Prestige School: Boola Boola... and Bull?


When the word came down that I was share my thoughts with you, gentle reader, about the role prestige played in my decision (shoot! 20 years ago!) to "go to Harvard," I have to confess to feeling a bit of resistance and ambivalence. First off, I technically went to Yale, not Harvard. (Yale and Harvard people are completely different animals, believe-you-me.) Second of all, ambivalence about where you went to school is a classic Ivy-League graduate, passive-aggressive power-move. I can recall many a time as a young (and not-so-young) man when my response to the fairly innocuous question of where I went to school produced a stutter, or a lack of eye-contact, or a claim that "Oh; I went to school in New Haven," Yale my own personal Bridge to Nowhere that I was technically for until I started downplaying it.

The backstory to that rather cliched bit of privileged obfuscation is pretty straightforward. My parents are immigrants from Haiti and neither finished college. I grew up on a block in South Queens, NYC where in a cohort of about 10 boys my age maybe three graduated from college, this because their parents sent them to public school while mine availed themselves of the structure and phonics available at the local Catholic school. (I don't know I this factoid is true, but to give you a sense of the Catholic schools in Queens at that time: graduates of my high are wont to claim that our school lost more people on 9-11 than an other, firefighters and policemen all.) I had my sights firmly set on attending NYU, but after I scored a 1540 on my PSAT's my guidance counselor burst into my homeroom clutching my results like an inveterate, hard-luck gambler who has just found a winning lottery ticket on the floor. Between the Ivy's commitment to diversity and my own showing it seemed the two of us were going places. I visited Princeton and didn't like the eating clubs, Columbia was too close to home, and an uncle had attended Harvard for a semester in 1950-something and has, in the intervening 58 years, not let a week pass where he doesn't recall talking long walks along a sun-dappled Charles River and discussing economics with the ghost of John Maynard Keynes. Yale it was.

But why Yale over NYU, you ask? Don't be dense, friend: The simple answer is that I got a better offer. Prestige is a measure of power - social, economic, political - so talking about prestige in my college decision making process is for all intents and purposes a conversation about class, about race, about affirmative action in college admissions. About a number of issues related to success and failure that are difficult to get a handle on—at least until Wall Street blows up and everyone notices that financial mismanagement earns some Americans a foreclosure, while other sinners earn multi-million dollar golden parachutes.

To me, prestige is just too vague a measure of too many things to sort out at once, especially as they pertained to the already-murky thinking of a 17-year-old. For example, when I was in college, predominantly African American New Haven, Connecticut was the country's 8th poorest city, and ranked second or third in infant mortality. Yale was a fortress of privilege dropped down in the middle of that blight, and there was bright line around the school beyond which few students ever ventured. I was one about 20 black male students in my class, and every few weeks I would take a long walk up the main drag into black New Haven — Dixwell Avenue, I think it was — to get my hair cut at the nearest barbershop. In the barbershop I was a kid from Yale, while back in my dorm room I was the black roommate who insisted on taking showy pilgrimages out to the so-called ghetto and hood. There were two distinct forms of prestige to had in each room, contradictory and complementary at the same time, with me zig-zagging in the middle looking for various forms of advantage and leverage.

We like to speak romantically of the abstract value of an education, but very often a good deal of life hinges on something as simple as what happens the moment you walk into a room, what advantages and disadvantages you tote in with your metaphorical baggage. If I had a child choosing between a Yale bag and and an NYU bag I would tell them to the take the blue one, absolutely. They'd be young, black and hopefully gifted, and, if that doesn't work, at least they'd be a legacy.



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The plug for this show states something to the effect that "the brightest kids don't always get into the best schools." Of course not. The reality is that in many parts of this country there are bright kids (who I suspect may be as bright or brighter than the children of affluent parents) who simply can't afford 14k coaches. Moreover, these kids have little insight into how to obtain admission into a good school. I know this to be the case as I came from such a community. Students in my community didn't attend Ivy league schools or great liberal arts schools. We attended mediocre state schools because these were the options we were presented with. We certainly weren't made aware of prestigious schools by guidance counselors. Counselors tended to steer us to the one state school in our area that is highly regarded Additionally, the parents in my community, largely working class immigrants, knew little re. educational opportunities. While these parents expected their kids to attend college, most could not provide guidance on how to get into the best colleges or financial aid. I have met some individuals from Ivy league schools who are incredibly intelligent. However, I've found many persons who have attended Ivy League schools to be persons of average intelligence who simply benefited from their ability to have access to coaches, great guidance counselors, or parents who knew how to play the game. The rich, even the stupid rich, keep attending the best schools, while the working class continue to struggle for access. A fancy school name? I've found that it has little to do with how smart one is or how hard the individual works. There was no such correlation in law school. In fact, the hardest working persons I've met certainly didn't attend an Ivy League. At the end of the day, I would venture to guess that many of the brightest are overlooked because they can't afford to pay for coaches who pad their admission resumes.

Sent by S. A. | 12:57 PM | 9-25-2008

This is really ((REALLY)) quite sad. I mean: $40,000!!! Please. A real hero? Dave Egger's non profit that helps any kid, do the same thing, for free.
If parents are paying for this kind of help. Well, that's good, because then they can afford therapy...which they might, sadly, certainly, eventually, need.

Sent by Jaden | 1:00 PM | 9-25-2008

Ms. Hernandez's approach strikes me a quite unethical. It does a huge disservice to the young college applicants -- in Ms. Hernandez's words, these young people have "bad" ideas for essay topics, and consequently, she steers them to topics that she has approved. How sad for these young people and for the misguided parents who hire this consultant.

Sent by Liz West | 1:51 PM | 9-25-2008

Just quickly-- our kids went thru college in late 90's/early 2000's. My (our) attitude about admission was they would get the college they deserved. So I didn't worry about their grades or performance or even "resume" so much. My youngest was a sci/math star so he earned a full scholarship; my eldest was more into words and earned a decent scholarship at a private college. Bottom line: I didn;t want to push or train them to barely quaslify for a high-end college where their entire stay would be consumed in living up to a false picture of themselves.

Sent by scott daniels | 1:53 PM | 9-25-2008

$40,000 fee before you even get into the college, $14,000 for a 4 day boot camp for, what???
This kind of idiotic maniac is one of the biggesst reasons why youngsters today have so little strength and self-reliance to cope with the major life challenges down the road and why these days we have soo many whiners and quitters instead of hard workers and true leaders.

First of all, anyone who went to a decent college and graduated would know that having gone to a prestigeous school is only a very very small part of how your career and you life would turn out.

Isn't how the kids prepare their essays, application a major responsibilities that they themselves should be fully in charge of? if they really are serious about their own education? Are these fully loaded parents going to spend $40,000 for their college grads' first cushy job at a prestigeious company? another $100,000 for their yearly bonus?

Sent by Chia-Li Sung | 1:56 PM | 9-25-2008

The lady from the big name schools said she never heard of St. Olaf College. What a shame she overpaid for a mediocre education. Look up St Olaf College!

Sent by John Melaugh | 1:56 PM | 9-25-2008

I am so glad that NPR aired this very important topic. Not only is there thousands of dollars being spent on just essays, please understand that these families are also spending an equal amount of money getting & coaxing that perfect SAT score. Is that truly then an indication to the college admission counselor that the student is well prepared to attend their college? Is it not once again a failing of our education system where we are not rewarding a student but rewarding the student because his family could afford this. Is this not again the pursuit of business like the college board that is obviously ignoring all the ways a student can get by with an excellent score if only he can afford to take & retake & retake the test, along with coaching to perfect their test? Perhaps it would be asking too much for colleges to level the field for all students.

Sent by Nona | 2:50 PM | 9-25-2008

Thanks for the great story on the extraordinary steps that some high school students and their parents are taking to improve their personal statements for their college applications.
Dean O'Neill's response--that Ms. Hernandez's essay-prep course is a form of cheating--may well be true. But he unfortunately missed the bigger point of WHY it is happening. It's because of the way he and other admissions officers have distorted their procedures, to give these essays far too much importance. Admissions officers already have the entire transcript of grades earned in high school, as well as nationally standardized tests. I've read thousands of these application essays for a leading California university. Not one in a hundred of them told me something important enough to change the admission decision. Admissions officers must stop pretending that they can reliably "discover" a "worthy" student, with an artfully written essay, but a mediocre academic record. They need to rely more on the objective information, not their own reaction to a personal statement. This would be fairer, and it would send Ms. Hernandez into a new line of work.

---Professor Matt

Sent by Matt Malkan | 3:31 PM | 9-25-2008

I think Ted O'Neill's disapproval of Hernandez's tactics may be a sign that he is out of touch. Most colleges and universities have writing centers that are often staffed by undergraduate and/or graduate students who sit down with a student to have a conversation about that student's potential ideas, arrangements and rhetorical strategies for a writing assignment. In a real sense--and driven by a social constructivist ideology that says knowledge is created through conversation--these writing tutors are doing a one-on-one version of what Hernandez is doing.
I am a writing center director and a firm believer in collaboration. This is how we learn, anyway: much of what we "know" is a synthesis of our experiences, other peoples' experiences, and analyzed theories along the way. In an article I wrote for Academic Exchange Quarterly . "Writing Under the Bodhi Tree," I present writing centers as communities of collaborators making the best of language's situational and interpretive nature. Bouncing ideas off another, and having that person respond honestly and thoroughly, is an excellent way to learn to write. If Hernandez's way of teaching is fraud, then we are all guilty of fraud, to some degree; no one learns in a vacuum, especially when it comes to learning how to communicate.

Sent by Expedient Means | 4:19 PM | 9-25-2008

Check out a wonderful FREE service

A chance for low income high achieving kids to apply to 26 of the top schools with a complete 4 year scholarship!

Sent by Choix | 12:27 AM | 9-26-2008

Studies show that "better" schools do not necessarily lead to higher income later - not to mention a happy, fulfilled life. And let's not even think of a better society...

Alexa Fleckenstein M.D., physician, author.

P.S. In case you wonder what a "better" society is: One that takes care of their children, their elderly, their disabled.

Sent by Alexa Fleckenstein M.D. | 1:13 PM | 9-26-2008

Good afternoon. I'm one of those GUIDANCE COUNSELORS that the first writer, S.A, refers to. I would like to present the other side of the coin. I work in a small rural school. There are many times I have attempted to get ambitious young men and women to look at Ivy League colleges. When you do this, and advocate this option as opposed to the local community college, you run the risk of being labeled "elitist". This may not matter to some, but when I was untenured, this type of reputation can cost one their job. Guidance Counselors are often an easy target for frustrated parents and students, and gratuitous slaps against the hardworking individuals who work in this field are not appreciated. Most Guidance Counselors I know are very proud of their high-achieving students, and want to encourage them to shoot for the stars.

Sent by Rural Guidance Counselor | 2:47 PM | 9-26-2008

The Dean of Admissions at the U of Chicago misunderstood comments of Ms. Hernandez. I do not think that she actually writes essays for the students but instead proofreads and critiques. I am surprised that the moderator let his response pass without comment!

Sent by Anonymous | 6:03 PM | 9-26-2008

The SAT is designed to be a statistical predictor of a student's academic performance in the first year at college. It does that quite well, but guess what? The SAT is also a very good statistical "predictor" of the parents' income! Money buys advantages; it always has, and it always will. This isn't just in academics: there are tennis camps, basketball camps, music camps, computer camps - you name it, parents will fork out the cash to help their kids succeed in any sport or activity you can think of. Is that wrong? Not necessarily. I think it only becomes wrong when the parents decide in advance who and what their child ought to be, and then spend thousands to hire tutors and coaches to craft and mold their little darlings into Stepford children with no sense of self, no originality, no freedom. The situation reminds me of those Mother's rings and bracelets, only instead of birthstones, the children's actual hearts and souls are dangling from the parents' chains. I am not against parents getting extra help for their children; in fact, I myself am an academic tutor. For different reasons, many kids need help getting themselves on track in school, and I like to think I am helping kids discover themselves and who they are meant to be, rather than trying to create them in their parents' image. I think Hernandez' approach is immoral, not because she helps kids write an essay that may or may not constitute "cheating," but because her approach perverts the entire meaning of education. The word "education" comes from the Latin, "to lead forth." That's lead, not coerce. Hernandez is exploiting parents' vanity and thereby making herself a pile of money, but based on her own comments, I think she knows it's not right, and someday will regret the way she chose to "earn a living."

Sent by Mary Gribbin | 10:32 AM | 9-27-2008

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