Demythologizing college admissions

The college admissions season is now in full swing, and with it comes the onset of pervasive, destructive myths about America's colleges and universities. This is particularly acute among the families of the best high school students, those who have Ivy League aspirations.

The admissions season is also the time when those of us reviewing applications and conducting family and student interviews start to hear certain myths born of insecurity.

Myth No. 1: If you don't get into Harvard, Yale, or Princeton, your life is ruined.

This misperception assumes that the world is inordinately affected by what less than a tenth of 1 percent of the college-going population does (attend Ivy League colleges).

It's like saying that without Armani and Prada we'd all have absolutely nothing to wear.

But, in fact, American higher education is the envy of the world because of its diversity, its pluralism, and its bountiful opportunities for any deserving student.

While the Ivies are certainly excellent institutions, a recent study cited in the Chronicle of Higher Education suggests that many of those top 10 percent achievers who do not attend Ivy League schools may actually end up earning slightly more.

Myth No. 2: There are only winners and losers in high schools, and success getting into college is a race that goes only to the swiftest.

Nearly all of my professional colleagues would testify that a student with ambition and breadth can hold his or her own against a student with stellar grade-point averages.

If students take challenging high school courses (calculus if possible, four years of rigorous English, four years of a foreign language, history, biology, chemistry, and physics), then they will have outstanding options for admission to college, and will in all likelihood succeed once they get there.

Sadly, our super-achieving cohort is so obsessed with being No. 1 that many high schools now observe at graduation the mystifying practice of naming five or six valedictorians, as if to say, "If first is best, then lots of firsts are even better!"

In the United States there are nearly 3,000 institutions of higher education, including two- and four-year schools. They are big or small, selective or open, secular or religious, urban or rural, ivory-tower or trowel- and-jackhammer, rigorous or not -and every shade in between. And every economic segment of our nation is broadly represented.

Myth No. 3: You have to be rich to go to college.

Consider my own parents - a mailman and a secretary - who saw all six of their children graduate from college in the 1970s.

Ancient history, you may say - that was the post-war boom era. What about now?

The facts are that the current average annual income of families with students in college - including private schools - is approximately $65,000.

Students from those families were awarded $70 billion in financial aid in the 1999-2000 academic year.

At most selective private colleges, three-quarters of students receive financial aid and their parents contribute on average $11,000.

Myth No. 4: Colleges and universities are greedy places, gouging the public with overpaid faculties and little value added, and I can get a better return from tuition money by investing in a certificate of deposit.

More than a few influential people have scored political points by exploiting this theme.

The fact is that colleges and universities across the US award more scholarship grant aid from their own funds than state and federal governments combined.

Not only does a college education demonstrably improve one's lifetime earning potential - by more than 100 percent, according to various independent economic estimates - but it teaches important values of citizenship, civil discourse, and integrity in work that are fundamental to our democracy.

I don't blame parents for their cynicism, and I don't blame students for their apprehensions. Much of what they are encountering is the unknown, the perfect breeding place for virulent myths.

But as I read the files of so many marvelous college aspirants, I think about their potential and the last, and potentially most devastating, untruth.

Myth No. 5: There is no hope for tomorrow, only today's bills and yesterday's failures.

My advice to those who feel this way?

Don't lose hope. College will be a valuable and transforming experience. Think for yourselves and look beyond the myths.

*Richard G. DiFeliciantonio is vice president for enrollment at Ursinus College, near Philadelphia.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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