I Wanted to Get A's This Quarter

So I did.

Friend: "A college is going to think you were retarded freshmen and sophomore years."

At least I contributed to Southwest Airline’s generous profits during those years…

Sick of Hearing about Harvard? So Is Everone Else – Except Harvard-Educated Journalists

Link: Sick of hearing about Harvard? So is everyone else–except Harvard-educated journalists.

This is a few-month old free article from the Wall Street Journal on why Harvard still makes headlines despite its diminishing importance as an ideas factory. Some nice play for the U of Chicago, too.

The Social Logic of Ivy League Admissions

I haven’t been able to get to my next book because I’m drowning in periodicals and print-outs, in large part due to my discovery of Arts and Letters Daily, a massive aggregator of all the interesting articles on ideas, criticisms, books, politics, academia, etc. I also discovered Political Theory Daily Review which is another meta aggregator of similar kind.

If you don’t already subscribe to The Atlantic, well, shame on you, you should, and if you did you’d read their college admissions survey. So instead I will point you to a free article online in the New Yorker by Malcolm Gladwell. When I read the title and saw the author I knew I’d love it – it’s about "social logic of Ivy League admissions." I love sociology and college admissions is relevant!

Go read the whole thing. Gladwell starts by pointing out the ridiculousness of the old Ivy League admissions system, as recent as the 1970s ("applicant is short with big ears"). He then makes a clear point:

Social scientists distinguish between what are known as treatment effects and selection effects. The Marine Corps, for instance, is largely a treatment-effect institution. It doesn’t have an enormous admissions office grading applicants along four separate dimensions of toughness and intelligence. It’s confident that the experience of undergoing Marine Corps basic training will turn you into a formidable soldier. A modelling agency, by contrast, is a selection-effect institution. You don’t become beautiful by signing up with an agency. You get signed up by an agency because you’re beautiful.     

At the heart of the American obsession with the Ivy League is the belief that schools like Harvard provide the social and intellectual equivalent of Marine Corps basic training—that being taught by all those brilliant professors and meeting all those other motivated students and getting a degree with that powerful name on it will confer advantages that no local state university can provide. Fuelling the treatment-effect idea are studies showing that if you take two students with the same S.A.T. scores and grades, one of whom goes to a school like Harvard and one of whom goes to a less selective college, the Ivy Leaguer will make far more money ten or twenty years down the road.

Then, we learn that a couple economists published a study questioning the common assertion that Ivy League grads make more money later on. "They found that when you compare apples and apples the income bonus from selective schools disappears."

Later it discusses an interesting dilemma for admissions officers: do you admit the "best-graduates" or the best students? "We tend to think that intellectual achievement is the fairest and highest standard of merit…" yet the "only thing that matters in terms of future impact on or contribution to society is the degree of personal inner force an individual has." Elite law schools tend to admit on the best-students model, Gladwell says, even though L.S.A.T. scores have little to do with how good a lawyer he will be. If you support a best-graduate model, then you should support a bit lower standards for athletes because athletes are far more likely to go into the high paying financial services sector "where they succeed because of their personality and psychological makeup." And a successful alum will donate to the school. Finally:

In the 1985-92 period, for instance, Harvard admitted children of alumni at a rate more than twice that of non-athlete, non-legacy applicants, despite the fact that, on virtually every one of the school’s magical ratings scales, legacies significantly lagged behind their peers. Karabel calls the practice “unmeritocratic at best and profoundly corrupt at worst,” but rewarding customer loyalty is what luxury brands do. Harvard wants good graduates, and part of their definition of a good graduate is someone who is a generous and loyal alumnus. And if you want generous and loyal alumni you have to reward them. Aren’t the tremendous resources provided to Harvard by its alumni part of the reason so many people want to go to Harvard in the first place? The endless battle over admissions in the United States proceeds on the assumption that some great moral principle is at stake in the matter of whom schools like Harvard choose to let in—that those who are denied admission by the whims of the admissions office have somehow been harmed. If you are sick and a hospital shuts its doors to you, you are harmed. But a selective school is not a hospital, and those it turns away are not sick. Élite schools, like any luxury brand, are an aesthetic experience—an exquisitely constructed fantasy of what it means to belong to an élite —and they have always been mindful of what must be done to maintain that experience.

What's the Most Expensive Purchase in Your Life (after house)?

Not a lot new in this Wash Post book review about the stupidity of college admissions mania. "Curiosity, self-discipline, effort, imagination, intellectual verve, sense of wonder, willingness to try new things, empathy, open-mindedness, civility, and tolerance for ambiguity are some of the qualities that define and give value to being a student. They are the same qualities that colleges say they seek in admitting prospective students. Yet they are also qualities that have been betrayed and repressed by the business models that now guide much of college admissions."

Craig Newmark of Newmark’s Door adds: "The prestige purveyors of higher education are now charging $125,000 [actually, $160,000] and more for their product. I’ll wager that the average American makes no more expensive purchase, except for his house, in his life."

Follow Up to Comments on Why Is College the Default

I appreciated the many comments to my post Why is College (4 years, $160k) the Default?. The points were varied but steady in theme: don’t write off college! Technology educator Richard Kassissieh encouraged me to think about who works at colleges and why – ie professors are paid to make their minds available to you. Entrepreneur Chris Yeh admitted that he’s overly educated but couldn’t imagine life without it (I will address this in a moment). He makes the good point, “It is very seductive to believe that just doing what you’re passionate about is enough. But the world works in a certain way, and even if you decide not to follow those rules, it’s important to know and understand them.” Venture Capitalist David Cowan remarked that he learned the most in college by accident in the moments when you’re not “supposed” to be learning. He concluded, “Can you reproduce the experience without enrolling? I doubt it. You’ve got only one short life–why screw around with it? Seize the opportunity that people your age across nations and centuries have only dreamed of. You’ll love it.” The best comment in my opinion came from investor and civic leader Richard Springwater (excerpt): “The one thing that college can give you that you can never get anywhere else is a foundation in the basic literature of our culture. I find myself using my college education every day because all ideas are connected and they all go back to sources. The right school for you will operate in a purposeful way to introduce you to the canon of essential works. This is harder than it sounds because it cannot be self-assembled – you need an institution that understands its mission in this light and organizes its curriculum with a focus on the linkages. Over the past 40 years, most schools have pandered to the demands of their students for more electives, and to their faculty for more freedom to teach their specialties, and the result has been a directionless in education. The fact is that the consumers (students) have a variety of goals, most involving careers or killing time, with a small minority actually interested in what you describe as “learning to learn.” Someone who learns throughout his life for no reason other than abiding curiosity is called an intellectual. If you recognize yourself, than you need to find a place that will appreciate and understand you.”

Let me make one general point, first: I have not written off college. Indeed, as I have chronicled in my College Process posts or School posts I am visiting schools and will be applying to many in the fall. On the surface, a university environment seems like it would be a chocolate factory to me: tons of super smart people, guest speakers, a Yellow Pages thick course catalog of engaging courses, and so forth. These are all prime drivers in my excitement about college – I know I will milk its resources to death. On the other hand, I fear many of the reservations I have about high school (and the formal education system in general) only continue at the higher ed level. Given the extraordinary cost and time that one needs to devote to obtain a degree, I’m embracing alternative methods to acquire the same knowledge and experiences.

When Chris says above that “he couldn’t imagine life without it” (Stanford/Harvard education) this crystallizes a key point in my mind: for any kid who wants to go places, an official college degree seems so automatically essential that anything to the contrary seems beyond our imagination for how it could work. Along these lines, Kathy Sierra did a follow up post to her “Does College Matter?” post which prompted this discussion. In it she cities a cognitive scientist at Northwestern (previously chair of the CS department at Yale) who, after complaining that most of his Yale students weren’t there to get a strong education and mostly to party, get a good job afterwards, etc., says: “A good deal of cognitive dissonance is at work here. Because people labored so diligently at school for so many years, they convince themselves that there must have been a lot of learning going on.”

It surprises me that a Yale prof would say this – for I suspect this is less the case at the very top universities in the country. I think you will often hear similar things at middle tier colleges like where Seth Godin taught when he told me most of his students were there to get a degree. Because of the trade-offs I have made in high school (lower grades, run a company) I most likely cannot get in to the very top tier schools. There are tons of great schools out there, but many of my blog readers email me and say things like “Harvard’s a great school” or “You can go anywhere you want, why pass up?” Simply not true.

Finally, David Cowan above asks “You’ve only got one short life – why screw around with it?” The rebel in me says, Why NOT screw around with it? It seems to me that the world’s most preeminent thinkers and doers who literally moved the human race forward were those who wanted to screw with the status quo. People called ’em crazy at the time, but history has thanked them. And I look up to those people who thought different.

Why is College (4 years, $160k) the Default?

A great post at the Creating Passionate Users blog titled “Does college matter?” She basically asks the same question I’ve been asking for a few months now: given the state of undergraduate education (she cites the new book Declining by Degrees: Higher Ed at Risk) and the fact beer is the overriding memory of college by most, why is it considered the default that after high school students charge off to a four year college? By the way, at a private college like the ones my brothers go to the tuition is $40k/year (everything included). Think about how one could spend $160k over four years to become a life long learner.

The conventional wisdom says that the specifics of what you learn are much less important than the fact that you’re learning the fundamentals, and you’re learning to learn–things you’ll need to maintain your skills and knowledge in a quickly changing world.

The problem is, you virtually never hear a student say that. It’s always the parents or someone speaking on behalf of the educational system. When was the last time you honestly heard (and believed) an actual current college student claim that the true benefit of their formal college education is in learning to be a lifelong learner? That’s just bull***.

Others claim that the benefit of a college degree is really more about socialization and independence. I’ve heard reasonably smart adults say, with all sincerity, that spending $80,000 [it’s more like $160k] so little Suzy could learn to live on her own was worth it. I think there are a thousand different, and often better, ways to achieve that. Suzy could join the peace corp, for example, or go on one of those “learning vacations” where you do an archeological dig. Hell, just a three-month long trip through Europe with a couple friends and a rail pass (or, as a friend of mine did, a bike trip across Turkey) is certainly going to do more for socialization and independence than a traditional college environment, and at a tiny fraction of the cost.

I have more thoughts on this issue but I am struggling to decide whether to post them publicly on my blog. Perhaps sometime in the near future I will share my idea for feedback.

Fitting an Impossible Ideal

I have never been in such a pressure cooked environment in my life. Two more SATs, APs, final exams, and final papers all converge over the next 6 months. Seniors are getting rejected from colleges and, amazingly, you only hear about the couple dozen kids who are going Ivy League. Yesterday, the San Francisco Chronicle did a front page story on the results from the SAT I and tens of thousands of others took last month. My college counselor was quoted extensively in addition to a mini-profile of a guy in my class who got a perfect score of 2400 – 1 of 100 in the country. What are lunch time discussions? People printing out US News rankings; people saying they just want to become a lawyer and make money; people blurting out “Geeze, if so-and-so had perfect SATs and 4.0 GPA and got waitlisted from Harvard, what are they looking for?” My classmate Elena Butler summed up her gripes in this eloquent post:

It’s dehumanizing. At times, I feel like I’m just another case study. My scores, my grades, even my extracurriculars/interests (that supposedly make me unique) just make me more like everyone else. In other words, all my curiosity, passions, and energy now seem two-dimensional.

I can’t be the kid who is an athlete and a musician, has straight A’s, a 2400, and a life (though I can be his best friend). Instead, I’ve realized that I want nothing more in my life than to effect change, either through an idea, invention, or discovery. But right now, I feel boring. I think this is because the college process has fostered in me the desire to fit an impossible ideal.

I only hope this desire does not recur in my life–after all, it’s nonconformity, not conformity, that wins out in the end.

Spring Break College Trip: Notes and Photos

I’m exhausted. Over the past five days I visited eight colleges, spent time in four time zones, and logged upwards of 500 miles in a rental car. This post summarizes my visits to NYU, Sarah Lawrence, Cornell, University of Rochester, University of Chicago, Northwestern, Carlton, and Macalaster. Photos from the trip are here – if you click through each one there is a descriptive title.

After losing four hours to daylight savings and time zone change on Sunday, Monday morning was rise and shine for New York University. Overall, the best part about NYU is its intense urban feel which I like. NYU has tens of thousands of undergrads and various special colleges and you have to apply to ONE of them. In particular, the Stern School of Business and the Gallatin School of Individualized Study (create your own major by picking classes from any of the colleges) appeal to me.

Next was Sarah Lawrence College. Sarah Lawrence is very unique in that they are all about individualized attention. Super small classes, one on one conferences with professors, and the like. Unfortunately, its artsy, alternative culture didn’t jibe with me, and it’s off my list.

The next morning (after a long drive) it was a tour and meetings at Cornell University in Ithaca, NY. It was splendidly beautiful (an anomaly given the time of the year). Impressive tour and impressive campus reps. They also have a cool entrepreneurship program. Cornell seems like an amazing place – I want to explore it more in the coming months.

The University of Rochester in Rochester, NY was next and this made a positive impression on me. Beautiful campus, laid back, smart kids, and wide latitude in academic choices. Unfortunately the timing didn’t work out for a tour it’s a place that interests me. Plus only 5 minutes from an airport!

After flying to Chicago that night, the next morning the University of Chicago was the focus of attention. It was one of the most academic places I’ve been to. Everyone is brilliant and incredibly focused on their studies. Do the kids have life balance and a social life? That’s a question for me – but other than that, a strong school for sure.

Northwestern University (in Evanston, IL) has a different feel. It too is an amazingly rigorous academic school but the kids seem more mainstream. This tour was the most crowded, a testament to its popularity. Northwestern has the famous journalism college which is highly selective. Nice school.

After a 7 hour drive, I was in Minnesota for the first time in my life to check out Carlton College. Carlton is a nationally-renowned liberal arts college with a secluded, beautiful campus. It’s definitely the type of place where you could settle in and study for four years without distractions.

After Carlton I had lunch with my friend Steve Clift a public speaker, researcher, and online strategist focused on e-democracy and e-government.

Macalaster College is right in the heart of St. Paul, MN and had a little more alternative feel. Another great academic school with a Jamba Juice and Wells Fargo right across the street! Seth Levine from Mobius VC had prepped me on what a Macalaster education is all about and it fit that billing. I left with a positive impression of a collegial, smart community.

This trip was largely prospective – that is, one to evaluate schools that I could likely get in to and those that would be a stretch, big schools and small schools, rural and urban, etc. All schools except Sarah Lawrence stay on my list. There still are Boston area, Pacific Northwest, and LA schools to check out.

My main takeaway from this trip is that all these schools have amazing campuses, thick course catalogs, and a bright student population. It’s all about the personal fit.

The Education or Diploma?

In a not-too-enlightening review in the NYTBook Review today, there is a provocative question at the end:

In ”Harvard Rules,” Bradley describes the case of Joe Green, an undergraduate disillusioned by his experience as a student representative on the committee evaluating the Core Curriculum. ”Green kept thinking about a question one of his professors had put to him: ‘If you could either go here and get no diploma, or not go here and get the diploma, what would you do?‘ ” Bradley writes. ”It bothered Green that he couldn’t easily answer the question.” It should bother the president of Harvard, too. The answer, in the end, is the difference between a great university and a brand name.

First College Trip to Midwest and East

I met with our college counseling advisor the other week to talk about my planning. I will be posting updates as I go through it but I will say that for once I will NOT be completely transparent on these issues. Why? Because I wouldn’t want anything I say on this blog to hurt my chances at getting into a particular school if by chance an admissions officer from the school read the blog.

In any case, the guidance I’ve received is that while my GPA is quite low (below a 3) my other activities and “intellectual vitality” will be very helpful. Since I have few preferences when it comes to school size or geography, the map was wide open. I did check out a report that analyzed colleges’ different entrepreneurial programs as well as undergraduate business programs. Would I really want to take only business classes in college? Probably not, but I think that angle will be helpful from an admissions perspective.

I always chuckle to myself when someone tells me “Ben, you can get in anywhere.” They just don’t realize how competitive the process is. There are more wonderkids than ever – and they have been coached for this moment for years! Also, I go to a really challenging high school, one of the most academically rigorous in the Bay Area. As I was applying to high schools I was told “if you want to go to a good college, go to school X. If you want to get a good education, go to school Y.” I went to Y. I’m happy I did it, but I know if I were at school X I could have a 4.0 GPA and look at any college in the country.

Btwn April 3rd and 8th I will be visiting Macalaster and Carlton colleges in Minnesota; NYU, Cornell, Sarah Lawrence College, and the University of Rochester in New York; and Northwestern and University of Chicago in Illinois. Later, I plan to visit some colleges in Boston and in Southern California. Along this trip I would love to meet with entrepreneur, business, or government types. Additionally, if you know of anyone at any of these colleges who would be good people for me to talk to, please email me.

I’ll close this post with what my college counselor said he would start off his letter to an admissions officer at a college: “Dear Admissions Officer, I know it’s a cliché, but in this case it’s true: Ben Casnocha has not let his schooling get in the way of his education.” You better believe it, baby!