College applications: What are schools really selling?

As college application time nears, recruiters from high price colleges are pitching more than an education to high school seniors. How much is the 'college experience' really worth?

Jacquelyn Martin/AP/File
Prospective students tour Georgetown University's campus in Washington, D.C., July 10, 2013.

Foreign policy brings us the expression “leading from behind” and the phrase might also describe the thing that is parenthood – especially during the kids’ college search. This month, the US Census Bureau released statistics indicating that college enrollment was 19.9 million in the fall of 2012, down by 467,000 from the previous year. Is some rethinking going on?

Twelfth grade is not easy for families. In fact, 10th  and 11th  aren’t all that easy either. The college search has become a three-year effort, previously known as high school, to find the right “fit.” Now fit could accurately describe something you look for in a pair of jeans. The college search is more a juggernaut.

They amass in a frenzy – college recruiters, high school administrators, ambitious parents, testers, consultants, banks, and government agencies enticing with a “come hither” those willing 17 year-olds whose overriding instinct is to fly the coop to anywhere at any cost. Come into the candy store. You know what you want, and if you’re good, we may even allow you to buy it. It’s OK. Spend $100,000. Spend $250,000. Let me show you the climbing walls, the dorm room sushi delivery, the meditation garden. You deserve it. It’s mom and dad’s money? No problem. Don’t have it? Put in on the great VISA backed by Uncle Sam. 

Can kids handle such responsibility? Can they even read a non-digital clock at that age?

The juggernaut assumes that dorm life is necessary for the “full college experience.” And never mind the quaint notion that you might save $50,000 or more by commuting to a college campus nearby. The full college experience perhaps somewhere involves a late-night heartfelt about British poets. But often it is a return to infancy, a process of getting your days and nights mixed up – going to bed at 4 a.m., rising somewhere around 3 in the afternoon for an early class. Every night is Saturday night. There’s usually a roommate with a live-in partner. You’ve got privacy guards that allow others to pay your bill but not see your grades.

This holy grail can be as far away from home as the juggernaut takes it, encouraging you to join the great, nationwide diaspora of young people convinced away from important relationships by programs, facilities, seminars, agendas, which may or may not have a direct impact on employability or happiness. But hey – this is about you. Reinvent yourself. Start over. This is your four years. Kind of like a long spa vacation.

One mother/daughter team returning to speak at her former high school’s college night described the heartbreak they went through when it came time for the girl to move to her “perfect fit,” which was 6 hours away. “Am I the only person in this room who thinks this mother is crazy?” I wondered. Isn’t life hard enough already? There were a dozen excellent colleges within a stone’s throw. Give up the very things that make life worth living because of a major she may not have heard of a year ago?

Sure, some kids may really need to make a break with home for reasons of money or curriculum. And sure, there may be the potential for personal growth. But growing up is bound to happen wherever you are, especially under real-life economic conditions. Perhaps a bit of this is about ego. My kid got wait listed at Super-Hyper-Selective U., so I win.

It’s impossible to describe to a 17 year-old what it’s like to have the world opened up for you by good educators, be they at the two-year college down the street or the Super U. But I wonder if, in a rush for the top, today’s “full college experience” might have become like the football program of an earlier time: Forget the concussion. Get in the game. Tough it out. You’ll be fine.

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