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Keeping Perspective on Selective College Admissions

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Theresa, a dear friend whom I haven’t seen in ages, called me the other day.  We talked for a long time.  Her son is a sophomore in high school.  As his doting mother, Theresa is in a lather about his prospects for college admission.

As we hadn’t spoken in quite a while, Theresa asked me about my philosophy about college admissions.  She wanted to know what I thought were the quality colleges.

Theresa is an educator at a major state university.  I asked her what good education looks like, in her professional opinion.  She responded, predictably, that good education is all about what happens in the classroom between a well-prepared, knowledgeable, caring, and enthusiastic instructor and the willing, capable, and hard-working student.

Moral of the story:  education is not about an institution.  It is a process that occurs between teachers and students, primarily.  It is about learning, not about prestige.

The sad fact is that many of the most prestigious, Gotta-Get-In colleges do not deliver the best quality education—based on this bare-bones definition.  They deliver a lot of atmospherics and ivy and Nobel Prize winners and fantastic facilities (for graduate students, anyway).  But what happens in the classroom is not necessarily the priority of every Gotta-Got-In institution.

Theresa and I bandied these ideas around for quite some time, and we shared some interesting personal insights about our own educational experiences…both as students and as teachers.

A few hours after we hung up the phone, I came across an article written by Gregg Easterbrook, a writer for the Atlantic Monthly who has been a fellow at the Brookings Institution.  He wrote an article for Brookings in 2004, entitled “Who Needs Harvard?

I recommend it to my readers who want a glimpse of how I think about prestige and the Gotta-Get-In colleges.  I don’t think Harvard and the rest of the top 25 most selective colleges are all bad:  I attended one and taught at another, and I’m proud of my associations with both.  Furthermore, several of the top 25 are truly outstanding—places I might be delighted to see my kids or my nieces and nephews attend.

What I decry is the notion that entry into the top 25 becomes a life-or-death pursuit for many kids—and their parents.  We all must keep things in their proper perspective:  an excellent education can be had a literally hundreds of institutions around the country.

And the quality of a student’s education has much more to do with the initiative, intelligence, and focus of the student than with the quality of the institution she attends.

Mark Montgomery
Educational Consultant



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