Thursday, August 29, 2013

Before night fell

In 1964 Hampden-Sydney College, in Southside Virginia, was fairly typical of American schools and particularly of the small, good Sothern schools of the region: Randolph-Macon College for men in Ashland, co-ed William and Mary in Williamsburg, and Randolph-Macon Women´s College in Lynchburg among others.

H-S, as we called it, was entirely male, both as to students and professors. This had the great advantage that we could concentrate on the job at hand, as for example learning things, instead of pondering the young lovely at the next desk. These latter were available at Longwood State Teachers College (now of course Longwood University), seven miles away.

Hampden-Sydney was not MIT. Average SATs were perhaps 1150 if memory serves. The students were chiefly drawn from the small and pleasant towns of rural Virginia, and would go on to become doctors, attorneys, and businessmen. Yet H-S embodied (and may still) a, by today´s standards, a remarkable philosophy of education, and showed that reasonably but not appallingly bright young can be educated. So did most colleges.
It was then believed that higher education was for the intelligent and the prepared, for no more than the upper twenty percent, perhaps fifteen ore even ten percent of graduates of high school.

At Hampden-Sydney, “Prepared” meant “prepared.” It was assumed that students could read perfectly and knew algebra cold. There were no remedial courses. The idea would have been thought ridiculaous if anyone had thought it at all. If you needed remediation, you belonged somewhere else. Colleges were not holding tanks for the mildly retarded.

The purpose of a college, it was then thought was to turn college boys—we were then called “college boys” and “college girls”—into educated young adults. Part of this meant that we should act like adults, which meant as ladies and gentlemen. This concept, currently regarded as odd and even inauthentic, meant deploying good manners when appropriate, not dressing like the contents of an industrial dumpster, and avoiding in mixed company the constant use of sexual reference in words of few letters.

Hampden-Sydney then provided a liberal education, which is simply to say an education, everything else being vocational training. A belief seldom stated but firmly held was that if you didn´t have a reasonable familiarity with literature, history, the arts and sciences and the like, you belonged to a lower order of existence. College should provide the familiarity. The faculty believed that teenagers, which most of us were, didn´t know enough to decide in what education consisted, or what we needed to learn, so there were a great many required courses. These varied between BA and BS programs,  but, for example, a student majoring in history took two years each of two languages, one of them ancient (Latin or Greek), surveys of philosophy, art, a math course, and two of the sciences.

The latter were not Football Physics or Chemistry for Cretins. They were the same courses the science majors took.
The students were then all white and so could be graded on their academic performance.  Rigor was considerable. I can still read French after two years with Dr. Albert Leduc who, judging by the workload he imposed, we suspected of being a sadist who spent his spare time pulling the wings from flies. Freshman chemistry amounted to P-chem lite, heavy on quantum theory and endless, endless, endless solution of laboratory problems of the sort encountered in the real world. It was hard. A remedial student would not have lasted thirty seconds.
Such was schooling in 1964. Then came the Sixties, which actually started in mid-decade and didn´t have their full effect for some time. But everything changed.

A proletarian egalitarianism emerged across the country, urging that everyone should go to college. A tidal wave of the dim and unready washed onto campuses. To facilitate their entry, admission standards had to be lowered and, to keep them in, academic standards. Colleges, which began calling themselves “universities,” discovered that there was money in these unstudents, and expanded to house more of them. (The students ceased to be college kids and became “men” and “women,” while increasingly acting like children.) To recruit politically desirable black students, affirmative action arose and, when these recruits sank to the bottom, “black studies” were instituted, having no definable standards and teaching nothing. “Women´s Studies” followed, allowing girls who lacked scholarly interests to enjoy indignation without suffering the unaccustomed pangs of thought. These quickly became departments of virtuous hostility to men and whites (for who is more sexist than a feminist, or more racist than a black?)

Since these young generally lacked either the curiosity or acuity for genuine studies, they wanted to be amused. Courses entitled The Transcendentalists of New England or Europe from 1926 were too boring, assuming that the purported students had heard of Transcendentalism or Europe, so they demanded and got The History of the Comic Book in American Culture. Such courses amounted to Remedial Sandbox, but sounded like college courses. It was enough.

These enlarged children were paying for college, or at least their fathers were, and they wanted value for money. That meant grades. Soon everybody was getting As and Bs. What they were not getting was an education but since they didn´t know what one was, they didn´t notice. They called themselves men and women, without behaving as such, but that was close enough. They attended a College-Shaped Place, so they figured they must be going to college, and they got great grades, so they must be learning something.

 Those in the Victims Studies departments rejoiced in extended adolescent rebellion against their parents while engaging in disguised indolence, thus joining the historically comic class of the pampered and bored who imagine themselves  as being in some vanguard or other.

Thus died American education. A few outposts remained, and remain, but very few. Men and women of my age are the last fully schooled generation.  What are we to feel other than contempt for these intellectually bedraggled victims, not of their beloved sexism and racism but of a demented egalitarianism that thinks that pretending that everyone is educated is better than allowing those capable of it to be so. How much sense does this make?  


Tutor reveals Ivy-admissions madness of rich penthouse parents

Though I worked for 15 years as an independent college-applications counselor all over the United States and Europe — with students whose parents thought nothing of flying me in every weekend to try to make Harvard say yes — nowhere was the college-admissions race more competitive than in New York City.

Here the frenzy is amplified by money and power as it only can be in New York; college admissions are the culmination of a scramble that begins with nursery school. Here, too, the opportunities for obsessive parents to break a student’s heart seem sharper than anywhere else.

My abiding memory of tutoring New Yorkers is of sitting with one girl as night fell late in October. Tears coursed down her cheeks and onto the hem of the distinctive skirt of her elite private school. She was too upset to sip from the mug of hot chocolate her housekeeper had brought up. Her parents were working late, as they always did, and other than the staff, we were alone in the house. Spread on a table before us were college essay drafts.

“It’s hopeless,” she sobbed. “I’ve got nothing.”

From her bedroom window, where we sat, an unobstructed view of Central Park stretched north to the autumn sky.

How does a young woman with so much come to feel she’s got nothing? My students were almost all thoughtful and diligent, but their parents had fallen into a terrible trap, having raised their children to reach for the stars without teaching them how to so much as stretch out an arm.

For many of the children of the most ambitious, wealthiest parents in the city, the college-admissions process begins when a child is 2, with the hiring of a consultant to deliver nursery-school acceptances.

Once in school, if the child is slow in any subject, parents hire tutors. If the tutors fail, the parents will knock on doors until they find a learning specialist who agrees to identify a trumped-up deficit in a student’s capabilities — in other words, to label the child in some way learning-disabled — after which the parents will force their excellent school to exempt the child from certain obligations, so she no longer has to take four years of math, say, or timed tests.

The college list will be drawn up no later than sophomore spring, and it will include only trophy schools — the Ivy League, Duke, Stanford — selected not for fit but according to where the parents have influence. If a parent went to a college, it’s a “legacy school,” and it goes at the top of the list. If they know a trustee, that’s in Position No. 2. And so on down the line.

By junior spring, the “early decision” school is chosen, meaning a single application will be made by Nov. 1 with the promise that the student will attend if admitted. Statistically, this is the best chance a student has of acceptance at top schools, and it’s not a problem to apply so early for students who have had years to tour their choices and who don’t have to fill out financial-aid forms.

The summer before a student’s senior year, the parents work to secure the golden ticket — a recommendation letter from a trustee of the first-choice school — while the student interns for an exclusive institution (a neuroscience lab, a political office) or performs community service in a far-flung locale (building schools in Bangladesh).

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.

By this point, our coddled child has no faith in her own words at all. Her own ideas and feelings, like a language she has not practiced, have fallen away.

Her parents wanted more than anything to protect her, to give her the world. Instead they’ve taken away her capacity to know it.

Faced with that blank page, the students panic. They freeze. Their entire lives have been pointed toward this one test of their worth: Who wouldn’t suffer writer’s block? The parents yell. Everyone sobs.

That’s when they called me.

I had been an independent college-applications adviser for almost a decade when I moved to Manhattan in 2007. For the three years that followed, I tutored some of the city’s most elite high-school seniors, working under the radar, a hired gun who slipped in and out of penthouse apartments and jogged up the side steps of brownstones like someone’s mistress.

From 2000 to 2010, more than 90 percent of my students were accepted at their top-choice schools. My name was shared among wealthy families who would not have dreamed of hiring one of the big college-application consulting shops; they wanted exclusivity, someone other students couldn’t have.

In fact, often I was asked to create false invoices (substituting, say, “child-care services” for “educational consulting”) when I billed my $7,500, all-in fee. Five days a week, from August to December, I took the 6 train from Midtown to 68th or 77th and walked west to Park or Fifth, where I sat with wealthy students struggling to free themselves from their parents’ dreams so they might have some hopes of their own.

One father requested that my meetings with his son take place in the Midtown offices of his private-equity group. His son would take the train in from Greenwich and meet me there. I offered to meet the boy somewhere easier, but no. It wasn’t safe, the father explained, as he led me into the vast glass space of his office, where his son was sitting; in fact, he had personally walked to Penn Station to meet his son’s train and escort him here.

Then he took out his checkbook and asked me, in front of the boy, what I’d charge to write his essays.

You see the logic? I love you so much I won’t risk letting you take a cab in the city, and I wouldn’t dream of letting you use your own voice to apply to college. But you can’t expect a student to write effectively in the first person if his own father has no interest in what he might say.

One young man had been flown in from Paris to work with me. He was very bright, but his English was not good enough for a top American college. Even if we could get him in, he’d struggle. His mother would not hear of this. She was engaged in a ferocious divorce from her diplomat husband, and while the blond boy and I sat there, working in the two-story atrium of their living room, professionals in slim suits wandered the apartment with notepads and cameras, making appraisals of every item that might be removed.

One evening, the mother met me when I arrived.  “We will say he’s black,” she said.

Excuse me?  “My ex-husband, he’s not seeing the application, so we’ll say what we want. We lived four years in Senegal. Our name is exotic. So, we will check the box and say he is black.”

I said this was not a good idea.  “Why not?” she pressed me. “Can they ask for proof?”

Her son sat silent as a stone, blue eyes fixed on his notebook, while the appraisers’ cameras flashed on the Picassos on the walls.

In the months to follow, I failed to dissuade the mother of her plan. Her son was not admitted.

She, like so many others, was dumb-struck, devastated, when it didn’t work out. (This is why, year after year, new clients kept calling: They hear the horror stories of wonderful kids who got in nowhere.)

These parents haven’t anticipated that college-admissions officers might be able to hear the hollow pretense of the packaged student, the shellacked essays full of an editor’s semicolons but lacking a heart.

They don’t know a trustee’s letter can also be a curse: One trustee of an Ivy League school confided in me the secret code she shared with the dean of admissions. If she felt obligated to write the letter for social reasons, the student was referred to formally — Miss Cabot, Mr. Peabody. If she believed in the student, he or she was called by name.

“I’ve had about 100 percent success both ways,” she told me.

The girl whose bedroom window opened onto Central Park struggled all fall. She was writing boring essays about her community service (she interned relentlessly at charities all over the East Side) and sweating her “B” average.

She did not know that she was all but guaranteed admission to her top choice — let’s say it was Yale — where a building already bore her name. She didn’t think she could get in, and if it weren’t for that building, she’d have been right.

But her parents could not imagine her going anywhere else. The whole process seemed to my student a trap: She had to gain admission to and attend a school where she knew she didn’t belong. How could she write an honest essay?

We got out of that penthouse apartment and walked the park as winter bore down. I noticed she knew a great deal about Central Park; her nannies had taken her here often, of course. But there was more. And one day she confessed to me her secret: Afternoons, after school, she directed her driver to several pet stores in the city, where she bought the most miserable, chewed-up, sickly gerbils and hamsters she could find. She carried them in their cardboard boxes to the grassy spots in the park and set them free.

“I know they probably get eaten that first night,” she told me, crying. “Rats. Raccoons. Pale Male. But still, imagine that one day of freedom. It’s better than whatever would have happened in that store.”

And just like that, we had a college essay. She wrote about the rodents, yes, but she also wrote about the gardens she knew so well, and how the city of her birth had grown up around the park. She covered Manhattan history and the biology of raptors in 500 words. It was terrific.

Her parents were horrified. They forbid her to submit the essay — what would Yale think? But she did so anyway.

You’ll know how this story ends. She got into Yale, of course, early decision. But her real success was in giving the admissions officers the kind of honesty that is harder and harder to find in these days of tiger parenting. And, I like to think, in clearing a path to her own life, she graduated and became an apprentice gardener with the city Parks Service. She’ll have to work her way up to Central Park, her own front lawn, but she is finally doing what she wants to do.

This is the biggest secret to success in the college applications madness: It’s not about getting kids in. It’s about allowing them to grow up.


71.4% of Full-Time College Students Get Federal Aid, Averaging $10,500 a School Year

As President Barack Obama was preparing this week to embark on a bus tour on which he intends to propose ways to “fundamentally rethink and reshape” the higher education system in the United States, the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics released a new report on the financial aid paid to American college students.

In the 2011-2012 school year, says the report, the federal government provided 71.4 percent of full-time college students with some form of taxpayer-funded aid for their education.

According to the report, 55.2 percent of full-time college students in the 2011-2012 school year took out direct federal student loans, 47.4 percent received a federal grant, and 10.5 percent were in some type of federally backed work study program.

On average, full-time college students received $10,500 in federal aid during the year.

The average value of the direct student loans made to a full-time college student in 2011-2012 was $7,000, according to the report. The average value of the Pell Grants made to full-time students was $4,400.

While 71.4 percent of full-time college students received federal aid in the 2011-2012 school year, 24.0 percent got aid from state governments.

In addition to the average of $10,500 in aid the federal government paid out to full-time college students during the school year, the state governments gave the full-time students they aided $3,300 during the year—with $3,200 of that being outright grants.

The Health Care and Education Reconciliation Act--one of the two bills  (together with the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act) that made up Obamacare--included language terminating the program through which the federal government guaranteed student loans made by private lenders. After enactment of Obamacare, all federally guaranteed student loans were made directly by the U.S. Treasury.

"Under the DL [direct loan] program, the federal government essentially serves as the banker--it provides the loans to students and their families using federal capital (i.e., funds from the U.S. Treasury), and it owns the loans,” the Congressional Research Service explained.

At the end of March 2010, the month Obamacare was enacted, the outstanding balance on federal direct student loans was $169.526 billion, according to the Monthly Treasury Statement for that month. By the end of July 2013, according to the Monthly Treasury Statement for that month, the outstanding balance on direct student loans had grown to $618.508 billion.

Since Obamacare was enacted, the outstanding balance on federal direct student loans has increased by 265 percent.

The NCES study was based on a survey sample of approximately 95,000 undergraduate students. The study said that in the 2011-2012 school year there were 26 million undergraduate student in the United States.

“So what the president believes that we need to do is we need to fundamentally rethink and reshape the college--the higher education system, and we need to find a way to build on innovation,” White House Deputy Press Secretary Josh Earnest said at Tuesday’s press briefing.

“So the president on this bus tour will lay out some fundamental reforms that would bring real change to the way that we pay for college education in this country,” said Earnest.

“Now, the proposals that the president is going to lay out are not going to be popular with everybody, but they are going to be in the best interest of middle-class families,” he said. “And the president is looking forward to having that discussion over the course of Thursday and Friday in addition riding on a bus.


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