The basketball extravaganza known as “March Madness” has come to an end. Before you rush off to remind me that the Semifinals and Final (otherwise known as the “Final Four”) have yet to be played, please allow me to point out that the remaining games will take place not in March but in April. “April Madness” doesn’t have the same lilt or ring to it, which is why the NCAA hasn’t trademarked it along with “March Madness” and “Final Four.”
I have always loved college basketball, especially when played by real college students rather than the rent-a-pros who treat college as a sabbatical between high school and the NBA. I will watch this weekend’s games with interest, although I much prefer the first-round games when I can root for underdogs. Three of the “Final Four” teams—Gonzaga, Oregon, and South Carolina—are fresh faces but hardly underdogs.
Then there is North Carolina. I had a love/hate relationship with the basketball program at UNC-Chapel Hill long before the academic fraud involving paper courses that involved a significant number of student-athletes. I used to admire legendary coach Dean Smith and the way his teams played, yet always found myself rooting against them. That changed when one of my best friends from college married one of Dean Smith’s daughters, making the Carolina coach virtual kin. After attending the wedding and seeing him in his father-of-the-bride role, it became much harder, but not impossible, to root against him and the Tar Heels.
The real madness of March doesn’t take place in basketball arenas but rather in admissions and college counseling offices. At this time of year I always feel like a contestant in a reality show. When my students receive good news I feel relief rather than joy, relief to have made it through another episode without being voted off the island. Is that exhaustion, lack of perspective due to being in the midst of the admissions season, or a college counseling version of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder?
I don’t think that’s just me. I have talked with several colleagues recently, people who are stars in our profession, who are suffering from a mid-career crisis, questioning whether it’s time to go back to the classroom or time to get out of education altogether.
One close friend works in a school where the narrative is “how do we recover from this tragedy?”, the tragedy being this spring’s college results. The irony is that the perception does not match the reality. The year has been good at worst and great at best. The voices of the minority who are disappointed are much louder than the majority who are thrilled.
Another friend is living the spring change in title from “Director of College Counseling” to “Director of Blame.” When college decisions aren’t as desired, it must be the counselor’s fault, and the fact that blunt discussions about the realities of the process have been had doesn’t prevent students and parents from being stunned. So why is that?
One reason is that all of us process the world on two levels, one intellectual and the other emotional. We may know intellectually that admission to a given institution is a long shot, but emotionally we don’t really believe it, and when the reality hits it hurts at a deep emotional level. That’s hard for students who don’t have much experience with rejection and failure, and perhaps even harder for parents, who at an unconscious level may see college admission as validation of their success as a parent.
The other reason is that, at least in independent schools, there is a belief, or maybe a hope, that college counselors are like Hollywood agents, able to cut deals for their students. I try to dispel that “suburban legend” by confronting it directly with my parents, and it always draws laughter, but the laughter is nervous.
For me the biggest frustration each spring is the widespread and growing collegiate worship at the altar of selectivity. Early in my career I remember a legendary Ivy League admissions dean making the comment that “the admissions process is rational, but not necessarily fair.” Another Director of Admissions from a Little Ivy expressed his belief that if a student has the right kind of credentials and applies to enough highly-selective schools, he or she will end up with a reasonable option.
I’m not sure either of those is true today. The gospel of selectivity is a cousin to prosperity theology, where wealth is a consequence of virtue. The admissions equivalent is that selectivity=quality. That unexamined assumption underlies the U.S. News and World Report college rankings and drives many of the unsavory games that colleges feel compelled to play.
I’m happy for all the colleges bragging about their record application numbers and their 2-3% admit rates in regular admission and sad for my students who are victims of the quest for selectivity. It is true that they are not entitled to admission to a certain school or group of schools, and that they will have a good college experience wherever they end up. It is also true that being disappointed is good preparation for adulthood. But I worry that we have created a system where admission has become random rather than rewarding merit. The long-term result is societal disillusionment with the college admissions process and lack of trust in our profession. As a counselor there are certain schools I no longer recommend because they want my students’ applications, but not the students themselves.
The marketing expert Seth Godin did a TED talk entitled “This is Broken,” highlighting things and processes that are poorly designed. At this time of year I wonder if the college admissions process is broken. Do admission conventions like Early Decision still make sense? If more colleges are measuring demonstrated interest, should we be more intentional about the role interest plays and how students demonstrate it? Should we redesign the college process to look more like the matching process that medical residency programs use?
The psychologist Michael Thompson once wrote that the college admissions process can make normal people act nutty and nutty people act quite crazy. I’m trying to determine which of those categories my March madness belongs in.