Brave new world

Brave new world

Students face new, unforeseen challenges along their path to higher education

By Art Van Kraft 07/31/2014


"Academic ability has really come to dominate our view of intelligence; the universities have designed the system in their own image." — Sir Ken Robinson, British education leader

College admissions anxiety will reach a peak this summer as families struggle over choosing the right school for the right price. For most of these kids, the starting gun fired back on their first day of school, and they have been racing to the finish line ever since. But sometimes, getting into the college of your choice is a race that can’t be won. Eighteen-year-old Cassidy Davis graduated from Ventura High School, class of 2014. She had an A grade-point average, high SAT scores and went through the now familiar ritual of community service, key clubs and scholastic organizations. Yet she was turned down at U.C. Santa Cruz, Cal Poly and San Diego State University, schools that are not extremely selective.


Photo by: Dan Nelson
Cassidy Davis graduated with honors from Ventura High School in June. Her accomplishments include being a member of the NHS (National Honor Society), being in Quill and Scroll and Indian Education programs as well as being named Indian Student of the Year for Ventura High School. Despite her hard work, she was not accepted into the universities of her choice.

“I did everything right. I went through school the way I was supposed to, working hard at everything, and I had this expectation that I would be able to go to any good college. It was a shock when I got those rejection letters,” Davis said.

Cassidy is now enrolled at Ventura Community College and will work for a future transfer. Her story is not that unusual. College admissions boards are often arbitrary, despite their insistence to the contrary. For many students the how and why of an acceptance or rejection isn’t neat and tidy. How many other applicants had a 4.0? How many advance placement courses were taken compared to another student and under what circumstances? How did the intended major influence the decision? How many higher-paying, out-of-state students were admitted, and what did the early admissions number look like?

In the end, what college you go to, or if you even go at all, may not make as much difference as you think. That’s the opinion of Annette Broersma, a former college admissions counselor at Cal Lutheran University. She said it’s not so much the colleges’ fault as the attitudes of students.

“The majority of schools, and there are thousands of them out there, you’re just paying for the degree. And I think what we are doing with student debt is criminal,” she said. “If you don’t bring in the right stuff, it’s going to go out the same way it came in. I would see graduates from many of the lesser state schools and there were errors on the cover letters. They didn’t seem to hold anybody to any kind of standards. These colleges are not doing them any service by not failing them.”

Broersma is not a cynic; she said the college experience can be very valuable. “As an employer now and as a former college counselor, top schools, including the Ivy League and the U.C., put out a great education and a student that could think for themselves, they know how to write, they’re accomplished. The education they got was really an education,” she said.

But there are more students entering college now that in any time in our history and Broersma is not optimistic about everyone.

“It’s a bait and switch game by the colleges on the parents,” said Broersma.

“Then are there are the (students) who look at it as a means to an end; ironically it is no longer a means to an end. Those who chose to be educated are being short-changed because we are trying so hard to get kids to go to college we forget it’s a business. The colleges have this own perpetuating fallacy that it’s important because they need it to be important. Most people don’t need it; they need a much better high school education and better vocational educations, and to get it without spending a lot of money.”

With parents and students demanding more job-friendly curricula, when does training replace education?

“What kind of education does a person get in college anyway? Is it just training for a job with the curriculum designed by cost-wary parents? When you teach kids to please you and do what you think is right, they are not drawing on what’s in them, because we’re not all the same. The ability to think is the most important thing you learn in college. That should be the goal of every college,” Broersma said.


Frank Bianchino is a Moorpark College psychology professor. He’s been teaching at community colleges for over 30 years.

 “They don’t teach critical thinking, that’s the big thing. More than self-esteem, I think you have to have self-discipline. Many of my students have such poor reading skills. You ask them how many books they read this month, I just get blank stares. In my class I give a test on every chapter, because if I don’t they won’t read the chapter. I check attendance, which many instructors do not.” Bianchino said community college is the best venue for many high school graduates.

“First of all they are very young; they aren’t coming here with the learning skills, the study skills, so for the first year of community college they build up on those things. According to a study I read, if they go right out of high school into a four-year university, about half drop out,” Bianchino said.

Sir Ken Robinson is a leading international expert or education. He led the British government’s 1998 advisory committee on creative and cultural education, a massive inquiry into the significance of creativity in the educational system and the economy.

“The whole system of public education is a protracted process of the university entrance requirements. The consequence of this is that many talented creative people think they are not. I don’t think we can afford to go on this way,” said Robinson, at a North American education conference in 2006.

“All our education is based on academic ability. The modern education system came into being to meet the needs of industrialization. Every education system has the same hierarchy of subjects, math, science and languages, then the humanities on the bottom. The most useful subjects for work are at the top. So you were steered benignly away from things at school when you were a kid, things you liked but would never get you a job. Don’t do music. Don’t do art. Benign advice, but profoundly mistaken,” Robinson said.

“Our current education system kills creativity,” he said.

According to Robinson, “If you’re not prepared to be wrong, you’ll never come up with anything original. By the time they get to be adults, most kids have lost that capacity; they have become frightened of being wrong. We run our companies like this, by the way. We stigmatize mistakes, and we’re now running national education systems where mistakes are the worst thing you can make. The result is that we are educating people out of their creative capacities. We get educated out of creativity.”

In the next 30 years, according to UNESCO, more people will be graduating through education systems than since the beginning of history. Robinson said our thinking has to change.

“Due to technology and a population explosion, (bachelor’s) degrees aren’t worth anything. Even now, kids with degrees are heading home to play video games because you need an M.A. or Ph.D. It’s a process of academic inflation. The whole structure of education is shifting before our feet. We need to radically rethink our view of intelligence. We need to mine the richness of our human capacity. Our education system has mined our minds for a particular commodity; for the future it won’t serve us. We have to rethink the general principles on which we are educating our children,” Robinson said.

In Ventura County, one high school teacher confided that she sees a different type of student now. “Sometimes I try to break it up and make class more fun, but my students, they don’t seem to like it. They act uneasy and want to go back to the work book and the structure. They are so conditioned, so driven,” she said, wishing to remain anonymous.

Thirty-three-year-old Brynne Chappell graduated from Camarillo High School with a 4.2 and went to Texas Midwestern State University on a tennis scholarship. She was in pre-med, but after volunteering at hospitals and chatting with doctors, decided against medicine as a career. She decided to take charge of her own education and started a more informal education process, eventually working as a T.V. commercial assistant director. Chappell has now worked as a TV/film producer on Undercover Boss on CBS and NBC’s Fame and Showtime’s Look.

“I want to be clear; there are plenty of people that want to go to college to become doctors, or enter law or business, that’s fine. It’s all the others that I think are being fooled. I saw my friends in expensive schools going through all these hoops and spending all this money and they get out and are holding the bag and don’t know what to do.”

According to Chappell, “College is so often an excuse for 18- to 22-year-olds to put off deciding anything about a career. It’s just the next thing you’re supposed to do, even though it’s not the right thing for you,” she said.

“They don’t need to go to Harvard to succeed. I learned to evolve fast and do things that were productive for me. I was taught that it’s OK to try and do what you want and sometimes you have to break the rules. I was given the responsibility of making those decisions on my own,” Chappell said.  

There is plenty of anxiety to get into a top school, as Adam Wheeler epitomized. The Delaware student forged SAT scores, plagiarized essays and later made up false transcripts from MIT and Andover College. He was not only accepted at Harvard in 2007, he was awarded $45,000 worth of scholarship money. Wheeler’s ambition didn’t stop there. He tried to use some of the same false information to get a Rhodes Scholarship and the fraud was finally exposed.

Wheeler was trying to manipulate a better life for himself, but new evidence suggests that his efforts were in vain. A Gallup poll now out implies that later in life, it doesn’t matter quite as much where we went to college. Of the college graduates surveyed, those who said they were “thriving” or “engaged in all aspects of their lives,” came from a full spectrum of colleges. It didn’t matter whether they were prestigious colleges or not. The percentages didn’t vary from the 100 best schools to the worst.

Colleges expect millions of high school students to apply each year. The number of graduates from high school peaked at 3.3 million in 2008, and attendance has been forecast to decline through 2015. Still, the cost of a college education can be the deciding factor.  

Derrick Kinney is a financial adviser who owns his own Texas firm and advises families on how to manage college costs. In a recent interview on Fox News, Kinney explained the dilemma that parents encounter.

“I want my child to go to the college of their choice, and have all the opportunities available. What they are faced with is how to pay for it, and for many households that means what can I afford and what can I borrow? The burden is on the parent to not allow their kids to acquire so much loan debt they are crippled,” Kinney said.

According to Kinney, fewer than half of all students entering college graduate in four years, and slightly over half graduate from college during their lifetimes. Also, more than 30 percent of U.S. adults hold bachelor’s degrees, the highest level ever, reports the Census Bureau. Women are on the brink of surpassing men in educational attainment.

U.S. households are holding more than $1.1 billion in student loan debt.

Student loan debt accounts for nearly 10 percent of all U.S. household debt. A decade ago it was only 3.5 percent. The debt has tripled since 2004.

In 2013, the average balance for a 25-year-old with student loan debt was over $20,000.

For millennials surveyed, ages 22 to 32, one-third of them reported they regretted going to college because they graduated with more debt than expected.

Cal State University, Channel Islands, accepts about two-thirds of its applicants. The majority of students who got in had averages in the B range or higher, SAT scores of 1350 or higher, and American College Testing (ACT) scores of 18 or higher. Some students with grades and test scores on target for CSUCI, however, still get rejected.

California Lutheran University has a 48 percent acceptance rate with B-level requirements. It is a private school with many international and athletic students, but 88 percent of the students are from California. Acceptable scores for the following range between: SAT Critical Reading: 500/590; SAT Math: 510 / 613; ACT Composite: 22 / 26.

The University of California, Santa Barbara, is one of the country’s more selective universities, with an acceptance rate of less than 50 percent, The majority of students at UCSB had at least a B+ average, a SAT score above 1600, and an ACT composite score of 23 or higher. Chances of admission improve as those numbers go higher

With an acceptance rate close to 20 percent, the University of California, Los Angeles, is one of the most selective public universities in the country. The majority of students who got into UCLA had a GPA over 3.6, an SAT score above 1700, and an ACT composite score of 24 or higher. Chances of admission improve as those numbers go up.

Over three-quarters of applicants to USC receive rejection letters — the university is one of the more selective schools in the country. The majority of students who get accepted to the University of Southern California have A averages, SAT scores above 1900, and ACT composite scores above 29.

Many top schools including the UC system in California require an essay. It’s one part of a holistic admissions program designed to look at the whole student. Under holistic admissions, a student with a 3.8 GPA might be turned down while an award-winning piano player with a 3.0 might be accepted. The student who wrote a great essay might get preference over the student who had higher ACT scores but a bland essay. Bev Taylor is a college counseling expert and the founder of The Ivy Coach, she sees thousands of essays a year.

“Curious to know what bad college essays look like? Pick any college essay at random submitted to a college — even the highly selective ones — and there’s a great chance that you’ll pull out a bad essay. And why’s that? Because high school students just plain can’t write. It’s a conclusion we came to years ago, one reinforced over the last several years. In fact, in all of our years helping students with their college admissions essays, we can remember one (one!) essay that was actually great before we started helping with revisions. The writing of American high school students (and the international applicants are way worse!) is, quite frankly, horrible,” Taylor said.

U.S. News & World Report published its fourth ranking of the nation’s best public high schools in May 2013. Schools were ranked based on how well students tested on (1) reading and math assessments and (2) college readiness, based on how well schools prepare students for college level work.

The median college readiness, measured on a scale of 0 to 100, was 16.3. 


Other Stories by Art Van Kraft

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