April madness

Forget about March madness, writes Pia de Jong. April is the craziest month for high school students and their parents. College admissions is an insanely stressful game, she writes in the Washington Post.

De Jong and her husband moved to the U.S. from the Netherlands in 2012. Their 15-year-old son is being courted by colleges already. Friends urged them to visit a private college counselor, who asked the sophomore about  his goal in life. He doesn’t have one.

His interests range from learning more about the stars to studying card tricks, from a fascination with the idea of infinity to playing Xbox.

Afterward, the consultant said: “Your son has to learn to focus more. He is just drifting through life.”

De Jong wants her son to have a chance to drift, “mess around, make mistakes” and enjoy himself. “The American education system in general, and the college admissions process in particular, seem intent on creating cautious, careerist adults-in-training,” she writes.

The Dutch do it differently.

When children are about 12, at the end of their primary education, they sit for a national exam. Based in part on their results, about 20 percent of them go on to a secondary education that prepares them for a research university. The rest follow a curriculum geared toward trade schools.

. . . if you’re on the university track, you can go to almost any university you want. . . . There is little stress, and thanks to government support, it is affordable for just about everyone.

De Jong admits the Dutch system “closes off opportunities early.” Late bloomers can try to switch to the university track, but it’s not easy.

Determining children’s futures based on a test taken at age 12 . . . That’s not a minor glitch.

All U.S. high school graduates can go to college, if they wish. Nearly half go to low-cost, open-admissions community colleges. Another large group go to unselective or not-very-selective colleges and universities. Only the best students — perhaps the top 20 percent — are competing for places in very selective colleges and universities. They may not get into a top-choice school, but they get in somewhere. (Can they afford it? Good students usually can get scholarship aid.)

For those trying to get into elite colleges, the system may favor “cautious careerists” over mistake-making drifters. But at least non-conformists aren’t put on the trade-school track at 12.

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  1. Age 12?? Holy cow. I lived in Denmark for a year in high school, and at about age 15 everyone chose whether to go to gymnasium (towards university) or a more trade-school route. I think there was more room to move around. I’ve always admired the value Europeans place on the trades and I think we should learn that there is nothing morally wrong about blue-collar work, BUT there has to be room for late bloomers and for people to change their minds. My middle brother spent all of high school thinking about nothing but skateboards and playing the bass guitar. He did some pretty random stuff in college, including two stints abroad. Now he is a tenure-track university professor–he has one of those minds that focuses on one or two things to the exclusion of all else, classic absent-minded professor type, but none of us would have predicted that back when he was focusing on skateboards.

  2. A similar system in the United States would bring about unpleasant demographic realities. So we spout platitudes and pretend students who are never going to even graduate from high school are college bound.

  3. Ted Craig says:

    “The American education system” should be edited to read “The upper middle class education system.”

    • So true, all this rending of clothes over the universities is terribly focused upon really just the “elite” careerist developing universities where getting in means you’ve made it and who you sleep with in college determines your future job prospects to a good extent.

      But only 30% of the population go to college and a tiny fraction of that 30% even apply to the “elite” universities. Seems to me, we might want to look more to the 70% who barely survive what passes for K-12 these days.