College Prep?

Winter 2016

By John Chubb

Last year, the National Association of Independent Schools (NAIS) dropped from its application for membership a requirement that schools be “college preparatory in nature.” The requirement, best we can determine, had been around for decades, written in a bygone era when schools and school programs could be easily distinguished as “college prep,” “vocational,” “business,” and the like. The schools that came together under the NAIS umbrella at the organization’s founding were clearly “college prep.” Indeed, many were veritable feeder schools for the most elite universities, or feeders to feeder schools.

Times have changed. NAIS-member schools still — proudly — send the vast majority of students (nearly 100 percent) to college, with disproportionate numbers of them attending the most selective colleges and universities. But three significant cultural changes are shifting this landscape.

First is the changing nature of college admissions, which makes it increasingly difficult for independent schools to send high percentages of graduates to highly selective colleges and universities. In fact, the days when attendance at the “right” school — public as well as private — led to admission to the right college and, in turn, to the right graduate schools or professions are over. Population growth has outstripped the growth of seats in elite colleges and universities. A flood of international applicants has made college admissions even more competitive. Ditto the Common Application. Acceptance rates at two dozen U.S. undergraduate institutions are now near or below 10 percent.

Second, highly selective colleges and universities, while still highly influential, don’t represent the only pathway to successful adult life; an increasing percentage of leaders in all professional fields were not graduates of Ivy League colleges, or of any college for that matter. Notwithstanding parental pressures — probably too often — to get their children into the most competitive colleges possible, independent schools see greater value in finding the right secondary school and the right college that “fits” each student best.

And third, significant cultural shifts brought on by information technology and a host of global challenges, with the promise of more changes to come, have made it clear that good schools need to do more than focus myopically on college admissions.

Frank Bruni, New York Times op-ed columnist, amassed the evidence in his 2015 book, Where You Go Is Not Who You’ll Be. Our captains of industry are often not products of elite educations. Only one CEO of the top 10 Fortune 500 companies attended an Ivy League college. Only 30 CEOs from the top 100 companies attended an Ivy or a similarly competitive institution. Our political elite are an equally diverse lot. In the U.S. Senate, 30 members graduated from Ivy League or comparable institutions, while 50 stem from public and private institutions that do not rank among the nation’s top 50.

This is evidence, Bruni emphasizes, that schools, families, and students should not be in a frenzy about preparing for college admissions — at least, in the traditional ways, which include maniacal AP enrollment, extensive test preparation, professional assistance with writing college essays, personalized college admissions counseling, and the like. To be sure, some of these services can be accessed only by more affluent families. But all of these practices, accessible and less so, share a similar failing. They do not steer students toward the knowledge, skills, and dispositions that are likely to ­matter most for success during and after college.

What are those skills? To be ­honest, educators and researchers are not sure. The idea of 21st-century skills came to the fore long before the year 2000. We know that college graduates today are certain to change jobs, even careers, much more often than graduates in generations past. This implies the need to learn across a lifetime, to be adaptable. We know that high-value work requires more collaboration, initiative, and creativity than work in once more-regimented organizations. We know that the workplace is increasingly global, that information expands at a pace impossible to grasp. Workers must be able to embrace diversity and rapid change.

We also know that success in the most dynamic domestic industry, information technology, is not well predicted by conventional educational success. Thomas Friedman, famed for his book The World Is Flat, went viral in 2014 with a New York Times op-ed, “How to Get a Job at Google.” The answer to his implied question is emphatically not attendance at a prestigious university. Echoing a theme from his book, Friedman observed that employers in the new economy, such as Google, are looking for innovators — the kind that might be found anywhere in the world aided only by a laptop computer and an Internet connection — and hardly limited to graduates of top U.S. universities.

Bruni asked Sam Altman, president of Y Combinator, the leading source of technology seed capital in the Silicon Valley, where its most promising new ideas were coming from. A 29-year-old who started but did not finish an undergraduate degree at Stanford, Altman lamented that Stanford was not a top source. Its greatest success, Airbnb, came from graduates of the Rhode Island School of Design. The most prolific source of new ideas is the University of Waterloo, a 30,000-student­ public university in the province of Ontario crowded with creative and entrepreneurial engineers. Who would have thought it?

A few years back, one of this country’s most brilliant young economists, Steven Levitt, teamed with a prominent journalist, Stephen Dubner, to write the unlikely best seller, Freakonomics. In a series of brief essays on noneconomic topics, they demonstrated the power of economic thinking. They showed, for example, how the naming of a child can influence success over a lifetime. There are indeed high-status and low-status names. They showed, more significantly, how the dramatic drop in violent crime in this country from 1990 to the present can be traced to the drop in unwanted births in the 1970s and 1980s — a much more powerful influence than the addition of cops, the explosion of prison populations, or other seemingly obvious causes. In a new book, Think Like a Freak, Levitt and Dubner deconstruct their disciplined yet creative approach to problem solving, with many more nonintuitive illustrations. They are advocating much more than economic thinking.

Levitt and Dubner, like so many others, are suggesting that the challenges and opportunities characteristic of our world today require new ways of thinking, new ways of problem solving, new ways of working, new ways of teaching, and new ways of learning. Educators, I believe, generally understand this. Yet we work within a system in which college attendance is so highly valued that it can skew the curriculum. Research shows a college degree is still a good investment, but we also know that the traditional college prep curriculum may not be quite the right match for what students will require down the road. We know that traditional teacher-led classrooms may not promote the kind of student agency the future demands. We know that new paths, paved with reformist enthusiasm, may turn out to be blind alleys, tomorrow’s fads.

And so we experiment. One of the beauties of independent schools is that we can. By expunging “college preparatory” from the requirements for schools we hope will join NAIS, we don’t mean to suggest that college doesn’t matter. We want to recognize the value of this kind of experimentation. No one knows what proper college preparation today should include. It would be folly for NAIS to sit in judgment of what is “college preparatory in nature.” And so we applaud the educators and the schools — many they are — who are exploring new ways to teach, new content to learn, and new ways for students to become contributors to their communities, the nation, and the world. What this issue of Independent School is all about.

John Chubb

John Chubb was president of NAIS from 2013 - 2015. He passed away on November 12, 2015.