Tuesday, August 9, 2011

The best education money can buy

I'm going to pass on writing about the market action of the past few days (and on the politics surrounding S&P's downgrade of U.S. sovereign debt), in part because so much has already been written that I fear I can add little to the conversation beyond what I've already said regarding the unsustainable nature of our growing national debt.

The one thing I will choose to point out is the absolutely ignorant and arrogant fingers-in-their-ears response from the Senate Banking Committee, which has apparently taken the S&P's downgrade not as a wake-up call, but as an opportunity to prove just how out of touch they really are. Instead of taking their medicine and admitting that their debt ceiling deal was a farce, the Senate Banking Committee has elected to investigate the S&P (for exactly what, I have no idea), choosing once again to find a scapegoat for our country's problems rather than accepting personal blame and then actually trying to make amends.

But I digress (didn't I say I wasn't going to talk about those issues?)... what I actually have to talk about today is a bit of a follow-up on my post from last Friday, which tackled the issue of grade inflation at our nation's universities, and whether students who attend private colleges are literally buying their way to higher grades and better career opportunities (hint: they are). According to the New York Times, this dynamic of the-best-education-money-can-buy could be starting even earlier, in the college application process.
Josh Isackson, an 18-year-old graduate of Tenafly High School in New Jersey, spent the summer after his sophomore year studying Mandarin in Nanjing, China. The next year he was an intern at a market research firm in Shanghai. When it came time to write a personal statement for his college applications, those summers offered a lot of inspiration.
“When I was thinking about the essay, I realized that taking Chinese was a big part of me,” he said.
So Mr. Isackson wrote about exploring the ancient tombs of the Ming dynasty in the Purple Mountain region of Nanjing, “trading jokes with long-dead Ming Emperors, stringing my string hammock between two plum trees and calmly sipping fresh green tea while watching the sun set on the horizon.”...
Students preparing to apply to college are increasingly tailoring their summer plans with the goal of creating a standout personal statement — 250 words or more — for the Common Application in which to describe “a significant experience, achievement, risk you have taken or ethical dilemma you have faced and its impact on you.” Specialized, exotic and sometimes costly activities, they hope, will polish a skill, cultivate an interest and put them in the spotlight in a crowded field of straight-A students with strong test scores, community service hours and plenty of extracurricular activities.
A dizzying array of summer programs have cropped up to feed the growing anxiety that summer must be used constructively. Students can study health care in Rwanda, veterinary medicine in the Caribbean or cell cloning at Brown University, or learn about Sikkim, India’s only Buddhist state.
For those who lack the means to pay for an essay-inspiring trip, at least one scholarship program exists to help. Ten 11th-grade New York City public school students won the Palazzo Strozzi Renaissance Award, which entailed traveling around Italy for a month this summer to study the culture, philosophy and arts of the Renaissance. The students were required to keep diaries and write a final essay, which the foundation said would be used with their college applications.
It's not hard to see where I'm going with this. Isackson's ludicrous, vomit-inducing line about "trading jokes with long-dead Ming Emperors" aside (he's going to be a Yalie, naturally... they deserve each other), the class-divide issues are too obvious not to mention.

I don't know what you readers did during your high school summers (maybe you were taking private planes to summer camp, I don't know), but I know I sure as hell didn't spend them "sipping fresh green tea while watching the sun set on the horizon", at least not in Nanjing. Sure, I spent a month or so hammering down lagers from oversized mugs in beer gardens in Munich when I was 16 (part of a student exchange program--I also hosted a German student at my house who seemed to have a strange fixation with devil sticks and Bayern M√ľnchen, but he's not important here), but underage drinking in Europe isn't exactly the first thing that leaps to mind when I'm thinking about application essay topics.

So while I salute Mr. Isackson for his adventurousness and willingness to travel long distances to foreign lands at a young age, programs like the Palazzo Strozzi Renaissance Award aren't nearly sufficient to bridge what is a very obvious and important economic gap between students of varying backgrounds. There is a significant portion of college applicants for whom the concept of summering in China is simply out of the question from a financial perspective. Should we penalize lower-income students because the universe of options was simply smaller for them than for other applicants?

Hopefully, admissions officers recognize this disparity, and do not unduly punish those students who write well-crafted essays on more mundane topics (like, say, working through high school to support one's family). But I'm pragmatic and realistic enough to know better, to realize that whether they mean to be or not, admissions officers will always be impressed and biased toward the more exotic essay topics.

Maybe there's nothing we can do to overcome this economic disparity--even if we find some way to fix this particular problem, the richer kids (and their parents) are virtually guaranteed of finding some other way to use their financial resources to better craft their college-application resume. Whether it's expensive SAT test prep classes, crazy travel itineraries, private tutors, or some other to-be-determined means, money will always find a way to buy what it wants.

And maybe that's just America, and maybe that's just life. But it just sort of smells rotten, doesn't it? Or maybe that's just Mr. Isackson's ego I'm smelling. Or maybe I just really don't like Yalies.

[New York Times]

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