College Education Concerns in the 21st Century
(c) M. Ryder
The high school seniors trudge up my front steps, carrying résumés and wearing uneasy smiles.
They are deferential, even desperate. My children refer to them simply as "the applicants."
I think of them as the supplicants. They hope to wow me with their
If they can just give the right answers for 30 minutes in my living room, they figure, they'll be much closer to prying open the gates to the
I'm a volunteer interviewer for my alma mater,
I realize something that's even tougher to convey to these hopeful students: I have hardly
any sway on campus. In the 2½ decades since I earned my B.A. and left College Hill, I've barely donated enough money to buy a magazine subscription for the
Sometimes I taunt my visitors.
"How much would your parents pay," I'll ask, "if I could guarantee you admission?" Or: "If you're so smart, give me an example of chromaticism and contrapuntal texture in a
Blessing in disguise.
OK, I don't actually ask those questions -- I just think them. Because the fact is, I've come to see the admissions process as a game whose stakes really are not that high. While screening these applicants for the past couple of years, I was writing a book about the college quest. I became convinced that rejection is frequently a blessing. It's a secret I don't share with teenagers, who are too young to understand.
Two years ago, I wrote a wildly enthusiastic recommendation for a track star and AP whiz who was the son of the local hardware store owner.
I used to see myself as a gatekeeper. These days, I feel more like a personal coach. I try to prepare these would-be engineers and doctors and diplomats for the irrational admissions process. I find that I like most of them tremendously. While I want them to receive an E-mail that starts with the word Congratulations, I need to bolster them in case it begins, "I regret to inform you . . . "
I know about rejection letters. When I was 17, I simply had to go to
Yet that's not the end of the story. My best education had nothing to do with a bunch of self-important schools in the Northeast. When I was in my 20s, I took a leave from my job and spent several months living with a family in Bogotá,
And so whenever I walk the applicants out of my door, I wish them good luck with the college search. What I mean is: "It's not the name on those gates that matters. It's how you take advantage of your education . . . and I bet your education will barely begin by age 21."
That remains my little secret. Of course, it hasn't stopped me from taking my own children on frequent tours of College Hill.
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(c) 2009 U.S. News & World Report