I'm sitting in my car. My son is about to graduate from high school. I still drive him to school every day, although he has asked to drive himself. I sit for a while after he gets out. Only eight more school days, and then his schooling, in preparation for college, will be complete. I watch other students rush into the school. The younger ones are escorted up to the front door by their parents. I wish I could grab each one by the shoulders, and tell them to grasp every moment; and to plead that they understand why Dead Poets Society is the one of the most important movies they could ever watch. I wish they knew what I know now, about the college preparatory process; and especially about the college application process. I want to tell them that only one year ago I thought I knew, fairly well, what I needed to know to advise my son. I want to reveal to them the inherent weakness in my confidence that I, alone, could find out anything I might need to know. I want to warn them. I want to encourage them.
I am the proud father of a son who was accepted by his "dream-school" university, with an offer to be part of the institution's first-year Honor's Program. My son is the finest individual I have ever met, and probably the finest that I am ever likely to meet. His mother and I set out with an ambitious goal: to forge a splendid citizen. Somehow we managed to end up with a child that makes us proud beyond our wildest dreams. One would think we couldn't be more satisfied with the result of our son's college application process. We are. But I am frustrated, and deeply scared, with what I learned about today's college application rat race. I thought that I knew enough going-in to the "final one-year stretch" about the process he, and we, would face. And I was convinced that, if I discovered that I needed to know more, I could easily find out, on my own, what to do. I was in for a big surprise on both counts.
The current college application process to competitive universities is, in two words, ferocious and atrocious. It is rife with social injustice, plagued by inefficiencies, and is simply unfair to kids and their parents. Something is deeply wrong, and leadership is required to correct the issues. I do not advocate a social revolution to address my concerns. Yet, I beseech universities, testing services, and high schools to understand that they are placing extraordinary and unnecessary burdens on high school kids and their parents. In their quest to thrive, colleges, testing services and high schools are allowing (to give them the benefit of the doubt) a level of distress that is affecting negatively students and their parents, in the United States and around the world.
I plead for sanity to be restored to the college application system. One overriding concept should guide policy makers: achieving social justice by motivating individuals to reach their maximum capacity to be productive citizens. Of course, education is at the core of making this goal a reality. In the future we live now, as described so masterfully by Thomas L. Friedman in his New York Times columns, few variables determining anyone's capacity to be a productive citizen are more important than a college education. As an economist, I tend to ask "what are the market forces producing the observable phenomena?" Something has to be driving the near insanity of today's college application process. Universities, testing services, and high schools define this "game." They can re-define it. Please.