Famed higher education writer and author of Colleges That Change Lives Loren Pope has passed away now, but his ideas regarding college admission are not only still widely circulated, but are also still incredibly relevant for those who are about to embark on the college search. One of my favorite ideas of his is this (please excuse me for paraphrasing):
“Choosing colleges based on the entering statistics of the freshmen class is like choosing a hospital based on the health of those in the ER—it’s the treatment that really matters; in the case of college, it’s what happens between the first year and graduation.”
Let’s stop and break this idea down, shall we?
Take a moment to envision an emergency room (whether you’ve seen one firsthand after you missed your distance and landed on the jump or whether you picture the one that George Clooney used to work in): everyone who winds up there is in bad shape. Broken arms, heart attacks, respiratory issues, deep cuts – no one goes to the ER because they’re perfectly healthy, so it wouldn’t be fair to judge the quality of care available at a particular hospital if you simply walked through the doors, looked around the waiting room, and said, “Everyone here looks awful! I wouldn’t send my friends or family here for treatment!”
Instead, if you want to know how good the treatment is at that hospital, you’d talk to former patients; you’d ask if they felt that their doctors were well-educated and competent (hopefully better than competent!), if the nurses did their jobs efficiently, if the insurance paperwork was filed correctly, and – most importantly – if former patients are fully recovered and able to resume their normal lives as a result of the care they received. If enough people tell you great things about the hospital, you could accumulate enough anecdotal evidence to form the opinion that the hospital does its job better than the other hospital across town about which you’ve heard a lot of negative stories – long waits to be treated, mis-diagnoses, insurance hang-ups, etc.
That’s a far more fair system of evaluation, right?
Now let’s apply the same idea to colleges:
Many, many colleges have become famous for high academic standards and names that are synonymous with higher education in our cultural lexicon – and these same colleges are often equally known for having such high standards for admission that only a lucky few are admitted to their student body each year. (I’m looking at you, Ivy League.) As a result, the majority of the news stories you read and hear have to do more with who is (and is not) getting in each year than what their classroom experiences are like, what activities students engage in, what opportunities are available for them in terms of research and internships, and what career and graduate school paths they’re able to follow when they’re finished with their degrees. And of course, students who gain admission to highly selective schools very often go on to do wonderful things with their careers and in their lives – but here’s the rub:
If those high-powered institutions only admit the very best high school students (and we know that they do because they have the low acceptance rates to prove it!), aren’t they basically take an already outstanding product and polishing it into something that’s still outstanding in the end?
Essentially, couldn’t these schools just as easily be in the business of not ruining great students? That isn’t necessarily the same thing as giving them an outstanding education. (Please note that I am not saying these schools aren’t educating students. I’m merely driving toward a point.)
What about students who started slow in high school? What about students who don’t engage with their learning until they get to the college level and find a subject that they’re really passionate about? Those students might wind up at a lesser known college (perhaps small and private, perhaps they’re in the masses at the introductory level at a large university, or perhaps at their local community college) and they might enter with a 2.0 (C) average from high school and mediocre test scores but emerge with perfect grades, stellar recommendations from faculty who observed and assisted with their transformations, great internships on their resumes, and be ready to go out and take the world by storm.
If that’s the case, then which school actually has the better level of care for its students? Which school facilitated a greater turnaround in the lives of their students?
To reiterate, I am not knocking the Ivy League or selective schools in general; I certainly think that there is a place for universities at that level in our country. But what I want you to understand about college admissions, readers, is that the end goal is not to receive an impressive acceptance letter from a selective college in your mailbox. It’s not about being one of the six percent of students who were accepted to Harvard this spring. It’s not even about grades, test scores, tree-lined campuses with great facilities and air-conditioned dorms, or varsity equestrian teams. (Sorry, coaches.) Instead, college admissions are about you going through the process of identifying a list of colleges and universities where you can go in as you are now (including with that bumbled semester of AP Biology and a poor showing on the ACT, if necessary) and emerge as someone who is better – better educated, better able to navigate the working world, better equipped to face the challenges of adulthood.
When you find the school that will give you that level of service, you’ll know that you’re in the right place.