American Dreams and College Nightmare: Higher Education as a Source of Hope and Anxiety
This post originally appeared on Compass Education Group’s blog.
It’s happening again.
In the early days of April 2015 headlines like “New York Teen Harold Ekeh Gets Accepted to All Eight Ivy League Schools” (Thompson), “New York Teen Gets Accepted to All Ivy League Schools” (Inskeep & Montagne), and “Long Island High Schooler Accepted by All 8 Ivy League Colleges” (Shapiro) appeared in major news media outlets like NBC News and NPR. As these proclamations appeared, touting the success of high school senior Harold Ekeh, all I could think was: “It’s happening again.”
For those who follow such things, there are particular months in the year when certain types of education stories tend to appear; timed to coincide with the release of admission decisions and the start of a new academic year, profiles on college admission and higher education follow a fairly predictable pattern in American mainstream news media. It was, for example, around this same time in 2014 that headlines like “High School Student Goes 8 for 8 in Ivy League College Admissions” (Morton & Ferrigno) appeared, publicizing the similar accomplishment of Kwasi Enin. In 2013 Americans were exposed to the infamous “To (All) the Colleges That Rejected Me” (Weiss), an opinion piece in The Wall Street Journal that articulated a high school senior’s frustration at being told to “be herself” only to discover that that self was apparently not worthy of admission.
Although “To (All) the Colleges That Rejected Me” evidenced a particular lack of understanding with regard to the ways in which diversity can function in the admission process, the presence of the article—along with the other stories mentioned—is worth noting as it highlights a particular emphasis on the culture that can surround college admission in America. Beginning with an examination of how some Americans perceive, understand, and talk about college admission, this post will then proceed to offer theories for how some Americans have come to this point in their relationship with higher education before moving on to discuss implications for current and future practices. Please note that this is not designed as a comprehensive overview of the topic but instead aims to offer argumentation in the hopes of engaging readers in informed discussion of the college admission process.
What We Talk about When We Talk about Admission
A close examination of stories surrounding college admission in April 2015 suggests the emergence of two themes that are distinct but related: (1) how students are dealing with their admission decisions and (2) profile pieces that culminate in the attainment of admission to a particular institution or institutions. In some ways, the former is potentially helpful as it can provide some insight into the pressures faced by young people applying to American colleges and universities. The latter, however, epitomized by stories like those of Harold Ekeh, Kwasi Enin, and Munira Khalif, present a rather more insidious danger for they work to perpetuate anxiety even as they proffer hope.
On their surface, articles like “New York Teen Gets Accepted to All Ivy League Schools” offer a form of celebration for a student who managed to achieve a task thought to be particularly difficult. Ostensibly combatting anxieties around declining admission rates at highly selective institutions—anxieties that news media itself sometimes plays a role in amplifying—stories like those of Ekeh and Enin seemingly remind us that the impossible is, in fact, possible. Taking nothing away from the efforts of the students, what is truly being lauded here, however, is not the achievements of the students themselves but rather a reaffirmation of the central American mythos: that, in America, hard work and playing by the rules is rewarded. On some level, perhaps we want to believe that it is possible for anyone—here it should be noted that many of the students who have been profiled are children of immigrants—to come to America and succeed through effort and merit.
If we accept that these sorts of news items work to confirm our beliefs regarding the way the world works and thus offer a measure of solace, the price that we pay is that articles like “High School Student Goes 8 for 8 in Ivy League College Admissions” work to reinscribe a hierarchy that ultimately condemns many more than it glorifies. Instead of leading us to interrogate the current state of affairs, stories like those of Ekeh and Enin can cause us to become staunch supporters of the status quo by propagating a sense of hope for us as individuals, if not necessarily for us as a group. Put simply, the achievements of these few only matter because so many others will try and fail.
Moreover, the structure of these stories matters: written by people like Anne Thompson, who is NBC News’ chief environmental affairs correspondent (i.e., not an education specialist) and reported on in segments like Good Morning America’s Pop News, which features the “buzziest stories of the day,” the fact that they are fundamentally human interest pieces distracts us from being able to talk about higher education in a more meaningful way. We are not asked to question why this hierarchy of elite schools is maintained and to what extent we should internalize schools like the Ivies as the preeminent institutions of higher education. Instead of asking what type of post-secondary experience is best for us or our children, we instead ask our young people to largely conform to a system that puts forth a particular vision of success.
(Re)Framing the Discussion
Part of the problem, as noted in the recent books Where You Go is Not Who You’ll Be: An Antidote to the College Admissions Mania (Bruni, 2015) and Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Better Life (Deresiewicz, 2014) is the way in which, when thinking about higher education, contemporary American culture tends to place an emphasis on entrance (i.e., admission) and exit (e.g., job placement, graduate school acceptance, etc.) but not necessarily on college itself as an experience. Perhaps we focus on these markers because they are more digestible—to talk about acceptance to an elite school acts as a shorthand for a much larger discussion surrounding a specific type of achievement and success—but a fixation on these indicators also shields us from having the much more difficult conversations about what college is for.
To ask, “Why am I going to college?” is not necessarily the same as “What is college for?”—the latter almost inevitably involves a deeper discussion regarding the role and purpose of higher education in American culture along with questions like “What could higher education be?” and “What should higher education be?”
This should not suggest that one’s college experience must necessarily involve philosophical questions regarding the life of the mind and whether higher education represents a space for personal growth but rather that we should, for each of us, achieve a clarity of purpose regarding the time that we spend in pursuit of higher education and even if such a path is indeed right for us! Do we think of college as a type of credentialing process that aids in securing a particular type of job? Do we see college as a space to explore intellectually and to interact with difference in its many forms? Do we want college to serve as a securer of social mobility in America? Do we expect college to produce individuals who can think carefully, act confidently, and become meaningful contributors to their communities?
It is by asking ourselves these types of questions—and thereby gaining a modicum of clarity—that we can then begin to resist the dominant hierarchy of educational institutions in America if we so choose. The answers to these questions are not mutually exclusive, nor should we think that they will be the same for each individual student. By deciding that our values and our goals do not necessarily align with an educational pyramid that culminates in Harvard, Princeton, and Yale, we can then begin the process of searching out which schools are in fact the best fits for us based on what we prioritize the most. For example, we can contemplate what a low admission rate (i.e., being highly selective) means for a particular institution but we must then go one step further to ask ourselves whether this meaning is in fact something that we value; to simply say that a lower admission rate indicates that a schools is “better” in some fashion is to miss the point of the exercise.
A Call for New Assessments
But understanding what we want out of higher education is only one piece of the puzzle: true progress happens when we see an alignment between what we expect of colleges, what colleges expect of us, and how the admission process works to facilitate that match. College admission offices must not only struggle with “What is college for?” but, more specifically, “What is the purpose of my institution?” and, further, “How do current admission practices forward the goals of the university?”
That is, to what extent does the current application structure allow admission offices to determine whether students will embody the hopes that the institution has for them? How does an application purport to assess the skills and talents that students now present?
Early attempts to recognize the media capabilities of students came through efforts like Tuft’s video supplement and, later, Goucher’s video application. On its surface, this move seems to be a positive one, for it recognizes that some of the students in this current generation have learned to express themselves digitally; what resulted, however, was that many of the publically-available supplements resemble reality show audition tapes. And although this might be embarrassing for students, it is hardly their fault: admission offices have largely failed to help students to understand why media literacy and the presentation of the digital self is of value to the school and therefore how the videos will be used and evaluated. Students are therefore left to rely on the logics of attention that they have internalized growing up: reality show audition tapes.
In contrast we might consider the newer efforts of some admission offices like Bennington College, whoseDimensional Application marks a departure from the traditional application in a way that is perhaps more productive. Asking students to be active participants in the creation of their application—and thus the presentation of themselves to the admission committee—ideally causes students to reflect on their own strengths (and weaknesses) and how those might be incorporated into Bennington’s community. In short, the Dimensional Application represents a move toward an interactive choice-based assessment that works to engage students in their own process of learning. Although it is too early to tell whether the Dimensional Application has indeed served its purpose, we might benefit by putting it in conversation with the work of scholars like Daniel L. Schwartz and Dylan Arena, who argue for a movement away from knowledge-based assessment (2013).
Ultimately, the road to a brighter future is not through stories like “Kid Who Got into All 8 Ivy League Schools Didn’t Speak English 10 Years Ago” (Jacobs, 2015) but rather through a careful and sustained conversation about the role of higher education in America, one that does not ebb and flow throughout the calendar year. It will be hard work to disentangle ourselves from the dominant modes of thought that have dictated college admission since the creation of the hierarchy in the late 19th century but the potential benefits are great.
Bruni, F. (2015). Where You Go Is Not Who You’ll Be: An Antidote to the College Admissions Mania. New York: Grand Central Publishing.
Deresiewicz, W. (2014). Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life. New York: Free Press.
Inskeep, S., & Montagne, R. (2015, April 20). New York Teen Gets Accepted To All Ivy League Schools.Retrieved April 20, 2015, from NPR: http://www.npr.org/2015/04/20/400929870/new-york-teen-gets-accepted-to-all-ivy-league-schools
Jacobs, P. (2015, April 20). Kid Who Got into All 8 Ivy League Schools Didn’t Speak English 10 Years Ago. Retrieved April 20, 2015, from Business Insider: http://www.businessinsider.com/stefan-stoykov-accepted-to-all-eight-ivy-league-schools-2015-4
Morton, L., & Ferrigno, L. (2014, April 2). High School Student goes 8 for 8 in Ivy League College Admissions. Retrieved April 20, 2015, from CNN: http://www.cnn.com/2014/04/01/us/new-york-student-accepted-ivy-league/
Schwartz, D. L., & Arena, D. (2013). Measuring What Matters Most: Choice-Based Assessments for the Digital Age. Cambridge: MIT Press.
Shapiro, E. (2015, April 5). New York Teen Harold Ekeh Gets Accepted to All Eight Ivy League Schools.Retrieved April 20, 2015, from ABC News: http://abcnews.go.com/US/long-island-high-schooler-accepted-ivy-league-colleges/story?id=30108451
Thompson, A. (2015, April 7). New York Teen Harold Ekeh Gets Accepted to All Eight Ivy League Schools. Retrieved April 20, 2015, from NBC News: http://www.nbcnews.com/nightly-news/harold-ekeh-17-long-island-gets-accepted-all-eight-ivy-n337506
Weiss, S. L. (2013, March 29). To (All) the Colleges That Rejected Me. Retrieved April 20, 2015, from The Wall Street Journal: http://www.wsj.com/articles/SB10001424127887324000704578390340064578654