De-escalating the Hype Around Elite Colleges

In pursuit of some ideas for stories recently, I began to peruse trend data issued by Pew Research, as I often do, to see if the data pointed the way to possible interesting topics. I was struck by a disturbing new statistic that the organization revealed: 61% of teens surveyed say they feel much pressure to get good grades. These pressures fuel a significant amount of unhealthy anxiety that teens experience. I initially pitched a story to The New York Times that would present some proactive ways to address this problem: providing guidance for parents on ways to de-stress the academic environment at home, to send the message that a child’s worth isn’t tied to their grades or test scores. My editor there steered me toward another subject she wanted to explore that I thought was interesting as well: a new paid Facebook group that provided the opportunity for parents to ask advice on college admissions and affordability directly to a panel of esteemed experts. She saw merit in trying to provide guidance to parents on how to find the best resources for navigating the complex college admissions process.

I was a week into reporting the story, appreciating a leisurely deadline, when the college admissions scandal broke. Suddenly, this piece became more urgent and I needed to quickly turn around this article that ran today. We decided to redirect the focus of the piece on what the average income person could do to avail themselves of resources that didn’t break the bank.

The not-rich are those who are most angry about the development that indicated money and privilege can buy admissions to the most elite colleges. But it seems worthwhile to take a pause to consider what the fuss is all about. Why do so many parents seem to care so much about getting their kid into the highest ranking schools? I find it astonishing that parents not only paid astronomical sums to get their kids into top colleges illegally, but that many drop hundreds of thousands of dollars through legal means. Since my children entered college, I have been shocked and dismayed at the value parents place on admission into a highly competitive school and how much they and students will invest — often borrowing vast sums of money that will take years to repay — to do so. I’m the parent of young adults who have attended both public and private schools and am a journalism instructor at my Alma mater, the University of Michigan. I’ve learned that college is what you make it and that you can easily succeed without attending an elite institution. I have consistently seen hard working students hustle to get internships and juggle paying for college with academics become shining stars in the professional world once they graduate.

But private schools continue to capitalize on the value that so many wealthy parents continue to place on their schools, relentlessly raising tuition. Duke University, where my daughter is a senior, did it again. Next year the cost will be $73,000 a year. Duke has plenty of company in its Ivy League colleagues, which now have similar price tags. Despite the skyrocketing tuition costs, these colleges continue to see an increase in the number of applicants. Undaunted, they’re the fortunate beneficiary of the college admissions hysteria machine. I continue to wonder what the tipping point will be for the many middle income families who are eager to give their children the benefit of this type of education. Will it be $80,000? $100,000?

Just as students shouldn’t be defined by their academic record and test scores in high school, parents shouldn’t equate their value with the type of school that admits them. You are not where you go to college. An elite college education is not a guaranteed golden ticket to success or happiness. If more parents realized that, perhaps it could help take the anxiety down a notch that students are feeling in high school. Parents may feel less compelled to put so much money toward getting them in to the most competitive — and pricey — schools. And they may find their children do just fine regardless of the college they attend. Then maybe fewer applicants will flock to the elite, pricey schools; these schools may finally feel the pinch and stop raising tuition. Of course, that’s just a pipe dream. But even if a version of this change in mindset comes to fruition, it could insert some much needed sanity into the process, benefiting both parents and students.


What’s Better, Public or Private School? The Answer: Both

When the Atlantic’s education editor asked me to pursue an article focused on private vs. public education systems, I didn’t hesitate. The assignment was intriguing. The Atlantic was launching a series called, “Moonshots,” where editors posted hypothetical questions that journalists would investigate. My article must answer the questions: What if all students were required to attend public school? And the contrary: What if all students were required to attend private school? The idea was to facilitate a conversation that would lead to insights on what makes for the best educational experience. I spent much of August researching the issue, speaking with leading educational experts, those working for both liberal and conservative think tanks, teachers, parents and students. The result was this article.  

As the child of a public school teacher — my mother taught high school English in the Detroit Public Schools for 35 years — and as the sister of a middle school language arts public school teacher, I admit that I had some preconceived assumptions about private schools: that they catered to elite, affluent, mostly white students. But in the course of speaking to those on every part of the education spectrum, I learned that private schools are often more diverse than their surrounding public schools. Wealthy school districts are usually equated with pricey real estate that only the affluent can afford. This means that these districts are often have far less socioeconomic diversity than in private schools, where the school has the ability to ensure a diverse population of students. That’s not to say that private schools are perfect. Administrators can be far more selective and potentially discriminatory; they may not take in those with disabilities or other special needs. Large public schools turn away no one. And they’re often are able to offer a vastly more comprehensive curriculum, as well as a plethora of extracurricular activities.

What I took away from this fascinating exploration of our education institutions is that, in pitting private schools and charter “schools of choice” against public schools, we haven’t taken the time to focus on what each has to offer to students. Each system has its drawbacks. But if we would consider more the strengths of each type of learning environment, we could learn a lot about how to improve today’s systems — ultimately creating a far stronger educational system for our students.