• Confessions of a Community College Dean

    In which a veteran of cultural studies seminars in the 1990s moves into academic administration and finds himself a married suburban father of two. Foucault, plus lawn care.

Title

Limbo

Even “good problems” can be stressful.

January 18, 2022
 
 

The Girl has sent all of her college applications but only has a definitive answer from one. (Two others have sent partial answers—she’s in, but no word on finances.) Most haven’t responded yet. Among those that haven’t responded, most give April 1 as their notification deadline.

As she put it to me on Monday, “I don’t know where I’ll be in seven months.” It’s bothering her.

I assured her that wherever she would be, it would be good, and she would quickly see the upside. Needing to choose from among a bunch of great choices is a good problem to have. But I had to sympathize with the feeling of being in limbo.

For whatever reason, higher education seems comfortable with selection processes—whether for students or for employees—that suffer from a sort of time dilation. We’re slower on the draw than just about any other industry. Those of us in the industry sometimes forget how abnormal that is until someone who isn’t used to it points it out.

Even April 1 may not even be the solid deadline it once was. Since COVID opened the door to going test optional, most of the schools on her list have seen a dramatic uptick in applications. They haven’t added seats, though. They also know that students who may once have applied to x number of schools might now apply to 2x, since there’s no specific numerical barrier preventing them from taking a shot. That makes it harder to assume a given yield rate consistent with the past. Anecdotally, I’ve heard there’s much more use of wait lists than in the past for exactly that reason. Schools don’t want to underadmit or overadmit, but they’re dealing with numbers of applicants far beyond historical patterns, so wait lists allow them to try to finesse the size of the class.

Frustratingly for her, though, wait-listing could extend the period in limbo. (I say “could” because she hasn’t been wait-listed anywhere as of yet.) And it could make April even more stressful, given that other schools would want to hear back by May 1. I don’t know how quickly schools move down their wait lists, but I could imagine some tense moments as April passes.

On the community college side, I can claim innocence, at least when it comes to students. Students don’t have to wait for months to find out if they’re accepted. The criteria are clear and simple for most students. If this was where she wanted to be—as it is for about half of her friend group—then the whole issue of limbo would be moot. But she has other plans.

I remember just enough of 17 to know just how hollow parental reassurance can sound at that age. But I feel a moral obligation at least to try. Every place she has applied offers a chance for a wonderful experience, and she’s smart enough (and driven enough) to put together something impressive once she gets there. She just doesn’t know it yet. And a few months seems a much longer time when you haven’t been around as long.

Admittedly, this all falls under the heading of “good problems.” To her credit, she knows that. But that doesn’t make the waiting any easier.

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