The college bribery scandal raises a host of interesting questions, including just how hard parents should work to get their children into prestigious colleges and universities. The answer is simple: Parents should provide emotional support for their kids, and what financial support they can afford, but it’s really the student’s job to get into college. Taking over that job does not help the kid.
I write as a former professor, textbook author and frequent advisor to college students majoring in economics, as well as a consultant spending lots of time with business leaders hiring young people. I keep in mind that college is not the ultimate end for the high school student. Eventually, that boy or girl will want a meaningful life, which probably will involve a job.
Imagine an unmotivated student whose parents are rich and really want her to attend a very prestigious college, or at least the University of Southern California. She aspires to go to college but feels as Olivia Jade Giannulli said, “I don’t know how much of school I’m going to attend, but I do want the experience of, like, game days, partying. I don’t really care about school, as you guys all know.” And “It’s so hard to try in school when you don’t care about anything you’re learning.”
Having had students like this in class, I feel their pain. And I feel the pain of every professor who tried to share a passion for learning with kids intent on not learning. And I know the frustration of a parent whose kids made unwise choices about homework and term papers. (But don’t worry; most kids turn out fine even with some mistakes.)
College is not for everyone. And some people who could benefit greatly from college won’t get a dang thing from the experience at age 18. So parents, take a deep breath and suggest that your child get a job instead of going to school.
Some young people have passion for not academic. Cars, makeup, and sports can be monetized. Olivia Jade may be earning $300,000 a year from her YouTube channel focused on makeup, fashion and lifestyle. (Caution: The author of the article about her earnings doesn’t know the difference between net worth and gross income, but still makes a compelling case that the young lady is raking in tons of dough.) More likely, the young person who does not go to college will earn somewhat less working as a mechanic, youth sports referee or beautician, but will have a job that is meaningful.
Others without an academic interest can look around for what pays well. Construction trades and many manufacturing jobs pay well. There may be little competition for positions because so many college counselors and parents disdain greasy work handling real objects. Getting past the prestige issue will help the young adult find meaningful work.
The next step up the academic ladder is the young person with a poor high school record but a new-found desire to achieve something through a college education. Add to this group the motivated kid from a family without money for tuition, much less a bribe. For them, the local community college is a great starting point. Two of my friends spent two years at a community college and then went to highly prestigious colleges (Stanford and Cornell), followed by prestigious graduate schools.
Attending a school out of a student’s academic league can be dangerous. The high school slacker who ends up at an Ivy League school will be in class with very bright, motivated students. Many of those students will have completed the class assignment, something a slacker would never consider. A few of the other Ivy Leaguers will bring into class information gleaned from outside reading. The slacker will be lost.
A similar problem befalls the moderately bright student who ends up at a top university. An Atlantic article cites academic research and describes the issue: “The student who would flourish at, say, Wake Forest or the University of Richmond, instead finds himself at Duke, where the professors are not teaching at a pace designed for him — they are teaching to the ‘middle’ of the class, introducing terms and concepts at a speed that is unnerving even to the best-prepared student.” Such a student is less likely to graduate. In general, the market rewards completion of a degree at a middle-quality school more than dropping out from a high-quality school.
So let’s go back to parents who want to help their kids. Start by asking what they want? Do they really want to study now? If they haven’t done much work in high school, what’s going to change?
Now let’s connect the dots between the student and a life with meaning. That summer activity done only because it will look good on an application: does that start the path to a career of honest enjoyment of real accomplishment? There is joy that comes from doing a task well, whether it’s eye surgery, fixing a car’s brakes, or singing in the church choir. The joy does not come from faking it, from pretending, from the appearance of success. The joy of a meaningful life is tied directly to honesty of the work.
Encourage your student to be honest with the college application. Encourage honesty in all parts of life. And even if you have the money, you are doing your son or daughter no favor through bribery. Then, parents, relax. Turn on the ball game while the kid works on the application essay. If asked to double-check punctuation, go ahead. But only if asked. And when in doubt, relax.
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