The Real Scoop About College

Note: This was the second part of a session delivered by Dan Greenberg and Mimsy Sadofsky at the Spring 2000 meeting of the Massachusetts School Counselors Association. The first part placed the idea of college in today's world in an economic and sociological context. Although not directed at Sudbury Valley families, there are some points in it that we tend to forget, both as parents and as worried students.

This is the time of year when college fever runs very high. Kids are excited and disappointed everywhere. Acceptances arrive. Rejections arrive. Joy and devastation vie for position, sometimes in the same prospective student!

So maybe we should take a look at what they are doing, and why.

Because I work in a school that has no grades and no separations by age or ability, as well as having no evaluations, the people in the school think a lot about the "college thing," and other ways to gain admittance into careers that people normally think are available only to college graduates. In fact, one of the things people have always worried about, no matter what we can tell them has actually happened, is whether or not a kid from an alternative school is well situated for competitive college admissions. They are, of course, but first I wanted to talk about some other viable opportunities.

For a long time we have been watching our students grow up and segue into the adult world, and we have learned many interesting things. First of all, for many people, college just isn't necessary. It is the information age; now more than ever the total world of knowledge is at hand for every human being. So the self-motivated person, and often the person who is totally sure about what to do with his or her life (yes, like the rest of us, they will probably change their minds more than once, but that is de rigeur) can often directly move toward realizing those goals. Creative and intelligent people can often figure out how to live a life full of challenges and expanding horizons without a structured system imposed by others.

So I want to talk about a few people like that.

I am going to talk about someone who is a staff member at our school, Sudbury Valley (and hope to avoid embarrassing him). He graduated from this school in 1972, and it is important to note that he always was clear about his own intelligence. He does not consider himself an intellectual, but I consider him to have exactly the most important attitude of an intellectual: he knows how to follow his curiosity and does not shirk from the study that is constantly involved.

Anyway, this man was a very colorful character as a youth, kind of wild-looking, and loved rock music. He wanted to be a famous rock musician, and he became a well known and a well-respected rock musician, right in the mainstream, before he changed careers and became a chef in a big hotel. In between, he joined a circus! He felt he could learn anything he needed to - and it has turned out that he can - on his own, one way or another. Sometimes it was by hanging around the people who already had the skills he wanted. Sometimes by apprenticing himself to such people. Other times by reading and inquiring. Often by all of the above at the same time. Meanwhile, he became a professional photographer, and has never stopped being interested in and talented at cartooning, drawing, and writing things other people wanted to read.

At every step of his life he analyzes what has happened, what parts of what has happened he liked and wants to continue, and what he doesn't, and always makes decisions based on this type of analysis. Consequently, he has a unique viewpoint and an interesting one. We are thrilled that returning to work at his alma mater became the next most exciting thing to him, and hope it remains so, hope that the open-endedness of a free school can keep him amused permanently! He is still a professional musician, still recording and still working with other professionals.

His sister, meanwhile, graduated from high school, apprenticed in stables and became adept at animal husbandry, went on to drive 18 wheel trucks, and then joined the military, becoming a well-respected military historian, later earning her bachelor's and master's degrees.

There is another man whom we have watched over the years who had a similar journey of self-discovery, although into very different territory that the first; he owns what I think was the first computerized saw mill, and he himself invented all of the machinery for it.

Here is what he says about his education:

I think about it now and then, and I am doing exactly the same things I was doing when I was a student and created things out of plasticine. Except I am doing those things now in real life. I'm building a factory, and making machines, and talking to people all day long. Same exact thing, and very intensely. We talk about how to build the things, how to talk to the customers, all that sort of stuff.

I didn't go to college because I didn't know what I wanted to do in college. My parents had the money set aside; I could have gone to any college. I just didn't know what I would have wanted to learn. Anytime I wanted to learn something, I could picture how to learn it. Like when I wanted to learn refrigeration. I could see those guys working on refrigerators. I knew they were getting a lot of money. It looked like they were having a lot of fun. So I wanted to learn to do it. I didn't quit my job and go to refrigeration school. I bought a book. And when I didn't have a book, I asked the refrigeration guys what they were doing. Most guys, if you ask them, they want to tell you. And the more I could learn, the more questions I could ask that made sense, the more interested they would be in telling me. Pretty soon I was doing it. Then I got better and better as I did more and more and went into more complicated problems.

There are many examples of "no college" going on to very sophisticated careers.

One young man is director of technical services in the research division of a bio-engineering firm. How could this be? He is darn smart and able to sell his abilities to others because of the self-confidence he gained throughout his early life, and he also studies like mad to learn what he needs to know every step of the way.

Many people go directly into software and hardware fields. So many that one wonders what computer science degrees are all about. We can see no difference when our grads describe their work, and often their quick rise, between those who have studied computer science in college and those who plunge in, usually well before the completion of high school.

Another young man left school determined to become a professional art photographer, did so through a series of very serious apprenticeships, and eventually opened his own color printing laboratory, specializing in high fashion as well as fashion catalog printing, while working on his own art work. Eventually he left this work to devote himself to businesses revolving around his other loves - music and performance. He opened an avant garde music café, and is now working in a similar business.

It is important to notice that many of these people take the risk of entrepreneurship, successfully or not.

So it turns out that lots of people work in jobs that are rewarding, entertaining, lucrative - and that really do not need post high school education. Especially people who are willing to rise, as cream does, to the top of whatever they are doing. I think that striving for excellence in everything you do is more important that anything else, and marks the people who do so as fabulously worthwhile employees.

One of the things that kids from our school often decided to do, and I have to admit that we always encourage them if we know they are contemplating it, is "college later". College is an extremely expensive proposition usually, and the time to do it is when you are dead serious about getting everything you can from your education. Encouraging this is often a difficult process because even today with the very high costs associated with many colleges, parents are worried that if their children do not go directly to college after high school they never will. We find that kids who say, "I am leaving school now, and am going to travel/work for a year or two and then go to college," in fact do so. And, when a more mature person applies for college, if she decides to go the traditional route, there are quite a few experiences to put on the application that are usually impressive to admissions officers.

We also find that ex-students who have what one might call a "consumer attitude" - not my phrase, but that of an alum - toward a college education are very well situated to get what they need. They shop and assess the product quality before they make decisions about where to apply. This often leads to something other than the knee-jerk "get into the best college I can" - whatever best means - response. And it affects everything they do after they begin that college education too. They are not married to a course that doesn't satisfy, either a particular course of study, or to a particular institution if it turns out to be the wrong one.

This quote is from a young woman who persuaded her way into the college she wanted to go to:

They took me because I talked. I showed that I wanted to be there, that it was something I felt I had to do. I walked right in and talked to the Dean. He said, "What can I tell you about the University.?" And that was an instant shock. I said, "Well, to tell you the honest truth, I've already made my decision to enter this school, so I think I know as much as I possibly could about being a student here. What I think you should know is about me and why I want to be here. . . . .

He questioned her about her interest in criminal justice. And then he said, "You'll see your acceptance letter. I'll see you in the Fall."

Another person who started college a little later than usual says: "My education in the art field was received at a museum school, which was probably the best art education I could get. Then when I wanted a degree, I went to a college to get the general education requirements. Most kids go to college because of the social life. I was the opposite. I went because I wanted to learn and I enjoyed every minute of my education."

I read some pieces in a series that the New York Times is doing this spring about admissions to Wesleyan College, in Connecticut. It was sort of "a few days in the life of the committee members making the admit/do not admit/waitlist decisions". I managed to forget the actual percentage of applicants they accept, which is extremely low, but I did not forget what was to me the primary focus: they were looking for the unusual applicant, the applicant with an edge. So while I would not encourage anyone to apply to Wesleyan - just as well, since it costs so much - I know from both personal experience of our former students, and from reading these articles, that it is not an outrageous idea. It is just that, as with a bunch of the more elite colleges, no matter what your qualifications are, you can easily fail to get in.

Another thing that we see more and more of lately is that a GED is not considered a big liability anymore by employers and colleges. Even the military do not turn a hair at a GED. This is recent. Up until not too long ago, the Navy would not accept anything other than a high school diploma.

We have former students who somehow did not even graduate - often they left before they thought they would to do something else more pressing - who have managed to become mainstream physicians, as well as accounting majors in good solid competitive colleges, and almost anything else. No one has ever whimpered later about lacking a diploma. They are attending schools such as Boston University, Worcester Polytechnic Institute, Naropa, and the University of Massachusetts.

Now I want to talk a little about a much more prosaic way to go about entering the adult world. It is through the community college system. Everyone should realize what a beautiful system this is. Community colleges take motivated people with any level of skills, with or without high school diplomas, and help them get ready for a variety of vocations as well as for transfer into four year colleges. And it is on the last that I would like to concentrate for a second. More and more, as college costs soar, kids are looking for less expensive ways to combat them. Community colleges, segueing into the state college system, or into private colleges, are the ideal way. So we are seeing students who could easily gain admittance to the universities of their choice decide to spend a year or two in a community college first, gaining credits.

I know that by now you have realizes that snob appeal is not what I am talking about. Rather I am talking about how to go on after high school. I want to read what a recent graduate wrote to us about UMass Boston.

I eventually enrolled at UMass Boston as a dual major in philosophy and political science. I had gone for a year as a non-degree student, and that allowed me to enroll on the virtue of my grades because I am strongly opposed to the SAT's.

In any case, UMass turns out to be as well-suited to my approach to education as any university could be. It is for the most part, a working-class college. The average student age is 28, and so most students work many have families, and so on. In almost all cases, these are people who have, at some point in their life, explicitly chosen to go back to school. The breed of exceedingly naive 18-22 year old frat boy/girl is simply non-existent here. Everyone has been in the real world. There are many seniors who are students, and it would be impossible to judge who the professor in any class was if they weren't standing in front of it. Of the many professors whom I have asked, all have verified that teaching undergrad students at any of the neighboring universities such as NU, BU, BC, Harvard, Tufts, all of which lack the particular virtues I have listed, is a nightmare. They absolutely love UMass students.

Sometimes there are students who have been rejected by the colleges they are interested in. What do they do then? This also is starting to be a known thing: what happens if you don't get in? You go somewhere else. There are plenty of schools whose classes don't fill up either when they send their letters admitting students, or even when they admit the people on their waitlist. They are still shopping for students in May, June, July and even August. Many of these schools are private colleges and universities, and some of them are surprising. For instance, I have heard of this happening at the rather distinguished colleges in Maine. I have heard of it happening in some schools in New York State. I even know of a graduate of ours who was disappointed in his first choice college but loved the one he chose instead and ended up at graduate school in an Ivy League university. Often these are schools with high admissions standards, but they are nevertheless sometimes available late in the registration game, and a little more willing to take a chance at that point.

And then there are several other possibilities. There are hosts of institutions that offer extension courses; some are as prestigious as Harvard, others as prosaic as UMass Lowell. There is nothing prosaic about the education available through these courses, especially since they tend to enroll the most motivated pupils - those who have to work for a living, usually full time, but are totally zeroed in on a college education. As I have discovered myself, these people make great classmates.

So my advice to our students is almost "don't worry; be happy." Or it would be if I said that kind of thing. What I do is encourage calmness, encourage the writing of the best possible essays, and encourage kids to think really hard about whether they are ready for higher education now, whether they want it later, or whether they want it ever. They also must figure out whether it is important to be going to school with other committed students, and make their decisions carefully to take that into account.

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