HarvardMegan McArdle wonders:

These days, a nearly-perfect GPA is the barest requisite for an elite institution. You’re also supposed to be a top notch athlete and/or musician, the master of multiple extracurriculars. Summers should preferably be spent doing charitable work, hopefully in a foreign country, or failing that, at least attending some sort of advanced academic or athletic program.

Naturally, this selects for kids who are extremely affluent, with extremely motivated parents who will steer them through the process of “founding a charity” and other artificial activities. Kids who have to spend their summer doing some boring menial labor in order to buy clothes have a hard time amassing that kind of enrichment experience. […]

This entire thing is absurd. I understand why kids engage in this ridiculous arms race. What I don’t understand is why admissions officers, who have presumably met some teenagers, and used to be one, actually reward it. Why not give kids a bonus for showing up to a routine job during high school, like real people, instead of for having wealthy parents who can help you tap their affluent social network for charitable donations? Why have we conflated “excellence” with affluence, driven parents, and a relentless will to conform on the part of the kids?

The “why” is, of course, quite self-explanatory from my perspective. That the advantage goes to the affluent is not a byproduct. It’s the point. Who is more likely to be in a future position to do good by the university? Someone who comes from an affluent background or someone who works a routine job? In a world where students are penalized for the wrong extracurriculars, like the FFA or 4H Club, why in the world would we expect them to value someone who takes a job anybody could have?

You have to be special. It takes money to be special. That’s not totally fair. Private schools have been taking admirable steps to allow those whose parents make less money to get into these schools on grants instead of loans. So, while money does play a role, I would expect that it’s culture that plays a larger one. Some kid whose father is the Used Car King of Northern Idaho may have money, but it’s not necessarily the right kind of money. I mean, you can picture it, right? His father’s dealership with some huge, gaudy American flag. And hokey commercials. Fortunately, that guy is going to have very little clue how to get his kid into the Ivies. He probably thinks membership in the 4H club might help. He might think it’s a good idea for his son to actually work at the dealership to learn responsibility and work ethic. Such pedestrian values mean little compared to the enrichment of well-placed charity work.

Of course, coming from the background that I do, the entire notion of aspiring to go to a private school is a little bit weird. I was told from pretty early on that private school was an unlikely option. I got to see my brother admitted into a very exclusive school on the west coast only to be told “You can’t go. There is nothing that they have to offer that the flagship state can’t.” So in one sense I am sympathetic to the son of the car king, though on the other, there are more important things to life. Unless, of course, you want to actually run things. People from certain colleges get to do that, and they are particular about who they let in. Not just any smart kid, or rich kid, will do. So I do at times wonder about the cost of society.

Some of my parents’ values rubbed off on me. I, too, will be reluctant to bankroll my kid going to private school. Clancy feels even more strongly about this. I might actually make an exception for a school like Harvard. Fortunately for the top Ivies, I don’t have much idea of the hoops they would need to jump through and I am not sure how on-board I would be with doing what would be required for them to get in anyway. So they probably needn’t worry about the likes of the Trumans showing up.


Category: School

About the Author

Will Truman (trumwill) is a southern transplant in the mountain east with an IT background who bides his time taking care of their daughter while his wife brings home the bacon. You will probably be relieved to know that he does not generally refer to himself in the third-person except when he's writing short bios on his web page.

6 Responses to The Excellence of Conformity

  1. Sheila Tone says:

    The son of the used car king (that would have been a better example before the internet knocked the bottom out of used car lots, BTW), doesn’t need Harvard. He’s already rich! He’d just be a fish out of water there anyway. He’s perfectly happy going to a state school and using his local connections for social and economic success.

    It’s the unwealthy academic types that I feel sorry for. Those are the people who aspire to the kind of life only Ivy grads get. They’ve been conned into believing anyone who is smart and works hard can have it.

    • trumwill says:

      There is a non-trivial chance that his mission in life is to get the hell out of Idaho. Don’t you ever watch sitcom movies where you find out that the now-big-city character is embarrassed by his influential family in some charming out-of-the-way place?

      Other than that, good point. Perhaps not the best example on my part.

  2. Peter says:

    In most parts of the country going to the state flagship or land grant university is a better option than it is in the Northeast. While it’s a chicken-and-egg sort of thing, the Northeast has both a strong tradition of private higher education and mediocre (at best) public universities. This leads into an increasingly desperate quest for admission to top private universities.

    • trumwill says:

      That’s true to some extent, though some northeastern state schools, like UConn and UMass, are actually quite well ranked. It’s just that they’re sitting next to Harvard and Yale, I guess, that makes them pale in comparison. The University of Minnesota just doesn’t have that kind of competition.

  3. says:

    Why don’t you want Lain to run things? Surely you realize that if she isn’t one of the elites, she’s going to be working for and at the mercy of the elites. This isn’t your Mom and Dad’s America anymore. Believe it or not, I’m not any happier about that than you are, but that’s how it is.

    • trumwill says:

      Oh, I wouldn’t mind if she ran things. I just think it’s a mistake to gear her life towards that end. The likelihood of success is small, and the likelihood of being miserable in the pursuit is great.

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