuck-up, shallow and I hope his book is better sourced than this article. In short, I think that "don't send your kid to the Ivy League" is needlessly reductive and sets up a straw man. My job is helping students find the colleges that will be the best "fit" for them. Colleges are not the same, and not every school is equally good for everyone. As my mother would say, "that's why there's chocolate and vanilla", or in this case, that's why there are three and a half thousand colleges in America. For other viewpoints, please consider reading J.D. Chapman, an independent school educator who disagrees with Deresiewicz on the value of an elite college education.  You might also want to read Andrew Giambrone, a self-identified "financial aid kid whose life-prospects were significantly bolstered by attending an elite school", or even Osita Nwanevu, a University of Chicago student who disputes the idea that if a person doesn't learn how to think in college that s/he is a lost cause. I would love to know what your thoughts are: please feel free to leave comments below. 

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