New Part Three - October 16:
Part Two - October 4:
Part One - September 25:
Jacques Steinberg has been a staff reporter for The New York Times for more than ten years and is currently a national education correspondent. In 1998, he was awarded the grand prize of the Education Writers Association for his nine-part series on a third-grade classroom on Manhattan's Upper West Side. He lives in New York with his wife and two children.
James Fallows is The Atlantic's national correspondent and the author of Breaking the News: How the Media Undermine American Democracy (1996) and of Free Flight: From Airline Hell to a New Age of Travel. To learn about his new book and look through an archive of his recent articles, visit jamesfallows.com.
Previously in Fallows@large:
The Price of Wealth (July 3, 2002)
A dialogue between James Fallows and Kevin Phillips, the author of Wealth and Democracy: A Political History of the American Rich.
Signals of Saturation (April 3, 2002)
James Fallows exchanges e-mail with Todd Gitlin, the author of Media Unlimited: How the Torrent of Images and Sounds Overwhelms Our Lives.
Policies of Power (December 6, 2001)
James Fallows exchanges e-mail with Walter Russell Mead, the author of
Special Providence: American Foreign Policy and How It Changed the World.
More by James Fallows
More on books
More on politics and society
Join the conversation in Post & Riposte.
Atlantic Unbound | October 4, 2002
Dialogues with James Fallows
From: Jacques Steinberg
To: James Fallows
Subject: Re: Is it all a numbers' game? - Part Two
I'd like to start by tackling your first question—about why college admission has become, as you observe, "the terrain on which educated parents choose to run their status competition."
One reason certainly lies with those parents who were the children of immigrants or first-generation Americans. They may have been perfectly content to attend public universities themselves but, in adulthood, have decided that those schools (even those as prestigious as the Universities of Virginia or Michigan) are not going to be good enough for their children. By many measures they might have achieved great success in their lives, but now they find themselves longing for the imprint of an Ivy or other highly selective college—perhaps the only mountain in life that they have failed to scale.
One of the sanest voices in The Gatekeepers, I think, belongs to Henry Jannol. A son of Holocaust survivors now practicing law in Century City, Henry sends his daughter Becca to the rarefied Harvard-Westlake School in Los Angeles, in part because he has lost confidence in the Los Angeles Unified School District. But he has steadfastly resisted the temptation to push her to take the obvious next step: a mad dash for the front gate of an Ivy. Henry, a graduate of UCLA, observes: "At Harvard-Westlake, parents project their college fantasies onto their kids."
But there is more at work here than just a parent's trying to ride his child's back into what is effectively the nation's academic hall of fame. Many parents and children are under the impression—often a mistaken impression, I argue in the book—that the admissions process at a top college can be outsmarted through cunning and gamesmanship, and by spending money as excessively as a first-time political candidate with deep pockets.
Unlike so many of the things in our lives that are perceived to be out of our control, the quest for elite college admission, many parents believe, is a race that can be controlled—if only they put their children through the paces of SAT prep courses, one-on-one tutoring in core courses, and private college counseling. One private counselor in New York charges—and apparently receives—nearly $30,000 for her top-of-the-line junior-senior package. It must be a tremendous rush for a parent to be able to write that check, knowing that so many others cannot afford to do so or choose not to. Never mind that the admissions-decision process at top colleges is often far too messy—and personal to the admissions officers involved—to be manipulated by the contenders, no matter the extent of the expense.
There are other reasons that this has become the playing field of choice for so many hyper-competitive parents and their kids. I'll talk more about U.S. News a bit later, but when a publication declares an institution No. 1, any number of parents and children get excited by the prospect that, by extension, they will be known as No. 1 as well.
I agree with you that the mad quest by parents and children to land at one highly selective college over another thought to be of lesser rank can be completely irrational. Having spent the last three years traveling the country as a roving education correspondent for The Times, I know first-hand that the educational distinctions between the four dozen or so colleges generally regarded as the most highly selective are often imperceptible, and that hundreds of other colleges (even those that accept nearly everyone who applies) offer a solid education and the potential to prepare students for rigorous graduate school work or jobs at Fortune 500 companies.
That said, having graduated from Dartmouth in late spring of 1988—and been ushered, four months later, into a research clerk's job in The Times' Washington bureau—I know that the imprint of my alma mater gave me a boost. My résumé had been placed on the desk of the columnist who ultimately hired me, James (Scotty) Reston, by a Dartmouth alum who had graduated three years before me into the same job. My immediate predecessor in the job went to Brown. I'd like to think that without my Dartmouth connection I'd have made it to The Times by now, at age thirty-six. But I'm not sure I'd have gotten there at age twenty-two. Did arriving at The Times so young, and having the privilege to be trained there, help validate or justify my own determination to get into Dartmouth as a seventeen-year-old high school senior? It's a question I still wrestle with.
I'll move on now to your question about early-decision programs, specifically those that bind applicants to attend a college that might admit them in the fall. You asked about the long-term future of those programs.
I was certainly amazed, as you no doubt were, when Rick Levin, the president of Yale, answered the call you had made last fall in the pages of The Atlantic and proposed that Yale end such programs, if only the other Ivies would follow suit. I was less surprised that none of his counterparts in the Ivies, or at other premier private colleges, immediately do the same. Such programs, of course, have long allowed colleges to lock in highly credentialed candidates willing to pledge their love early to one institution above any other, and have allowed institutions to impress U.S. News in the bargain by improving their yields—the number of candidates offered acceptance by an institution who then accept that offer of acceptance. (U.S. News, as you know, prizes high SAT scores as well, and applicants who apply early tend to be among the most motivated, and highest-scoring.)
I've never been especially good at gazing into crystal balls. I'm confident that institutions like Yale and Harvard wouldn't lose many of their top candidates (or sacrifice their institutions' median SAT scores) if those candidates had to wait until spring to find out if they had been accepted. Indeed, Harvard already gives applicants the luxury of waiting until spring to accept Harvard's offer of early admission—the university's early-notification program is not binding. So we may yet see another top private institution answer Rick Levin's challenge and embrace the notion that such programs, whatever their virtues, should be eliminated, because they lead some applicants to declare a first choice prematurely and to give up any bargaining power in securing a more generous financial award.
I'm less optimistic that elite private colleges outside the Ivies would be willing to set aside their early-decision programs. Colleges like Wesleyan and Middlebury cannot be as confident as Harvard and Yale that their favorite applicants might still be available to them in the spring if not snapped up the previous fall. There's too much competition among colleges to take that chance, and the stakes, at least as the institutions continue to pay heed to U.S. News, are too great.
It appears I'm not going to be able to duck out of this exchange without responding to your questions about your former employer U.S. News. Like you, I do regret that so many applicants and parents have come to accept those rankings as the ultimate arbiter of comparing one complex academic institution to another. It's maddening to me that even the most educated observers will believe that Columbia has "fallen" in a particular year if it tumbles even a few rungs on the U.S. News ladder. It's as if Columbia's professors, ordinarily the top hitters on a professional baseball team, had an uncharacteristically bad year at the plate. I don't know how I could begin to assign numerical ratings to such educational entities, particularly in attempting to systematically capture and categorize what happens in their classrooms, which should be among the top concerns—if not the top concern—of applicants in considering an institution.
That said, I recognize that ours is a society that insists on declaring a winner and a runner-up in every area of our lives, whether it's which late-night talk-show host we watch, the doctors who give us our physicals, or the restaurants we patronize. If no one bought these issues, U.S. News would discontinue them. And if U.S. News decided to get out of the game on its own, someone else would clearly fill the vacuum. As you point out, alternative lists abound.
If I were editor of the magazine and getting rid of the rankings was not an option, I'd emphasize and build on two things that U.S. News already does. To the extent I felt compelled to rank colleges, either by my boss or my readers, I'd continue to add sub-categories, de-emphasizing the overall ranking and trying to compare colleges head to head in more manageable, discrete areas—the percentage of minorities on campus, for example, or the average class size.
To me, the most important information in this year's issue is in a survey detailed at the front of the magazine—the reporting of the results of something called the National Survey of Student Engagement. The survey, according to U.S. News, asks freshmen and seniors to answer questions about the education they receive. For example, students estimate how often they contributed in class, how frequently they got to work directly with a faculty member on research or how responsive a faculty member was when reached after class. U.S. News presents this information in broad categories—national universities, liberal arts colleges—but, happily, in alphabetical order. This, I would argue, is the sort of information that enables a parent or applicant to get a better sense, at least statistically, of what an institution is like.
And considering how potentially rich this material is—in contrast to information like the median SAT score of a college freshman class, which often says more about the high schools those kids attended than their colleges—the only disappointment I experienced as a reader was this: according to U.S. News, "most schools have not made the results available to the public."
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