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Ask the Administrator: Avoiding the Death March

Many goals. Many options.

June 10, 2014

An occasional correspondent writes

Gaining admission to elite colleges is hard, and seems to be getting harder.

Applicants who are not flat-out brilliant compete against a large pool of very very well-prepared youngsters. The standard expectations of academics, sports, and (now) community service are demanding, and keep getting more so.

But suppose one wanted to do an end-run around all that, and get a high-quality education that has real credibility without the Ivy League death march. What would you recommend?

My own thinking is that it might make sense to go off and do something else after high school, so that when you do apply to college, you are not in the same "bucket" as all the prepped-to-the-hilt highschoolers. Military service, perhaps.

I’d start by asking what the goal is.  Phrases like “high-quality education” and “real credibility” can mean a lot of different things.  And I’d focus less on making the student unusual than on finding the right fit for the student.

It’s true that some high schools have developed high-pressure cultures in which students are put through paces that most of us would find ridiculous, all to avoid the shame of being relegated to a “safety school.”  Most of the New York Times articles about the competition to “get into college” take those schools as the frame of reference.  They have to; the entire conceit wouldn’t make sense if it were about getting into an open-admissions institution.

To oversimplify, I’ll read “high-quality education” to refer to student learning, and “real credibility” to refer to market value.  (In this case, “market value” refers to graduate and professional schools, as well as employers.)  The two don’t always go together, which is a blessing and a curse.

It’s a blessing, in that you can find “bargains” and unusual fits that make sense for a particular student.  It’s a curse, in that the student may subsequently still need to prove more, and may have a harder time with the first hurdle. After the first hurdle, though, the exchange value of the high-toned undergraduate degree wanes pretty quickly. 

For the intelligent high school student who isn’t quite as good at application-padding as the rest, honors programs at state or community colleges can be excellent options.  Honors programs usually provide talented and driven peers, dedicated faculty, small classes, and some level of cachet, and they do it all at public tuition levels.  Many of them have strong “feeder” relationships with schools at the next level up, so you can pay less upfront and still finish with the high-toned degree.

In other cases, the issue is finding the school with the right specialization.  We usually apply that kind of analysis to graduate institutions, but it’s not out of place for undergrads, either.  For a student with a specific curricular interest, the right school may not be the one that’s generally considered more impressive.  Middlebury is generally considered a notch below Swarthmore, for instance, but if you want to focus on languages, Middlebury is the better choice.  (That was true decades ago, anyway.  I don’t know if it still is.) 

Treating military service as a form of application padding strikes me as risky.  If you want to serve in the military for its own sake, by all means, do.  But if you’re using it instrumentally, I’d advise thinking hard about what it actually entails.  Tours of duty are simply not comparable to serving as secretary of the Spanish club.  Using the former to avoid the latter suggests a certain lack of perspective.  It’s possible to treat extracurriculars lightly in a way that it just isn’t with military service.  And the way we treat our veterans casts serious doubt on the effectiveness of military service as a means of upward mobility.  I wouldn’t treat it as an “end-run.”  It’s much too serious for that.

The question of the exchange-value of the degree is tougher.  Here, there’s no substitute for homework.  If your ultimate goal involves a graduate or professional degree, what is the college’s track record as a feeder?  (If you’re starting at a community college, what’s its record as a feeder to desirable four-year colleges?)  If your goal is to work in a particular field, what’s the college’s track record placing graduates in that field? 

The good news is that choosing a college is more like choosing a car than choosing a mate. Some cars will suit your needs better than others, but many different ones will get you where you want to go. 

Good luck!

Wise and worldly readers, what do you think?  Is there a better strategy?

Have a question?  Ask the Administrator at deandad (at) gmail (dot) com.


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