College as culture

Whether a high school sends its graduates into the world, or off to college, is apparently a matter of institutional culture. In other words, like many other cultural issues, it can not only be changed, but once it does start to change, it becomes self-reinforcing. David Leonhardt of the NY Times Economix blog posts about the story of a magnet school in Bridgeport, CT (which, not to be mean, has always sort of typified “run down city” to me).

The evolution of Central Magnet over the last 30 years, in [guidance counselor] Mr. Moran’s telling, highlights how this pattern might change. Over the years, more Central Magnet students began to apply to and attend selective colleges. As they did, the students in subsequent years began to see applying to those colleges as a normal thing to do. Moving 50 miles, or hundreds of miles, away from home was no longer deeply unusual for a top student.

By now, Central Magnet graduates have attended all eight Ivy League universities, liberal arts colleges like Amherst, Colgate, Haverford, Vassar and even Rice University, some 1,500 miles away, in Houston. “All these schools that were completely unheard of in the last five years are suddenly standard fare,” Mr. Moran said. Among the 140 or so students in a senior class at Central Magnet, more than 70 percent enroll in a four-year college and about 20 percent enroll in a two-year college, he said.

I’ve always maintained that the best thing that ever happened to me was in 7th grade, when I somehow — to this day I’m not sure how, though it probably had something to do with the school play — fell in with a good crowd of rich white girls. (I know now that they weren’t rich, but these things are relative.) It didn’t make me into a good student, but it made me value the valuable things in my education, and that made all the difference. The culture I grew up in was defined in great part by them and their parents.

Kids and adolescents are impressionable, generally conformist even as they’re dying their hair pink, and pretty culturally plastic. If you can make intellectual development and social respectability “the thing to do”, you’ll have gone a long way to building a good future for students. Kudos to Central Magnet for making a positive cultural change.


  1. Richard Aubrey says:

    “if you can make….the thing to do….”
    What was the culture at that school prior to the change? Was it anti-intellectual?