Wednesday, July 27, 2016

College Choices Revisit

I watch, in relative dismay, as it happens every year.  I, along with armies of capable and interested parents and educators, will have invested in the lives of students over the course of their school careers.  We will have investigated and worked toward implementing useful pedagogical frameworks and strategies – design thinking, project-based learning, brain-based learning to name a few – in efforts to engage students and catalyze curiosity and learning.  We will have worked toward integrating appropriate technologies in an effort to help unleash collaboration and creativity and will have helped to hone critical thinking and problem solving skills.  We will have utilized all sorts of formative and summative assessment tools to make sure our students are progressing well.  In lock step, parents and teachers will have also worked together to nurture and develop young people with character, confidence and grit.

All too often, these things come to a screeching halt with the question, “Where are you going to college?” 

As parents and students begin to receive those anxiously anticipated college acceptance announcements, a new priority for decision making tends to emerge.  Too often, instead of asking which colleges and universities to which our children have been accepted offer the greatest chance for our student’s success, we ask, “What’s the most prestigious school my kid has gotten in?”  We begin to envision the reaction of other parents on Senior Night when our child’s college choice is publically announced.  We begin to imagine how great it will feel to deliver that passing, cocktail party line, “She had so many options but she’s finally decided on the University of Great Big Fat Hairy Deal.  How about your sweet (lesser-achieving, can’t possibly compete with my kid) son?  Where has he decided to go?”  At the very least, we want to be able to say, “Yeah, mine too.”

There is no doubt that a college education still offers substantially higher income opportunities and is a petri-dish for personal development.  It is a worthy goal.   Admittedly, the commonly accepted most prestigious schools in the country (or in your state) do, indeed, come with a high degree of alumni pride and connectivity and still garner the attention of readers of resumes and employment applications.  There is no question that being a networked alumnus of a “prestigious” school offers an employment leg up.  There is little question that the resume of an applicant who graduates from a “prestigious” school will move toward the top of the stack (although pertinent experience has become the most desirable factor). 

Being admitted to a reputedly prestigious school, however, in no way, shape, form or fashion ensures student success.  More importantly, attending such a school does not ensure your child will continue to develop confidence and passion or character and grit.  On the contrary, the competition may be crushing and the pressure to not blow the chance for so-called prestige may be overwhelming.  Moreover, there may not be a social or cultural “fit” which can result in its own special brand of misery.  There is no substitute for happiness and a sense of belonging.  The best and most attentive college counselors understand this.   More and more, their focus is on helping match students will colleges based on their individual strengths, interests, and even their level of readiness.   Brian Rutledge, Director of College Counseling at Woodward Academy in Atlanta Georgia says, “We should not judge colleges by their names, nor should we judge people by the names of their colleges.  Education, indeed life itself, is not that simple.”

While understandably tempting, the key question should not be, “What is the most impressive, prestigious college my child can attend?”  Rather, the question should primarily be, “Where can my child continue to become?  Where will she thrive?”

(For an interesting take on this topic, read Malcom Gladwell’s story about Caroline Sachs in his book David and Goliath.  Ms. Sachs, who opted to attend Brown University, is reported to have said with regret, “If I had gone to the University of Maryland, I’d still be in Science.”)  

Note: This article first appeared in Southern Distinction Magazine - Education Column. White, C. 2016