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Philosophers Debate College Admissions

In college admission, college admissions, college application, common application, university application information on September 9, 2011 at 9:06 pm

To be technically correct, two philosophers engaged in an interesting and informative dialogue about the admissions rat race with a professor of education. I am speaking of a recent episode of Philosophy Talk, featuring Stanford Professor Emeritus John Perry and Stanford Philosophy professor Ken Taylor. This is a brilliant radio program and is always worth a listen, but for those who are currently running the admissions steeplechase, this episode is a must.

The Ed Prof in question, Mitchell Stephens, is the author of Creating a Class, a study of the university applications process. The message Stephens conveys is that the competition is ferocious for a particular subset of elite schools, and he believes that this is for a very good reason: successful, middle class parents have absorbed the lesson that it is not only harder to attain a middle class life today, it is also harder to sustain a middle class life through adulthood. He argues further that being in the right university–at the right lunch table, as he memorably phrases it–can make a difference, because of the associations that come with the elite names, like Yale or Stanford–or the associations that don’t come with the names of little-known schools. University names create assumptions about their graduates. Coming from a more elite school as an undergraduate will help you in the next step, whether that be employment or in applying to grad school.

I have to admit that he is right, to a large extent, but this is the result of a sort of feedback loop between such universities and those who want to attend them.

I also believe that one of the philosophers in particular, John Perry, makes a convincing case that we still do have a great university system in California, as well as a great community college system (and that most of the other states have good to excellent systems). Perry points out that it is still possible for students to move from a community college to a (relatively) prestigious university before going on to an excellent graduate program or job. He argues further that a student can find, say, a German instructor at a community college who will give instruction just as good as a German professor at Stanford. And students can improve the “brand value” (my term here) at each step of the process–from community college to a good university to a top-ranked grad school. I guess Perry should know, since he’s been there and followed a path like that himself.

The take away of Perry’s argument is this: those students–and parents–who think that they will live or die by their Stanford or Yale or University of Chicago application need to get a paper bag and start breathing into it (do people still deal with hyperventilation in that way, or have plastic bags become ubiquitous?) In the event that plan A fails, they also need to have a well-though-out plan B, and C and even D, and I think that at least plan C should include a good, out-of-state university, preferably one with relatively low tuition.

If you already know what you what your first choice is, it makes sense to spend time looking at other options instead of finding out everything possible about your first choice. You will hopefully arrive there anyway and will be able to see if all for yourself. There are some exceptions to this when choosing a major, of course. Oversubscribed majors turn away many more students in relationship to less popular majors at the same schools. But there are certainly places where you could be happy and well educated that you do not even know exist. And you won’t know they exist if you don’t look. Also keep in mind the cost factor. Other costs tend to mirror tuition costs, and it will almost certainly require more money to live and eat near Harvard than it will around the University of Oregon.

In previous posts I have discussed some of the other options to consider, particularly for students from California, where I am based. In addition, I have written about the college admissions game, in which many institutions actively recruit qualified students in order to be able to turn down a larger percentage of applicants and therefore become a more “selective” and more prestigious university. Those are the rules of the game, but you have a wide latitude to decide if you are going to play with the “elite” or find an excellent alternate choice–or both.

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