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Fenced in by Delusions

 Parents and Admissions

Winter 2004

Parents have delusions about the college admission process. Why do I use such a strong word as "delusions"?  Am I using it in a technical, psychological sense?

I am not.  I am using it in the Buddhist sense.  Buddhists believe that our lives are afflicted by delusions to which we become attached, and that we struggle constantly to see reality clearly in spite of our ideas, our preconceptions, our wishes, our minds.

Some years ago a friend of mine who had been for twenty-five years a Buddhist practitioner and teacher, gave me a string of plain wooden beads, Buddhist meditation beads.  It was at a difficult time in my life, when I was full of worry and dark imaginings and was having trouble sleeping.  He gave them to me in hopes that holding them at night would calm me.  There were, he explained, 108 beads that represented the 108,000 delusions of human life.

I did find the beads comforting, because at the time my mind was stuck on about five or six negative fixed ideas, and the notion that those particular ideas and all other ideas were simply delusions, and that delusions were too numerous too count was really helpful to me.  My particular delusions lost strength in the face of the so many other potential delusions.

The Buddha said, "When one sees that everything exists as an illusion, one can live in a higher sphere than ordinary man."  I do not claim for a moment to live in a higher sphere than anybody, I have transcended nothing, I have just as many illusions as the next person.  It is just that right now I am having a good year and so I have good delusions.  For Buddhists, everything is a delusion. That's where we live and that's why we struggle so.  Goethe said: "As in Rome there is, apart from the Romans, a population of statues, so apart some this real world there is a world of illusion, almost more potent, in which most men live."

When we take the concept of delusions -- with all the force of the word -- and apply it to the college admissions process, it allows us to see more clearly what is happening. What the concept of delusions gives us is the ability to step back from parents involved in the college process and see how their minds play tricks on them, see how they try to bring their minds to bear on something that cannot be solved by thought, preparation, worry, reading catalogs, networking, visiting campuses, and so forth.  We see them try to control or pin down the college process and it eludes them, because the problem is not college, it is the future of their children's lives. And that future is unknown, unpredictable, unknowable, and uncontrollable by parental effort -- although that never stopped any good parent from trying.

What the college admissions process becomes, for children and parents, is a journey toward wisdom and acceptance of reality, a journey through delusion toward clarity. Some families bring a fair amount of wisdom to the process and arrive at clarity about the meaning of colleges with relative speed and grace. Others struggle mightily to get acceptance, and others never get there -- at least not in our time of knowing them.

Two things make it extremely difficult to counter parental delusions about the college process. First, there is usually a grain of truth at the heart of the delusions. Second, independent schools encourage -- or at the least don't discourage -- parental delusions in the early years of schooling and then in the junior and senior years come to regret having colluded with unrealistic parent hopes and dreams. We're often in the situation of letting the air out of parents whom we've helped pump up.

I have developed an idiosyncratic typology of parental delusions about the college process. For me, there are seven prominent delusions that parents manifest as their children approach the junior and senior year.

1. The "It's All a Game" Delusion

Last year I gave a version of my college speech at a powerfully competitive school in the West. The college admissions staff, in order to draw a bigger audience than just senior parents, had advertised my speech as "How to Help Your Children Get into College." Four hundred parents showed up and many, I think, were disappointed to hear me give a Bible-thumping talk about how they shouldn't constantly think about college, shouldn't pester their children about college, but should value the education their children were getting now and not place so much emphasis on the great come-and-get-it-day of college. At the end of the talk a physician father came up to the podium and said, "Dr. Thompson, thank you, that was the talk I needed to hear. I have been talking about college to my tenth grade son every night and I know I shouldn't be doing it."

He went on to say that he was making every mistake I'd mentioned in my speech and he was going to try to do better in the future. Then he paused and asked, "You visit a lot of schools, don't you?"

"Yes," I answered.

"Does anyone do a comparative rating of independent schools?" he asked.

"No," I said. "I don't know anybody who does."

"Well," he said, "What do you think? Where would you rank this school? I mean, how do you think it is seen by the colleges?"

And so we were off into the world of delusions. His tenth-grade son had not yet had a chance to prove himself academically in high school, yet the father was already handicapping his son's college chances, trying to read the perceptions of unknown college admissions people.

The parent who believes that the college admissions process is a game is intent on figuring out first the rules, then the unwritten rules, and especially the deep secrets of this new game -- and then mastering them. Game-playing parents range in style from the athletic through the compulsive gambler type and finally to the organized-crime-connected politician.

The athletic parent rises to the challenge of mastering the new sport. I have a dear friend who always gets lessons when he does a sport; the moment something goes wrong with his golf game he's back to consult his pro. He takes windsurfing lessons, skiing lessons, he consults with experts before he hikes. So when his son, who was a good student in public school, got to spring of his junior year, the father hired an outside educational counselor.

The counselor explained that the rules of the game were fair, there were no deep secrets, told him that his son had a good chance at the following five colleges, but he had to "present himself well." So the father and son went on a little trip, with the father acting like a Little League dad, giving pointers, pep talks, expressing disappointment when his son did not chat up the hockey coach at one college. Happily, his son fell in love with the first college he saw and at the present moment is enjoying his years there very much. My friend retired from the field, fully satisfied that he had played the game the right way, and had gotten the right advice from his pro.

The gambler parents are like the denizens of race tracks, talking about weather conditions, trading stories about previous races and the mental state of jockeys, and finally, painfully laying down their bets. The wisest among them at least acknowledges that there is something arbitrary about the process. The worst of them want to give their child an advantage by getting a phony psychologist to certify a dubious learning disability so that their child can take untimed SATs. The sad part about the handicappers is that their children are not racehorses and it does them harm to be talked about in terms that imply winning or losing.

Powerfully connected parents can be big trouble for their children. To the truly powerful parents who want to stretch their muscles, everyone has a price or a button, and they see college admissions as another power game. Power parents all have a story of a friend who knew someone on the board of a certain college, or they personally know the college president, or they have made the big gift. At every private college and university in the land, there comes a moment when the dean of admissions returns from a meeting with the president and says to her committee, "We're just going to have to hold our noses on these admits," and children who wouldn't otherwise qualify for admission to that college are voted in. My sources estimate that out of a college class of 2,000, there are perhaps eight such power and money-driven admits. But it is that human and understandable moment that provides the grain of truth around which the game-players can wrap their delusions. They are not wrong; sometimes it does happen. However, the outcome is not always what the parents hoped for. I am told that Tony Jarvis, the head of Roxbury Latin School in Massachusetts, says to parents, "I don't know who is luckier in life, the people who get what they want or the ones who don't."

A college counselor said to me that the only students she feels are destined to fail in college are the ones who have been shoehorned by their parents into schools for which they are not well qualified academically. In her experience, the secret, sometimes unconscious knowledge that he doesn't really belong there undermines the student and he drops out, flunks out, or fails to thrive. 

Last spring a college counselor I know received a letter from a parent, one of the most insulting, condescending letters I have ever read. I have changed the names of the boy and the colleges to protect the guilty. The letter began: "Dear Roger: Alexander's college admissions picture is almost a total disaster. However, with some luck and some effort it can be salvaged. He has the admissions to Middlebury and Cornell, and the wait-list at Yale. If we call the right people, I think we can turn that into an admit. You'll need to…"

They then listed the things that the college counselor should do to redeem himself in their eyes.

It was all the college advisor could do to restrain himself from calling Yale and begging them to turn Alexander down. In June, in the final faculty meeting's discussion of which students had had the most successful year and the least successful year, it was Alexander, now headed for Yale, whom the faculty agreed had had the least successful senior year, because something of his essential self had been swallowed up in his parents' ambition and scheming. A bright boy, no one wished him ill. But everyone wished he had been able to taste his own, solid achievement, his own reality. Instead he and everyone at the school had been dragged into his parents' delusion.

2. The "Riches" Delusion

If you go to a highly selective, well-known college it will increase the likelihood that you will do well financially in life. Right or wrong? If a business-oriented, bottom line parent were to ask you or your college counselor to answer that question, how would you answer it? Could you rebut it? Once I would have tried to counter that notion, but deep inside I would have been afraid it was true.

I would have remembered back to the summer after my senior year at Millbrook School, when I was given a tour of the Morgan Guaranty Trust Company on Wall Street by a Millbrook School trustee who had taken an interest in me. He walked me around the beautifully carpeted, lushly appointed banking room with desk after desk in rows. And as he walked me up and down the rows, he told me, "This fellow went to Harvard, he was a member of the Porcellian. This man went to Princeton, he was a member of such-and-such an eating club. This man went to Yale, he was in the Skull and Bones…"

In a 1989 paper published in the American Economic Review, Estelle James and her colleagues asked this question: "College Quality and Future Earnings: Where Should You Send Your Child to College?" Using the National Longitudinal Study of the high school class of 1972, they looked at the economic life outcomes of male college graduates nine years out of college. And what did they find? They constructed a model in which they kept adding demographic, experiential, and institutional variables to find out which had the greatest power in predicting high income after graduation. In the best statistical language, here is the punch line: "Regardless of which variables are in the model, measured college effects are small, explaining 1-2 percent of the variance in earnings."

In research terms, the James model was powerful. By considering institutional vs. private, graduate or undergraduate missions, research vs. teaching colleges, and adding to that all the variables associated with undergraduate experience -- i.e., how well the students did in college -- and adding to that the work experiences after college, the authors were able to account for 50 percent of the variance in the earnings of college graduates. In other words, they accounted for half of reality of these former students' earnings; the other half remains unexplained or random.

That's pretty good from a statistical point of view. And out of all that 1-2 percent can be attributed to college effects. And guess what the college effects were? Just what all of our most delusional parents think they are. Again, I quote James and her colleagues:

"To the extent that college characteristics matter, selectivity and Private-East characteristics that are not readily replicable, seem most important… Private institutions in the East (that are relatively more elite than those in the rest of the country)… have a large advantage, of about 5 percent, relative to public institutions."

Why do they have an effect? James theorizes that being with smarter students increases peer learning, the names of institutions may "serve as informational signals to employers about the probable aptitude of individual students." The average SAT score of the freshman class had a strong positive effect. In other words, smarter people tend to make more money. Indeed, a 100 point increase in SAT scores for a freshman class raised annual earnings by 3 percent.

But don't forget James's phrase, "to the extent that college characteristics matter…" All of the college characteristics accounted for only 1-2 percent of the variance in earnings. What accounted for more of the eventual earnings outcome? What the students majored in and how well they did in the courses.

Here is how James summarizes: "While sending your child to Harvard appears to be a good investment, sending him to your local state university to major in engineering, to take lots of math, and preferably to attain a high GPA, is an even better private investment. Apparently, what matters most is not which college you attend, but what you do while you are there… In fact, these college experience variables explain more of the variance than measured family background, ability, and college characteristics combined."

What is this? Is college a meritocracy after all?

I asked Rick and Bunny Melvoin, whether in their experience attendance at a high-status college made any economic difference after graduation.  Rick is head of Belmont Hill School (Massachusetts) and Bunny is college counselor at The Roxbury Latin School (Massachusetts).  Their answer was that it might make a difference in getting a first job, but not after that. And it might make a difference for overseas students or students who go to work overseas. For them the label of Harvard, Yale, Stanford, Princeton, and Cal Tech is a universal calling card, the way the international elite who attended Oxford and Cambridge and the University of Tokyo can recognize you. Otherwise, they said, it did not make a difference.

It makes sense, but is it true? Or is even that a delusion? I'd like to see it researched. It may be that you can go to the University of Bristol, or its Japanese or Indian equivalent, and do just fine in the international arena.

The bigger reality is that for most people in the Unite States, just getting to college and finishing college puts you into a small minority, an elite. The average number of college graduates in most states is still low. I come from Massachusetts, which has the highest rate of college graduates in the country, 16.6 percent, and the second highest rate of graduate degrees in the country, 10 percent. That still leaves 74 percent of the people in the state with some college but no degree, or a high school diploma or less. And that's where the big economic jump is. According to the World Almanac, people with a high school diploma earned an average of $18,737 in 1992; college graduates earned an average of $32,629.

The reason to send your child to an independent school is to give her the preparation and motivation to finish college. In social terms, that's the great divide.

3. The "Effort" Delusion

"But she has worked so hard; she deserves it." Sorry, that's a delusion. College admissions offices do not operate on the Marxist notion of the labor theory of value. A hard-working kid with low SAT scores earns their respect, and may occasionally fit into their plans, but basically college admissions is about every college getting the strongest, most interesting, and most varied class it can get into the number of places it has.

Everything flows from the number of beds that a college has in its dorms. That is the inescapable reality in the face of which effort -- however admirable -- must give way.

4. The "Special Relationship" Delusion

Many independent school parents hold the delusion that their child's school and a certain college have a special relationship. Their hope is that if the college advisor makes a call and talks to her friend at the Duke admission office, the door will swing open. What a burden this is to independent schools! What burden this is to college advisors.

I have heard the best connected, best known college counselors say, "This is a weak class. We're not going to have a lot of high-profile admissions this year." I have never heard a college advisor say, "I'm going to make big things happen for this class." Because they can't. As one college counselor said to me, "We foster delusions by saying, 'I'll make phone calls,' but how many of those phone calls work?"

And what of the special relationship between independent schools and colleges? In the last 20 years, regional colleges have become national colleges, and all colleges have become interested in having the most varied class they can. Middlebury College sends out 70,000 brochures to get a class of 500. If independent schools have a special relationship with colleges these days, it is only because they are turning out well-prepared students.

A college admissions officer told me it was his impression that college admissions officers disliked the special pleadings of private schools, especially those based on the "specialness" of the school. He says that such arguments just sound precious coming over the phone lines.

Does all this mean that there is no point in having good college counselors at independent schools? No, it just means that good college counselors cannot walk on water. What they can do is help kids to make informed, thoughtful choices, they can write articulate letters of recommendation, they can establish a track record of honest presentation that colleges can come to trust, and finally they can help parents struggle with their delusions. That's worth a lot.

5. The "You Low-Balled My Child" Delusion

What college advisors cannot do is change the facts of a child's academic performance in high school. Some parents wish that they could do so. Rick Melvoin told me of the time a parent at a New England boarding school called up furious after receiving her son's college list. She was convinced that the school had seriously underestimated her son's chances. The college advisor, searching for a way to let this parent down gently, said, "You know, he's not in the top half of his class."

At this, the mother exploded. "Of course I know that, but no one ever told me that he was in the bottom half of his class!" Pure delusion.

Many, not all, independent schools are so supportive and so careful about not rank-ordering kids that when it comes time to make college choices, parents are deluded because they actually lack information. Last year I was asked to work with a college counseling staff that was routinely beaten up for "low-balling" students on the college lists. A large minority of parents were really applying a lot of pressure on the counselors to list higher brand-name colleges. What the college counselors were doing was straightforward. They took the class list, looked at the scores and the class rank of a particular student, saw where previous students in a similar place in the class had been admitted, took into account the desires and style of the students, and chose a number of colleges at that level. Parents were furious.

When I heard that the underlying logic of class rank was one of the major determinants of the process and yet the parents had never known and still did not know the class rank of their child, I suggested a change. My proposal was that they put more information and more responsibility in the hands of the child and her family by giving the parents a list of the college admits of the last five years by class quartile, and then supplying the child and family with the child's quartile standing. The family should then be asked to draw up the initial list. "Here is where students from all four quartiles at our school have gone to college over the last five years; this is the quartile in which your child finds herself, please draw up a preliminary list."

Parents who are prone to draw up a delusional list must do so in the face of the facts. The problem is that on every such list there is going to be a notable exception, someone from the bottom quarter of the class who has gotten into an Ivy League school. What we know in New England is that that child probably has a hell of a slap shot and the college is a Division I hockey school. That's real; that's life. It is not however the basis for most students' college lists.

What I wanted to help that school do was to give parents and students more information and more responsibility. In the absence of information, even parents who don't want to be unreasonable can get desperate. Given information and a serious role in the process, parents and students may act more realistic. By withholding information that is the basis of the school's decision with respect to a child, the school is acting in a patronizing way and inviting attack.

6. The "Colleges Are Very Different" Delusion

When I asked a college counselor what characteristics of a college really matter, she said: "Size, and to what extent the student body values academics." Her quick summary is very close to what the research shows.

In his exhaustive study of college life entitled What Matters in College: Four Critical Years Revisited, Alexander Astin writes that size has an impact on students mainly in the affective-psychological realm of the student.

Smaller schools tend to have slightly higher rates of retention and student satisfaction with the faculty, but the overall effects are small. You are also more likely to want to be a college professor if you attend a small, private college. You are likely to make slightly more money if you went to a large university. It also matters if the university is research-oriented or student-oriented. Students in research-oriented universities have lower rates of satisfaction and lower self-esteem. On the other hand, they tend to have higher scores.

The most powerful variable in the study, however, is that of peer group socioeconomic status. Astin writes: "Perhaps the most compelling generalization… is the pervasive effect of the peer group on the individual student's development. Every aspect of the student's development -- cognitive and affective, psychological and behavioral -- is affected in some way by peer group characteristics, and usually by several characteristics. Generally, students tend to change their values, behavior, and academic plans in the direction of the dominant orientation of the peer group… The values, attitudes, self-concept, and socioeconomic status of the peer group are much more important determinants of how the individual student will develop than are the peer group's abilities, religious orientation, or racial composition."

Astin ends with the observation that, "Somewhat surprisingly, the form of an institution's education curriculum has little direct impact on student development." 

In the end, the research discovers what we know to be human: We all adopt the values of the group that surrounds us, and much of that value comes from the affluence and background education of the group. These effects are much more powerful than institutional characteristics. It is not where you go, it is with whom you go to college. And there are wonderful people attending many different colleges. So much for differences between colleges.

7. The "Big College Payoff" Delusion

The most disheartening thing I ever hear from parents and students is that because the final college admit is not up their hopes, "… it was a mistake to go here." The idea that you pay for your child to go to an independent school so that he or she can get into a high-status college is a delusion of long standing. The National Association of Independent Schools acknowledges that the public schools at the college track level do as good a job of producing high board scores and college admission as do the independent schools. The reason that you send a child to independent school is not for the big payoff at the end. You should send your child to independent school for the caring, the values, the community, and for the chance to have your child surrounded by peers from high-achieving families who value education. And if your child is very bright, hardworking, and tests well, he or she will get into a big-name college. And if your child is not so bright or hard-working, he or she will get into a college that will meet that student at his or her level. Everything else is delusion.

As Bunny Melvoin said to me about the college process at Roxbury Latin, "We agonize and worry and think and analyze. In the end kids are going to find a group and be happy where they go."

Yes, but what does the research say? Here is Alexander Astin's summary: "In many ways the philosophy underlying a liberal education assumes that a liberal education is a testimony to the value of the peer group. In other words, a liberal education assumes that a little serendipity is a good thing. Allow young people to go away from home and live together in an academic environment for a while, and some good things will happen. Give these young people a good deal of freedom, coupled with some new challenges and new responsibilities, and some good things will happen. Often we really have no idea what these good things will be, but the students will seldom disappoint us."

The future of high school seniors is unknown, unknowable, and uncontrollable by parental effort. However true that may be, it is never easy for us to accept that reality. We rage against it. We're smart, we're organized, we sent our children to the best schools. Surely it isn't completely random…

Of course it is not completely random. It is just that we cannot know which part will end up being random. My college roommate, one of the smartest, most wonderful human beings I have ever known, had manic-depressive illness, was hospitalized and misdiagnosed at McLean Hospital outside Boston during his sophomore year, and ultimately killed himself a year after college. H.L. Mencken said: "Penetrating so many secrets, we cease to believe in the unknowable. But there it sits nevertheless, licking its chops." 

What do independent schools do to contribute to parental delusions? I have the impression that independent schools, anxious to market themselves and anxious to please, contribute to parental delusions about college at times deliberately and at times unwittingly.

Don't most independent schools implicitly promise that if you go to this fine school, you will get into an equally fine college, without ever defining "fine," without ever describing the differences between small-town competition and national competition? Don't schools that feature the college list in their admissions materials if it includes many high-status institutions? Do they feature the list if it doesn't?

Do we confuse intelligence and big-name colleges? For example, a head of school once said to me, "We don't have many teachers from Harvard and Princeton the way we used to." Now, I know from the remainder of the conversation that she was actually worried that people in teaching were not as bright as had been the case when she had started 25 years earlier. But she didn't say that. She used "Harvard" as a synonym for "bright."

Do we unwittingly deify a few colleges, and if we do that, aren't we asking for trouble from parents? Won't we have to wean them from the hopes we have helped create?

Do we do the job we should be doing in educating parents about the value of the education we are giving their children today and every day? Do we put it in a context for them?

For five years I interviewed ninth graders at Buckingham Browne and Nichols School in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and asked them why they were there.  Every year 95 percent of the students said, "My parents are sending me here so I'll get into a good college." We have a big job to do to keep families from focusing on the great come-and-get-it-day of college. They are pretty fixated on it when they get to us -- or at least that is what their children believe.

Do we do the job we should be doing in educating parents about the nature and uncertainties of the college experience? Do we articulate a school philosophy early enough and often enough so our parents can say, "This is what Brearly or Laurel or Chapin or Hutchinson believes is true about getting into college?" If we don't do it early, the anxiety-prone parents get so anxious they cannot hear us.

********

Michael Thompson is a psychologist based in Cambridge, MA. This article is adapted from a speech delivered to the National Association of Principals of Schools for Girls in February 1996.

Author's Note: I would like to acknowledge some people who have helped me in preparing this article. Everything I write or talk about I steal from good school people and they deserve the credit. My thanks to Rick and Bunny Melvoin. Rick is my boss at the Belmont School, and before becoming a headmaster he worked at the Harvard Admissions Office for many years. Bunny is the college counselor at the Roxbury Latin School. I would like to thank Dean Witla, head of the office of information and statistics at Harvard University, and Larry Litten, associate director of COOFHE, the Consortium on Financing of Higher Education, an organization representing 30 private colleges and universities. Both were enormously helpful in directing me to the college outcome research and in confirming some of my ideas. Finally, I would like to thank Anne Ferguson, the college counselor at Hathaway-Brown School (Ohio), Sara Lennon, the head of college counseling at the Hockaday School (Texas), and Erik Bertden, the college counselor at Belmont Hill.

 
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