Sunday, November 27, 2011

How about a college for high school "underachievers"

There are, perhaps now more than ever, a certain number of bright students who decide at some crucial point in the middle of high school to stop caring about their grades. Such students, of course, have always existed. Perhaps mostly male, some of them develop a taste for laziness as the workload increases; others decide that spending their time productively is more valuable than doing what they perceive, sometimes rightly, as busy work, even if this means tarnishing their academic records at the worst possible time. Not all of these guys end up with terrible GPAs; some, coasting on their natural abilities, and/or finding a large enough portion of their school work sufficiently gratifying, earn grades that are merely mediocre.

But even merely mediocre burns many more higher-educational bridges than it used to. At the same time, at the more high-powered high schools, a few new factors have surfaced that make the bright but bored/cynical high school student even more likely to check out. He (or she) looks around him and sees a seemingly senseless rat race populated by academically successful classmates whose parents are nonetheless micromanaging homework, hiring private tutors, and enrolling them in Kaplan Test Prep; classmates with long lists of resume-builders, ghost-written college application essays, and extra time allowances on standardized tests that savvy parents secure as accommodations for what the kids themselves say are baseless attentional and/or processing speed diagnoses.

Among the unaccommodated (or accommodated for good reasons), untutored, and unmicromanaged high school "underachievers" are some of the most interesting, solid, creative kids out there. Indeed, the reason why some of these kids have remained untutored, unmicromanaged and un-unnecessarily-accommodated isn't that the parents didn't do their level best to manage things otherwise, but that the kids refused as a matter of principle to go along with it. Sure, some of them, particularly the lazier ones, may have some significant maturing to do, but a lot can happen in the many months between the college application deadline and the first day of classes. The college admissions process catches these kids at a particularly vulnerable time in their academic lives; nine months on they may be perfectly college-ready.

Wouldn't it be nice if some college would make these high school "underachievers" its niche, basing its admissions decisions (almost) entirely on test scores (problematic though these are, they are less problematic than grades); probing, intellectually challenging interviews conducted by perceptive interviewers; and extensive, proctored essays on unexpected but accessible topics? In this topsy turvy world in which admissions committees can no longer tell which applicants can really read, write, and think on their own (the SAT essay not being available to them, and its scoring being quite problematic), this may, in fact, be the best way to identify those who really are capable of college-level work.


ChemProf said...

Once again, I'm going to be a broken record and make my pitch for second tier liberal arts colleges. I've had many students like those you describe who blossom in college -- they like the more concentrated college schedule (with less of the high school timewasting) -- and go on to good jobs or great grad schools.

The downside is that students like you describe might not be up for merit aid (unless their test scores are really good), so these schools can be expensive.

Rivka said...

I went to Reed College, and worked for the admissions office there as an interviewer in my senior year. At that time, Reed definitely positioned itself as a college for extremely bright kids who might have been high school underachievers. In the admissions office, we were encouraged to look for kids who had intellectual passions but were perhaps too nonconforming or too easily bored to fit in well to high school expectations.

Katharine Beals said...

ChemProf and Rivka, thanks for these thoughts. I'm wondering if there is something about colleges (as opposed to universities?) that would make them more open to students like these? Rivka, you're the second person I've heard mentioning Reed in particular as a good place for smart noncomformists!

Rivka said...

Katharine, I think it might just be the scale. Colleges are small. They can actually read and evaluate all their application packets, rather than needing to rely on a formula.

They also tend to emphasize a very personal education - they encourage faculty-student interaction and promise students a lot of individualized attention. So they may feel better equipped to make a place for students who don't fit the mold.

About Reed: the sciences are excellent there - they have one of the best undergrad biology programs in the country, and they have a nuclear reactor that is maintained and operated by undergraduates. All Reed students are required to write a senior thesis based on original research. However, you do need to be aware that the humanities are unavoidable. It's a very traditional liberal arts curriculum, and Greek & Roman Humanities is required for all students. You can't study math and science exclusively.

ChemProf said...

I'd agree with Rivka -- a lot of it is scale. Universities are running the averages. The UCs just plain turn every student into a number and rank them that way, while liberal arts colleges will read all the files.

The scale can also make a difference in the classroom, by the way. In my analytical chemistry class, I have everyone do an independent project (they measure something then write up a journal-style article). I can do this with my 15-20 students, but I couldn't do it if I had 150 students to manage!

Anonymous said...

Finding this type of student a learning environment that is not a classroom can also be helpful.

Hainish said...

Finding a structured learning environment might also help.