It’s amazing how dumb we can all be when it comes to educating our kids.
We — Americans — have developed a post-secondary educational labyrinth we spend all our time teaching kids to navigate rather than actually teaching them to think. I can’t do anything about that. All I can do is try and prepare my daughters Lucy and Lale.
And boy, have my wife Cheryl and I learned way more than we ever wanted to know about navigating this system that crushes students’ souls while draining parents’ bank accounts.
But I’m not here to kvetch … I am here to spare you pain by telling you what I’ve learned. The central lesson is, many middle-class parents — that would be me — need to set aside their ego-driven desire to send their kids to “name” schools and set about identifying the university that matches their personalities and career goals.
If your kids aren’t yet in high school, let me tell you what you’re in for if you dream of sending them to a selective college for their undergrad degrees. I’m not talking about Harvard, MIT and Stanford, which all have single-digit acceptance rates. I’m talking about State U. and those funky private colleges.
I’m talking about Indiana University and all the other public schools that used to throw open the doors to pretty much everyone. They don’t, anymore. Nor do small private schools. Alice Lloyd College in Pippa Passes, Ky. takes 9.4 percent of applicants, fewer than Dartmouth, Vandy and Duke!
Highly selective schools such as the Ivys? A 36 ACT score is nice. But as Lucy’s counselor at Youth Performing Arts School told an auditorium full of parents this summer, “A lot of kids get a perfect ACT score. It’s not a big deal.”
No, before their senior years in high school, your kids better have published cancer research, started an anti-malarial campaign in Benin with Bono, and created a micro-lending fund for out-of-work coal miners in Appalachia.
They need glowing — though not fawning — letters from teachers, pastors and pillars of the community. Or, in lieu of all that, they must have some social standing, political connections or a ticket to the legacy express lane.
The Boyds are out of luck on all levels.
Lucy is a very, very good cellist, but not yet a brilliant cellist. She’s a very, very good student, but not a brilliant student though she devotes long hours each night and on weekends to school work and ACT classes.
Did I mention that through no fault of her own, she’s flat horrible at sweating through standardized tests such as the ACT? Not a good thing in 2014.
Lucy goes to IU’s string camp each summer and she loves that school. Her second choice is the University of Tennessee. And we want her to be happy.
So, let’s look at her chances of getting into IU: Slim to none.
IU’s music program, where Joshua Bell is artist-in-residence, takes about 25 percent of applicants. The simple fact she’s a cellist diminishes her odds, because there are lots of perfectly fine cellists … way more supply than demand. If only she’d taken up bassoon.
Her GPA would get her in, but her ACT score — a work in progress early in her senior year — wouldn’t. IU’s minimum ACT score is 25. How about Tennessee? Maybe. UT doesn’t have a minimum ACT score. Instead, they consider a composite snapshot of your category scores in math, science and English, along with other achievements. She gets in, but she doesn’t get much in the way of scholarships.
Here’s what we did. We stopped playing the game the way I was brought up to play it.
Instead, we started thinking about finding her a state school that would prepare her for a great graduate program, and screw the ACT. Lucy wants to major in American Sign Language/deaf education and minor in music.
Schools with both (sort of incongruous) programs include Ball State in Muncie, Ind., Tennessee, Eastern Michigan, which we never heard of, and Eastern Kentucky University in Richmond.
We visited Tennessee in Knoxville, and it’s a very impressive school. But it’s also a very large school, and for us, fairly expensive at $31,000 per year out-of-state tuition, or more than $150,000 for her five year program! Ball State is even more expensive, and we’ve gotten mixed reviews. Eastern Michigan is in Ypsilanti, Mich. Not going to happen.
Last week, we trekked off to EKU with low expectations. The opening presentation for EKU’s Major Meetup Day for education majors was abominable. Twenty minutes of loud hip-hop music over endless photos of all the intramural sports Lucy couldn’t care less about, then a weak tour of what turned out to be a lovely campus.
But once we got to talk with professors and students, we were dazzled and amazed.
We met with Ryan Wilson, the academic advisor for Teacher Education Services, Dusty Embury, an education department professor, and two students for an hour, if not longer. They gave us the unvarnished truth, but they could because EKU’s special education program is tops in the state. They were engaged, persuasive and kind. They made it clear that they want Lucy, and they’ll look after her down to calling us should she forget to go to class.
At Tennessee, we asked to meet with the orchestra conductor. The answer: “I don’t meet with parents unless the students are music majors.” Ouch.
At EKU, we spent an hour with Nathan Jasinski, associate director of cello, and Jeremy Mulholland, director of the symphony orchestra. Despite big reputations in the music world, both turned out to be funny, relaxed guys who can talk about anything from Jacqueline DuPre to the latest pop phenom. When Lucy asked nervously about her audition, they told her to come back in February and plan on spending the day having fun, hanging out with staff and the cello section.
All these smart people — all with doctorates — passed on one piece of advice to us: Don’t go crazy throwing money at Lucy’s undergraduate career. Help her excel academically, then spend the money on a great grad school. And, as it turns out, EKU’s music program routinely sends students to Juilliard, and the special education program is a pipeline to Duke.
EKU has a young new president in Dr. Michael Benson, a graduate of the University of Oxford and Brigham Young University. Benson has a stellar 20-year career in academics. Unlike a school we won’t mention here, EKU places an emphasis on academics, not sports, with a new $65 million science building now open and an $82 million College of Education Complex in the works. There’s also a new residence hall, and all dorms are getting upgrades.
And because of the College of Justice and Safety, there’s a Kentucky State Police post on the EKU campus, the only on-campus post in the state.
Halfway through the visit, Lucy met up with one of her Bardstown Road posse. A few minutes later, she smiled and said, “Dad, I want to go here.”
Sending my child to a state school feels on some level deflating.
I was brought up to be an education snob. My great uncle Thomas Norris donated the money to create what are now Kentucky State University and Murray State University. One grandfather was Ivy League. Both my parents got degrees from UK, my dad his master’s. My first cousin, the late William Boyd, graduated from the University of Chicago and was Batschelet Chair Professor at Penn State’s College of Education. Many of my cousins went to U.Va., Princeton and other top universities.
I managed to get kicked out of, or flunk out of, several fine institutions before I finally earned a degree at U of L.
I really, really wanted give Lucy and Lale the chance to achieve what I failed to achieve. To experience what I didn’t experience. Which is wrong. The idea is for them to fall in love … to fall in love with college. To fall in love with learning.
And here’s what I learned. Though I never dreamed I’d send Lucy to a little state school on the edge of Appalachia, Cheryl and I agree it’s the right thing to do. If we don’t think unconventionally, then we run the risk of dooming our children to conventional lives.
And no one wants that, do they?