In the comments to yesterday’s post about college admissions, Joseph Yoon quoted my statement that “I’m somewhat sympathetic to claims that Asians have a difficult position in higher education,” and shot back with:
I wonder if you will feel more strongly about this in 10 years when your kids are near college. Will you advise them to not check the Asian box if it decreases their chances?
As a general matter, I try to avoid responding to comments when my initial reaction is “Oh, go fuck yourself.” But I’ll make an exception here, because I think it goes to a more general issue about college admissions.
Now, on some level even talking about college decisions that are more than a decade away feels kind of farcical, given the nearly constant stream of articles about how the higher education landscape is being utterly transformed by technology. But then again I’ve been seeing those same sorts of articles since I was in college twenty-plus years ago, so I suspect that the radical reshaping of higher education is kind of like commercial fusion power: twenty years off, and expected to remain so for the next twenty years.
But making the assumption that higher education will continue to operate in more or less the same way that it does now, with more or less the same mysterious admissions standards and all that, would I advise SteelyKid (and The Pip, three years later) to not check the “Asian” box on an admissions form, to avoid being caught in some sort of Ivy League quota? The answer is no, for a very simple reason: I don’t want my kid to be the sort of person who would lie on an admissions form in the hopes of improving her chances of admission by some infinitesimal amount.
This all goes back to a general problem with the whole higher education system these days, which is the utterly absurd level of significance placed on a fairly arbitrary and surprisingly unimportant decision. In fact, I have a generic set of advice that I give students who show up at the open house events our Admissions office runs, or who email me asking for advice, which is this: Relax. You’re going to be fine.
We’ve created a system in this country where getting into THE RIGHT COLLEGE is perceived as this epic matter of decisive importance for, well, everything. And, really, it’s overblown. There’s even academic research showing that it doesn’t matter that much– the Dale and Krueger study compared students who attended elite schools to other students with similar academic credentials who got into elite schools but ended up going elsewhere, and found that there wasn’t any difference between their incomes twenty years later. Students who have the qualifications to get into Ivy League type institutions have the tools to be successful no matter where they go.
So, in the end, it just doesn’t matter that much. If you’re a credible applicant to Harvard, or Williams, or even Union, you can do just fine for yourself no matter where you go. At any school in that class, you can find professors who will educate and inspire you, meet friends you’ll keep in touch with for decades, make connections that will help you advance in your career. The exact details will be different for different schools, but the end result is the same.
So I just don’t think it’s worth it to strategize about the checking of demographic boxes on application forms . Or any other kind of boxes, for that matter. I hope that SteelyKid participates in extracurricular activities– sports, music, science clubs, book clubs, scouting groups, volunteer charity work, whatever– but not because I think it will boost her college application chances. I want her to do things because she wants to do them, and because they make her happy. If she decides to be a basketball player, say, that’d be awesome, and I’ll be right there to drive her to practices and games and even offer to coach. If she wants nothing to do with basketball, though, I’m not going to push her to do something that doesn’t make her happy. Instead I’ll happily back whatever other interest she may have.
Again, it’s kind of farcical to be talking about the future educational prospects of a four-year-old– at this point, we don’t even know that she’ll want to go to college. Her most recent stated career ambition is to become a cowboy, and you know what? If she sticks with that, I’ll support her as best I can.
Look, I hope she’s a great student, and I hope she’s able to get into… well, not Harvard, Harvard’s full of assholes, but Williams, or Swarthmore, or Stanford. I’d even grudgingly accept amherst. I guess. But I want her to get into those schools because she’s a great kid, who does things that she loves to do, and does them well. Not because she consciously and strategically shaped herself (or worse yet, was shaped by me, or by Kate) to fit some sort of profile that maximizes her chances of admission at THE RIGHT COLLEGE.
So when it comes to the checking of demographic boxes, I hope she checks whatever boxes feel appropriate to describe her sense of who she is. She should do what makes her happy, and from there on out, the chips can fall however they happen to fall. Wherever she ends up, I’m confident that she’ll have the tools she needs to make a successful life, and I will do everything in my power to help her in that.
The same goes for The Pip, when his turn comes around. I want him to get into the college of his choice because he’s an awesome little dude, not because he’s become some little simulacrum of the ideal student for wherever. And whatever he decides to do, he’ll have my support. Even if he also wants to be a cowboy.
Now, of course, you could point out that I say this from a place of great privilege, and there’s some truth to that. Both of our kids have parents with outstanding academic credentials (they’ll even have the benefit of legacy status at one of the elite colleges people strain to get into, for whatever that’s worth), and good jobs, and we can provide whatever enriching activities they may need outside of the very good public school district where we live. We’re very fortunate.
But mostly we’re privileged to have two awesome little kids– I’m regularly blown away by just how awesome they are. We went to a basketball game on campus last night, after day care, and SteelyKid cheerfully and confidently chatted up the people working the concession stand, and two kids roughly her own age, and some players between games, and an older couple who were there to watch their daughter coach the visiting team. She told them about her brother, and things she learned in preschool, and games she plays and songs she sings, and when she was done talking, she skipped off to do something else.
The Pip, for his part, was a little trouper. He was short on sleep and late for his dinner, but he took in a strange, loud, and very active place without any sign of freaking out. He stood calmly in the middle of the lobby for a while, taking it all in, then made a beeline for the court. And up the stairs. And wherever his big sister was running off to. He cried once, for about ten seconds, when he bumped his head on a railing, but carried himself with the baby version of his big sister’s cheerful self-confidence.
So, while you can’t always tell much from this young an age, I have every reason to hope that my kids will grow up to be awesome high-schoolers, and awesome college students, and adults who will continue to blow me away with whatever they decide to do. Even if they’re just the best damn cowboys in the 21st century. And I hope that we will be able to raise them to be proud of who they are, and earn their accomplishments through their own merits, not by putting up a false front and scratching and grubbing to gain some tiny advantage toward some artificial ideal of what they “need” to do to succeed.
While our family situation makes it a little easier to say that– we have the resources to support them even if they don’t go to elite colleges and get high-paying jobs– I’d like to think it’s not dependent on income. In fact, I think it’s probably a little insulting to people who are less financially successful to suggest that they need to do those things. Nobody needs to go to an Ivy League school, not that badly.
I don’t just want my kids to be materially successful, I want them to be good people. And if that means they don’t get into Harvard, well, that’s Harvard’s loss, not theirs.