College, Reading, and the Internet

I heard a good interview with a father who paid $12,000 for a college admissions counseling service after his daughter was waitlisted (in October [!] of her senior year) at the University of Chicago. The father claimed that his daughter had grades that ranked her second in her high school class, combined with excellent SAT scores (which he didn’t reveal in the interview). His investment paid off — his daughter got into 7 of 8 schools she applied to, and is now attending the University of Pennsylvania.

The question at hand was this: if college admissions have come down to this — a rigged process where the rich pay for consulting services to get their kids into elite universities — then has the purpose of higher education been corrupted?

The second half of the interview was with Lloyd Thacker, the founder of the Education Conservancy, an organization that seems to have been formed with the important goals of promoting Thacker’s book and consulting service removing the corrupting influence of corporate greed from education and restoring its original, pure motives.

Thacker was remarkably vague about how these goals would be achieved, or even why the admissions process has anything to do with education. I can think of some reasons, such as the idea that we don’t want our institutions of higher education to merely become a way to ensure that the rich continue to become richer, but I don’t want to put words in Thacker’s mouth.

Now I want to bring in another, seemingly unrelated thread to this discussion. Kevin Drum points us to an article in the L.A. Times lamenting the fact that kids these days don’t want to be troubled to read those archaic, obtuse relics of a bygone era known as books. Why bother, they say, when we can find convenient summaries of almost everything important online (or, failing that, in Spark Notes)?

So college kids these days are lazy slobs, and school kids these days are busting their butts for twelve years, then spending tens of thousands of dollars just to improve their chances of spending $100,000-plus on a college education. Both of these seemingly contradictory trends apparently signal the demise of American higher education, or at the very least a rewarding book deal for authors looking to cash in on the latest trend.

Let’s assume both of these trends are true. That begs the question: if kids are so motivated to get into the most challenging schools in America, why aren’t kids motivated to actually meet the curricular requirements of those schools? Is it that today’s professors are just living in the past, thinking the stuff they had to learn 20 or 30 years ago is relevant to today’s students? Or is it that the college admissions process has failed to identify the students who can actually succeed in college, instead simply finding those who can game the admissions process?

I suspect it’s a little bit of both, and a little bit of neither. To game the admissions process, you need to be able to score well on a standardized test, amass an impressive array of extracurriculars, snow your high school teachers into giving you good grades, and write a snappy short essay. Now, a real genius who has the patience to slog through War and Peace might be able to do all of that, but it’s just as likely that an ambitious parent can coach his or her slightly-above-average kid to imitate the real thing even better. So does this mean the admissions process is all wrong?

In some ways, probably yes. Maybe it’d be better if there was some kind of admissions boot camp — perhaps in the high school junior summer — where real profs could put promising students through their paces and see who has the Right Stuff for college. But even assuming professors would be willing to do this (they wouldn’t), wouldn’t the competition just move back another couple of years, with wealthy parents enrolling their kids in expensive pre-boot camps so they can learn to impress the profs?

One thing Thacker did point out in his interview is that the admissions industry is fed by the press, with its infinite supply of college rankings, its emphasis on the horse race between the elite institutions. But surely no one’s career prospects are ruined simply by getting into #27 instead of #1. Surely everyone’s time would be better spent on simply acquiring an education and letting the chips fall where they may instead of devoting so much time and resources to getting in to college. Why can’t the media just leave well enough alone?

Well, why can’t parents? Aren’t they the ones pressuring (and paying for) their kids to get into the top institutions? Don’t they realize that the education junior will get at Harvard isn’t appreciably better (and is possibly worse) than a second- or third-tier liberal arts college?

And aren’t colleges gaming the admissions process as well? They know that perceived “selectivity” and the percentage of accepted students who enroll affect the rankings, so they then do things like reject more-qualified students who are unlikely to attend their school. Thacker even suggests that some colleges suss out over-coached applications that seem “too polished” and put them on the bottom of the stack.

Perhaps the biggest injustice the admissions process does isn’t so much to “education” or “students,” but, most ironically of all, to corporate hiring departments. If corporations buy into the notion that the current media darling university is “number one” because of a list published in a magazine (and clearly manipulated by both parents and schools), then aren’t they missing out on qualified job applicants from “lesser” schools?

Meanwhile, the students that really do have the patience and perseverence to plow through a difficult text and appreciate its importance get lost in the shuffle. What does this mean for education? I don’t know now, but I bet there’s a book deal in there somewhere.

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12 Responses to College, Reading, and the Internet

  1. Pingback: Idiotprogrammer » Blog Archive » Links and Insomnia

  2. Michelle says:

    That begs the question: if kids are so motivated to get into the most challenging schools in America, why aren’t kids motivated to actually meet the curricular requirements of those schools?

    There’s a lot to be said for your excellent analysis, but I wanted to address this particular question.

    I think the reason behind these seemingly contradictory trends is this: the pressure of getting into a good college these days is so great, and the admissions process so competitive, that the kids are completely burned out once they get to college. In a way, it’s as if getting into a college has become an ends unto itself. Getting into a good college (as opposed to the education, or future after college) seems to be the be-all-end-all goal nowadays. At least, that’s the way it was for me: I was one of those kids who busted her a** to go to a good school, but once I got there, I didn’t care anymore.

  3. Robert Nagle says:

    By the way, I just started an entertaining book on college teaching, I’m the teacher, you’re the student : a semester in the university classroom by Patrick Allitt I’ve taught at universities before, so a lot of this is familiar to me, but the book gave great insights into the generation gap between teachers and students, as well as how students grasp things and what motivates them.

    I think the stress of getting into college is considerable, but once they’re there, they can actually enjoy learning..that is, until they have to think about post-graduation plans.

  4. Scott says:


    Don’t know if you’ve read Malcolm Gladwell’s essay on college admissions (in The New
    Yorker about a month ago and available here),
    but he cites research showing that students going to elite universities don’t tend
    to earn more tha students going to middle-of-the-raod universities. In other words, it’s
    more important just to go to college, then to be at Harvard and not a decent state
    school. Of course, one could argue that the students and parents don’t really care about
    the earning potential as much as the social prestige.

  5. dave says:

    Wow, that’s a great read, Scott. I do think that social prestige explains an awful lot about the admissions process.

    More fascinating to me is that everyone I know from Harvard acts just as Gladwell describes it in the article. They can be very nice people, but they all still behave as if somewhere they’ve got that damning H tattooed on their bodies.

  6. R J Keefe says:

    The burn-out mentioned by Michelle has, I believe prevailed in Japan for decades.

  7. John says:

    First time poster, but when I saw this article, I felt I had to reply. I’m a college student at the University of Michigan. I got into Penn and a couple other Ivy League schools as well. The general consensus among the people writing about college students seems to be that we are indeed “lazy slobs” who care only about a high-paying job.
    However, as I college student, I believe that this assumption is wrong. The idea that college students and their parents are somehow oppressing the lower and middle classes through college counseling must appear attractive as an intellectual debate, but I very rarely see this happening. Fear not my intellectual companions, most of us DO read, and even more of us CARE about learning.
    I can’t speak for the students at Harvard, but for the most part, colleges and college students are doing just fine in their intellectual growth.

  8. A.R.Yngve says:

    This intrigues me:
    “Why bother, they say, when we can find convenient summaries of almost everything important online (or, failing that, in Spark Notes)?”

    Indeed, why bother memorizing stuff? Perhaps we’re on the brink of a total redefinition of “higher education.”

    It used to be that an education built up your notion of your place in history, what culture you belonged to, etc.

    What if future college students no longer get that sort of education? They will decide themselves what culture they belong to, what knowledge is “relevant” to them. And they will have unlimited access to information, but it will not “mean” anything “significant” to them – it’s just information.

    This change will affect our thinking. Consider, for example, how a person’s “national identity” traditionally was shaped by rote-learning historical dates and events: 1776, 1789, 1939, 1973… just mentioning a year will trigger memorized events of “significance”. This is a form of cultural conditioning, and it will be swept away by the Internet…

  9. Rebecca Ore says:

    I think one thing to consider is that there are a wider range of high educational institutions than ever before as well as a wider range of students. I’ve taught two 13 year olds taking college classes who were far better students than most of the rest of the class. The girl was reading Anna Karinina for pleasure. The boy was equally as impressive. Same class, I had students who complained about how tedious and pointless reading literature was.

  10. david milofsky says:

    It always amazes me how a blogger can take a half-truth glimplsed in an article somewhere–in this case about admissions and assume it’s a larger truth. No doubt some kids and parents do as you say in applying to good schools, but it’s certainly not generally true. Can you possibly think the Ivies aren’t onto these tricks and correct for them? Please! My daughtr and her husband got into an Ivy the old fashioned way, without tutors or clever essays and most of their friends did as well. Furthermore, while I’m a state university type, I have to say these kids are not only very bright but also quite unspoiled, even modest about their accomplishments. And, yes, many read, as the kid from Michigan stated. Cynicism is easy, real cademic achievement remains hard.

  11. dave says:


    What larger truth do you think I’m missing? I didn’t say bright people don’t get into Ivies, I mainly said that parents are paranoid about their kids getting into Ivies, and corporations mistakenly overemphasize the importance of getting into Ivies. Do you disagree with that?

    The great kid from Michigan is probably better than half the kids in Harvard. The fact that he was confident enough in himself to attend Michigan despite getting into Ivies suggests that he’s not part of the demographic I’m talking about.

    Also, you should definitely read the Malcolm Gladwell article that Scott links to above — that “modesty” you talk about, I think, is expertly dissected there.

    Regarding whether the Ivies are “onto these tricks,” I’d say to a certain extent they are, but they also are subject to not an inconsiderable bit of tunnel vision, and that’s what the gamers are prepping to take advantage of.

  12. david milofsky says:


    What I was referring to was this statement: The question at hand was this: if college admissions have come down to this — a rigged process where the rich pay for consulting services to get their kids into elite universities — then has the purpose of higher education been corrupted? If there’s any scam here it’s on the part of these so-called tutors who promise parents more than they can deliver and charge huge fees in the process.

    The question of whether or not the Ivies (and other such schools_ are worth the large fees they charge (I’m still paying off my loans) is an open question and, yes, you’re right corporations do tend to exaggerate their importance. For waht it’s worth, elite universities help students get their first job; after that, they’re on their own. But hving had personal experience with at least three of them (Harvard, Yale and Princeton) and having taught at two sub-Ivies myself, I can say that while there’s a fair amount of the misinformation you mention, there’s also real quality there, and some terrific kids who aren’t rich, study hard and benefit from a great education. At Princeton alone, for instance, more than 10% are minority students who weren’t beneficiaries of the kind of thing yhou reference in your comments. I think often students don’t get their money’s worth because of the prevalence of teaching assistants and watered-down curricula, and for what it’s worth Michigan is one of the great universities in the world, but getting admitted to an elite school (and add Stanford and Berkley here)is much more compliated than paying a tutor and getitng your parents to write an essay for you. I do appreciate your sponsroging this debate, however. It’s well worth talking about.

    P.S. The typos are because my computer is cutting off lines and I can’t read half of what I’m typing. Sorry.

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