On Sunday The New York Times ran a front page story about the increasing number of applications students around the country seem to be submitting. I was one of a handful of counselors interviewed and quoted, something good for my school and not so good for my ego and humility.
Since the article appeared I talked with a friend who was also quoted in the article. He was bemused (I think) because a good thirty-minute conversation with reporter Ariel Kaminer showed up in the article as a five-word quote. That’s the reality when dealing with the press, I suppose. No matter how eloquent you might be and how much depth you might provide, a reporter has an angle and a limited number of words, and chances are you’ll end up on the cutting floor.
I actually originally learned that lesson as a writer myself. This past weekend was the annual football game between Randolph-Macon and Hampden-Sydney colleges in Virginia, the oldest small-college football rivalry in the South. It’s a great example of Division 3 athletics at its best, unlike the headlines and scandals produced at athletic powerhouses like UNC-Chapel Hill (which I’ll deal with in my next post), and I have been told (but haven’t confirmed) that Southern Living recently declared the rivalry the South’s greatest, beating out Alabama-Auburn, among others.
I’d like to think I had a little, very little, to do with that. I know both schools well. I graduated from and coached and taught at Randolph-Macon, and Hampden-Sydney Admissions Dean Anita Garland is my oldest and closest college admissions friend. Nearly thirty years ago I wrote an article for Southern Living about the Randolph-Macon vs. Hampden-Sydney rivalry as exemplifying “The Game” which is more important than the rest of the season. It was the first article I ever sold at a time when I thought I might pursue a free-lance writing career, and it was a big deal because Southern Living published one feature article a year in its “All-South Football Section” and that article was usually written by established writers such as Pat Conroy and Willie Morris.
My article nearly never saw the light of day. The magazine accepted the article, sent a photographer, paid me, and my wife told everyone we knew, but on the day the issue hit the newsstands I rushed out, opened the magazine, and—no article. I immediately understood how actors feel when their one scene in a movie is edited out. Are you a published author when you’ve been paid but the article isn’t published?
I contacted my editor at Southern Living and learned that the magazine had lost advertising pages at the last minute, causing the article to be cut. The good news was that they still planned to publish it twelve months later and wanted me to update it. In particular they wanted me to get some quotes from the then-President of Hampden-Sydney, a colorful character. When I called his office to set up a phone interview I was told that he was too busy because he was a finalist for another job and had to keep the phone lines open for the call from the search committee. I completed the article sans quotes and it was ultimately published, and just after submitting the revised version I saw in the newspaper that the institution he was waiting on had announced its new President—not him.
The Times article illustrates the dilemma faced by those of us who have devoted our lives to counseling young people about a decision that is an important, even essential, developmental step in the transition from adolescence to adulthood. On the one hand, it affirms the importance of our work when an article about college admissions is on the front page of The New York Times. At the same time, as a professional I find myself troubled by the messages (usually subtle, occasionally overt) sent to the public by media coverage of the college admissions process.
I talked twice with reporter Ariel Kaminer, who wrote the article and covers higher education for the Times, and she is clearly a pro who understands the issues. She quoted me fairly and accurately, and I thank her for not making me look stupid, my biggest fear any time I talk to a reporter. She chose not to quote what I thought was my most significant point. I told her that I was not necessarily seeing the trend in my school, but that I emphasize to students that the increased competition at the top of the college food chain does not mean that they should apply to more colleges, but that they should apply more thoughtfully, knowing why each and every school is on their list.
The second half of the article makes that point and that most college counselors think filing more than a reasonable number of applications (we can disagree about what that number is, but it is far lower than 30 or 56 or 86, all actual numbers from the article) is stupid and counterproductive. The problem is the first half, which describes the alarming trend, and particularly the headline (which is written by someone other than the writer of the article). A quick skim of the headline and article could very easily convince already crazed students and parents that applying to lots and lots of colleges is now the norm.
It is easy to bemoan the fact that the media contribute to college admissions-related hype and anxiety, but I also don’t know that we should expect the media to promote our agenda. What makes that harder is that I’m not sure our profession is agreed on what messages we should be sending to students and parents and the public. Is college about fit or about prestige? Is the admissions process a journey of self-discovery or a game? Does the process reward substance or packaging?
There is too much mythology and too little accurate information about how college admission works. If that bothers us (and it’s not clear that it does), it might be time for those of us on the front lines at colleges and on the other side of the desk to think about what the public needs to know and develop a vision statement for how and why the college search and admissions processes are essential in the growth of the student and in making our country better. That kind of manifesto might just be what the New York Times considers “news that’s fit to print.”