Sunday, March 09, 2008

The Pain of Privilege; Or, You Thought College Admissions Couldn't Get Any Sillier, Didn't You?

Having created a ridiculous problem, which is that high school students have to build a resume and a transcript worthy of a Rhodes scholar to get into a selective four-year college, you will be glad to know that these coveted institutions and gatekeepers to success have found a solution to the stress this causes to young people. The answer is to throw money at it, imply that the students and their helicopter parents are pathological, and urge the admitted students not to matriculate until they have rested and feel less emotional and cynical about the whole thing.

That's right. Do not re-evaluate what you are doing that is causing kids to show up at college as nervous wrecks, and sometimes even leave after a month or two because they are so burned out and care so little about real learning anymore. Do not admit that, because of you, young people are running themselves ragged with multiple after school activities, course overloads, AP examinations, science fairs, commuting to college classes while still in high school, music lessons, meeting with their tutors, tutoring others less fortunate, and being three-sport varsity athletes to get a shot at going to a half-way decent school. Instead, denounce the fact that they are burned out after having done what you insist they must do to gain admission to your expensive university and encourage them to pay you even more money so that they can take a year off doing something enriching in a foreign land. By doing so, you can also help create a new class of experts -- in addition to the private athletic coaches, college application consultants, and SAT tutors who are already flourishing because of your ridiculous so-called "standards" -- who can be paid to help an Ivy League-bound teen relax in just the right way, get away from those pushy parents and regain her shattered peace of mind. All over the country gap year planners will help your child attain the maturity he had no opportunity to develop, so pressed was he with fulfilling his parents' ambitions -- not, mind you, competing realistically to get a place at a selective college or university.

That's right: as Alex Williams reports today in the New York Times,

Princeton unveiled plans to send at least a 10th of its incoming students abroad for a year of social service before starting at the university. High schools now hold gap-year fairs to teach students about the option, and companies and consultants that place students in gap-year programs (guitar-building in England or caring for injured sled dogs in Canada) are proliferating.

Full disclosure: I have had, and will have, a number of young people in my family who have suffered from the effects of what I now call the College Derby, who are actually quite privileged by comparison to most of the young people growing up here in Shoreline, and I think this story is just gross.

In addition to Williams' failure to acknowledge that it is a little nuts for the students in question to be so strung out in high school (something which is perhaps not entirely her fault, since selective colleges -- like the ones she researched for the story -- perceive all problems, even one the colleges are directly responsible for apparently, as having originated in high school or at home), the story also doesn't acknowledge that this year off costs an arm and a leg, effectively adding a fifth year of college fees. Nor does it acknowledge that working and poor people have another way of taking time off before college. It's called military service, without which they cannot hope to pay for higher education, but because of which they might leave all or part of their brains over in Iraq or Afghanistan, and thus perhaps be rendered less likely to make the most of the college experience.

I hate the war so much that it is rare for me to express the sympathy and compassion I feel for the men and women who are fighting it, and for the families who struggle financially and emotionally while soldiers are deployed. But is there a better expression of the "two Americas" that John Edwards put at the heart of his Presidential campaign than a story like this?

So some American kids will take their year off at cooking school in France, and some will take several years off (more, if the military exercises its option to keep them indefinitely; less if they get blown up or become deranged) in Kabul.


Belle said...

Amazing, no? Of course, I'm one of those who 'took off' some time after HS, and am glad I did. I came back ready to work hard and learn, and knew the value of the education I wanted. And got. And yeah, I did some time in the military, which basically paid for my undergrad.

It's bad here in Boonieville too, not just the Utopias of the country. Burnout at 18; yikes.

Lesboprof said...

I am with you. I read the story in the Times, fairly aghast at the idea of burnout of high school students. I think the overcommodification of our youth is ridiculous, and it has ill effects on the youth AND their parents.

Bardiac said...

What counts as a "half-way decent school"?

This sounds like one of those NY Times articles that's focused on the elite and trying to sound like problems of the elite are everyone's problems.

If "half-way decent" means a private SLAC, then most students aren't going there anyway, right?

Let's abolish private education and see if the rich taxpayers aren't more willing to pay for public schools if their children use them? (All the way, kindergarten through grad.) I know that's never going to happen, but imagine!)

Tenured Radical said...


Well, the phrase you point out is the kind of thing that you could say reveals snobbery, and perhaps it does, but in fact many public universities are extremely competitive now, and those that aren't are seeking to become more so. There was another article in today's paper about how state schools are trying to lure out of state students so that *they* can become more selective and move away from their mission of educating high school graduates from within the state.

And yes, the article was focused on the problems of the rich -- my point precisely.


Anonymous said...

One (more!) advantage to living outside of the Bos-Wash orange schmear is that people in Flyover Country are much more relaxed about college. Going to the in-state big schools is not considered a backup plan if the kids don't get in to Zenith or Yale--it's just what everyone does, even really outstanding students. There are disadvantages to this approach, of course, the main one being that complacency with our big state universities means that we're 49th out of 50th in terms of state funding for higher ed. On the other hand, it seems like the stress level inside the homes of 17- and 18-year olds is a lot lower around these parts.

I went to an East Coast SLAC myself, although I didn't have parents who could just cut the check. I had to work summers to make (part of) my tuition and all of my expenses, while classmates got to ponder whether they should spend the summer in Europe or South America this year to recuperate from the stress of college. I wonder if this "need" for a gap year described in Williams's article is just as manufactured as the stress surrounding college admissions. Two Americas, indeed!

undine said...

Thanks for posting about this. For a while, after they announced that they'd move to grants-based rather than loan-based assistance, I thought universities like Princeton might actually, you know, admit some smart but middle-class students, the kind whose parents can't pony up money for an SAT counselor and all the rest of that.

Now those students have to come up with several thousand dollars for a gap year (which of those parents could front a student airfare to Argentina, let alone living expenses for a year?) so there's little danger now of actually having to use those massive endowments for such students.

anthony grafton said...

As I understand it, Princeton will provide aid for students who want to spend the year on social service and can't afford it. And in fact we have admitted some actual poor and middle-class students. This year, 15% of the freshman class comes from families that earn below the national median household income, and a fair number are first-generation college students. Those who come after in this economic category and want to do the social service gap year will have their way paid.

I'm not defending the current admissions craziness, and I agree with Radical (as I usually do): the privilege in a place like the ones that she and I teach at can be sickening.

But most of our admissions and aid policies have been established by our last two presidents, both Canadians and products of public universities. Our current president spent some years as a volunteer in sub-Saharan Africa before grad school. The changes they have made reflect those experiences (our previous president told me and others that he met a senior who wanted to be a teacher but couldn't because of debt, and that made him determined to get rid of loans for our students).

As I see it, the new policies have opened Princeton up to a substantial number of people who wouldn't have thought they could go there in the past. They have also turned up the fire under rival schools. And we haven't gone in for bidding big scholarships for the already well-off, as Harvard and Yale have, all as part of the supposed effort to help the "middle class."

Princeton's a very imperfect place, but I'm proud of much of what Presidents Shapiro and Tilghman have done. And I plan to keep kvetching until we do more.

undine said...

Thanks for clarifying what Princeton is doing, Anthony Grafton. Although I'm still concerned about the ways in which this new twist on admissions might disadvantage students, it sounds as though Princeton has taken several steps to prevent such problems.

Tenured Radical said...

Because of the way the quote reads (undoubtedly because Princeton has a good PR person) the post appears to suggest that I think Princeton is particularly culpable, when in fact, as Tony points out, Princeton has been a leader in using its wealth for education. It was Princeton, after all, that took the lead in voluntarily moving its graduate students to a living wage and supplying them with summer research funding. As Tony points out, there are reasons for this that are ideological, that have to do with leadership, and that make Princeton's wealth more public as a consequence of their attempts to use their endowment conscientiously.

That said, that it matters so very much to go to a Zenith or a Princeton in the first place is something we need to have a larger conversation about, and that getting in to college has become such a misery for students that one of the most exciting moments of a kids life -- leaving home and becoming your own person -- is such a downer, is something that we elite colleges have created and that the rest of higher ed. is now emulating (see link in previous comment).


anthony grafton said...

Agreed, TR, right down the line. I look forward to that larger conversation. It won't be short.

Professor of Strangeness said...

A gap between HS and college is not a bad idea for lots of students. Gives them a chance to gain some maturity and in some cases work helps them to realize that further education is worth pursuing.

On the other hand once a student starts working they may find it difficult to live the life of an impoverished student. Some never bridge their gap year.

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