Playing Dice with the Future

Monday is the decision deadline for accepted students to decide whether they're coming here next year, and we've had a slow parade of people getting tours of the department and suchlike over the last few weeks. We've also had a couple "Open House" events, where accepted students and their families are invited to campus to see the school, sit in on classes, and have lunch with members of the faculty.

In talking with the students at these events, I'm always struck by how apparently random the college decision process is. We spend hours and hours and thousands of dollars trying to draw the best students to campus, on some sort of mad-economist vision of high-school seniors as rational decision-makers, when the criteria they use for deciding where to go are so nebulous as to be essentially random. A lot of the students don't even seem to have a clear idea what type of school they want-- when I ask them where else they've applied, I'm as likely to hear the names of local commuter schools and huge state universities as other elite liberal arts colleges.

Of course, it's always been thus. My own decision process, lo these many years ago, was also highly influenced by random factors.

For illustrative purposes, some reflections on my long-ago college decision are below the fold.

In the end, I was accepted by four colleges: Williams, Swarthmore, MIT, and Cornell. I was wait-listed at a fifth (Princeton-- the letter is still taped to the back of my bedroom door at my parents' house). Just cutting it down to those five was the result of some fairly random elements. We looked at some other schools (Colgate, Amherst), but rejected those for various reasons-- I remember that Amherst got dumped in large part because the tour guide was really flaky.

Cornell was very much the "local option" being less than an hour from my hometown, and the one school in the pool that would accept some of the in-state scholarships I won. I was pretty sure I didn't want to go there, though, and getting a parking ticket when I went to sit in on a class didn't help any. In the end, I had better financial offers from the others, and they were farther from home, so that carried the day.

I made overnight visits to the other three, to get a sense of the places. They were three very different visits: at one, I wound up playing computer games for a good while, at another, I sat up late bullshitting with my hosts, and at the third, I went out to a party and got drunk.

The computer games one is easy to guess-- that was MIT. I was already a little dubious about them because of the sheer size of the place, and the insane system they had for assigning first-year housing. The people I was hosted with were just a little too intense, and actually ditched me in order to study for a while. I wound up playing "Battle Chess" on somebody's dorm-room computer for a few hours, which is about the only thing I remember about the visit.

Anyone who knew me in college would probably assume that Williams was the school where I went out and got drunk, but they'd be wrong. That was Swarthmore. I remember being there on a Wednesday night, and that the roommate of my assigned host was friends with the organizers of some regular Wednesday-night keg party that the school had ordered cancelled because of the prospective students on campus. That just pushed the party underground, of course, and he knew where it was, so I tagged along and got mildly drunk. I remember a lot of people singing along to "Bertha" by the Grateful Dead, but I've never found a version that sounds like exactly the one I remember from that night.

Lest you think that I was a complete lush, or think less of Timothy Burke's fine institution, I did also check out some academic matters. In particular, I sat in on a Psychology 101 lecture-- I had planned to go to a physics class, but my host and his rommate both insisted that I needed to hear this particular psych prof. I remember it as including both the Milgram experiment movie and a hilarious discussion about Freud, and what a lunatic he was, though that seems a little improbable. Anyway, it was a great class, easily the best I sat in on as a prospective student.

Williams was the school where I wound up hanging around late into the evening, having a bullshit dorm-room conversation. As I recall, the guy hosting me and a couple of his friends were plotting out their own version of This Is Spinal Tap, and it was hilariously funny. I narrowly missed meeting a rugby player during the visit-- at one point, there was some crashing and banging outside, and everybody got really quiet. "What's that?" I asked. "Oh, that's Darnell," they replied, "Keep quiet, and he'll go away."

Weirdly, when I was actually a student, I spent more time with Darnell than I did in conversations of the sort I remember from that visit. I'm sure there were prospective students shushed on hearing me crashing and banging down a dorm hallway, too.

All in all, I would say that the visits to both Williams and Swarthmore were positive experiences. What tipped the balance in favor of Williams? Financial matters played a big part (I got a sweet deal from Williams), but there were a host of random factors as well-- the view from the hairpin turn as I rode the bus up from Boston, my small-town upbringing making Williamstown feel more comfortable than Philly, the fact that it was the last stop on my tour, the fact that it was an hour or two closer to home, the admissions officer who several months earlier had responded to a comment about the high cost of applying to numerous colleges by telling me "Save your money, only apply to a few places. You'll be fine." I'm not sure I could point to a single deciding factor, and the only one that involved any rational analysis at all was the financial aid package.

What the point, here? The point is really that for all the importance placed on the decision, it really doesn't matter from the student end-- they can decide on the basis of random factors, and everything will still work out. I would've been perfectly happy at Swarthmore, I'm sure, or at any of the schools I rejected earlier in the process. I'd be a somewhat different person than I am today, but I don't think I'd look back on my college days any less fondly.

Of course, the decision is critically important from the institutional side-- when we get good students, life is much happier for faculty and administrators, and when the quality of the entering class dips, everybody gets cranky. Which is why we spend tens of thousands of dollars on events that attempt to influence the decision processes of a bunch of 17 and 18-year-olds, who will ultimately choose a college based on the sports team mascot, or the weather on the one weekend they happen to spend on campus, or the personality of the student volunteer giving them a campus tour.

And somehow, in the end, it all works out all right. How? It's a mystery.

Anyway, good luck to any students currently deciding where to go to college. And remember: the above paragraphs aside, you really don't want to go to Amherst.

More like this

It's college admissions season, which means a steady influx of high-school seniors thinking about coming here next year, making campus visits. Most of these students sit in on at least one class, to get an idea of what it's like. Which occasionally leads to odd things, but nothing stranger than…
There was an interesting collision of articles about college admissions in my RSS feeds the other day. Dave Munger at Cognitive Daily had a post about a proposal to make college admissions random. The idea is that we could reduce stress on students and parents by having colleges identify those…
It's that time of year again, when the US News rankings come out (confirming my undergrad alma mater as the Best in All the Land) and everybody in academia gets all worked up about What It All Means. There are always a few gems in there with all the pointless hand-wringing, though, and Timothy…
I was invited to a dinner last night hosted by one of the umbrella organizations for fraternities on campus, with a stated goal of improving communication between faculty and frats. It ended up being kind of a weird crowd-- most of the non-students there were Deans of one sort or another; I think…

It's funny...I was a grad student at Cornell, and I got parking tickets from them ALL THE TIME. Their parking-enforcement squad was like pack of mad vultures. They made parking on campus difficult on purpose so as to discourage driving, but the public-transportation options weren't that thrilling, either. How hard would it have been to subsidize a Cornell campus shuttle bus? Anyway...I find it very funny that a parking ticket should have been the thing that predisposed you negatively towards Cornell as a school. Very apt.

Hmmmm. I grew up about an hour away from Cornell, too. Where were you from? I gather that one of the in-state scholarships was the Regents scholarship (which I turned down as well).


The parking ticket was just gravy-- I was already pretty sure I didn't want to go there just based on the size, but I applied anyway, just in case. I didn't understand at the time that parking enforcement is the only efficient thing about most college campuses-- the same was true at Maryland. I once got a ticket when I parked illegaly for the two minutes it took to run in and drop a paper in a professor's mailbox.

I grew up in Whitney Point, NY, which is the exit for Ithaca on I-81. As a result, I get a lot of grief from Cornell alumni about divey little redneck bars that they would pass on the way to and from school.

And somehow, in the end, it all works out all right. How? It's a mystery.

Took me five years, two colleges and three majors to get it right, or at any rate get through it. Now my older son's at the school that accepted me that I didn't accept.

Pynchon: "Those all must have been important to me once. What I am now grew from that. A former self is a fool, an insufferable ass, but he's still human, you'd no more turn him out than you'd turn out any other kind of cripple, would you?"

By Monte Davis (not verified) on 25 Apr 2006 #permalink

So much is unknown - the emotional feel/fit of a particular college type, let alone a particular collge. The trade-off between smaller/more personal instruction vs fewer peers and specialized advanced courses. I went to a third-tier college, studying math, and it definitely hurt me; I didn't realize how behind I was until later. There's also the fact that most students don't know their major, or how the college support particular majors/fields of study.

And what everyone knows but tries to hide: It's all about the weather. No matter how many times advisers tell you not to base your decision on the weather, you're still expected to base it on "feeling comfortable while you're there" or "clicking," which are so often determined by...the weather.

By ThePolynomial (not verified) on 25 Apr 2006 #permalink

I'm an old person. I went to college in the early 60's. I find all of these discussions bemusing. I grew up in Detroit, got good grades in h.s. The only school I knew anything about was U of Mich. I applied, got accepted and went there, didn't visit, never even thought about anything else. How times have changed!
And speaking of weather: If "cold" is a concern, don't go to U of M. Ann Arbor in the winter has to be the coldest place on Earth. I don't know what the housing policy is now, but then, women lived in the women's dorms on one side of campus and men on the other side. I remember walking my girl friend back to her dorm and then walking all the way back to mine. I don't think I've ever warmed up.

I made a rational decision. I went to Ohio State because it was the only way I could get football tickets. I had student tickets to OSU football for eight seasons.

By Bob Hawkins (not verified) on 25 Apr 2006 #permalink

As a current, Cornell graduate student, I can attest to the fact that they still hand out parking tickets like candy. Even as the bridge on thurston is closing.

It seems to be a tier thing. At the third-tier university, they didn't ticket so hard; at the University of Michigan, they take great pride in being the role models for the Velociraptors in Jurassic Park.

Karl, same way with me. I applied to U/M, because that's where the smart kids from my Ann Arbor high school all went. However, you don't have to worry about walking your GF back to the women's dorm; it's all decadent now :)

I went to Lund in Sweden simply because it was the only really large university that was far enough from my parents that they really could not expect me to visit every month (well ok, we have Umeå as well, but it was still not very big at the time).

As it turned out a lot later, Lund was the only place to have a PhD program in cognitive science. So yes, for me the decision turned out to be pretty significant - I'd probably be working as a software engineer in Stockholm today instead of being "between assignments" in Japan :)

When I was in HS, I applied to five schools, Princeton (where I went), MIT, Wesleyan (Conn.), F&M in Pennsylvania and the U of Rochester (state scholarships -- me too). This was back in the days when the Ivies sent applicants cards in January indicating their chances of acceptance were likely, possible or unlikely. Princeton said likely and MIT said possible. I was accepted to all five, as it turned out. I visited only one campus, Princeton, because it was an easy three hour train trip and I had friends there. I guess I was lucky that I liked the place.

Now I get to see the process as a teacher and parent. My daughter also applied to five schools, and got accepted to all five. They were all fairly small liberal-arts schools, and she settled on Centre College here in Kentucky to use her state grants. My son has started looking; the college counselor has suggested Carnegie Mellon and Washington U, among others.

Meanwhile, I see some students here with even stronger board scores and GPAs than my kids applying to up to 14 different schools! They're either afraid they will be accepted by none, or unable to narrow the field. Their parents seem willing to pony up the registration fees, thereby enabling this somewhat neurotic behavior.

We've sent some kids to Williams, Chad. I'll have to dig up their names to see if you know them.