Stupid Things Admissions People Say
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?