Thursday, December 23, 2010

In response to NY Times article: "Is going to an Elite College Worth the Cost?"

I thought this was an unfortunate article on so many fronts. The title is perhaps the most regrettable. It takes a very individual decision and reduces the decision to questions of access to power and economic returns. I would have less problem with the article if it had been titled “Is going to a better college worth it” with some exploration as the meaning of better, including prestige, but also things like value added as National Survey of Student Engagement measures. The term Elite colleges conjures up exactly the notions the readers expect, colleges that rate highly in US Lists or that are the best known, most visibly the Ivy League, Duke, Georgetown, Standford, et. al. There is a review of mostly old information, such as Dale and Krueger’s study from 1999 and one compelling study that job satisfaction decreases slightly as selectivity increases. But outside of lip service at the very end of the article on how one takes advantage of what is offered is most important, the article is a repeat of the misconception that the quality of a college is necessarily connected to its reputation, its selectivity or its prestige. The prestige of a college is more often a function of its founding year, its graduate programs or its athletic accomplishments than what is offered at the college. My daughter attends Swarthmore College and it is worth every penny we spend on it. She needs what they offer and she is a different person for having gone there than she would be if she attended a larger or less intellectual school. There was a match between what she needed and what they offered. She has immersed herself in her education and her social world in an extraordinary way. She talks about ideas and has has developed her own view of history, politics, economics,. And yes, she now reads the NY Times. Does this make Swarthmore a better or more elite college because of this? No, It makes it a better place for her. My son, a high school senior who is just as bright and intellectual, would not thrive there. He probably would thrive anywhere, but that is the real problem with this college advising….kids often benefit and grow in surprising ways.

Perhaps the most distressing aspect of this article is that it feeds a phenomenon that has been growing since perhaps era of the first Wall Street movie, of viewing what is an education decision as an economic and instrumental one. In times of economic stress, people are naturally more likely to let immediate economic circumstances interfere with considering long term and less measurable benefits. This is as truly unfortunate in choosing a college as it is with choosing a mate.

I understand that newspaper articles and headlines are written to sell papers. In today’s world, an article which purports to tell us whether paying for an elite college is worth it unquestionably will sell papers. Whether it is productive or responsible is another question altogether.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Random thoughts

I just brought my daughter back to college and spent the day with her driving, unpacking, going to lunch, etc. I came away with some observations, nothing terribly stunning but interesting:

1) Despite all the political activism to save Darfur, getting colleges to divest in certain investments, etc., it seems the activism ends at inconvenience. The latest big issue is the boycott of Target and Best Buy for their political contribution to a far right candidate in Minnesota. When I asked my daughter whether she thought students would honor the boycott, she said no. "Yeah, and buy stuff like water bottles at the bookstore? They just rip you off. The students can just walk to Target and get it for half the price.
2) The irony of being connected is really striking me. My kids are always connected, BBMing, IMing, texting.....but are not really connected. They will always answer my texts, but rarely pick up the phone when I call, even though I know they always have their phones on them. In the middle of a conversation, the thumbs are moving replying to texts they get. My daughter told me how bad it was when her phone broke. She never knew what was going on and when and where people were meeting. It was like being grounded, not being able to participate in the information flow. I used to think it was great to stay so connected with so many people, but something recently made me think of this differently. I got a request for information from a parent who left her phone number but, at the end of the message, left her e-mail address. I was so relieved, because I really didn't want to talk to this person and I could just leave an e-mail. It hit me how electronic communication lacks any intimacy and is so non-threatening but also so distant.

Tuesday, April 06, 2010

Budgets and the Schools
As a supervisor at the high school (I am the Director of Guidance) and a
resident, tax payer and one who had three children go through the school system
(one still at Watchung School), I can see both sides of many of the points in
the discussions that are going on. There has been a great deal of posturing and
polemics. What has been absent is some real discussion of the costs of all
things that are being discussed. There is no solution to the present crisis
that does not have enormous cost, to the functioning of the schools, the lives
of the teachers, the burdens on the tax payers. Every possible solution has
costs, from reducing administrative costs, to getting rid of programs, to
reducing teacher pay and/or benefits, to cutting staff.

Many may be happy that we are reducing administrative staff, both in the schools
and in central administrative. But many of these staff do things that we do not
consider "extras". There are things that need to be done, from administering
staff benefits, to organizing tests, preparing state and federal reports,
preparing budgets, taking care of purchasing, etc. All the things that need to
be done with an school system of this size. But much of what administrators do
is respond to the needs and concerns of the community, by responding to issues,
phone calls, e-mails, etc. Many of the programs that are run are organized and
run by central administration staff. Many of the responses to issues that come
from members of the community are from those who are support staff in various
administrative positions.

The same is true of staffing. Cutting staff will eventually result in larger
class size or cuts in programs and services. Cutting pay and benefits will
eventually lead to an inability to attract and retain quality staff.

It sounds fine to cut administrative staff to some, until there is no one
available to respond to your specific issue or complaint. Or it is okay to cut
programs, until that is the program that made a difference in your child's life.
Or it is okay to cut pay and benefits for staff, until that teacher who could
make a difference a your child's life leaves the profession or moves to another
district. Cuts in non-teaching staff sound fine, until there are fewer nurses,
librarians, counselors, department supervisors, classroom aids, etc. when you
really need one. I will be seeing my pay frozen (incidentally after choosing to
return to Montclair with an already significantly lower salary than I previously
had), I will lose staff in the department I run, I will be taking on many new
administrative responsibilities. My child's elementary class size has been 27
for each of the past two years, my real estate taxes will go up over $500 and I
expect fewer
resources and programs will be available.

We will all be asked to do more with less and will see many programs and
services sacrificed. But like you, I have chosen to live in Montclair and made
the important decision to work here as well. When I first took this job in
1991, I called someone who knew schools and town across the US and asked whether
I should take the job. His response was "Take the job. You will not find
another place like it." I thought that the grass would be greener elsewhere,
but its not. This is a special place with a character all its own. There is a
soul to this town that I just have not seen elsewhere. It is vital that we see
this as a shared burden and sacrifice. The financial crises was going to hit
all towns across the nation, as tax receipts and federal support fell. And now
it has. And it may last for a long time. It is necessary to realize that there
is not blame here, just circumstances and not solutions, but compromises and
costs. We as members of this
town need to be prepared to work together to do more with less and share the
increased cost and sacrifice of the horrible financial situation hitting our
nation, our state and our town.

Quiet Day

I wrote to Scott Anderson about his post: " I had a similar queasiness about The Choice profiles. It turns this
things that seemed just one more part of life (back in the dark ages
when I applied to college) to this life or death obsession. Yes, it
details the angst, pity and tragedy that this has become, and sometimes
over-deserved glee, but at the cost of feeding the beast even more!" I got to thinking it is always about perspective. When I had individual counselees, I dreaded this time of year. Sure, it would be great when kids came bounding in when they got into their dream school. I was happy because they were happy, tempered by the knowledge that this would not, in retrospect to these young people, be as big a deal as it was at the time. But the sadness of those kids who did not get into their dream school really made me feel terrible. Though I knew they would be fine, I could see how they believed at the time that something truly horrifying had occurred. Now, some people have begun asking me about how are kids did, especially the kids applying to the most competitive colleges. I had to think for a second, then I thought, I didn't really know, and, for that matter, didn't really care. Sure, I have been asking around to see if there are kids who got
waitlisted or denied everywhere and have been fielding calls from parents of kids who only got into their safety school. I, maybe smugly, think about how so many of my students have had the best college experiences when they attended their safety schools. I had two kids who went to St. Lawrence and U. Rochester who were distraught at not getting into Colgate and Bowdoin yet became these colleges biggest cheerleaders. I guess its all about expectations, and I would bet that many more kids have their safety schools widely exceed their expectations than first choices meet them. There are also so many more things in my focus now, running our second on-site college event, this one with technical schools and employers, to make sure that seniors have something to do next year who have not applied (or shouldn't) to college. I am trying to figure out how to build a master schedule with no idea how many teachers we have to work with or how I can run the
department with fewer staff. I think about the staff member I had to tell we were letting go, thinking about how this person was going to pay his mortgage or take care of his young children. I realize that our department will be judged by how many kids got into mega-selective colleges, particular the Ivies. I always think the same thing whenever someone asks me how many of our kids were going to the Ivies: Its an ATHLETIC CONFERENCE! Rutgers was in the Ivy League, but left because the athletic competition wasn't strong enough for them (that decision probably didn't work out so well for them in a PR sense).

I never had an interest in looking at colleges that were high focus when I was applying to colleges. Sure, I applied to Georgetown, but that was well pre-Patrick Ewing, and only because my uncle (a rabbi) worked there. I had no interest in going into fields like the financial services industry where I felt the lable or the contacts really mattered to me. When I told people I was going to Swarthmore (that was pre-US News Rankings), I would always have to correct them when they would say, "wasn't that an all-girls' school. No, that was Skidmore, I'd be ready to apply. But as my wife is entering the most brutal job market for teachers (she was a high school dropout who, in her late 40's, got her GED and is student teaching now to get her social studies certification), I started thinking that the way jobs are going to be had are going to be had through contacts. Then it hit me: This whole college thing that is being profiled in The Choice with these
profiles, as I read them, is not about education, but about power. Harvard, the ultimate lable, is now admitting less than 7% of its applicants. In bad economic times, for many, the best match or education (not that Harvard does not provide the best educational environment for some) can take a back seat to what is perceived as providing the most future opportunities.

I also have been thinking about my daughter's experience, also at Swarthmore (you are free to have cynical thoughts about legacies here...). She was one of those who danced around at her admission, and I had to feel happy for her because she was so happy, thinking at the end, she'd be just as happy at Middlebury or Haverford or any of the other colleges to which she was already admitted. But every time I call her or see her now, she let's me know in one way or another, how much she feels that it is the perfect place for her. I've started to think about the cynicism I feel when students are crying with joy or sadness over college admissions, and realize it is really not a good thing. I don't know, and can't know, whether this elation or feeling of tragedy is about education or power (or proof of worth to the student or good parenting to the parent). It is probably all of these, in some way or another, to many students and parents.

Its the day between Good Friday and Easter, two of the holiest of days for Christians. But to a Jew like me, it is a quiet day that doesn't have the kind of meaning of Passover or Yom Kippur. But it is an extremely important day for many, many people. That's what makes it important to me. For some, it is about the reverence and meaning of the day, for others it is about finding Easter eggs, and for most Christians, a combination of both. I guess the point is that I cannot really ever ascertain why Easter or getting into Stanford is really important to someone, I need to just respect and appreciate that it is. I just feel that what I have been reading does exacerbate the meaning of this (college admissions) into a commodity rather than an experience, in the minds of many.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Correspondence, No comment needed:

To: Scott White
Subject: sorry to bother you, but ...

Does the email below — which my daughter ______________ received — seem to say that she has been accepted to _____, without actually saying it???

thanks for any insight you can give me.


Subject: Book your travel plans to NYC for April
Reply-To: admissions.ops@

Dear ________

Hello and greetings from _____ Undergraduate Admissions!

Last week we notified all freshman applicants of upcoming deadlines and event dates for our admissions process. Now, we write to you - and only a select group of applicants - again to remind you of our events for accepted students:

April 9-11: Events on campus for accepted students. These events are by invitation only, and RSVP instructions will be sent only to accepted applicants.

April 17-18: Events off-campus in 13 cities across the US for accepted students. These events are by invitation only, and RSVP instructions will be sent only to accepted applicants.

While your decision packet will not be mailed for another 2 weeks, it might be a good idea for you to start checking into travel plans to visit campus.

We'll be following up with more information for you as soon as our RSVP web site is open for event registration!

Me: Wow. That is one coy letter. There have always been these "likely" letters, but this really is a new tack. Interesting. It is not an "official" admissions, but a statement of what they intend to do. I would say admission is close to certain, but since this is new to me, I can only say what seems pretty obvious to me.

Scott White,
"If it's educationally sound, it's administratively feasible"