College Admissions

A student worked on his college application at a yogurt shop in Mechanicsville in 2014. Many colleges inform students of their regular admission decisions around April 1.

By Gordon Gee, Stephen Gavazzi and Marco Greenberg

High school seniors are shut in at home, forced out of class and cut off from physical contact with their friends due to the coronavirus. If that’s not enough stress, they are also dealing with the pressure of which college they will get into.

Unfortunately, it’s an ongoing problem, one that will not end anytime soon. For a generation, students have been plagued by fear, uncertainty and doubt during this annual spring ritual of college admissions.

Parents and children have seemingly done everything right. Then, they are left compulsively checking to see if they’ve been selected. You can practically hear Tom Petty sing: “The waiting is the hardest part.”

Yale Professor William Deresiewicz dubs these students as “Excellent Sheep.” They have academic, athletic and extracurricular achievements galore, and the obligatory community service of volunteering with the underprivileged. But that’s not enough, so they sign up with expensive counselors, try to game the system with early decision, go to their physician for a diagnosis giving them extra time on standardized tests and even pop the occasional Ritalin. As we saw in this past year’s college admissions scandal, criminal activity is not unheard of.

For such families, it all boils down to: “Which school is Sophie going to in September?”

With elite colleges boasting single-digit acceptance rates, is it any wonder that the fortunate few who are admitted are anxious and depressed as a result of the rigorous and stressful admissions process? And that the majority who are rejected feel dejected and shamed?

The number of students reporting mental health issues has doubled in the past decade. Suicide is now the second leading cause of death among college students.

Much of this anxiety takes root in high school or even earlier. The stressors tend to spike in the freshman year of college. This Red Bull generation spends countless hours at the library, regurgitating material for exams and making sure they are nonconfrontational. But there’s an increasing sense that this is too often a broken formula for getting ahead in life.

They look outside the walls of their school and have reason for concern.

They read about low-paying jobs that can keep you occupied but not engaged. They hear about the threat of automation, AI and big data eating away at professions once thought of as secure. Their friends at once-coveted jobs report long hours and a dehumanizing environment. Meanwhile, their phones and social media accounts explode with images of romance, travel and early professional success enjoyed by a few others. While these visions might be exaggerated, it can be extremely hard to take.

Their world closes in on them, and it begins to feel like only a few are anointed for higher education and plum jobs.

Ironically, many foreign students and middle-class Americans see it differently: For them, America is an educational cornucopia overflowing with options.

They see the small colleges as diamonds in the rough. For them, higher education extends beyond the 100 “Colleges that Change Lives.”

Meanwhile, other students work during the day and go to a local community college or a vocational school at night, picking up a useful trade — from barber and plumber, to baker and drug-and-alcohol counselor.

Some pick land-grant universities, national treasures created by President Abraham Lincoln that provide practical instruction, from technology to agriculture, and on to schools of business, law and medicine that can uplift entire communities. These institutions of higher learning include not only those with great name recognition — Clemson, LSU, and Ohio State were in the College Football Playoff this past season — but also include many historically black colleges and two-year educational institutions that serve Native American communities.

Dear parents and students: As the deferments and rejections begin to trickle in, remember that life is about choices, and we assure you that there’s a school that’s right for you.

Just as divergent types of intelligence can lead to bigger breakthroughs than more convergence probably would, consider the roads less traveled in the college admissions process.

Maybe a safety school can provide exactly that: a secure, nurturing and fertile ground for a young person to bloom. Less cutthroat, competitive environments might actually beget a healthier and more sustainable outcome. Imagine grads who are encouraged to roam and explore new interests, and to exercise their creative muscles. They’re free to form lifelong bonds with friends and have fun along the way. They’re becoming more curious about the world and their role in it — and better prepared to one day conquer it.

Isn’t that what college is really all about?

Dr. Gordon Gee, president of West Virginia University, and Dr. Stephen Gavazzi, professor at The Ohio State University college of education, are the authors of “Land-Grant Universities for the Future: Higher Education for the Public Good.” Contact them at: Gordon.gee@mail.wvu.edu and gavazzi.1@osu.edu

Marco Greenberg is the author of “Primitive: Tapping the Primal Drive that Powers the World’s Most Successful People.” (Hachette, April 14, 2020). Contact him at: marco@nypr.net

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