Another Silly Season

Another silly season is upon us.  I’m not referring to fall television or professional football although both could qualify. Rather, I’m thinking of the college application cycle.

This process begins before senior year as high school students and their parents worry about semester grades and extracurricular activities. As senior year starts, they stress over GPAs and ACTs and consider possible schools and meet with college recruiters and schedule campus tours, and then they complete applications for early or regular admissions and await responses from first and second choices and backup schools.

Meanwhile, they submit financial aid information and research scholarships. They eventually must decide where to spend what for these students could be their most formative years and for their parents could be their most substantial investment.

This experience affects a growing number of students and their parents. More than 6 in 10 high school graduates, according to the most recent results from the U.S. Department of Education, attended college in 2010, and the 2010 college enrollment was 21 million students, which is higher than previous years and expected to increase 15 percent by 2020.

Many automatically assume they should apply to the most selective schools. Some, such as Michelle Obama, have cited concerns about undermatching, or instances in which students, for whatever reasons, select less challenging institutions than ones, given their accomplishments and abilities, they could have attended.

So many pressures shape this process — what are students and their parents to do?


Perhaps I don’t understand the process. As the oldest of seven, I had no one to emulate or consult, and I was even unsure about college until just weeks before my first semester started.

In fact, I had been offered, having completed the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery, the option of attending language school — weeks of living in a fabricated Russian town, I was told, where I’d use the language all day every day — and then working in military intelligence. However, I decided, in the end, to explore college.

My experiences must have been sufficiently satisfying because I’ve continuously been on college campuses, in one way or another, for more than twenty-five years. Others might mark time with holidays, for example, or birthdays, but I organize my days with mid-term exams and final grades deadlines and those blessed, blessed breaks.

Although I occasionally wonder about life beyond the academy, I know that an academic life has, at least so far, been a good one. At the same time, I realize that this life has largely been happenstance. I attended nearby state schools because they were available, accessible, and affordable.

Nonetheless, I’m unsure if a more systematic process would have been any better. Having changed my undergraduate major from and to English more times than I care to admit, I was uncertain about narrowing my interests although I was confident that I could study English in graduate school, which I did after being accepted into philosophy programs across the country and attended my first grad class in a different disciplinary program.

In fact, I never deliberately decided to attend graduate school as much as I just wanted to continue taking classes. As a result, I reluctantly completed the GRE General Test — I never felt dumber than I did as I exited the exam room — and refused to take the GRE Subject Test, which restricted the programs to which I could apply. I finally settled on a doctoral program at yet another state school because it didn’t require an additional entrance exam and offered a slightly higher assistantship stipend.

Still, this road less traveled, I believe, has made at least some difference.


Although many students and their parents often aspire to the most prestigious schools, many students struggle at these more selective schools, which makes them mixed experiences for everyone except the very best.

This unexpected outcome is the focus of an entire chapter in Malcolm Gladwell’s (2013) new book David and Goliath. In this chapter, Gladwell explores the effects of relative deprivation, or the tendency to compare ourselves only to those around us that is reportedly called the “Big Fish Little Pond Effect” in education (77-86).

This counterintuitive outcome could account for employment as well. Gladwell reports that good students from more selective schools, for instance, might be no more successful, at least in terms of professional accomplishments, than the best students from less selective schools (86-91).

In other words, students could benefit from networking opportunities as a result of wealthier classmates or job market advantages as a result of more prestigious degrees. At the same time, all but the very best can be so demoralized by sitting alongside these same students or attending these same schools that they change their majors or even withdraw from school, and those who persist might be no more successful than some of their peers at less selective schools.

In addition, these more selective schools don’t necessarily produce individual economic benefits:

Admission Information, Tuition Costs, and Starting Salaries from Selected Illinois Universities

ACT composite (25th/75th)

acceptance (%)

tuition ($)

median starting salary ($)






U of Chicago















source: College Measures (2013)

These data, which were compiled by a partnership of the American Institutes for Research and Matrix Knowledge to improve education, suggest that the more selective schools don’t consistently produce students who earn substantially more than less selective ones despite substantially higher costs.


Despite these challenges and costs, some parents and their students still prefer the social prestige of the more selective schools, which in some cases is understandable. Many students succeed at more selective institutions in spite, or perhaps as a result, of these challenges and costs. Moreover, what you know is only so useful, and whom you know might be even more so.

The rest of us should consider another approach to the college application process. A better approach, I maintain, is one that considers the purpose of postsecondary education, as well as personal philosophies for living good lives.

Although arguments about the purpose of a college education abound, one of the more current, and compelling, is offered by Diane Ravitch (2013), who in her book about the problems of privatizing education rejects an economic investment perspective. Rather, she insists that a college education should be an opportunity for encountering new ideas, developing knowledge, engaging with the arts, and cultivating insights into and understandings of the world, which constitutes a social investment (89).

Given these, students and their parents should strongly consider public universities, which accept more students and cost less. As a result, these schools tend to be more ethnically and economically diverse, which means that students, freed from the worst of relative deprivation, emerge with richer experiences without compromising educational and economic effects.

And one of the biggest benefits begins with the start of the silly season.


Gladwell, Malcolm. 2013. David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants. New York: Little, Brown and Company.

Ravitch, Diane. 2013. Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America’s Public Schools. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

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