Tag Archives: college

We Have a College Admissions Problem

college photo

I follow many of the students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, FL. on Twitter. I don’t think anyone who has followed my Twitter feed or even this blog for any amount of time is unaware of how I feel about the MSD students and their stand against gun violence. I was surprised to see this tweet from one of the MSD students who has been most vocal in his advocacy for change:

If someone as articulate as David Hogg has demonstrated himself to be—time and time again over the last month—is not accepted into the colleges to which he’s applied, we have a college admissions problem. To my way of thinking, colleges should be clamoring to admit David Hogg and his peers. The fact that he has received several rejections boggles the mind. What, exactly, are these schools looking for if he doesn’t have it?

I wasn’t going to write about my personal experience here. I’m not embarrassed about what happened, but it’s not something I thought I’d talk about publicly. A doctoral program I spent about a half a year preparing to apply to and another three months waiting to hear from rejected me. I took the GRE, and given how long it has been since I had taken mathematics at the level the GRE tests, I was pretty proud of my average score on the math component of the test. Behind that average score was months of hard work practicing math using Khan Academy and GRE practice books. Aside from that, my verbal and writing schools would be difficult to beat: 168 (out of 170) on the verbal and a perfect score of 6/6 on the writing. I honestly thought it was a sign when one of my essays prompted me to write about the very subject I’d like to study in graduate school.

My college transcripts for both my bachelor’s and master’s reveal a hardworking student. I graduated magna cum laude from UGA, and my master’s GPA was a 3.9. My recommendations couldn’t have been stronger. I wrote something like seven or eight different drafts of my statement of purpose. Was it the statement of purpose that sunk me? I don’t know. It’s hard to tell if you have hit or missed the mark by a wide margin with such things, even if you pore over the advice from admissions offices.

My résumé reveals someone who publishes (including this blog for over a decade), often presents at a variety of conferences, and regularly engages in professional learning. I’m honestly the kind of lifelong learner for which I should think a doctoral program is looking. I have a certain humility, but I am proud of my desire to learn. You will never hear me say I know everything there is to know about a subject.

The rejection letter was a mere few sentences long. I didn’t think there would be a point in trying to figure out why I was rejected; most likely, I’d be told that the school didn’t have time to respond to those types of questions. Maybe a part of me didn’t want to know. So one of my dreams died. That’s okay, I consoled myself. I have other dreams. Maybe I should focus on achieving them instead.

So, aside from the fact that the program to which I applied is competitive, why was my application rejected? I was honestly a bit more stung by the fact that I didn’t even receive an interview request, which spoke of a whole other level of disinterest on the part of the school. I suppose I don’t understand why I didn’t even make it through the first hurdle of being asked to interview. The only reason I can think of is encapsulated into the word “fit.” That word covers a wide variety of potential reasons for rejection, some of them discriminatory, some of them not. It’s true I am a lot older than the average age of the student who studies in the program. I felt my experience would be an asset. It’s true also that I am a teacher, a practitioning educator, and I don’t want to spend the rest of my career researching. I want to be involved in education, not just study it and talk about it. For that reason, I admit, the program might not have been the best one for me. I have tried to decide if I am feeling bitter or if I’m being honest, and after much soul-searching, I concluded that the program honestly would not have been the best program for me. I was swayed by the cachet the name of the school would have offered me. Perhaps they just recognized it before I did, and if that’s case, maybe they did me a favor.

I went to two respected public universities—University of Georgia and Virginia Tech, and yet I have often felt, especially in New England, where I currently live and teach, that neither school is considered good enough. A former colleague shared he felt the same way. A doctorate from the college to which I applied would prove something. I’m not sure what.

I spent a couple of weeks feeling sad about it. I cried a few times. Then I thought long and hard. Did I still want to earn a doctorate? I concluded that I did. I applied to a different program. I am hoping for better results, but at the moment, my application remains incomplete until the school receives official transcripts and one more letter of recommendation. And honestly? The program I just applied to is much better suited to my needs and my current career as well as my future goals.

I do think we have a problem when applicants as strong as David Hogg receive multiple college rejections. I honestly think it’s a problem that my application went into what I imagine is an enormous slush pile. What exactly is it that colleges want in their applicants?

If applicants like David Hogg find college acceptance difficult, what does that mean for other students? Some might argue that college isn’t for everyone. It should be for everyone who wants to go, but I don’t agree that college should be required for everyone. In our economy, however, we demand college educations for jobs that don’t necessarily need one, and college graduates still find it hard to obtain work. However, despite recent arguments to the contrary, colleges do great work with students, and I remember my time at UGA in particular as a wondrous time filled with learning.

I don’t think I could have been better prepared to teach than I was as a student at UGA. Even to this day, their English Education faculty includes such luminaries in the field as Sara Kajder and Peter Smagorinsky. I applied to the school as a transfer student after a year at a community college. I was relatively new to Georgia, having moved there halfway through my junior year in high school. I had the most unhelpful college counseling you might imagine (as in it didn’t exist). The internet wasn’t available for me to research programs on my own. So, I went to community college for a year, so I could decide what to do. I saw a recruiting table for UGA’s College of Education at my community college. I spoke to the recruiter for a few minutes. I liked the look of the materials. I applied only to UGA. Later, I found out my SAT scores and probably my high school grades were not high enough to meet UGA’s threshold for freshman admittance. And yet, the entire time I studied at UGA, I earned A’s and B’s and, as I already mentioned, I graduated magna cum laude. UGA never asked for my high school transcripts or SAT scores when I applied as a transfer. I wonder if UGA would have given me a second look had I applied as a freshman rather than as a transfer, after I had proven I could excel in college studies.

Therein lies the problem. How many potentially great students are rejected for seemingly arbitrary reasons each year? I’m sure that college admissions offices have a tough job. How to distinguish one strong candidate from another on paper? How to determine who would be a good “fit”? Competition for a shrinking number of open student slots is fierce. I’m not sure how they should change, but I do know that if colleges are rejecting students like David Hogg, they’re getting it wrong. I’m concerned about issues of access for all if strong students like David Hogg are shut out.

Wish me luck as I wait to hear from the second doctoral program to which I’ve applied. I think I would not only be an excellent fit for the program but that it’s an excellent fit for me. If I’m rejected, however, I’m not sure I could try again with another program.

Update 3/19: I want to state for the record that David Hogg appears to be handling these rejections in stride. He is regrouping and discussing a gap year and internships as possibilities. He is in no way acting like his recent activism entitles him to college acceptance. I did not make that clear. It is also true I don’t know about his school record beyond what I have seen, but I am impressed with what I have seen. I think it speaks to the notion that he is a strong critical thinker and communicator.

Update 3/29: TMZ said yesterday that David Hogg’s GPA is a 4.2 and his SAT score is 1270, for those people wondering about his background and potential credentials. The SAT score puts him above the 80% percentile when compared to other SAT test-takers. He has been rejected from UCLA, UC Davis, UC Santa Barbara, and UC Irvine, which, incidentally, is a school I considered applying to before my family moved away from California in my junior year. Not sure I’d have been admitted, but it was my top choice until I moved. So, I think my argument that we have a college admissions problem is probably accurate.

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The World Might Be Better Off if We Rethink Education

I want to discuss an article my friend Robert tweeted about yesterday.

This paragraph in particular:

First and foremost: From kindergarten on, students spend thousands of hours studying subjects irrelevant to the modern labor market. Why do English classes focus on literature and poetry instead of business and technical writing? Why do advanced-math classes bother with proofs almost no student can follow? When will the typical student use history? Trigonometry? Art? Music? Physics? Latin? The class clown who snarks “What does this have to do with real life?” is onto something.

One of the best compliments I ever received from a student (thank you, Tali!) was that my class was “relevant.” And she said it because we studied literature (poetry is, by the way, literature, so I’m unclear why the two were separated). We read The Bluest Eye, and Tali wrote an essay about how the novel reflected modern unrealistic notions about beauty standards. She researched the lengths people go to alter their appearance and the mental health effects of being unable to accept and love ourselves as we are. Don’t try to tell me literature isn’t relevant. It shows us who we are, and it shows us others who are not like us. It gives us an opportunity to understand our world. It is one thing for school to prepare us to make a living. It also needs to prepare us to make a life, which is a point Professor Caplan seems to have missed in his argument that the humanities, in particular, are irrelevant. I would challenge anyone in Professor Robin Bates’s English class to tell me what he teaches isn’t relevant.

I can’t understand anyone who would argue we don’t need to study history. A lack of understanding of history is precisely how we wound up in our current political situation. I suppose I want to know who the typical student is, also, because I would argue we should all be well-rounded. The content is not as important as wrestling with the ideas, developing critical thinking and communication skills, and having a greater understanding of our world and all the ways in which it works. It doesn’t make studying the content “useless.”

Caplan argues that “Every college student who does the least work required to get good grades silently endorses the theory [of educational signaling],” meaning that it doesn’t really matter what you study in college—you will exhibit certain traits employers are looking for just because you have done college work at a certain level. The first thing that’s wrong with the argument is doing work to get grades. People who are intrinsically interested in a topic will do the work regardless, but people who are doing the work for a grade are not intrinsically motivated. The work is a means to a different end. And that’s exactly what is wrong with school. Grades. We need to get rid of grading because it gets in the way of learning.

Caplan also mentions learning loss:

The conventional view—that education pays because students learn—assumes that the typical student acquires, and retains, a lot of knowledge. She doesn’t. Teachers often lament summer learning loss: Students know less at the end of summer than they did at the beginning.

What kind of learning are we talking about? Memorizing facts? Students will not forget what they apply and what they teach to others. Caplan adds that “Human beings have trouble retaining knowledge they rarely use.” True. What kind of knowledge are we talking about, though? If I can look it up or store it somewhere, I’m not going to stuff it in my brain somewhere because I have a lot going on, and I am not wasting space remembering what I can look up. That’s why, for example, if something I need to remember to do isn’t on my calendar, it doesn’t exist. We do need to make a compelling case for the relevance of what we teach students, or rather, what we ask students to learn. That does not mean college isn’t for everyone who wants to go.

Caplan truly reveals his hand when he remarks, “I’m cynical about students. The vast majority are philistines.”

Frankly, if this is your attitude, you should not be teaching because you do not love your students. It’s classist garbage.

Caplan maintains, “Those who believe that college is about learning how to learn should expect students who study science to absorb the scientific method, then habitually use it to analyze the world. This scarcely occurs.” Then the problem is the way college professors teach the scientific method (or whatever else you care to use as an example), right? It stands to reason we should at least examine that it is possible that college professors are not helping students apply what they are learning. After all, Caplan says, “Students who excel on exams frequently fail to apply their knowledge to the real world.” That’s because EXAMS ARE NOT APPLICATION. They are not good assessments if we want students to learn what we hope they will learn. They are easy to grade, but as I said before, grades don’t have a connection to learning. I haven’t given an exam in years, and I don’t anticipate ever giving an exam for the rest of my career. Why? Precisely because it teaches students to cram a lot of information into their heads, dump it out on the test, and then forget it. Just as Howard Gardner argues in a quote Caplan uses in the article:

Students who receive honor grades in college-level physics courses are frequently unable to solve basic problems and questions encountered in a form slightly different from that on which they have been formally instructed and tested.

Being “formally instructed and tested” on a topic doesn’t mean you’ve learned it. Are instructors asking students what they have learned? They might be surprised. So what is Caplan doing to change things? Not much. As he says, “I try to teach my students to connect lectures to the real world and daily life. My exams are designed to measure comprehension, not memorization.”

Caplan is expecting that because he lectures, students are learning. What is he asking his students to do to apply their understandings of economics? What research projects are they taking on?  What sorts of research-based writing are they doing? What sorts of questions are they wrestling with in Socratic discussion?

Caplan adds, right after his remark about being cynical about students, that he’s “cynical about teachers. The vast majority are uninspiring.” I don’t disagree with Caplan here. I’m not sure if I think the vast majority are uninspiring, but I do think teachers who lecture and expect students will retain everything they say and then measure understanding with exams are probably uninspiring. And a large number of teachers do assess in this way.

Educators—at all levels, including and maybe especially college—need to take a hard look at themselves and understand how they teach affects the results they are hoping to achieve. They need to know who they are teaching. They need to stop shaming their students and blaming them for not learning, especially when the way they are teaching students results in the lack of learning and understanding that they decry in their students.