THE BLOG

The Infantilization of College Admissions

02/09/2015 04:56 pm ET | Updated Apr 11, 2015

College admissions offices frequently encourage prospective applicants to visit their campuses. Students need to know what they're getting into, and they should appreciate their prospective colleges beyond the college's names and rankings. Sometimes, a mention of a visit in a supplemental essay or a sign-in at an information session lends a boost to an application.

What, though, do colleges do with visitors who can hardly write their own names?

New York Times reported last week that "college prep has hit the playground set." In some schools, first-graders are being asked to identify their eventual careers, majors, and even favorite colleges. Teachers are frantically trying to ensure that their students will be able to do college-level work a decade from now. "Campus tours are now popular field trips" for kids who'd normally be going to the zoo, the Times reports.

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As a teacher and a college counselor, I'm trying to wrap my mind around the absurdity of this trend. Are adults - educators, no less - really that oblivious to what goes on in the mind of a 7-year-old? And do they really want to lard even more hype on to the college admissions process? Apparently so. These are probably the same people who believe that more homework equals more learning and who believe that recess is a waste of time.

Even so, I think something more than mere cluelessness is at work.

At the broadest level, policymakers at the state, federal, and district levels naturally view the entire spectrum of education, from pre-K to college graduation. They set up studies and metrics to track the efficacy of policies and expenditures. Rates of college admission and readiness can provide them with the type of hard, if crude, data that they need.

(With that said, this country woefully denigrates and fails to invest in vocational training.)

These bureaucratic priorities are increasingly mistaken for pedagogical priorities (otherwise known as "teaching"), which are being dictated in part by the implementation of new Common Core Standards. Overly earnest (or disturbingly small-minded) administrators and teachers take these goals too literally. They confuse the need for student populations to be college-aware and college-ready - someday - with the compulsion to tell kids, every day, that they need to be college-ready.

Inequity is a national shame, of course. Too few students end up college-ready, and too few are encouraged to aim high. But this fad solves nothing.

(It's no wonder that this is being reported by the paper of record in New York City, where competition, not just for college but for kindergarten itself, is insane and toxic.)

No matter where they're teaching, no clear-minded teacher enters the classroom every day wanting to make students "college-ready." And they shouldn't have to to judge the fruits of her labor by a single decision that could be over a decade off. They want students to learn. That's what all those history, English, math, and science lessons are all about. Calculus, Dickens, and college applications in 12th grade. Play-Dough, sharing, and shoe-tying in kindergarten. Articles and dissertations in graduate school. Everything in its time.

Students who learn these lessons will naturally becomes college candidates. They don't need to be told over and over that they're learning "because of" college. Those who don't learn them need further support. Admissions officers don't need students to insist that they are "college ready." They can tell from students' transcripts, essays, and all the other elements of their applications. It's a virtuous cycle. It's also a cycle that gets undermined when kids are confused, when the goal is trivialized, and when motivations become extrinsic rather than intrinsic (for a great discussion of intrinsic motivation, see Alfie Kohn's book Punished by Rewards).

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As a college counselor, I don't work with first graders. I seldom even work with sophomores or juniors, except to give broad advice and to nudge them towards a fulfilling senior year. I encourage students of all ages to do what many deliberate "college readiness" efforts don't. I tell them to take academics seriously, to stay aware of the world around them, to figure out what subjects they love, to not to be afraid to cultivate their own ideas, and to read and explore as much as they can outside of school.

Even when I advise seniors in the throes of the application process, I encourage them to celebrate things that matter: what they've learned; what they've accomplished; who they are; what they think; what they want to accomplish. I encourage them to reflect on the world in which they live, not on the world that they've been told they must one day live in.

Imagine what it will be like for today's hyper-prepared elementary school kids when the deadline for their college application finally arrives. How will they be able to generate their own ideas and discover their own passions if they've been subjected to a decade of claptrap about "college readiness"? How much of a letdown will it be for them to finally apply, get in, and attend? Why can't they be encouraged to embrace every moment of their schooling?

The most successful college applicants, of any generation, are not the ones brow-beaten with slogans they can't understand, confused by weird field trips, or caught in the crossfire of education policy. They are those who have grown up happy, healthy, and supported.