Friday, May 2, 2008

Taking On A God of Fiction

I LOVE the novelist Ellie Lipman and read everything she writes. Which is why it particularly pains me to have to take issue with her. But I am very grateful that she doesn't rule the admissions universe because, while some of what she says is true, her conclusions are faulty. 

To wit, I applaud her resounding support for the safety school (Boston Globe 3/24/08). She says that students will enjoy the same success and happiness whether they get into the super-fab school of their dreams or not. Generally, yes, this is so. Then she says, after ten years or so people will stop asking where you went to school. If this were true, we would be able to eliminate where we went to school from our resumes and just indicate our degrees and dates. We say where we went not only because now employers want to make sure we really went there but because it may matter. You never know how much. It is true it may not matter to one employer but it may matter a great deal to another. In fact, some employers care so much they request transcripts. Alumni connections in the professional world matter and it is true—whether we like it or not—that students who were high achievers in high school generally continue to do so. Happiness is another story. But it is naive to say it won't matter or it doesn't matter. It just isn't everything. And for the students who was shut out of the Ivy League and whose safety was a perfectly acceptable top-tier institution or even for the student who is going to his or her state school because that is what makes financial success I say, Bravo and you'll be fine. Because good students can do well and take advantage of resources anywhere they go. Bravo and Bravo. 

But Lipman goes a step further in her reform and here is where the slip-up is. 

Put the students' names in a hat and pick. Send 'em all off to schools. Because every kid has something special to contribute and it would be an end to today's nerve-wracking, over-the-top admissions experience. And to this I have to say, Whoa! Because while it has immediate, emotional appeal to the anti-snobs and anti-elitists it really makes no sense. 

There are very, very gifted students out there who are working too hard to get into a small number of schools and perhaps that system is flawed. But they are truly exceptional in a classroom and if you've seen them in action you know that they need high-level challenges to thrive. These kids are learning languages at a clip and don't need or want a lot of sleep and they play musical instruments and captain teams and sew their own clothes and save the world BECAUSE THEY CAN! They are in special classes in high school because they need to be (we call them honors or advanced placement). Students who are very bright but didn't work very hard in high school aren't rewarded. Students who worked hard but don't score that well are rewarded. Student who are not so bright—but talented, good people in their own right—need to be somewhere else where they will be comfortable and where they can achieve at their level. And there are lots of levels. But it would be no fairer to send the average student to Harvard than to send an Ivy League candidate to No Name State College, in the name of equality or anti-elitism or to solve the problems that such a stressful college admissions process has caused. Bright kids need no apology. Average kids don't have to feel like idiots. Admissions staff really believe in finding the right match between their school and the prospective students. That there are more qualified students than can be accepted each year into the first-year classes of the Ivy League and other selective schools is an embarrassment of riches but no reason to throw the C students in chemistry into the mix just because the A students can learn something from them. Those kinds of lessons have to be learned, it is true. Lipman is right. But that is not what you are paying for nor. If parenting hasn't done it, then perhaps a nuanced life will.  

On the same day that Lipman suggested a lottery for the first 1,000 who apply (which, by the way, would probably work just fine at the top-tier schools  and is a somewhat different idea for creating a college campus that looks just like high school) we learned about Commonwealth College, which is the honors college attached to UMASS-Amherst. This College has been thriving since it was founded more than a decade ago as way to lure high-achieving high school students to UMass. All I can say is that is a great model for state colleges and universities that must meet the challenge of offering a top-tier education to its residents at affordable prices.

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