Does Harvard matter?

Frank Bruni’s Where You Go Is Not Who You’ll Be: An Antidote to the College Admissions Mania is “a soothing balm for upper-middle class parents whose children do not quite manage to scale the highest peaks of prestige,” writes Nick Romeo in The New Republic.

Bruni doesn’t challenge the desire for status, writes Romeo. He tells parents their kids can attain wealth and status with a not-quite-Ivy education.

Bruni provides anecdotes about non-Ivy “people who run huge companies or work at prestigious consulting or law firms,” notes Romeo. “There are ‘myriad routes to a corner office,’ as he puts it. He never seriously considers the possibility that college might shape students into adults who are not interested in a corner office.”

An Ivy education can be free — with no degree

Guillaume Dumas, a 28-year-old Canadian, participated in classes, partied and networked at Yale, Brown, Berkeley, Stanford and more — without paying tuition — from 2008 to 2012, he told Joe Pinsker at The Atlantic. He didn’t enroll. He dropped in.

For a few hundred dollars a month in living expenses, Dumas “reaped most of the perks of college: learning, partying, and meeting intelligent, like-minded people,” writes Pinsker. He didn’t earn a degree — or go into debt.

Guillaume Dumas

Guillaume Dumas

At 19, Dumas enrolled at a city college in his native Quebec “because that’s what everybody does,” he says. He started on a psychology degree, but wanted more.

“I was just sneaking into classrooms in literature and philosophy and poli-sci and even psychiatry,” he says.

He began sampling classes at Canadian universities, such as Concordia, University of Montreal and McGill, then tried Brown and Yale and later Berkeley and Stanford.

“A diploma starts to look a lot like a receipt printed on fine cardstock,” writes Pinsker. “It is proof not that one has learned something in college, but that one has paid for it.”

Dumas now runs a dating service for upscale singles, which provides an adequate income.  “There’s never been so many career or business opportunities in the world that don’t require a proper diploma,” he says.

Some people would be better off “not paying tuition and keeping that money to travel the world and launch a business,” says Dumas. He estimates that 5,000 or 10,000 people could drop in to college without anyone noticing. “They will just disappear in the huge institution.”

My first husband attended graduate classes at Stanford without being enrolled. A professor hired him as a research and teaching assistant, though he was forced to lay him off after a year or so.

Immigrant brothers go Ivy

Brothers Edgar and Cesar Garcia Lopez immigrated to the United States from Mexico as children, graduated from Watsonville High School and are finding
Brothers Edgar and Cesar Garcia Lopez wear their college sweatshirts.

Born in Mexico and raised in a California farm town, brothers Edgar and Cesar Garcia Lopez are at home in the Ivy League, reports the San Jose Mercury News Cesar, 17, is in his first year at Yale. Edgar, 20, is a junior at Brown.

“It’s not about being smart,” Edgar said. “It’s about being driven.”

Edgar was 9, Cesar, 6, when their parents, Juan Garcia and Patricia Lopez Garcia, immigrated to the U.S. to ensure their children received the education they were denied. Settling in Watsonville, they went to work at Dole, Juan as a forklift driver, Patricia as a box-maker.

In Watsonville schools, Edgar and Cesar learned English and flourished. Cesar . . . skipped first grade and was among the first students to attend Ceiba College Preparatory Academy, a Pajaro Valley charter school that stresses higher education.

Edgar, winner of a Gates Millennium Scholarship, is studying bioengineering. He’s already got a place in Brown’s medical school and is leaning toward a specialty in orthopedic surgery.

Cesar, who now feels “at home” at Yale, plans to major in ecology and evolutionary biology.

Edgar said having a vision is critical, as is setting goals and working hard to achieve them. He recalled joining track and cross-country teams as a freshman at Watsonville.

“I wasn’t the fastest, but I saw other people running out there, and I wanted to go out there and be like them,” he said. By his junior year, he was the Monterey Bay League champion.

Others may reject you, Edgar said. Never reject yourself.

Ivy League sheep?

Don’t send your kids to Ivy League colleges, writes William Deresiewicz in New Republic. After teaching at Yale for 10 years, he thinks elite colleges are filled with talented, driven, anxious conformists with “little intellectual curiosity and a stunted sense of purpose.”

So extreme are the admission standards now that kids who manage to get into elite colleges have, by definition, never experienced anything but success. The prospect of not being successful terrifies them, disorients them.

Bright students would learn more — and meet a more diverse bunch of people — at their flagship state university, he argues.

David Brooks made a similar argument in 2001 in The Organization Kid.

Deresiewicz has a book coming out next month, Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and The Way to a Meaningful Life.

Daniel Drezner, also a professor, responds:  Entitled little shits are a minority at elite colleges.

The Ivy rat race

New York City’s “most ambitious, wealthiest parents” start the college-admissions process by hiring a consultant to get their toddler into an elite nursery school, writes Lacy Crawford.

Then come tutors, learning specialists, resume-polishing internships or exotic community service and a recommendation letter from a trustee of the first-choice school.

Finally, after 15 or so years of parents managing every variable, there comes the time when a student is expected to do something all by herself: fill out the actual application. Write an essay in her own voice.

Not really. Parents hired Crawford, an independent college admissions counselor, to help their kids craft Ivy-worthy essays and applications. Her new book, Early Decision, features an “application whisperer” who helps helicopter-parented kids get into Harvard.

In Personal Statement, Jason Odell Williams satirizes the Ivy rat race. As a hurricane heads for Connecticut,  students converge on the coast to win humanitarian laurels that will look good on college applications.

Secrets of a Princeton marriage

Princeton women should look for a husband on campus, advised Susan Patton, a Princeton alum and mother (of two sons), in the student newspaper.

For most of you, the cornerstone of your future and happiness will be inextricably linked to the man you marry, and you will never again have this concentration of men who are worthy of you.

The advice aroused and annoyed pundits), writes Walter Russell Meade on The American Interest. “For both women and men—even the over-achievers among them—happiness is about more than professional fulfillment,” he writes.

Too many elite collegians are marrying each other, writes Mead, citing a New York Times column by Ross Douthat.

Of course, Ivy League schools double as dating services,” wrote Douthat. It’s just considered gauche to say it in public.

That this “assortative mating,” in which the best-educated Americans increasingly marry one another, also ends up perpetuating existing inequalities seems blindingly obvious, which is no doubt why it’s considered embarrassing and reactionary to talk about it too overtly. We all know what we’re supposed to do — our mothers don’t have to come out and say it!

We need a national baccalaureate to recognize students’ knowledge rather than their ability to impress an admissions officer at age 17, Meade argues.

Today’s blue meritocracy, the degenerate descendant of the upper middle class Progressives of the early 20th century, has a problem: it is formally committed to ideas like equality, social justice and an open society, but what it really wants to do is to protect its own power and privilege. The Ivy League system of elite colleges is a key element in the system of exclusion and privilege that helps perpetuate both the power of the American elite and its comforting delusion that because elite status is based on ‘merit’ it is therefore legitimate.

America “needs to become a more open society”  that can recognize the Princeton kid who’s “an empty polo shirt” and the hard-working Ohio State kid who’s “a serious person,” he concludes.

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.

Minerva promises elite, online college

The Minerva Project, which promises an elite, rigorous, all-online college education, is drawing attention. Ben Nelson, who founded the Snapfish photo web site, sees Minerva as an alternative to the Ivy League. Larry Summers, a former president of Harvard, will chair the advisory board, which will include Bob Kerrey, a former senator and head of the New School in New York, and Pat Harker, president of the University of Delaware and a former dean of the Wharton School.

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“Minerva aspires to reinvent everything, from the business model and the curriculum to the way in which teaching is delivered,” writes The Economist.

“I don’t want or need to disrupt Harvard. I care about the kid who should have got into Harvard but didn’t,” says Nelson. Minerva is aiming at the “children of a Wipro middle manager from India, or a Foxconn line operator from China,” says Nelson.

The curriculum will focus on skills rather than traditional academic studies and be based on four pillars: critical thinking, use of data, understanding complex systems and leading through effective communication. The course content will be outsourced, drawing from what is readily available online and through a “Minerva Prize” competition to get leading educators to design classes. It will be delivered via the internet to classes of 25 students and a professor will then engage them in debate. Students will be located in several cities around the world, and be expected to move to a different location each year.

Nelson says it will be harder to get into Minerva than the Ivy League, but that assumes lots of people will be willing to pay $20,000 a year to watch videos, chat online and hang out with fellow Minervans. (If that $20,000 doesn’t cover room and board, Minerva will be no bargain.) The venture is for profit.

It sounds a bit squishy, writes Dan Willingham, but courses will be demanding, and “students who do not perform well will (gasp) fail the course.”

Unexceptional success

My book, Our School, is about Downtown College Prep, a San Jose charter high school that enrolls primarily low-income Mexican-American students who will be the first in their families to go to college. (Quite a few are the first to complete high school.) This year, for the first time, a DCP senior is headed for the Ivy League. Julia chose Brown over Princeton, NYU and other colleges, writes Jennifer Andaluz, the school’s co-founder and executive director.

In the college-going space we are fascinated with the “against-all-odds” success story. In truth, Julia’s story is rather predictable: she worked hard, established goals for herself, had the support of her mother, played by the rules, and had a mentor who ensured she made a “right fit” decision when it came to her college choices. Whether a student attends San Jose State or a select university like Brown, DCP aims to make college-going unexceptional.

What is worth noting is why Julia chose Brown. One of Julia’s closest mentors is a DCP teacher who is also a first-generation, Latina graduate of Brown. This teacher passed down the “social capital” gained from her college experience by sharing her journey. In the end, Julia believed she could be successful at Brown her teacher was successful.

And this is why DCP is valuable: every year a new cohort of DCP alumni graduate from college. They go from being the one who was inspired to being the one who inspires.
DCP reports that 96 percent of graduates complete the college-prep sequence required by California’s public universities and 96 percent enroll in a two-year or four-year college. The retention rate is 90 percent and the graduation rate is four times higher than the national average for Hispanic students.
 Our School is now on sale at a bargain price at Amazon.

From community college to Ivy League

More community college students are transferring to selective colleges eager to boost diversity numbers, reports the New York Times.