Are We Turning the Tide?

Leonard J. DeLorenzo questions whether the college admissions system is addressing its problems.

February 5, 2018

“I once attended a preschool admissions tour where a parent actually asked how many of the preschool’s graduates had attended Ivy League colleges.”

The absurdity of this occurrence is undeniable, as is its complete believability. Indeed, when this mother of a grade school student wrote to The New York Times as part of a question-and-answer series with William Fitzsimmons, dean of admissions and financial aid at Harvard University, he understood well her fears about not orchestrating her daughter’s entire childhood as a college preparatory affair. Like all the other questions Fitzsimmons received alongside the thousands of questions admissions counselors field on an annual basis, one incontrovertible truth remains unquestioned: the admissions process wields virtually unparalleled influence over the desires and concerns of American youth.

The authority of college admissions standards was also a base assumption in Harvard Graduate School’s “Turning the Tide” report, which made landfall in early 2016. With collaboration from admissions directors from dozens of colleges and universities -- including all the Ivies and Stanford University -- the problem to which the authors of the report sought to respond was in high school students’ perception that colleges only value their achievements. As the authors write, “college admissions can send compelling messages that both ethical engagement -- especially concern for others and the common good -- and intellectual engagement are highly important.” With the power to direct the energies and channel the concerns of youth throughout the country, the signatories pledged to “send different messages to high school students about what colleges value.”

That there is a problem -- maybe even a crisis -- with this widespread obsession of teenagers for garnering the highest test scores and mastering every requirement for the sake of college admissions is nothing new to educators, counselors and parents. As a high school teacher recently told me, “My students check PowerSchool constantly and any tiny change sends them into a spiral. They stay up till one, two, even three o’clock in the morning regularly trying to finish homework and study after practices or jobs or extracurriculars. They don’t have time for things like beauty and self-reflection because they feel like they have to meet this unrealistic expectation to get into a good college.” Another friend relayed what a teenager she works with told her: “I know I’m smart, and I feel happy with how I’m doing, but other people feel determined to make me feel bad because I’m not first.”

The impulse driving “Turning the Tide” seems timely. The report calls for balance in the lives of teenagers. It recommends valuing the quality of investment in activities, not just the quantity of experiences. In sum, it wants the admissions process at colleges and universities across the country to “send the message to students, parents and other caregivers that not only community engagement and service, but also students’ family contributions, such as caring for younger siblings, taking on more household duties or working outside the home to provide needed income, are highly valued in the admissions process.”

Whether “Turning the Tide” has effected any kind of change over the past two years is, at best, unclear and actually quite unlikely (some quick reviews of the report’s impact includes the ones found here, here and, for an especially critical review, here). But let’s imagine that the report does eventually turn the tide so that community engagement, service and contributions to one’s family all duly factor into the admissions calculus. Is this a win for America’s youth?

In my view, the answer to this question is no. This is not to say that the way things have been trending is preferable to this proposed shift; instead, I argue that by adopting rather than questioning the base assumption that by and large the college admissions process exerts the most influence over the motivations of America’s youth, the report fails to address the more fundamental issue. When the report’s collaborators present their new vision in which those things that seem most basic, selfless and nonprestigious -- like caring for family members or performing charitable works -- become “highly valued in the admissions process,” the game that America’s young people are expected to play is still in place, only now the lines for what’s in bounds have been expanded.

In the final analysis, teenagers and even younger children will still set their gaze on that unseen room where their profiles will be examined and a decision rendered as to their admissibility, except now taking care of an infirm grandparent or tending to a community garden would have greater commercial value in this competitive economy of achievement and advancement.

If the primary motivation is the cash-in value of all these activities, then the formative practice that is currently shaping our young people remains unchanged. In fact, the power of this system would likely even grow under the cover of reputable intentions. Taking the long view, realms of life that were previously protected from the calculating ambitions of anxiously desirous young people who are tutored to covet the most prestigious futures possible would be drawn into the field of weighted investments. Isn’t this strikingly similar to what the growing chorus of complaints about social media decries: that you stop being a real, complex and even messy human being when all that seems to matter is how you present yourself for others’ review?

The deepest issue that “Turning the Tide” does not address is hard to see. The truth of the matter is that the power to form the desires and values of American young people has been outsourced to a process of evaluation called college admissions. The standards for measuring the wisdom of parenting, the success of education systems and the value of childhood itself are made in reference to the looming judgment of college admissions, both for those who play the game and for those who do not. For those who play, there is the pressure of getting every piece right; for those who do not, there is the threat of getting the whole thing wrong. All the while, the embedded expectation is that young people cultivate a sort of destination obsession so that the value of what is performed or attempted here and now is measured according to the likelihood of being allowed to enter “there” later.

One of the clear signs that this deep-seated assumption is problematic is the condition of college students who “won the game,” especially those at the most prestigious institutions. These are the ones who did everything they were expected to do and were rewarded for it. Now they are largely riddled with anxiety, which has been building for years. For them, to rest is to show weakness.

They do not have time for time-consuming relationships of real intimacy, because those would impede the advance toward the next goal, whether grad school or the desired profession. It is far easier to hook up and move along than to sacrifice time for someone else. Since the most basic thing they learned how to do throughout and even before their teenage years was lusting after a distant goal, they instinctively feel the urge to find new distant goals by which to measure their merit and even personal worth. It turns out that their destination obsession was never really about arriving somewhere; instead, it was about the practice of chasing a coveted prize that always relativizes the here and now.

In his response to that mother worrying about a college preparatory culture reaching all the way back to preschool, Fitzsimmons spoke to the long-term implications of “the game”:

It is common to encounter even the most successful students, who won all the “prizes,” stepping back and wondering if it was all worth it. Professionals in their thirties and forties … sometimes give the impression that they are dazed survivors of some bewildering lifelong boot camp. Some say they ended up in their professions because of someone else’s expectations, or that they simply drifted into it without pausing to think whether they really loved their work. Often they say they missed their youth entirely, never living in the present, always pursuing some ill-defined goal.

It turns out that young adults do not leave behind the habits and dispositions they cultivated when they move on from college campuses; to the contrary, these patterns inform their adult lives.

The outsourcing of the authority to shape desires and instill motivation is the real issue here. Any reform of the college admissions process that does not question the power the process wields is limited from the start. While the continual evaluation of what counts for what in the admissions process is the responsibility of institutions of higher education, the continual evaluation of the extent to which our society grants the power to shape the lives of young people to an admissions process in the first place, in whatever form it takes, is a responsibility that falls to all of us. Young people are likely to become what we form them to be, according to the way we form them. What really commands the tide is the operative image of what we consider a well-educated, well-formed young person to be when they grow into mature adults.

To be clear, I am not making an argument about how we should form our young people, though I do have convictions about this that I lay out in detail in my forthcoming book, What Matters Most. All I hoped to do here was argue for the urgency of the questions themselves -- questions about the deeper assumption that drives the college admissions process and the ways in which American youth are being shaped by it.

In sum, I think the questions we need to ask are these: Who and what is actually forming our young people? Who and what should be? And to what end?


Leonard J. DeLorenzo serves in the McGrath Institute for Church Life and teaches theology at the University of Notre Dame. His most recent book, What Matters Most, will be released in March.


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