Tuesday, November 22, 2011

The College Search

Knowledge is good.
My wife and I took our son Jack to have a look at the University of Georgia last weekend.  It was our first stop in what is sure to be an exhaustively thorough search for the perfect school for our first-born child.  As with everything pertaining to his life so far, we go overboard. 

We never took our eyes off Jack when he was little, just to guard against the possibility that as a two-year old he might steal our car keys and drive into a pond or that he might disable the childproof lock on the cabinet under the sink and eat a whole box of Calgon. Since everything is a new experience with your first-born, hovering (or helicoptering) is how we parent. By the time you get to your third child, you most likely have relaxed your standards considerably.  My ten-year-old son Alex?  I regularly have him drive to the store to buy groceries and beer. 

So anyway, Jack, Shannon, and I are all experiencing the college search for the first time.  Things sure have changed a lot since I performed this ritual thirty years ago, that's all I can say.  I think I applied to six schools and visited none.  I could not begin to tell you by what criteria I chose the schools I ultimately applied to, either.  I may have met with my school's college counselor for an hour or two, at most.  Perhaps he/she supplied me with a list of names that matched the academic record I had patched together.  I have no idea. 

By virtue of the fact that I was a Virginia resident and had familial connections to the University of Virginia, I ended up there, at the school that had always been my first choice.  Had Virginia turned me away, I would have matriculated to some other school having never visited it or having made anything more than a cursory attempt to learn anything about it.  My mother was never going to drive me all over the place trying to help me find the best place for me, so I never even suggested it.  Maybe other parents did that back in the early 80s, but I do not think my experience was abnormal. It just wasn't as competitive or complicated then as it is now.

That's me.  Think there was any doubt as to where I was going to college?
There now exists an entire industry dedicated to this process.  College coaches, test prep, advance visits... it goes on and on.  Perhaps it was the advent of what is known as the "Common Application" that is responsible for the complexity that now characterizes what was once a pretty straightforward process. Ironically, what was intended to streamline the process has in fact made it infinitely more complicated.

At one time each school had its own application, with unique requests for information.  Given the laborious nature of the application process, students limited themselves to a manageable number of applications.  Most schools now accept that Common App, greatly reducing the amount of work that must go into the application process. The unintended consequence is that this streamlining has made it easier for seniors now to apply to many more schools and it is this explosion in the number of applications that has made the entire process much more stressful.  It is not uncommon for seniors today to apply to 15-20 schools.  With schools receiving so many more applications than they did a generation ago, they have become more selective and, as a result, more expensive  Scarcity and cost go hand in hand. 

Colleges and universities have used this perceived scarcity to their economic advantage.  Tuition costs continue to defy reason, rising 6-8% per year every year despite a twenty-five year stagnation in wages.  Some are calling college costs the next great bubble, but people have been predicting that college costs cannot keep going up for as long as I can remember.  $50,000 per year for college?  Really?

So, it is against this backdrop that we have joined the fray.  Shannon and I agree that the whole process is absurd, yet we feel compelled to play the game.  Some of the blame can be attributed to the competitive nature of parenting.  In trying to make sure that we give our children every conceivable advantage, we have gone around the bend.  We have bought into the myth that acceptance into the "right" schools can ease the road that our children will later trod and so we exhaust ourselves and our children in trying to position them as attractive applicants.

Ironically, studies show that any earnings advantage that the graduate of a prestigious school may have upon entering the workforce disappears by the fifth year.  An Ivy League graduate may have an initial advantage over the Podunk U. graduate, but that Ivy Leaguer must display his/her aptitude if he/she wants to maintain the earnings advantage that the Ivy League diploma accorded him/her. Talent will always trump potential.

Perhaps the most nonsensical aspect of this whole exercise is of trying to find the "best fit" for your child.  Try this.  Ask ten people if they enjoyed their college experience.  Unless you happen to query someone who was denied admisson to the school of their dreams, the answer you will get is that college was great and that they have no regrets about the choice they ended up making.  The question is an entirely subjective one yet we try to use quantitative analysis to predictively answer it.  Since most people attend only one college, they have no frame of reference with which to second guess themselves.  How could I know if Vanderbilt would have been a better choice for me than Virginia?  Even if I could answer that question, it would only be with the benefit of hindsight.  I certainly couldn't say beforehand with any certainty that I would like Virginia better than Vanderbilt, but that's what we are attempting to do with our children. It's a fruitless exercise. I chose Virginia because I hoped it would be the best place for me. Thankfully, nothing in my experience there did anything to change that opinion. That's the way it probably will be with your child. They will be happy wherever they end up. Sure, we can steer our kids away from small single-sex schools if they tell us of a preference for a large, coeducational one, but our parents could too and they didn't need $3000 college coaches, test prep tutors, and on site visits to be able to offer that insight.  Our kids will end up where they end up.  If they have special talent, it will not go unrecognized in the workplace.  Now, if you will excuse me I need to go make a million dollars so that I can afford to send my three kids to college.