Some Sage Insight For Students And Parents Deciding on Colleges

Thor Benander
Thor Benander is the Editor-in-Chief of The Antagonist and a father of four. He’s a lover of ancient history, Greek food, and sports. He loves to travel and thinks that if libraries were the center of American society, many things would improve overnight. You can hit him up at hilordcastleton@gmail.com.

A few years ago, my oldest child applied to colleges.  We did the whole circuit, trying to support him and be the type of informed, helpful parents who made the college application process less stressful rather than more stressful.

But applying to college is difficult, and we quickly had a baptism by fire.  As a parent, you want to set your child up to be in the best possible place for them, but what does that mean?

We did the dance and helped him paint the most flattering picture of himself, and he ended up getting into a few schools.  

Accepted Student Days

Then you have to decide where to go, especially when you don’t get into your top choice(s).  That’s when you embark on the trek of something called “accepted student days,” where a college or university sets aside a few key spring days to close the deal.  These are the students they’ve decided meet whatever their criteria is, and now they need to get them to sign on the dotted line and pay their deposit. 

So you go around, school to school, and invariably you hear from the president of each one.  They generally sound the same.  For the most part, they all have a shrink-wrapped message designed to highlight the finer points of their respective institutions and they’re utterly forgettable. 

This happened over and over to us until we got to Bard College, where we met president Leon Botstein.  He’s now approaching his fiftieth – you read that right – 50th year as president of Bard College.  When we met him, the guy had forgotten more about higher education than most of us ever know and after roughly a half century behind the president’s desk, he had no need to impress anyone.  

He began with this line: 

“Let me just say a few things to start with. One is that this whole process of getting into college is irrational and dishonest and it’s very hard to play ethically and well in a dishonest system.”

My jaw dropped and the place erupted with the applause of grateful parents and students who finally felt they weren’t being lied to or sold a bill of goods.

President Botstein went on to talk about the process, answer questions from the crowd, and generally give a lifetime of insight into what is a deeply misguided process.  I always direct friends and relatives to this particular speech.  It’s unlisted on YouTube, which is a shame because it’s excellent.  Of the listed views I’d bet 80% of them are people I sent the link to.

Thanks in large part to this speech, my son found the best college for him, and it didn’t end up being Bard. I suggest listening to the whole thing, or at the very least, the first few minutes as President Botstein sums up the application process.  Below, I’ve pulled out some excerpts that you can hear for yourself in the video or read at your leisure. It really is worth the time.

Here’s the speech, which is chock full of sage advice. Enjoy!

Bard President Leon Botstein

“First of all, Americans are deeply confused about why to go to college and where to go to college because it’s all about some kind of branding and false information about the impact of college on work life and incomes and it strangely has very little to do with what the intellectual and academic experience on the ground, and what the impact of going to college is ultimately after people graduate. 

The good news is that there are many more places people can go to college and get a good education. Ninety percent of what happens to a student in college is from the students’ initiative. So the student has to feel comfortable where they are and they have to feel inspired. And it is as important whom they go to college with as who’s in front of the classroom.

Teaching makes a difference. Teaching makes a difference, and there are many places with fancy names that are absolutely, catastrophically poor in their teaching and don’t pay attention to undergraduates. They’re the low people on the totem pole which starts with postdocs and graduate students and so forth. There are a lot of ridiculous cliches about colleges being “good at that, not good at other things.” Most American undergraduate programs are pretty versatile.

People apply to Johns Hopkins because they think they want to go to medical school. It’s completely ignorant. The fact is, Johns Hopkins doesn’t want to take its own undergraduates into medical school. You’re better off going to MacAlester College if you want to go to Johns Hopkins for medical school than going to Johns Hopkins. But Johns Hopkins is a great university and has great faculty and great programs in the social sciences – all through the sciences – and the humanities. But that’s not what it’s known for, so it has a bias in its applicant pool to pre-meds. So, if you want to get into Johns Hopkins: say you want to be a Greek and Latin major.

So every institution has this kind of reputation and those reputations aren’t necessarily accurate.

The other thing is that the worst part about the admissions process is not only that there is an undue emphasis on where people go to college and not enough emphasis on what happens to you in college.  There’s misinformation about how important it is to go to a “name brand” place of a certain kind.  Let’s say the Ivy League is a good example. 

Are there advantages? There are probably some advantages but they’re marginal. Very marginal, and just going there isn’t good enough. You have to go there and excel. And some people have figured out if you excel in a place that’s less populated by arrogant, already-conceited achievers, you might actually get ahead of the game in the sense that those environments are not necessarily the best for everyone.

The other thing, of course, is that who gets admitted who doesn’t get admitted, it’s not based on a level playing field and it’s not transparent. And it can’t be transparent and no one should have said it was transparent. People don’t get into places because they deserve to get in.

Institutions control admissions for their own purposes, not for you.

And their purpose is – some are noble – so let’s go back to Johns Hopkins or Bard. We have faculty in every discipline so we could have an entire college populated by students who want to work in the film world. The entire college. But that’s not the faculty [we have]. We’re not a film school. We need students who are interested in chemistry and biology. We need students who are interested in the social sciences and in economics in Greek and Latin. We have a very strong Classics program so we’re looking for students to match what we have. We also want students of a certain, very wide range of geographic background and a kind of cosmopolitan community. Since most people go to college within 100 miles of their home that is already an ambition. So if you apply to a very selective institution from Mars, you’d have an undue advantage. So it’s not a level playing field, and the institutions have needs. 

We don’t particularly fall into this category but there are institutions with very heavy sports investments and they need to fill the team – and all teams  – and what that has to do with the purposes of universities has never been clear to me but it is absolutely necessary for the institution. I think sports is a terrific thing, a terrific experience for undergraduates, but it shouldn’t overwhelm the fact that America knows more about Duke because of its basketball team. It’s not something to be proud of. Duke is a great university that has a basketball team and that has participated in something that’s called the “Final Four” which seems slightly like Sherlock Holmes to me, but I’ve never understood what it meant (but I’ve figured it out). I mean that’s nice, it’s great, but that’s not what we should be worried about.

But that affects admissions and of course there are legacies and there’s no way that these legacies can be avoided in institutions because they’re crucial to the financial well-being of the institution.

So, for a student to enter this process (and the parent) you have to know that it’s just a lottery whose rules are fixed and whether you got the ticket you wanted or didn’t has nothing to do with you. 

additional Excerpts from the speech:

No parent should make a young person feel that they somehow goofed. 

“If you had only worked harder in that summer school program you would have gotten into school X…” No, no. I assure you, for all of you who have gotten rejection letters – my children got rejection letters too. What that tells them is that there’s somebody just like them and not as good as them that got in ahead because the institution had a reason to take them over you. There was even a famous institution that has never taken any member of my family out of a deep-seated animus for which they are not themselves responsible. You follow me.

And so, it’s a terrible experience. An unnecessary experience. You can get a good education anywhere.

We happen to like this place, those of us who work here and are very admiring of the student body and the faculty and of the culture of the institution. And we’re thrilled that people want to come here and we’d like to make sure that the fit is right and students of all types succeed here.

The final thing I want to say is that this is not as important an event as it might seem. People believe that a good institution is one where a high percentage of its students, which is true at Bard, graduate within four or five years of entering college. The important question is not whether they graduate from Bard but whether they graduate from college. Some of our most successful interventions with young people are people who, after moderation, decided “you know, I want to become an interior designer and I want to go to a design school for an undergraduate design degree” and we help them transfer. You follow me? It’s not a failure. It’s a success.

Institutions go to great lengths to keep the students because there are these nonsensical ranking systems which are run by second-rate news organizations and they have no idea what they’re doing. And they’re playing a game which has to rescue their failing enterprise but has absolutely nothing to do with higher education.

Somebody once asked you know: what I think of it. I said, “Well, I think actually if I were the owners of these ranking organizations I would enter a new business which is ranking churches and develop a set of criteria about how churches should be ranked and I might even have one which is how often god appears.”

Anyway it’s nonsensical. Truly nonsensical, and they don’t have any way…you could possibly measure the intellectual rigor or the helpfulness of the teaching or the impact or the value-added in terms of a student’s growth. We could do that possibly. They don’t.

So that’s kind of the way they think about higher education. Something that I just want to assure you: holding on to the student body till the end is considered a virtue. They could easily rank by tracking every entering student of whether that person graduated after four or five years from some other place. That should be credited to all the institutions.

So Barack Obama started at Occidental College and finished at Columbia University. Is that a demerit for Occidental? No. Something happened to him in the first two years at Occidental which gave him ambition, you know, and he realized he wanted a bigger name-brand to graduate from, and wanted to be not on the west coast but on the east coast and he transferred to Colombia. I think Occidental should be proud, right? Not the opposite. 

Many institutions are prisoners of their own success. Especially wealthy ones. They’re banks and then they’re educational institutions. What comes first is the preservation of their endowment and their resources and then you know they’ll be happy to provide funds for other things. I’m exaggerating of course but not that much, unfortunately.

So institutions are very conservative and we saw an opportunity in trying to respond to things that needed doing and those included really integrating the arts into the world of the university. The making of art, not only the study of art. The extension of the liberal arts to populations that are normally excluded, so the Bard High Schools, the Prison Initiative, for example.

Bringing the liberal arts in a collaborative way abroad to places. We have the largest Palestinian-American collaboration, academic collaboration. We are partners and really guiding partners in the American University in Central Asia and Bishkek. We had – until we were thrown out by Putin for being “treasonous” – we had for 25 years a fantastic liberal arts college embedded inside the University of St. Petersburg and we were the first victims of Putin’s quick shift to the right.

So that was the international sphere. I think the way my attitude has changed is that I discovered that you can actually have an impact more than you think if you’re willing to take a risk to do it. I was and I am privileged to have colleagues in the institution who believed that was the right thing to do, so the more you had success in doing that, the greater your appetite.  We sent a note out yesterday: Jonathan Becker is the vice-president of Academic Affairs who does a lot of these programs. Bard is responsible for two pieces of legislation in New York state. One is the restoration of tap to incarcerate the tuition assistance plan to incarcerated prisoners in the state and the others with the first state to grant the right to vote to residents of campuses with enrollment over 300. We pioneered both of those. Now that’s an example of how an institution can function.

In the public space, most institutions really don’t care about that and one of the great advantages of the college is that it’s not driven by a kind of mythical memory of its own great past, you follow me? 

Most institutions are living in a shadow of a historical monument to themselves which they built.

It’s a bizarre form of behavior so I think my attitude is that, you know – parents do this.  I do it as a parent myself so we worry about our children. We worry about what’s going to become of them. You know, are they going to be able to take care of themselves? Are they going to have to earn a living? Are they going to be happy and all those kinds of things.  

I’m an immigrant, so my parents were frightened. This was a strange country with strange ways and they didn’t know anybody. They had no connections so the message was: you have to excel up to ten times better than the person next you otherwise you’re gonna be in the street right? And very conservative about views of careers and very conservative about being frightened for their children. I appreciated that they were frightened for me, you know, at least I was assured they liked me.  I wasn’t sure they had a lot of confidence in me, but nonetheless they cared if something happened.

We often traffic in long-range planning, you know? People will sell you insurance and say: you know you need insurance because the only thing I’m certain about is that yes that I’m mortal, but I don’t know when it’s going to happen. But people have a belief you can long-range plan and institutions love to do this and that’s one thing that I did learn when I came here (I didn’t really think I’d be here as long as I have been and it partly is because nobody else would hire me. That’s possible.) 

But no, I really, in all seriousness, I fell in love with the place and the possibility but that was renewed. You follow me? I didn’t have a plan, just a vague idea. It’s also a function of the institution successfully doing things. We’ve had our failures as well but I don’t think my attitude has changed so much. The most important thing I do is recruit people and try to hold on to them and prevent other places from poaching.

~~~~~

“The most consistent factor in the development of of a successful college career for a student and most of us who’ve had successful college experiences ourselves can confirm this is developing a supportive relationship with an adult who’s not a member of your family whom you respect who has shown confidence in you for professional reasons because of your talent because of your interest and that’s a very important dynamic.

It was a transformative dynamic for me and I’m sure of all the faculty that we all remember. There is a moment in college whether it’s in a chemistry lab or whether it’s in an English class or in a rehearsal room, that an adult – now you have to understand all of you parents, right? We all know that most of the population doesn’t like adolescents.  Nobody goes to bed with a partner and says “honey let’s have an adolescent.” They say “let’s have a baby.”

The gift of teaching is partly to give confidence and self-confidence to people who are at the brink of adulthood or in the early stages of adulthood and that is the key ingredient of a successful college career. It’s a boost in the self-confidence and ambition that a young person can have and it has to be given by teachers and faculty whom the young people admire.

“We have a country which is deeply, deeply polarized in which the desire or capacity to communicate across belief lines is very, very, very weak. What we stand for is to think for yourself and to learn to use language and therefore thoughts that you own and create and believe in. And to resist conformity and to listen to the other person and not to rush to judgment. Even if you rush to judgment, not to rush to vengeance, retribution, and moral condemnation.

Good people can be wrong and bad people can be right. On political issues this agreement doesn’t necessarily mean moral or ethical inferiority.

Do we do a good job of it? Probably not, but better than the others.”

“It’s not so obvious but [once upon a time] people often went to colleges to challenge their beliefs. You know, they were church-going teenagers and they’re part of youth group and they went to a philosophy class in which the philosopher showed the enormous weight of arguments against the existence of god and the irrationality of religious belief and the idea was that if you cannot – and certainly Jesus believed this – that you need to overcome the challenge of doubt.

You don’t sustain the faith in god by hiding the truth or the difficulties of life or the paradoxes. That’s the meaning of the Book of Job, right? So that was going to college. Today, it’s a little different. People seem to want to go to a place where their prejudices are already confirmed, but they won’t tolerate something being said that challenges a set of sacred beliefs. We try to fight against that. We try to fight against the idea that if you really believe in something you have to understand why people don’t. You don’t have to justify, but you have to understand it.”

We must live in a pluralist world. We must live in a world where we seem different, look different, think differently, and we need to embrace that difference without resorting to violence. That’s the business we’re in.

I grew up wanting to understand as best one could the nature of the modern predicament. The modern predicament, as I saw it from the perspective of growing up in the generation I did, was the conflict between progress and science and technology and the increasing barbarism and violence that was to my generation evidenced by the bombing of Hiroshima and the concentration camps.

How could civilized, so-called progressive modern [people] that had modern medicine, technology, science – why there was no parallel progress in ethical and political life? And there was, in fact, a modernization and bureaucratization of violence at a scale that was unknown so that’s the paradox.”

  • How can we bring the country together to extend freedom and justice without retribution?
  • How can we go down the path that was once visible in the work of Nelson Mandela?
  • How can we confront our own history and injustices with a mixture of progress and forgiveness?
  • How can we actually seek to feel pleasure at retribution?
  • Why do we have the large number of incarcerated people?
  • Why do we deal with failure the way we do?
  • Why do we tolerate the incredible inequality of wealth in a country?
  • How is it possible that a single individual should be richer than a sovereign nation? That can’t be right.  It can’t be right, smart as Jeff Bezos is, it’s not right, and why is our government so ineffective?
  • Why do generations of republicans and democrats let the industrial transformation of America result in the evisceration, destruction of millions of lives in the rust belt of America?
  • Whose bidding were they doing?

So we all share some responsibilities, so as an undergraduate I would be interested in those questions whether I studied economics or history. The other thing is that I’m a musician and I love music because it is utterly human and totally useless but I mean that seriously: its uselessness is its power.

It’s not about what it can do, but for me it’s a matter of life and death. If I were unable to make music as the center of my life, I would lose my will to live.

You can’t make a mistake.  I want to tell the parents: don’t be too nervous, and show interest. The one thing people sometimes mistake is that, don’t overdo the interest, but don’t undercook it either. They miss you as much as you miss them, even though they don’t act that way.

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