The ordeal is over; my niece has chosen Tulane. A buddy in Wisconsin has a daughter, and she’s headed to Washington University. Another friend lives in Chicago, but he’s in Boston this week accompanying a daughter on campus tours. For him, the application season has just begun.
I see people like him at Emory every week on the quad, parents and high schoolers in stride with a backpedalling guide. You can pick out the fathers on their third stop on the itinerary. They have a forbearing look on their faces. They’re not used to being so peripheral. They may remember their own journey to college and think, “I never went through anything like this.”
Mine lasted fifteen minutes. I took the SAT the preceding spring in Maryland, which involved no more than selecting a time, paying a fee, and bringing a #2 pencil. My father and I moved that summer of ’76 to Del Mar, California, a beach town north of La Jolla, and I had enrolled in Torrey Pines High School for senior year.
The application itself was simple. One day at lunchtime, I knocked on the counselor’s door and stepped inside. She glanced up and waved me to a chair.
“I need to apply for college,” I said.
“Okay, where do you want to go?” No discussion about college in general or my aims in particular. She didn’t know me at all, and I didn’t expect her to. I gave an answer as curt as her question.
“One of the UC schools.”
That was never in doubt. A public school kid with a decent record knew that a spot at Berkeley or Irvine or somewhere was waiting. Tuition was only $500 per year. But it wasn’t just the bargain that mattered. We believed in the institution. I watched UCLA basketball that winter and looked forward to joining the crowd. When my twin brother arrived in the middle of the school year, we would run over to UCSD two miles away to play tennis. My father, who attended Berkeley, talked about all the Nobel Prize winners on the faculty. We didn’t have to tour any of them; no one had to sell us on the “fit.” The destination was set. Or almost . . .
“Which one?” she asked.
“What?” She drew out a one-page form and pointed to three blank slots.
“You apply to the whole system, but rank your top three.”
I paused. “Uhh . . . Berkeley, UCLA, and Davis.” She wrote them down, but I changed my mind. “No, put UCLA on top.”
“Okay,” she said with a sigh. “And you’ve taken the SAT?”
“Alright, we’ll get those scores—just fill out the rest of this with your personal information.” I left in time to catch some lunch before classes resumed. I don’t think I gave the application another thought until an acceptance letter arrived a month later.
When I describe that experience to high-achieving students today, it seems to come from another universe. To have been so casual about so fateful an outcome as college admissions seems nothing short of crazy.
“How many AP courses did you have to take?” they ask. Answer: There were no AP courses in my high school.
“What did you write on your personal essay?” I didn’t write one.
“For how long did you study for the SAT?” Nobody I knew did any test prep, and it never occurred to me.
“What extracurriculars—music, sports, volunteering, prizes, science fairs . . .?” None. Working at Kentucky Fried Chicken on the Rockville Pike wouldn’t count.
Back in 1977, you see, UCLA took students with good grades and scores, that’s all, and students went there because, well, that’s just where you went. It wanted little information from me, and I needed no more information about it.
Today, college admission for high achievers is a hazardous process. Selective colleges turn it into an exquisite filtering operation. They set benchmarks for grades and scores, then probe the applicants’ deepest feelings (in the personal essay), social virtues (volunteering, etc.), and how the applicant will enhance campus diversity. Eighteen-year-olds are scrutinized like racehorses at auction with some selected and others found wanting.
For their part, applicants visit campus and get a feel for the place. They check official sources (Princeton Review, Fiske Guide) and unofficial ones (College Confidential, Yik Yak). My brother and I assumed UCLA had plans for us. Once we arrived and got a few terms of exposure, those plans would materialize within the institution’s framework. But the twenty-first-century achiever has his own plan that is more or less independent of the school he attends. The only question is whether the chosen school will serve it well. He, too, is weighing and comparing as a buyer of an educational credential. Neither party has much faith in the other.
In this sense, college is a focal point for a mistrust common among millennials. In a 2014 survey, Pew Research asked them, “Generally speaking, would you say that most people can be trusted or that you can’t be too careful in dealing with people?” Only 19 percent fell on the trust side, a rate far lower than older generations (boomers were at 40 percent).
You can see how much the caveat emptor attitude prevails by consulting the College Scorecard. It’s a project of the Obama administration that collects information about schools across the country and ranks them accordingly. Today, March 4, the scorecard tallies 4,247 schools. People can visit the site, enter their preferences (location, size, programs, and degrees), and make choices.
The results sort the schools by five categories, including size and graduation rate and “salary after attending,” which records how much money people earn ten years after enrolling in the school. The income figure adds a cold datum to the exuberant materials applicants have in hand. The University of Colorado admissions page has lovely photos of campus and the Rocky Mountains looming behind it, uplifting words about undergraduate life—“adventure, prosperity”—and pledges of excellence. But the Scorecard shows that the income of Colorado alums is only a couple thousand dollars more than what alums of Arizona and Arizona State make, a thousand dollars less than Utah salaries, and well behind Texas and Texas A&M, and they cost only half of what Colorado charges.
The Scorecard allows for quick and easy comparison shopping. “If I go here,” applicants learn, “I can expect this income at age thirty. If I go here . . .” People want to know what a college can do for them after graduation. And that means paycheck. As President Obama put it in his 2013 State of the Union Address, the tool shows “where you can get the most bang for your educational buck.”
MIT tops the list of non-medical schools at $91,600, soundly beating Cal Tech ($74,000), while Harvard ($87,200) crushes Yale by twenty-one grand and Princeton by twelve. Poor little Hampshire College in Amherst, Massachusetts, comes in near the bottom, with graduates making only $30,800 per year after paying an average tuition of $32,520. That ranking led Hampshire President Jonathan Lash to write a rebuttal in Time magazine entitled “College Isn’t Just about Money.” The College Scorecard values “making the most money as quickly as possible,” he said, but “ranking colleges by alumni earnings penalizes colleges for alums who choose public service, the arts, nonprofits, education, social science, and graduate school.”
It’s easy to criticize the scorecard for its mercenary focus. But young people (and parents) fix on after-graduation salary less because of greed than insecurity. If applicants trusted educational institutions, they wouldn’t care so much about a statistic as remote as is the income of alums at age twenty-nine. But in the last American Freshman Survey, 67 percent agreed that “the chief benefit of a college education is that it increases one’s earning power”—not one benefit; the chief benefit. For years they have heard college spoken of in terms of investment, opportunity, and success, with a therapeutic spicing of potential and fulfillment. On the College Scorecard home page, the very first item of information says, “On average, college graduates earn $1 million more over their lifetimes than high school graduates.”
This relentless emphasis on costs and risks is a sign of the times. When parties don’t trust one another, they need a concrete yardstick to ensure that the contract holds. A moral sense, skill in inquiry and logic, humanitas . . . they won’t do. Money, not knowledge or character, happiness or piety, is the trustworthy measure in any marketplace, which is what college admissions has become.
Young people live in a society of guardedness. It casts life as potentially rewarding but ever perilous. My generation assumed that going to a respected university would set us on a path toward maturity and prosperity. The system would take care of us.
My son’s generation doesn’t have that trust. They’re never certain of where they stand in any institution’s eyes. In the last year, college students invaded the offices of the president, hounded deans out of office, and denounced their professors. Their demands for “safe space” have been roundly mocked in the national press. Beneath their overdone indignation, however, the mistrust of institutions simmers. And if administrators and professors have responded with cowering conciliation, it may be because they know that, on this matter, the students are right. After all, the gauntlet students run just to get in tells them that the institution doesn’t trust them, either.
Mark Bauerlein is a senior editor at First Things.