DURHAM, N.C. — Within a few months of joining the faculty at Duke University in 2021, I could spot them: the high school seniors, juniors and even sophomores on their pilgrimages to our verdant and coveted wonderland, with its Gothic Revival spires, ecstatic basketball fans and acceptance rate of 6 percent.
They stood out less for their youth than for their yearning. Sometimes they walked alongside parents every bit as rapt as they were. Sometimes they wandered alone, in a trance. Sometimes they showed up at my office door, not because they were looking for me but because they were looking around, and they liked to peek in on the professors in their path.
We were diamonds, rubies and sapphires in a Cartier display case.
Did they plan to study specifically with one of us? Was our institution particularly strong in the academic disciplines that interested them? Most of them couldn’t really tell me why they wanted Duke. They just knew that they should want it. It would validate them. It would impress their friends. Translation: It was highly ranked — currently tied for the 10th-best university in the country, ahead of half of the Ivy League, according to the justly embattled but perversely enduring bible for such matters, U.S. News & World Report.
To many anxious teenagers making what feels like the most important decision of their lives, that marker must mean something, so they let it mean almost everything. They come to believe that the luster of the institution they attend, as established by its ranking and its exclusivity, will not only define their place in the world but also determine their professional success and contentment. And they minimize other, better criteria for choosing a college.
That belief in the make-or-break stakes of highly selective schools informs the legal challenge to affirmative action that’s currently before the Supreme Court. The case was filed by students who maintain that the policy of considering an applicant’s race hurt their chances of admission. The court is expected to rule in June; a majority of justices seem poised to ban such consideration going forward.
None of this drama surprises me. For almost a decade now, I’ve been writing about and railing against the way in which so many Americans, especially affluent ones, approach the process of applying to colleges, which at some point over the past quarter century devolved into a scholastic version of “The Hunger Games.” I’ve lamented its toll on mental health. I’ve rued its emphasis on credentials over character and on a rigid, cautious script for education over an organic plot of genuine discovery. I’ve bemoaned its conflation of brand with worth.
But beyond all that, the process too often fails to do precisely what a new tool that Times Opinion is introducing today does: encourage college-bound students to pause, reflect deeply on what sort of experience they truly want, factor in what’s logistically and financially realistic for them and consider a list of colleges assembled along those lines, with fuzzy and subjective metrics like prestige eliminated from the equation.
Over recent decades, tuition at many public and private schools has risen much faster than inflation in general, to heights that have led millions of students to take on a magnitude of debt that dogs them and dictates their job decisions deep into their post-college lives. Still other students wonder whether college is even worth it in the end. The sticker price for tuition, room, board and required fees at some private schools is now over $80,000 per year.
Small wonder, then, that when The Times and Morning Consult surveyed 2,000 young people between the ages of 16 and 19 and another 2,000 between the ages of 22 and 30, those respondents rated the affordability of tuition and their likely earnings after graduation as the most important factors in the college experience — many times more important than, say, whether varsity sports are a major part of campus life or how small the size of a typical class is.
The Times’s interactive interface lets students see the colleges whose alumni tend, on average, to earn the highest incomes a decade or more after graduation.
A student body’s racial diversity, its economic diversity, its overall size and whether a school is in an urban, suburban or rural location: These attributes and more can be added to a search and weighted, to produce a menu of options that align with students’ specific preferences and, more to the point, their most closely held values. That’s only fitting: Where to attend college is a big decision, if not nearly as consequential as many young people believe, because college is a serious commitment of time and money. It shouldn’t be outsourced to U.S. News, Forbes or any other organization spitting out a one-size-fits-all hierarchy with a debatable methodology dictated by nameless, faceless number crunchers.
And maybe we’re inching toward the day when it won’t be. Since the publication of my book about all of this, “Where You Go Is Not Who You’ll Be: An Antidote to the College Admissions Mania,” in 2015, I’ve seen baby steps of progress, especially over the past year. In November, Yale and Harvard announced that their law schools would no longer participate in U.S. News rankings. Several similarly venerated law schools and several top-ranked medical schools followed suit. Then, last month, Colorado College pulled out of the U.S. News rankings of national colleges, though it had consistently landed in the top 30. In a statement explaining that decision, its president observed that the rankings are driven largely by the magnitude of an institution’s wealth and general, longstanding reputation. Both measures tend to be self-perpetuating. Neither tells students all that much about what their experience at a school will be like.
“I have a lot of hope that this is the turning point,” Angel Pérez, the chief executive officer for the National Association for College Admission Counseling, told me recently. Pérez has been working in the field of college admissions for decades — he was in charge of admissions at Trinity College in Hartford, Conn., for many years. He said that change is definitely in order, because too many students simply take the most obvious cues from the culture around them, latching onto national or regional brand names that seem vaguely dependable. During his travels around the country to talk with prospective college applicants, he has had students reflexively proclaim, “I want to go to Harvard!”
“And I’d say, ‘Where is Harvard located?’ They couldn’t tell me,” he recalled.
Of course, most high school students who want a college degree can’t and don’t harbor such ambitions. They need to go to college part-time, to choose public institutions within commuting distance from their parents’ homes, to select the cheapest option or to find a place that takes almost all comers, because they struggled through high school and emerged with unremarkable transcripts. Only a privileged minority of young people can even think about playing “The Hunger Games,” and many of them simply turn in whatever direction all the other contestants are headed.
Brian Casey, the president of Colgate University, marveled to me: “Our applications for admission, which hovered around 9,000 for many, many years, suddenly doubled to 17,500. Then they increased to over 21,000. We have to turn away students who want tours and we find ourselves looking at an admit rate of 10 percent. Has this deterred students from applying? No. We find interest growing even further. I am left wondering: Is Colgate more desirable because it is more desired?”
Well, yes. Higher education is a marketplace. And many of its consumers care more about how they can outwardly trade on their college degree than about how it will inwardly transform them. “I saw this firsthand during a lunch with first-year students that had just unpacked their bags the prior day,” David Schanzer, a fellow professor of public policy at Duke, wrote in December in his newsletter, Perilous Times. “I started the lunch conversation asking the students what they were most looking forward to about college and, I kid you not, one of them asked me what activities they should do to maximize their chances for admission to law school. When I answered that the best approach was to find something they loved doing and doing it well and that Duke didn’t have a pre-law program, the student’s response was, ‘Why not?’”
The Times’s tool is a helpful and necessary instrument for pushing back against such superficial judgments. As I instructed it to show me only schools in cities and suburbs, and then adjusted the degree of importance I wanted it to place on, say, “campus safety” or “party scene,” I watched the list of institutions change and then change again. And I was struck by a sense of possibility — by how much is out there and how frequently that’s overlooked.
I was conversely impressed by how well college-bound students could home in on a short list of schools truly tailored to their needs. The madness of the admission process and students’ sense of desperation would be lessened greatly if they simply weren’t applying to so many more schools than their predecessors did.
A few weeks ago, I reached out to students I’ve taught at Duke and asked them about the work and worry that propelled them here. Few had qualms with how everything turned out. Many had misgivings about the journey to this point.
Sophie Riegel, a psychology major who will graduate in May, said that no one could have convinced her younger self “that a brand-name school is overrated, that I’d be happy anywhere.” “In my mind,” she wrote in an email to me, “if I didn’t get into Duke, my life was over.” She finds that silly now. The way she described her college years, they have been less about some charmed environment than about the discrete challenges she took on and the specific skills she decided to hone. Duke was to some extent incidental in that. “Maybe it’s time people ask themselves why they are going to college,” she wrote. “Getting a degree is not equivalent to getting an education.”
Mia Meier, an interdisciplinary studies major also nearing the end of her time at Duke, expressed a similar puzzlement at the weight that she and her high school classmates attached to the names of the colleges they applied to. “I would tell a high school sophomore to find ways of building self-esteem outside of anchoring it to their college aspirations,” Meier wrote to me, adding that energy is better spent “participating in a community, serving others, or nurturing creativity and a sense wonder.”
As I read Riegel’s and Meier’s responses, I got an unsolicited email from one of those high school students who’d shown up at my office door. “I recently got deferred from Duke, however, it still remains my #1 choice,” he wrote. “I am still willing to do anything to get in.”
I replied: “I promise you that you’ll love other schools on your list, too.” But I knew, as I pressed send, how unlikely he was to believe that. Heedlessly, we’ve constructed a culture that gives him and his peers a different, crueler message, clouding the real purpose and promise of college — and sullying the joy of it.
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