College and Beginning Afresh

We need to ask students why they want to go to college, writes Nicholas Soodik.

December 10, 2018

Despite his reputation as a notorious crank, the poet Philip Larkin wrote one of the greatest poems about springtime. His poem “The Trees” touches on the perennial return of flowers and foliage in the spring, concluding the poem with the affirmation, “Last year is dead … Begin afresh, afresh, afresh.” In these colder, barren months, I look for solace in repeating Larkin’s words.

Indeed, among the joys of work in schools are the many opportunities to “begin afresh, afresh, afresh.” A new school year, a new semester, a new unit -- the cyclical nature of an academic calendar affords so many chances for renewal. Winter has surely arrived in New England, with its frosty windshields, limited daylight and heating bills so high they hurt. The season also means I am soon to start counseling another class of students about their college aspirations.

In my first meeting with these juniors, I often ask them why they want to go to college. For many of the students I work with, they’ve never been asked the question, let alone considered an answer. Going off to college has always been the next step -- as inevitable as the Patriots making a playoff run or a Susan Collins swing vote going wide right. My aim in asking is to force them to articulate what they’ve never explained before, and in so doing, help students come to better understand what they want from higher education.

Most often, their answers concern getting a job. College is their chance to begin charting a career, they will say -- not like wannabe Gordon Gekkos so much as determined “return-on-investment” proselytes. Don’t get me wrong: the economic rationale for going to college is a persuasive reason. According to Brookings, the median college graduate earns roughly twice as much over her career as the average holder of just a high school diploma. For students from lower-income families, the economic incentives of attending selective colleges are even greater, though far too few do. A recent study from the Equality of Opportunity Project found that poor students who attend highly selective institutions will likely achieve equivalent financial success as their wealthier classmates at the same schools. Of course, highly selective colleges enroll a disproportionate number of students from the top 1 percent -- often more than the bottom 60 percent put together -- and while there are many less selective colleges that effectively promote economic and social mobility, college enrollment over the past three decades has worked passively to reproduce inequality rather than eliminate it.

Occasionally, my students will link their college goals to a desire for self-discovery. They look forward to independent learning, to the bounty of electives ahead of them, and to the joys of intellectual curiosity. Such students know that a career awaits them, but first they plan to delight in their education -- to expand who they are and what they want. These responses naturally quicken my spirit and make me wish I could return to college myself, enroll in a little seminar on 20th-century British poets and begin afresh.

According to Columbia professor Andrew Delbanco, whose book College: What It Was, Is, and Should Be informs my thinking, there is yet another reason why college is important. Education is essential to democracy -- “the basis of our government,” Thomas Jefferson wrote, “the opinion of the people.” An informed public, the thinking goes, is better equipped to elect representatives and to run the government. At a moment when the president of the United States tells nearly eight lies every day, teaching young people to discern fact from fiction, truth from falsehood, feels like an enterprise of world-historical importance. And yet I have never had a student answer my question about why he or she wants to go to college by saying that the viability of our democracy depends on it. A college counselor can dream, I suppose.

There have been some recent signs of change, however. An increasing number of college applicants show an interest in activism, a recent study demonstrates. Admissions offices often tout the passion possessed by the students at their colleges, and these newly “woke” applicants should be commended for their commitments. Another recent study by Ted Thornhill, a professor of sociology in Florida, unfortunately suggests that not all student efforts to reshape our politics are welcomed. According to Thornhill, the political activism of black applicants may be regarded by admissions officers less favorably than the activism of white applicants, one additional way that the evaluation of college applicants tends to favor wealthy white students above everyone else.

Although I celebrate the students involved in activism right now -- no doubt a reaction to the current resident of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue -- I hope their commitments don’t lessen when, and if, our political seas seem less stormy. President Trump violates norms, erodes standards of decency and plumbs new levels of corruption on a daily basis, but in some ways, his most flagrant abuses of power are the least sensational elements of his rule. As critic Fintan O’Toole makes clear in his review of Michael Lewis’s new book, The Fifth Risk, Trump uses a “daily parade of grotesqueries … to distract us from the slow, boring, apparently mundane but deeply insidious sabotaging of government.” What doesn’t make the front-page news, in other words, demands the most scrutiny -- not just the outrageous tweets but the executive branch nominations he’s neglected to fill, for example, and the proposal to alter the questions on the 2020 Census. Trump campaigned on a failing D.C. establishment and now he’s at work undermining the government to prove his rhetoric right. Informed, college-educated young people are needed to call the rot what it is.

The rise in activism among young people is a trend I encourage, but I also want my students to know political engagement takes various forms. Holding power accountable requires close readers of media, wonky data geeks and introverted climate scientists as much as the charismatic figures who lead rallies and move masses.

Maybe my next group of students will surprise me. Perhaps their college aspirations will be more directly tied to the need for active and engaged citizenship. Such students are sorely needed, for with them, we can begin afresh, afresh, afresh.

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Nicholas Soodik is associate director of college counseling at the Pingree School.


Nicholas Soodik

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