James Atlas has a terrific essay in this past Sunday’s New York Times on how the higher education game is generating what he calls Super People — applicants with absurdly hyper-competent resumes, who clearly have been groomed since the age of three to Succeed in Life by their obsessive parents:
Graduate and professional school statistics are just as daunting. Dr. Bardes told me that he routinely interviewed students with perfect or near perfect grade point averages and SATs — enough to fill the class several times over. Last year 5,722 applicants competed for 101 places at Weill Cornell; the odds of getting in there are even worse than those of getting your 3-year-old into a New York City private school.
“Applicant pools are stronger and deeper,” concurs Stephen Singer, the former director of college counseling at Horace Mann, the New York City private school renowned for its driven students. “It used to be that if you were editor of the paper or president of your class you could get in almost anywhere,” Mr. Singer says. “Now it’s ‘What did you do as president? How did you make the paper special?’ Kids file stories from Bosnia or El Salvador on their summer vacations.” Such students are known in college admissions circles as “pointy” — being well-rounded doesn’t cut it anymore. You need to have a spike in your achievement chart.
Of course having a “spike in your achievement chart” doesn’t exactly come cheap:
Affluent families can literally buy a better résumé. “In a bad economy, the demographic shift has the potential to reinforce a socio-economic gap,” says Todd Breyfogle, who oversaw the honors program at the University of Denver and is now director of seminars at the Aspen Institute. “Only those families who can help their students be more competitive will have students who can get into elite institutions.”
Schools are now giving out less scholarship money in the tight economy, favoring students who can pay full freight. Meanwhile, Super People jet off on Mom and Dad’s dime to archaeological digs in the Negev desert, when they might once have opted to be counselors in training at Camp Shewahmegon for the summer. And the privilege of laboring as a volunteer in a day care center in Guatemala — “service learning,” as it’s sometimes called — doesn’t come cheap once you tote up the air fare, room and board.
Colleges collude in the push to upgrade talent. “It’s a huge industry,” Mr. Breyfogle says. “Harvard has a whole office devoted to preparing applicants for the Rhodes and Marshall scholarships.” At its worst, this kind of coaching results in candidates who are treated as what he calls “management projects.
”“They’ve been put in the hands of makeover experts who have a stake in making them look better than they are, leveraging their achievement,” Mr. Breyfogle says.
“We are concerned about that,” confirmed Jeff Rickey, head of admissions at St. Lawrence University, whom I tracked down at the National Association for College Admission Counseling conference in New Orleans. “If they joined a club, when did they join it? Maybe they play 15 instruments, but when they list them out, the amount of time they spent on each isn’t that much.” Mr. Breyfogle is also on the alert for résumé stuffing. “They’ve worked at an orphanage in Katmandu, but it turns out it was over Christmas break,” he gave as an example. “It’s easier to be amazing now.” All you need is money.
Ah yes, the wonders of our “meritocracy,” in which the cream rises inevitably to the top, hard work is rewarded, and the best and the brightest jet from Katmandu orphanages to Princeton eating clubs and 172 LSAT scores!
All this, as Atlas points out, is part and parcel of a society increasingly stratified along class lines, in which the rich get richer, and in the process gain ever-greater advantages in making sure that their progeny have every advantage in the race for those precious slots at the top colleges and professional schools (and from there the top firms and agencies and businesses etc etc).
At the moment American life features a big demographic problem, which is that the baby boomers have all the good jobs, and we’re not going away any time soon. This, more than the current dire state of the economy, is the long-term problem that the education establishment in general, and law schools in particular, must grapple with. It’s one thing to mock the person who “only” got into a Tier Three law school for being unable to get a job (although in fact that person has finished ahead of 97% of the population in the credentialing rat race), but what about the guy who had an A average at a good undergraduate school and a 167 on the LSAT, and finished in the top 20% of his class at George Washington, and can’t get a job? There are plenty of those people now too — because the baby boomers have all the good jobs.
What did that guy do wrong again? Oh right he should have “worked harder” and spent a couple of more holidays in college working on Guatemalan farm cooperatives, and gotten into NYU Law. Except a third of NYU’s third year class is now in trouble, and a lot of the rest of it is looking at big problems three to five years down the road, when they and their 200K loans get laid off by the mega-firms that hired them out of law school. Oh well I guess they should have “worked harder” and gotten into Yale. Because no matter what happens, the thing to remember is that if something goes wrong it’s your fault, or possibly your parents,’ but never ever the system’s, which is fundamentally fair and just if always amenable to some marginal tweaking to make it even better.
Atlas mentions another aspect of all this that deserves a separate essay:
And to clamber up there you need a head start. Thus the well-documented phenomenon of helicopter parents. In her influential book “Perfect Madness: Motherhood in the Age of Anxiety,” Judith Warner quotes a mom who gave up her career to be a full-time parent: “The children are the center of the household and everything goes around them. You want to do everything and be everything for them because this is your job now.” Bursting with pent-up energy, the mothers transfer their shelved career ambitions to their children. Since that book was published in 2005, the situation has only intensified. “One of my daughter’s classmates has a pilot’s license; 12-year-olds are taking calculus,” Ms. Warner said last week.
“This is your job now.” I think I’ve seen this movie before, and it didn’t have a happy ending.