Last week my son received his final rejection. He applied to four universities for admission in next year’s freshman class, three private schools of moderate-to-high prestige and one public university, the one I teach at. Two of the three private universities rejected him outright, and one wait listed him. This is a kid with combined SAT scores of 1500, a National Merit Finalist; he recently took first place in the statewide Advanced Calculus competition held by Mu Alpha Theta. He isn’t much of a joiner or a club guy, but has an impressive track record of church mission trips to places like Gentilly (next door to the Ninth Ward in New Orleans) and Belize.
In the wake of these rejections, my wife and I were much more outwardly dejected than Jack was. (He’s not an especially demonstrative kid, but it was clear he was disappointed, although not crushed.) We listed (and re-listed) all the reasons we could imagine for these rejections, which, frankly, we had not expected:
(1) He doesn’t have enough extra-curricular activities on his résumé. We haven’t pushed him to join a sports team or anything like that; after scholastic results like his we feel that (even though the exercise would be good for him) if he wants to kick back and spend his leisure time on the Internet hobnobbing with friends, or slaying evildoers on his Wii, that’s his right. So one “qualifications” he presumably lacks is extroversion. Cripes, the kid wants to major in engineering.
(2) He insisted on filling out the online applications himself, without letting us look them over before sending. Maybe he sold himself short in his essays? Other missing qualifications: Self importance? Excessive dependence on his parents?
(3) His parents, while solvent, employed homeowners, have a less than stellar credit rating. We had some bad luck and made some lousy decisions a while back and filed for bankruptcy several years ago. This hasn’t kept us from being able to keep our house, which will be paid off at roughly the same time that our eighth-grade daughter finishes college, finance two cars when the older ones we drove died sequentially, loads of orthodontic work on both kids and my wife, etc. But maybe it makes us bad credit risks to the universities? You can imagine the self-recriminations that this has caused us. Is having parents with a certain credit score one of the requirements for admission to these schools?
(4) We’re in one of those in between brackets where we would need significant amounts of financial aid to be able to afford the tuition the private schools charge. I’ve heard recently in the N. Y. Times, the Chronicle of Higher Education and elsewhere that universities are actually allocating more financial aid resources to recruiting kids from higher tax brackets, because their parents will cost them less overall, and will probably be more generous donors. So one of the “qualifications” that Jack is alleged to lack is well-to-do-parents.
(5) As a young man who expressed interest in math, the sciences, and engineering, he’d be competing in what I would assume are fields filled with males and short on female applicants. So are there simply too many male 18-year-olds who want to be scientists, mathematicians, and engineers?
(6) Geography—Are students from Louisiana seen as backward Third Worlders who are unable to compete with their peers in other states? (We create this impression by the way our schools churn out functional illiterates in large numbers. Our contempt for education is well known and rooted in racism, backwardness, and a stubborn desire to shoot ourselves in the foot, since dammit it’s our gun and our foot.)
We’re trying to get some perspective on the whole thing. While I remain unconvinced that students like my son grow on trees, and that he got judged not on his own merits, but on the basis of some other calculus that reflects not at all well on the universities in question, the silver lining is that he qualified for the top-level tuition grant offered by our state. A decade or more ago, in an effort to reverse the brain drain afflicting our fine state, the legislature decided to grant free tuition to any state resident who had a certain (quite modest) combination of ACT scores and class ranking. Admission to the research university I teach at is slightly more selective than to the other public universities in the state.
In any event, Jack has a free ride for tuition and fees, even garnering an extra grant for his National Merit status. The college savings fund we’ve been paying into for him would have paid for half of one semester at any of the schools that rejected him; now we can use it to pay for his room and board at one of the residence colleges the University has set up as an alternative to either conventional dorm living or the frat system. He just attended a three-day early orientation program at the university that introduced him to the curriculum he’s chosen (for now he’s going with electrical and computer engineering, a very strong program here), gave him a chance to explore the campus from a perspective different from the one he’s had over the past fifteen years as a faculty brat, and gave him first pick at his first semester courses. He took some placement tests which, combined with the AP scores he earned as a junior, allow him to place out of almost an entire year of prerequisites and General Education courses (which are also called distribution requirements in some places). When he takes this year’s batch of AP exams he’ll probably place out of still more.
He’s quite excited, in his usually stoic way, at being able to look at the entire engineering curriculum and seeing what he’ll be learning over the next four years—things that he’s never even heard of in high school, like signal processing. And if he decides to pursue his first love, math, or explore a scientific field, he can do that as well. Or become an English major and develop his aptitude for writing, which is quite good (as much as he hates to admit it or even let anyone know about it). It’s a large, comprehensive research school with more departments and programs than any of the schools that wouldn’t take him; he has four years to explore the sum of human knowledge and dig in wherever he sees fit. The university's Honors College program means that he’ll have some small, accelerated classes and individual advising too.
The thing that says a lot about the dire state of the economy is that a large bunch of his high school friends—the sons daughters of professional folks, college professors, and the like, A students with high test scores and all of that—were at the orientation with him, and will probably end up at the university with him. Parents of those who have been accepted to other schools out of state are either still waiting to hear about financial aid, or have already determined that they’re out of reach financially. We’re fortunate to have the fallback of a major research university, as woefully ill-funded as it is (and facing cutbacks in the coming year, like all public schools at all levels everywhere), right here in town.
I have my share of ambivalence about having my son attend the school that has employed me for fifteen years. I’d put our best students up against anyone’s, and philosophically I’m very much in favor of public education and public schools at all levels; but as a creature of our state government, we suffer from the shortsightedness and venality of that government. Hence we’re a “flagship university” with ludicrously low undergraduate admissions standards, and see 50% of incoming engineering majors, for instance, wash out after a year. It would be more honest for us to admit only students with a demonstrable shot at completing a bachelor’s degree program. Instead we admit almost anyone with a high school diploma who wants to attend, load them down with remedial courses, and let them graduate in five to six years. The more successful programs in the sciences and elsewhere have steep barrier requirements that let them retain their professional accreditation, but the university still has too many not very successful students who create a culture of hard partying and just squeaking by. Jack will have no trouble finding his natural peers, but we were looking forward to having him see what life was like in a part of the country different from the one he grew up in. He can still do that, just not as soon.
And I think he was looking forward to living on his own, at a certain geographic remove from his parents (as was his father). Now he’ll be within the same square mile or two of where both his parents work (and a mile or so from where his sister goes to high school). But something tells me he’ll find a way to create the amount of separation he’s comfortable with. Selfishly, I’m glad he won’t be all that far away.
I don’t know what the problem is with the private universities that rejected my kid. It’s their loss, and he’ll do just fine. I detest the term “human capital,” since it suggests that people are valuable mainly because they’re like money (how do you spend a person? and when does their value, their intrinsic, human value, ever really change?). But if the new Depression causes universities and other institutions to play it safe and undervalue the young adults who will live in the crazy world we’ve made for them, things will take that much longer to improve. We’d better remember that investment in education as well as infrastructure will be needed to dig ourselves out of this mess.