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Wed, 30 May 2007

The Groves of Academe

My daughter has achieved that certain age -- her junior year of high school -- which, besides the usual parental headaches of coping with her dating choices and teaching her to drive, brings her and us squarely into the initial stages of the single biggest transition of her young life: going off to college.

During junior year, the whole college selection process can no longer be ignored; as a parent, it is no longer acceptable to treat it as something that can be done "tomorrow". Now I have to come to terms with the fact that my little girl is growing up fast, that the time for her to move on to this next phase of her life is coming sooner than I expected, and that the decisions and choices she and we make now will have important and long-lasting ramifications for her life.

Probably the greatest changes since I went through this process have to do with that most inscrutable, anxiety-provoking part of the whole college admissions process: the Scholastic Aptitude Test.

The whole background and history of the SAT is a long and fascinating one (probably worthy of a separate article itself). If you look at the web site for the Educational Testing Service, it talks about how ETS was founded in 1947 by a consortium of groups, one of which was the College Entrance Examination Board. The College Board itself has a much longer history. It was founded in 1900, and led a fledgling existence for nearly two decades, until the United States' entry into World War I. The Army was concerned about the intellectual quality of the soldiers who had been drafted, and was looking for a way to categorize and screen incoming draftees. The CEEB stepped up, hawking a modified version of its entrance examination to the military as an IQ test which could be administered to large numbers of soldiers quickly and easily. The resulting government contracts over the following decades established the CEEB as the authority in the intelligence testing field, and made the company financially secure as well.

These Army tests, the precursors to today's SAT, consistently indicated that over seventy percent of the soldiers entering the Army were classified on the IQ scale as "morons", "imbeciles", or worse. Now, if you gave a test and over seventy percent of the test-takers fail -- repeatedly, over many years -- there are two obvious conclusions: either the people taking the test really are dopes, or perhaps there's something wrong with the test, that it does not indicate what it claims to indicate. Unfortunately, the few voices that raised the latter objection were basically shouldered aside, and the CEEB became the recognized "authority" in the field of intelligence-type testing. When soldiers began returning home after World War II in large numbers, and with the passage of the GI Bill which encouraged so many of them to go to on to higher education, colleges and universities were desperate for some way to evaluate and classify these new applicants; the CEEB was more than happy to deliver up its tests to the new ETS organization -- thus was the SAT born.

The SAT was basically unchanged for many decades: sections were expanded or contracted, question contents were adjusted to reflect changing college needs and school curricula, but the fundamental structure of the test (a verbal and a mathematical assessment) stayed the same. How the test was scored was never publicly admitted; one did not receive back the graded test so that you could see which questions you got right and wrong; secrecy was the byword for everything surrounding the test. Under the circumstances, it is not hard to see why the mere mention of the SAT induces feelings of anxiety in college-bound students even to the present day.

A few years ago, there was a major change to the SAT: a new writing section was added, coequal with the existing verbal and math sections. Students now must produce a writing assignment, which is graded not only on a technical level (grammar, spelling, punctuation, etc.) but also for higher-level criteria such as tone, usage, richness of expression, relevance to the assigned topic, and the like. Although ETS provides those teachers who grade the writing section with detailed rubrics for scoring them, it's a significant departure from the standardized, multiple-choice, quasi-objective, machine-scored SAT of the past.

Another change from the SAT of old is the somewhat increased level of transparency regarding the test. After having been sued several times over questions which turned out to have more than one possible answer (or for which none of the given answers was correct), and over possible gender and racial bias in the test (especially in the verbal section), ETS has been gradually making the SAT less secretive over the last decade or so. This has led to the phenomenal growth of companies like Kaplan and the Princeton Review, which now exploit SAT anxiety to offer "SAT Prep" classes, many of which "guarantee" to raise your score on a subsequent retake of the exam. Of course, the fact that you can significantly raise your SAT scores simply by following simple test-taking strategies makes one wonder exactly what kind of innate qualities of intelligence or reasoning the SAT ostensibly purports to measure. (As one wag put it, "The only thing the SAT measures is how good you are at taking tests like the SAT.") Even my daughter's public high school offers an SAT Prep class to juniors and seniors -- not as an extracurricular activity run by one of these firms coming on-site, but as a regular course, taught during regular school hours by regular teachers. It's a big advantage that she has compared to when I took the SAT -- assuming that you are anxious enough about the test to feel such a course necessary, or if, like my daughter, you are not particularly worried but feel that any advance preparation you can get could not hurt.

The next big subject that my wife and I needed to tackle with my daughter was what field she might want to study in college, and what colleges would then make sense for her to attend.

Figuring out what my daughter wanted to study in college was not terribly difficult. As far as that goes, she had long ago made up her mind that she wanted to work with marine mammals like dolphins, whales, and seals, so the only questions she had concerned the differences between, say, getting a degree in Marine Biology versus going Pre-Med as an undergraduate and then going on for a degree in Veterinary Medicine.

Now, I am by no means an expert on which colleges specialize in which disciplines, except for those close to my own field of study, computer science and software engineering. I had only some general awareness about schools that might be suitable for my daughter (Purdue? I remember hearing somewhere that Purdue has a good school of Veterinary Medicine. Have to remember ask our own vet about all this -- see if he has any recommendations to offer.) Fortunately, the Internet makes this kind of research far easier than it was in my day, and it took only a few days of intermittent Googling to start to narrow the field to a dozen or so schools my daughter was willing to consider further. (And yes, while it turned out that Purdue does have a large and highly respected veterinary program, there was, as my daughter put it, "no freaking way" that she was going to go there: "Dad, how many dolphins are there in Indiana?" As she wanted to study how to treat Flipper and not Lassie, I had to concede her point.)

So now we had one main criterion nailed down -- the geographic one. My daughter's ideal school would be located on or close to one of the coasts, so as to have greater opportunities for her to work with marine mammals. We were ready now for the opening gavotte in the college admissions dance: the expression of interest. Back in my day, this process meant writing a form letter to the admissions office at the school in question, telling how you were starting to consider various colleges in your chosen field of study, asking for a copy of the course catalog and any other materials they could send regarding the school. Today, such matters are accomplished far more simply by going to the school's web site and filling out a form requesting this information. In no time at all, the catalogs and brochures started to arrive in the mailbox. One bit of advice I gave my daughter at this point was to make up two file folders for all inbound college literature, one labeled "Useful Information" and one labeled "Propaganda", and warned her that the ratio by weight of the the latter to the former would be at least twenty to one. She laughed, but she did go ahead set up just such a filing scheme, and, several emptyings of the "Propaganda" folder later, has admitted that my estimate has not been too far off the mark.

One amusing side effect of starting down the admissions path has been the nearly continuous arrival of collegiate junk mail -- earnest entreaties from schools you never heard of, schools that don't show up even as an asterisk on things like the U.S. News rankings, schools that don't offer a major, minor, or any courses at all in my daughter's chosen field. What they all seem to have in common is an air of quiet desperation, almost begging for any kind of response: "We're appearing at such-and-such's college fair in your area; will we see you there?" (No, it's nearly a hundred miles way, actually.) "We have an alumnus who lives near you; when can they expect to meet you?" (Fifty miles is pretty far to go for tea and cookies, and besides, you don't offer anything in her major.) "We're having a get-to-know-the-school weekend here at Rumpelstiltskin College; would your daughter be interested in attending?" (Sorry, must regret; I don't know what it is, but I'm sure we have something scheduled for that weekend.) Their puppy-dog-like insistence, even in the face of overwhelming indifference, is like that of the most cliched people one never hopes to meet at a dating service. One starts to wonder how much of their overall budget goes towards postage and how much towards actual educational purposes.

Still, there were still nuggets of gold among the dross, and so we continued to refine and narrow the search. Then, around December of last year, everything went back up into the air; everything we knew before was wrong.

First, there was the rock band: my daughter announced that she did not need to go to college because she was going to join a rock band with several of her friends after graduation and go on to fame and stardom. My wife and I pointed out that the proportion of high school rock bands that go on to fame and stardom is probably comparable to the proportion of high school athletes that go on to the stars in the pros, and that maybe it would be a good idea to have some sort of non-entertainment career path to fall back on in case the band did not pan out. I'm not sure where this all came from, although their band did win an Honorable Mention at the school's Talent Show a few weeks earlier, and maybe that got one or two of them thinking that big things were possible. My wife and I discussed the whole situation, and figured it was best not to make a big deal about it, and sure enough, talk of being the next Sly and the Family Stone quickly faded out.

Things seemed to be back to normal on the college front for several weeks, but then my daughter announced that instead of going on to college, after graduation she would be enlisting in the Marine Corps (along with her best friend, who was from a military family and who was going to enlist as well). Again reminding ourselves to stay calm, my wife and I sounded my daughter out about the details of the plan. After a little research of our own, we brought some things to her attention that she and her friend had not really considered: that the military's college savings plans are not all that easy to stick to, and that it's surprisingly easy to wind up with little or no benefit at all. That even though she and her friend could enlist together, and that they could even go through basic training together, there were absolutely no guarantees that after that they would be assigned together. That if she was thinking of joining the ROTC to pay for her college, she first of all had to be enrolled in some college that had a Marine Corps ROTC program. And that the Marine Corps appeared to have little need for Marine Biologists, and would probably be reluctant to pay for one. We said no more on the subject, and, although she and her friend did sneak off after school to take the military skills assessment and aptitude test at the local recruiting office, the idea of joining the Marines quickly faded away.

I have no idea where these sudden detours on my daughter's college-bound path came from, but I was very happy to see them disappear. Certainly there were other more pressing tasks now looming on the horizon, foremost among them whittling the dozen or so candidate schools down to a reasonable number -- say, three to six. At first, it was difficult to get my daughter to agree that any of the schools she had originally selected ought to be at least deferred from further consideration. Each had at least one positive point that none of the others had, and so she could not bear to put it aside. It wasn't until we got to discussing geographic considerations that the task suddenly became much easier.

When we were discussing the pros and cons of the various schools, one located in Long Island, New York came up. "Oh, I've decided I don't want to go there," she announced quite unexpectedly.

"Why ever not? It's a very good school."

"It's too close."

"Too close to what?"

"To here. To home. When I go 'off to college', I really want to go far away. I don't want to think I could come home every weekend, or that you'll be dropping by unexpectedly to visit me. I want to be on my own."

Well, that did it for me. My little girl, who still had a collection of stuffed toys that would rival FAO Schwartz, was now standing up for herself and asserting her independence. I had always figured that I could avoid having to deal with this until much later in the process -- say, when we were walking back to the car after unloading her things in her dorm, a long time from now, right? I guess none of us ever knows exactly when significant moments in our lives will take place, so we just have to be ready for them at a moment's notice.

My daughter's unexpected declaration of independence did have the side effect of narrowing the field of "acceptable" colleges quite considerably, since quite a few of them were in the Northeast or Middle Atlantic states, all "too close" now to be considered as finalists. In the end, we did manage to get the number down from twelve to three -- one in California, one in Florida, and one in Hawaii.

The University of Hawaii was particularly appealing: to my daughter, because what teenager from the Northeast would not think it quite cool to be going to school in Hawaii, and to me because my aunt has lived in the islands for more than forty years, and even if we couldn't drop in at a moment's notice, my aunt could at least keep a discreet eye on my daughter. There was even a possibility that my daughter could, in time, establish residency in Hawaii under my aunt's aegis, and qualify for some of the benefits reserved for residents (not the least of which is in-state tuition rates).

There were similar considerations going through my mind when we decided on the California school, the University of California at Santa Cruz. Not only is the school not far from Monterey Bay and the national marine sanctuary (which makes it strongly appealing to my daughter), but it is also reasonably close to where my sister lives in northern California (which of course gives it added appeal to me).

The University of Miami is a fine school, with a superb Marine Biology program of course, but aside from the notoriety of the football and basketball teams, I cannot see that anything very appealing about it. But that may also be because I don't know anyone living withing two hundred miles of Miami.

So now we have narrowed the field, and my daughter's junior year of high school will very soon be at an end. Summer vacation will be a welcome respite from the college admissions game, but September will be here before we know it, and then we come into the home stretch of the entire process: Do we apply for Early Decision (a kind of backdoor way to make it virtually certain that you will be accepted to that college, as long as you're certain that is where you wish to go)? Then the campus visits (hmmm, we have never been to Hawaii before....). Then application forms, financial aid forms, forms to indicate that you had previously sent in other forms. Then the waiting, and then the decision letter in the mailbox. (Legend has it that if it is thin (a single page) you are not accepted or have been wait-listed; if it is think and contains yet more forms to fill out, you are in. When I was going through all this with my parents, I applied to four colleges and was accepted to at three, but for the life of me I can't remember whether the letters were think or thin or in between.)

And then, before I realize it, I will be making the slow walk out of the dorm, back to the rental car, and then back to home, leaving my little girl -- my big girl now -- on her own as she begins to take her own steps down her own path in life.

Posted May 30, 2007 at 23:31 UTC, 3115 words,  [/richPermalink