Thoughts from my study of Horror, Media, and Narrrative

Posts tagged “Higher Education

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.

Works Cited

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:

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:

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:

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:

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:

Weiss, S. L. (2013, March 29). To (All) the Colleges That Rejected Me. Retrieved April 20, 2015, from The Wall Street Journal:

Crazy U: One Dad’s Crash Course in Getting His Kid into College

Crazy U:  One Dad’s Crash Course in Getting His Kid into College

 Chris Tokuhama


Ferguson, A. (2011). Crazy U: One Dad’s Crash Course in Getting His Kid into College. New York: Simon & Schuster, Inc.


Andrew Ferguson, currently a senior editor at Weekly Standard, is a political journalist who has written for publications such as Time, The LA Times, The New Yorker, and The Washington Post. Ferguson was also a speechwriter for George H. W. Bush.


Written by a reporter from the perspective of a parent, Crazy U manages to combine some of the elements of both approaches into a readable book that follows a year in the college admission process. Although Andrew Ferguson’s book manages to avoid many of the pitfalls of the parent memoir, the work does not seem as thorough as other journalistic enterprises, although it benefits from a mind that is trained to ask contextual questions. Although nods to the larger landscape of Higher Education are mentioned in sections, Ferguson’s retains a focus on selective college admission. Strongest in areas where external information is readily available (e.g., the SAT), Ferguson’s book is also weakest in explaining the workings of the admission process (e.g., application review and discussing meaningful differences in evaluation between private and public institutions).


Introduction – Ferguson takes pains to note that the situation described in his book is, in some ways, atypical as the vast majority of students are able to be accepted to college and attend for a cost that is not exorbitant. American students, Ferguson notes, already have advantages with regard to education when compared to their peers around the world and that the popular imagination is concerned with “high-class problems” (3). This contextualization of the process for an individual student is helpful to maintain perspective. Ferguson evidences a humor twined with an understanding of a broader picture (e.g., with respect to history or to global higher education) that seems both palatable and educational. Additionally, Ferguson describes his own college experience not only in terms of academic experience but also social and life experiences, which suggests that his approach to the subject of college admission and college attendance might differ from the typical “fear-based” tactics designed to capitalize on anxiety

Perhaps the most significant contribution here is Ferguson’s provocation that, despite the attention and money lavished on it, we don’t really know what we expect out of Higher Education.[1] Ferguson notes that Americans tend to focus on things (9), which seems astute although “tangible outcomes” (i.e., job, graduate school, etc.) might seem like a better term.

Chapter 1In discussing Katherine Cohen, Ferguson touches upon an important point with regard to the industry that has developed around college-going:  to what extent do entities incite anxiety in order to profit from offering a solution?“That’s what Kat[erine] was selling:  the kind of expertise that could only come from a professional who had helped make the process mysterious in the first place” (16). Discussion of this is of course related to a larger set of cultural practices (e.g., television news and advertising in general) that manufacture anxiety in order to peddle “solutions” but we must also consider how college-going can represent a high-stakes one-time transaction and, as such, present a temptation to maximize profit at the expense of relationships.[2]

Although he does not go into depth, Ferguson does take readers through a miniature case study (18-22), which, via Kat, gives readers some insight into the criteria used to evaluate an application in a holistic review process. In response to this, Ferguson notes, “It guaranteed that teenagers would pursue life with a single ulterior motive, while pretending thy weren’t” (23) and his statement is important to keep in mind as we consider the ways in which “authenticity” is perceived, manifested, and valued in the college admission process. The intertwining of a malleable teenage identity, expectations set by college admission, and branding—“So the first great task consuming our children as they step into the wider world is an act of marketing, with themselves as a product” (23)—is an important issue to wrestle with as we think return to the question of what we want Higher Education to do.[3]

Continuing to show that he has some sort of perspective on the process, Ferguson also observes that college admission can become less about students and more about parents’ egos, writing “children quite often served as proxies for status and parental self-worth” (26-27).

Chapter 2 – Ferguson includes a brief history of the development of American Higher Education (33-35), which is important as it allows readers to understand how the democratic promise of education in America became ingrained in our collective psyche:  citing milestones such as 1862’s Morrill Act, which established land-grant colleges, and 1944’s G.I. Bill, which caused a resurgence in college attendance after World War II, Ferguson underscores how social mobility became linked to higher education in the popular imagination. Ferguson goes on to suggest that one consequence of the democratization of higher education was an effort to reestablish social stratification via a hierarchy based on brand name, which in turn created a sense of anxiety about which college a student would attend as opposed to if a student would attend.[4]

Harkening back to the American focus on tangible results, Ferguson notes that the development of the U.S. News & World Report rankings in 1983 reflected a cultural shift in an emphasis on credentials over learning (38). Linking the development of the rankings to an earlier “Most Influential Americans,” Ferguson highlights the role of perception and reputation in a metric that would otherwise purport to be objective (41).[5] The existence of the rankings facilitated—but did not create!—the transformation of education into a commodity serving as a de facto Consumer Reports for higher education. Ferguson suggests, however, that U.S. News & World Report isn’t solely to blame for focusing the public’s attention on particular metrics as institutions could do more to share information about student outcomes as collected through things like the National Survey of Student Engagement. More important, however, is the parallel between the ranking system’s effect on colleges/universities and the college application’s effect on students with regard to the way in which the affected parties pattern their behavior after what is perceived to be of value (49-53).[6] Finally, although one can conceptualize the rankings as an agent of commercialization, one cannot ignore that the rankings also hold value as they represent one of the ways that outsiders can begin to make sense of the college admission process.

Ultimately, the larger issue that the mention of U.S. News & World Report raises is the role of commerce and commercialism in education, which is traditionally seen as a space that is removed from outside influence.[7] American institutions of higher education are of course influenced by corporations and donors in ways that range from athletic teams, named buildings, and endowed chairs but the perception is that higher education continues to exist in some kind of bubble.

Chapter 3 – Throughout this chapter, Ferguson continually touches upon the theme of information management. In discussing the titles of various books related to college admission, Ferguson introduces the important notion of the rhetoric used to promote or sell college admission; parsing out self-help elements and inevitably invoking insider/outsider dichotomies, Ferguson also notes that the guides are directives that aim to remove uncertainty or contradiction (59-60). College guides in particular seem subject to use of the term “insider” (61) and  Ferguson also notes that the popular college books like Fiske Guide rely on faulty methodology[8] based on potentially small sample sizes and prone to investigator influence (60, 63). Of particular importance here is the way that guides package and present information to an audience who might not be equipped to make sense out of the data themselves. Noting that “discrepancies usually arose only on matters of objective importance” (62), Ferguson suggests that the books’ almost universally similar tone resulted from their desire to function as reassurance or validation (63). What these books recognize, and cater to, is the perspective that an individual parent/student has on this process as little effort is made to encourage critical reflection on how an individual institution can be compared against others and if any one particular way of doing so is the “best” way. Reassurance, then, seems like the antithesis to individuals being challenged in a way that may ultimately be beneficial for them, if stressful.[9]

In a similar vein, a discussion of College Confidentialshowcases the way in which a desire for “on-demand” information undercut by a lack of critical thinking skills[10] can produce less-than-helpful results for users. Perhaps unkindly, if not untruthfully, Ferguson describes College Confidential as follows:

What it is, is a Web site where people from all walks of life, from every income level and background, create a communal space without fear of reprisal and in a spirit of perfect openness, so they can spread misinformation, gossip, and lunatic conjecture to people who are as desperate as themselves. (66)

Ferguson cuts to the heart of the matter, suggesting that many of the threads on College Confidential are really inquiring about how a student can get into college and the tragedy is that the vast majority of the responses are informed by nothing more than anecdotal experience (66).

Chapter 4– Although not explicitly stated, Ferguson connects the simplistic/direct thinking of College Confidential with a larger practice in the space of college admission:  the kind of thinking that students must demonstrate in order to succeed on the SAT is not about embracing subtlety or complexity—counter to how things often are in the “real” world—but rather one of conviction and single answers. But perhaps Ferguson’s real contribution is his identification of the SAT as “a flash point where questions of class and culture, wealth and politics, race and gender, the purpose of higher education and even our varying definitions of merit rub against one another” (77). As example, Ferguson includes statements by Bob Schaeffer, public education director of FairTest, that point to the SAT’s early history and the ways in which the test was used in order to maintain structural inequality (79-80).[11] Ferguson helpfully goes beyond this and broadens the scope via mention of Christopher Jencks and David Riesman’s The Academic Revolution (1968) in order to suggest that the test may also reflect structural inequality in American life (81-82). One must then question whether the test is revealing inequality, creating inequality, or both. In recounting a brief history of the SAT(82-88), Ferguson notes that the “holistic” method employed by many selective schools today has roots in discriminatory practices that arose in response to unintended consequences of standardized achievement testing in the 1930s (83). Later, this position would be challenged by James B. Conant as he assumed the presidency of Harvard and championed the ideal of meritocracy. In effect Conant shifted the focus from achievement—which reflected existing inequality based on opportunity—to aptitude in the form of the SAT; here Conant wanted to focus on the ability to learn rather than mastery of material itself.

Ferguson also raises the question of how accurately the SAT measures anything meaningful, while also hinting that a more careful consideration of the interplay between testing and curriculum must occur (92). Reports from the College Board have indicated that SAT scores are correlated with freshman year grades but also that high school GPA alone is a better predictor than pure SAT scores. Ferguson also suggests that the SAT, like all contemporary measures of merit, reflect income inequalities (94, 99-100). In response to criticism, the focus of testing has again shifted in an attempt to capture “noncognitive skills” (95) and non-traditional intelligences.[12]

Finally, the mention of standardized testing’s role in the college admission process underscores that making sense out of large amounts of data is not a problem unique to applicants and their families—the origins of the standardized test were in a system designed to sort and classify a large number of applicants and the question then becomes how those criteria reflect the values of entities that make the test and use the test. In a parting anecdote Ferguson also demonstrates the power of the test for, despite his criticisms, Ferguson refuses to disclose his score on the Math subsection!

Chapter 5 – A major theme of this chapter is the rhetoric that surrounds college admission, from the way in which parental anxiety manifests in the college admission process to college slogans—currently more concerned, it seems, with a student’s journey and the abstract notion of success than any particular ideals—and viewbooks that tap into a structure of affect as opposed to facts. The invocation of feeling harkens back to Chapter 1’s themes of presentation/reputation and marketing.

Although the public might be resistant to conceptualize Education as a consumer good (at least initially), we can use the discussion of branding to consider how institutions must endeavor to distinguish themselves when their “products” are ostensibly of similar quality. On some level, each school has an identity comprised of things like color, slogans, and mascots but the messaging for selective colleges seems quite similar (117). Furthermore, on the opposite end of the spectrum, one might argue that despite institutions’ expressed desire for diversity the challenges of the application process at selective schools tends to ensure that students share a core set of traits (124).

Chapter 6 – Largely concerned with the difficulties of conveying oneself to admission committees via an intermediary (i.e., the college application), this chapter tries to get at the question of what schools are really looking for and how they go about collecting this information on the application itself. Ferguson notes two things of interest here:  the first is question whether the nature of the application favors extroverts[13] and the second, more important observation, is that the identification and presentation of an “authentic” (as deemed by readers!) self is challenging for young writers.[14] Ferguson argues that this entreatment to “know thyself” gained popularity as Baby Boomers began to occupy positions of influence.[15] Later, Ferguson also suggests that the type of introspection required by college admission essays stands in direct contrast to the way in which white, middle-class culture in America structures the lives of teenagers (139).

Although Ferguson does not consider what admission offices want out of the personal essay, I suggest that the form’s popularity has something to do with the dominant ideology of “fit” and that while readers may not be actively reading an essay in order to determine fit, they are interested in feeling like they got to know the student a little bit better. Rightly or wrongly, this particular stance by readers might result from the way in which admission officers are often tasked with advocating for students in the admission process and memorable applicants can provide the foundation for a case to admit. Ferguson’s inclusion of the Georgetown University prompt (“write about a current world crisis and propose a solution”) begs the question of whether essay prompts can be focused on demonstrating critical thinking and subsequently gaining a sense of passion.

Chapter 7 – Ferguson mentions that college tuition began to rise faster than inflation beginning in the 1970s but does not provide a reason for this other than an observation that health care and education are the two perennial growth sectors in America. Although Ferguson makes a comparison between car salesmen and the tuition discounting practices of institutions, the analogy seems slightly off as it seems more likely that colleges and universities are looking at budgets across the class as opposed to a series of individual transactions. Nevertheless, the more pertinent issue that Ferguson raises is that colleges are not necessarily obligated to, or interested in, reducing student debt. Via a conversation with Richard Vedder, a professor of Economics, Ferguson also suggests that much of the additional money has come to be spent on institutional bloat (177). Finally, in discussing the value of a college degree, Ferguson suggests that a diploma has become used as an unofficial signifier in the hiring process with the abolishment of employment tests (179).

Chapter 8 – Although the justification Ferguson provides for the high turnover rate in college admission is a bit misleading, his mention of the age gap (i.e., “missing middle”) in the profession deserves further examination (182). If Ferguson is in fact correct about the age demographics of the profession—no data is provided—we might speculate that such a structure would have implications for the enactment of admission policy:  what does it mean, for example, to have a process that is overseen by committed individuals but who delegate the day-to-day to recent graduates who might not have a real interest in admission?

Also frustrating is Ferguson’s assertion that a form of reverse affirmative action is taking place (184-185) without providing data to support this claim. Although anyone following Higher Education can likely affirm the concerns over the shortage of males (generally, although there are exceptions in fields like Engineering) the charge that the white men receive an advantage remains unsubstantiated. Ferguson also relies on anecdotal data from an unnamed “ex-counselor” to describe enrollment targets (185) and this same ex-counselor mentions the importance of a hook, which should be related back to the purpose of the admission essay in Chapter 6.[16] It seems, for example, that one might produce a productive discussion by reading the concept of “fit” against the perception of having a “hook” and the crafting of a class.

Toward the end of the chapter, Ferguson seems to engage in a bit of the speculation that he decried in Chapter 3’s discussion of College Confidential as he retells the fate of a friend’s daughter (194). Also problematic is the way in which Ferguson equates a “safety school” with “undesirable” in a way that reinforces the prestige hierarchy (195). Ultimately, although Ferguson raises some interesting questions, it seems evident that his knowledge of the actual college admission process is the weakest element of the book.

Finally, Ferguson also includes a brief section on the ambiguity of “likely letters” and the additional stress that they can cause. For those in the industry, the language of the letter makes it exceedingly clear what it is (and what it implies) but Ferguson’s anecdote should be taken seriously as a warning about how official materials can be interpreted by their intended audience.

Chapter 9 – Recalling the discussion of the value of a college degree in Chapter 7, Ferguson asks readers to wrestle with the tension created by increasingly customizable majors—driven by student/customer demand!—and the ability to track what that major actually represents (210).

[1] This is actually a very pertinent question that has been discussed in publications like Times Higher Education, The Chronicle of Higher Education, and in multiple articles in The New York Times, including a series titled “What Is College For?

[2] Ferguson later expands upon this duality, noting in Chapter 2 how university/college administrators will often engage in practices that they claim to be harmful (e.g., rankings, reliance on standardized testing, pricing out the competition, etc.) as a result of being locked in a sort of arms race for students and the tuition that they represent (38).

[3] The potential far-reaching effects of this are suggested later in Chapter 2 as Ferguson writes “And childhood now was a matter of setting life goals and arranging your activities in pursuit of them” (30).

[4] I think we must complicate this picture a bit by thinking about how the established American universities also served as the basis for the development of social networks that would intersect with social mobility and class. The aspiration, then, to attend a top tier school might have existed prior but the motivation for such an endeavor may have changed as a result of the democratization that Ferguson describes.

[5] The rankings have been criticized as a sort of “popularity contest” as 22.5% of the ranking comes from a school’s reputation among its peers. See also the Institute for Higher Education Policy’s “College and University Ranking Systems” for additional information. For its part, U.S. News & World Report argues that reputation has value (46).

[6] See also page 44.

[7] The exception to this, as Ferguson notes in Chapter 7, is in matters of financial aid.

[8] Thinking about this in conjunction with the controversy surrounding U.S. News & World Report, one might ask a deeper question about the “correct” way to go about quantifying the college experience. Given the current discussions in Higher Education, it seems as though the American public has yet to come to a consensus.

[9] The question then becomes how one goes about working to infuse “good information” into the public’s consciousness and, more importantly, how to encourage a culture in which college admission becomes talked about in a rational manner.

[10] For example, in message boards like College Confidential readers must invest an extra amount of work to try to think critically about who these posters are in a process that can include researching a poster’s history, looking at the frequency distribution of posts in order to detect possible paid posters, and the sometimes next-to-impossible step of determining a poster’s credibility on a particular topic. For similar discussion with respect to Amazon reviews, see an episode of Slate’s Culture Gabfest.

[11] For example, we can consider how the Educational Testing Service (under contract from the College Board) validates its test questions:  it assumes that high-scoring students should get a particular item correct, which means that the values and perspectives of these particular students become ingrained in the test in a tautological process. See also recent evidence that racial bias in SAT questions persists. See also page 89 for more information on developing questions.

[12] See Robert Sternberg’s “Rainbow Project” and Howard Gardner’s Theory of Multiple Intelligences.

[13] Later Ferguson also mentions “narcissism” and “exhibitionism” (142).

[14] See also, “Some kinds of passion wouldn’t appeal to the admissions committees” (141).

[15] Although this claim is unsubstantiated in the text, one might be able to make a case that an increased focus on the inner life has certainly manifested in culture with the introspection of the hippies to New Age thinking in the 80s to a focus on feelings in the present.

[16] Although it is entirely possible that the percentages quoted by the anonymous source on page 185 are correct, there is no way to know whether this numbers are generalizable across institutions.

Love out of Nothing at All?: A re-examination of popular culture’s presence in the college application

Key phrases:

College application essay, identity as narrative, popular culture, digital media literacy, self-branding

Session type:

Structured talk (30 minutes), discussion (30 minutes)

Target audience:

Secondary school counselors, CBOs


Harry Potter. Twilight. Video games. Twitter.

 The media environment that surrounds today’s applicants seems rife with topics that likely sit high atop lists that solemnly declare, “Bad Essay Ideas.” And, perhaps, not without reason, for the typical college application essay is one that often treats these subjects (along with more traditional ones like leadership, sports, or community service) lightly, evidencing a cursory understanding of the material at best. Students seem to struggle to infuse meaning into activities that appear on resumes, attempting to convince admission officers—and perhaps themselves—that these pursuits constituted time well spent.

 But what if we could encourage students to rethink their engagement in these activities, while also challenging them to respond to the question, “Why does this matter?” Instead of asking students to conform to a process that privileges particular activities over others, how might we inspire young people to cultivate genuine interests while simultaneously thinking critically about the implications of their actions? Similarly, how might we encourage adults to recognize the potential nascent political themes of Harry Potter, see young people negotiating family structures and gender roles through Twilight, witness creativity and collaboration through video games, and understand how Twitter can develop the skill of curation? Instead of promoting the chasm between digital media/popular culture and education, how can we use the space to promote the skills that our students will need to be competitive in the 21st century?


College attendance and completion (at a four-year institution) has come to represent a significant demarcation in American society with studies showing a positive correlation between obtainment of a bachelor’s degree and total lifetime income. But more so than a mere economic advantage, higher education represents an opportunity for social mobility and the accumulation of social/cultural capital. If we accept that college attendance represents at least a partial transformative experience, we realize that understanding who is accepted is important.

Informal reports from educators (an opinion pieces in The Chronicle of Higher Education) have hinted that the current generation of college students display a wide range of skills and intelligences but also appear to be distracted by social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter while in class, suggesting that digital media is generally seen as inhabiting a space separate from education (although this might be changing, albeit slowly).

However, I suggest that some of the types of skills professors desire (e.g., critical thinking, academic inquiry, engagement, and risk-taking) can be, and are, cultivated through pop culture and digital media use/production but it is my belief that, as a whole, the undergraduate admission process systematically devalues participation in such spaces, privileging more traditional—and readily understood—activities. There seems to be a potential disconnect, then, between selection criteria and the skills that schools hope to attract; if an institution values traits like proactivity, are admission officers fully sensitive to the range of ways in which such a trait might present or manifest? Or have we become overly influenced on quantitative measures like GPA and test scores and the relative stability they purport to provide? If such a bias exists, a possible effect of the college application structure (and the American educational system) is to cause those involved in the admission process to internalize a mental barrier between digital media and education.

It seems evident that the admission selection process (as reflective of an institution’s values) plays a large part in shaping who is able to attend a given school. Highly-selective schools, however, seem to have a disproportionate amount of influence in American culture as their practices create a stance that other colleges and universities either aspire or react to. Therefore the position that highly-selective institutions take on the integration of digital media and education likely has a trickle-down effect that affects the admission profession as a whole and is likely internalized by college counselors and high school students who aim to be accepted by these schools.

Ultimately, I hope to foster discussion between high school students, high school college counselors, and admission officers that examines how we collectively conceptualize and articulate the value of the connection between pop culture, digital media and education. I argue that higher-order skills can be cultivated by youth practices such as remix but that incongruent language employed by youth and adults makes recognition of this process difficult. After giving a short talk that explores the ways in which the everyday practices of youth can be seen as valuable, I will ask participants to join in a discussion that seeks to uncover strategies to enable youth to articulate their process and how we can challenge our peers to become more sensitive to the manifestation of traits that mark a “successful student.”



A 6-year veteran of undergraduate admission at the University of Southern California (Los Angeles, CA) Chris Tokuhama was responsible for coordinating the University’s merit-based scholarship process and 8-year combined Baccalaureate/M.D. program. Working closely with high school populations, Chris became interested in issues that ranged from self-harm to educational access and equity, which has helped to inform his current research interests in digital media literacy, learning, and youth cultures. In addition to his role as an advocate for youth in Education, which included a Journal of College Admission publication on the effects of branding in the admission process, Chris studies the relationship of personal identity to the body as a doctoral student in USC’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. Employing lenses that range from Posthumanism (with forays into Early Modern Science and Gothic Horror), the intersection of technological and community in Transhumanism, and the transcendent potential of the body contained in religion, Chris examines how changing bodies portrayed in media reflect or demand a renegotiation in the sense of self, acting as visual shorthand for shared anxieties. When not pursuing his studies, Chris enjoys working with 826LA and drinking over-priced coffee.