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Stupid Things Admissions People Say

Posted by on Tuesday, January 27, 2009 in Academic Life, Advice for Parents, Balance, College Rankings, Preparing for College.

From time to time I’m asked to serve as a panelist for high schools hosting “junior nights.”  These are opportunities for students and their parents to come out and hear from college “experts.”  They’re usually fun affairs for us, as we get to put down your employer’s banner for a little bit, field questions and get a pulse for what’s on people’s minds.  Not too long ago, I sat on one in Chicago and something happened there that has had me thinking for a while now about the state of the whole admissions field and where our profession has gone wrong.

It came from a simple comment, spoken by a fellow panelist, a representative from a large enrollment school.  It was the cliché, one you’ve probably heard:  “you can make a big school small, but you can’t make a small school big.”  Having graduated from, and worked for some of America’s largest universities, and now at Vanderbilt (a mid-sized university) I feel I have license to point out that this is an asinine notion.  The idea that small schools are inherently limited in the scope of the student experience clearly defines those experiences in quantitative terms.  What we know about student success and engagement tells us that quality trumps quantity.  It says that a great education comes from the quality of the interpersonal relationships you can build, and the quality of experiences you can have.  So it’s the quality of the student experience that matters, or what researchers call student engagement.  The non-sexy truth seems to be that greater differences in student engagement can be seen within an institution, rather than between institutions (check out the results of the National Survey on Student Engagement or NSSE).  In other words, you will learn far more about a college by investigating what experiences within a University seem to encourage student engagement (for Vanderbilt, it’s likely to be Alternative Spring Break, The Commons, the Kampala Project, The MLK, Jr Commemorative Series, etc) rather than whether college A engages their students better than College B on a wholesale level.

More than the “Big school/small school”  comment itself, it’s the perseverance of the sentiment  in our admission culture that has  made me think of all the ways that culture is dumbing down the college choice process.  It points to rankings and says, “see . . .  look, good education is happening there.”  It tells students to find the differentiating features between the colleges they’re considering and yet colleges publish brochures and websites that all look the same (the guy throwing the Frisbee, the study group laughing over their molecular biology books).  It’s like we’re trying to oversimplify things, afraid to let students loose on the notion that a great education can happen A LOT of places.

What do you think?  What other “truisms” have been tossed your way as you have been searching for a college?  How true do you think they are?

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  • Hillary

    January 28th, 2009

    Similarly, some of my teachers believe that if you go to a state school, you’re going to receive a less-than-great education.
    -I call BS on this one. All the top state universities seem to do very well in a few subjects. So as long as you pick the state university that excels in the field you want to go into, you’re fine.
    -In addition, people go from state university undergraduate programs to top 20 private university graduate programs (my sister’s doctor actually went to UF for undergrad and Vanderbilt for grad/med school). Oppositely, I’m sure there are others who go to a top 20 US university, coast their way with mediocre grades, and fail to get into a nationally recognized graduate program.
    -As the cliche phrase goes, “College is all about what you make of it.”

  • Rachel

    January 31st, 2009

    Apparently, I can be an amazing fit at 389 different colleges!
    Exaggeration, obviously.

    I’ve really learned that the general brochures that every student starts receiving after his or her first PSAT mean nothing. According to them, they all can offer you a close relationship with your professor, they all have a zillion different majors and minors, they all are in a great location near (insert snazzy name here) restaurant or club. Judging by these pamphlets, it really doesn’t matter which college I go to; they’re all the same.

    The only way to decide if a college is right for you is to visit it, and talk to people who will tell you the truth about it–including its faults.

  • Kathy Jackson

    October 23rd, 2009

    Re: vanderbilt, if one applies to one college, how difficult is it to transfer to another and when could one do that? i.e. if you were admitted in Peabody and wanted to change to engineering