As a college president, I dread this time of year. It is a time when acquaintances who haven't bothered to write for years call and ask about my sons (I have daughters) and my love for chili (long banned, cholesterol). Their true reason for phoning, however, is to promote their offspring, neighbor or student who has applied for admission to the college I head.
At a time when most high school graduates cannot do simple math or identify James Madison, the 100,000 students who aspire to one of the eight dozen selective colleges or universities are madly burnishing their persona for their applications or interviews. They are egged on by hustling colleges, professionally ambitious secondary school educators, overweening parents and a veritable industry of groomers and handlers who prey on the insecurities of all. Together, they create an atmosphere injurious to education.That universities and colleges bear responsibility for this is clear. For every school that honestly tries to identify those students who could benefit from studying there, there are five that measure success (and justify tuition increases) by the percentage of supplicants they reject. Like snake-oil salesmen of old, such colleges make exaggerated claims and advertise the miracle cures worked by their programs. Some misuse college board scores. Others - Oberlin is no exception - boast grandly of their high ranking on pseudo-scientific polls that are little more than beauty contests. Rare is the school that does not use scholarship money to buy students.
None of this would be possible with out the full complicity of parents. Ignoring other values, busy professionals and other absentee parents find it convenient to measure their success in child-rearing by the prestige value of the schools to which their offspring are admitted.
Few have totaled up the human cost of this nonsense, which encourages young people to equate their self-worth with grades and test scores. Inner-directedness becomes a means, not an end, and failure becomes the ultimate disgrace, rather than a learning experience. Risk-taking and experimentation come to be viewed as errors in sound planning. Worse, service to fellow human beings is reduced to an other "outside activity" to be listed on an application form. Because they cannot be measured, moral and spiritual development count for little.
This college frenzy says exactly the wrong thing about the nature of education. It shifts the locus of responsibility from the individual to the institution. Only later do students at elite colleges discover that some of the wisest and most deeply educated people graduated from schools they never heard of, and that selective institutions produce their share of uneducated boors.
The college frenzy is all the more sad because it is unnecessary. Thanks to the rapid expansion of higher education, there has been a vast decentralization of professorial talent. In no country are there more gifted teacher-scholars teaching at more diverse and far-flung universities and colleges than in the United States. Nowhere is there a greater likelihood that anyone desiring a superior college education can get one. If this were better known, the hysteria over admission to a few dozen schools might at least moderate.
The college frenzy is a great disservice to our young people. Some critics have claimed that the rising generation is part of the problem because it is devoted to little more than advancing careers and making money. However, daily contact with the 2,800 students at Oberlin convinces me that this is nonsense. These young men and women are for the most part very hard-working, remarkably balanced and impelled by instincts that are no less generous because they are quietly stated.
Such people, and millions like them around the country, do not need the stamp of institutional prestige to become leaders and contributors to society. What they do need - urgently - is the firm knowledge that their education and growth as human beings depends on themselves alone.