Colleges: Don’t complain about who you admit

Note to readers: I’m off to a week of full-time graduate school, so I won’t be posting July 18-24.

Former Stanford dean Julie Lythcott-Haims’ book about helicopter parenting and today’s college students is popping up on social media again, and I’m tired of hearing about it.

She’s not the first or only university type to complain that today’s college students are over-parented, lacking in resilience, and coddled by mom and dad into academic perfection and practical helplessness. (She calls them “existentially impotent.”)

Every spring (with college admissions decisions) and fall (with new students on campus) we get to hear about how anxious and incapable the next generation of straight-A college students is.

According to this 2015 Washington Post article about Lythcott-Haims’ book, How to Raise an Adult, she lamely suggests that colleges could limit the number of top-tier schools each student could apply to, and parents could think more broadly about schools that are not “top 20.”

I’ve got a better idea. Why don’t colleges rethink who they are admitting?

I’m not disagreeing that some parents overdo it, so why don’t prestigious colleges figure out better ways to parent-proof the admission process?

Overbearing parents have figured out the current process. They can battle teachers to ensure that their kids get As, pay for test prep (and multiple retakes) to ensure high SAT/ACT scores, hire private counselors to help their kids polish their college essays, and push their kids into an overwhelming schedule of sports, clubs and academic competitions.

These parents aren’t stupid — it works. I’ve seen only a few dozen students from my Minnesota public high school get into highly selective colleges over the years, and they all had these ridiculous academic and extracurricular records (some parent-induced and some self-directed).

Highly selective colleges — like Stanford — are rewarding the helicopter parents by admitting their children. It seems a little disingenuous to complain about them later.

I’ve seen plenty of other fantastic kids who were rejected, and in many cases the admissions officers passed over gems, totally self-reliant, resilient, intellectually curious kids who ended up thriving in Tier 2 schools or state universities.

Why can’t the admissions officers see what I see? Because their screening devices are failing.

43,997 applicants paid $90 apiece to apply for the 2000 freshman spots at Stanford last year, generating almost $4 million for the school. (In comparison, 39,044 paid $75 to apply to Harvard, generating about $3 million.)

Why can’t these schools use this revenue to devise a system that selects the students they actually want? If you want students who are self-motivated, thoughtful, independent and intellectually curious, you’re only going to find that out one of two ways: an authentic essay or an in-person interview.

Instead of letting students submit essays that are edited by parents, teachers and professionals, require prospective students to write essays in a controlled setting, like the SAT. Students show up on Saturday morning with a pen, a dictionary and a thesaurus, and they have to write their own unedited response to a question, which will then to go to all of their colleges.

Structured interviews are one of the best ways to select qualified employees, according to business research, so use that strategy here as well. Don’t rely on casual alumni interviews that may or may not follow a script.

Record the interviews, and ask prospective students challenging questions, like:

  • What gives your life purpose?
  • Tell me about a time when you disagreed with your parents, and how you resolved it.
  • What is the least favorite class you’ve ever taken, and why?

Better yet, test and refine the questions until you have a set that effectively and consistently generates the information you want about prospective students.

These two admissions processes would require that high school students learn how to write and present themselves — shifting the focus from grades and test scores to actual skills — and they would sideline the over-involved parents.

Change the incentives, and you will change the game.

The bottom line: Colleges need to stop complaining about the students they choose. There are fantastic young adults out here, so find them.