On College Matching

We're entering the heart of College Admissions Season-- the offers are out, and students are doing the high-stress decision thing-- which means it's time for the New York Times to begin their annual series of faintly awful reports on the state of academia. And right on cue, there's this weekend's article about poor students who excel in high school not applying to top colleges.

To their credit, this at least isn't another article about how very, very hard it is for kids from affluent Connecticut suburbs to decide between several different elite schools. And as someone who grew up in a less than affluent rural community a long way from The City, the general point resonates pretty well with me. It's absolutely true that students from poorer backgrounds tend not to have the resource networks that might steer them to the best possible opportunities for them. I was pretty lucky-- while the town where I grew up is small and not what you'd call prosperous, my father was a teacher and my mother a librarian, so I had good advice from people who knew the importance of education. At the same time, though, I had never heard of the school I ultimately attended before my college application process started. I spent a lot of time explaining to classmates that Williams was, in fact, one of the top-rated liberal arts colleges in the nation, and not just the men's half of the College of William and Mary.

So, I'm all in favor of getting better advice to excellent students in poorer areas, so that they know the full range of options available to them. And as much as it bugs my squishy liberal conscience sometimes, there's no question that having elite-school credentials opens doors that aren't opened by excelling at less elite schools. And I agree with the Times that this poses a problem for the elite institutions themselves, if they seriously want to increase their economic diversity.

At the same time, though, the Dean Dad (whose real name is now a matter of public record, but it feels weird to not use the pseudonym) correctly notes that it's more complicated than the Times lets on. There are lots of reasons for students to choose "lesser" local institutions over more elite places farther away. Finance is an obvious one-- elite higher education is very expensive, even with financial aid-- but so are less tangible issues like support networks of family and friends. As much as it might seem like a shame for a rural valedictorian to not pursue the Ivy League, in many cases, that's the right decision. And there's empirical evidence that choosing not to attend an elite school isn't a career-killer.

I think that the Dean Dad overreacts a little-- understandably, since his sector of the higher ed market is implicitly being looked down on-- and he gets snarky on the basis of what I think is a misreading of one point. At the same time, I think he's right that the Times gets a little too concerned over what may not actually be a crushing problem.

In the end, whenever the subject turns to college admissions, I always come back to the same thing: everybody calm down. Education is, ultimately, a highly personal endeavor, and the "right" choice of college or university is a highly personal matter. It's more important that students go to a place that "feels" right to them than that they go to a place that looks right by the numbers. You can get an excellent education just about anywhere you go, and almost any school will provide some useful connections and contacts. Yeah, if your goal is to make a bazillion dollars working for Goldman Sachs, your path to that goal will be easier if you go to Harvard or Williams, but if your goal is to have a rewarding career and live a good life, you have a lot more options.

We should, as the Times says do everything we can to get accurate information and high-quality advice to students from disadvantaged backgrounds, so they know all their options. And we should, as the Dean Dad says, do absolutely everything we can to ensure that state universities and community colleges have the resources they need to provide the best possible educational opportunities for students who choose those paths. Most of all, though, it's important to remember that the ultimate goal is to enable students to make the choices that are right for them.


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The more pressing concern, of course, is why so many students go to college to study stamp-collecting.

By Ori Vandewalle (not verified) on 18 Mar 2013 #permalink

There are lots of issues with college matching. Distance is one of them: elite US colleges are mostly (but not entirely) in the northeast, which adds to the burden of a student coming from a poor rural town, or the barrio or ghetto of a big city. Some people from warm climates have trouble adapting to actual winters in the northern US, and if you are one of these people it's better to find out before you commit yourself to four years of misery. It's also unfortunately the case that the student body at elite universities is increasingly elite, as admission rates at top ranked schools drop (percentages are now in the low teens and even single digits), magnifying the advantages of students from privileged backgrounds--the poor student who beats these odds and enrolls will be under pressure to conform to a student body with significantly more disposable income.

Most highly motivated students can learn quite a bit at State U. The resources of a Harvard or Williams may not be there, so opportunities will not fall into your lap, but you can still chase that down. Community colleges (like Dean Dad's place of employment) are a bit more restricted, but some people aren't quite ready at 18 to go away for college.

By Eric Lund (not verified) on 18 Mar 2013 #permalink