Those of us who went to college in the 1970s may have been the last of the lucky ones. We were lucky because most of us didn’t think our lives, our entire futures, depended on whether or not we were admitted to whatever school we had decided to apply to. That has certainly changed. One of the cases I teach when I teach Higher Education Law is Fisher vs The University of Texas at Austin. I don’t know the true reason that Abigail Fisher decided to sue the university over its admission policies. Some people think it was an attempt to make a point; others think she really believed that she had been discriminated against. But whatever the reason, the case can be viewed as an extreme example of the idea that admission to certain schools is a make-or-break situation for some students.
When I read this case or about the Varsity Blues situation that rose to the level of a criminal conspiracy or the 2015 UT Austin investigation into the role of the president in admissions, I’m so grateful I went to school when I did. It was so much simpler then. However, even with that being true, it’s amazing to realize just how little thought I put into selecting a college.
It was always assumed that I’d go to college by everyone in my family. Part of that is the fact that both my parents, all of my uncles and my aunt had college degrees. Even my paternal grandmother had attended Stevens College in Missouri for a couple of years. College was important in our family. I was a good student; I would go to college. But in reality the only decision I made because of that was to take couple of extra courses, Algebra II and Senior English, beyond what was required for graduation. I took the PSAT because that was a route to scholarships and I took both the ACT and SAT because I had no clue where I might apply. And that was the extent of my college preparation.
Oh, I looked at brochures. I was curious about some small private colleges. I applied for a Naval ROTC scholarship and my ACT scores earned me an interview. (My SAT scores did not, thanks to my math scores.)
I walked into an uninteresting office in a nondescript office building. The only thing that said Navy was the emblem on the back wall. The interviewer walked out from a back office, did a double take seeing me standing there in my brown, double-knit pantsuit and said, “I didn’t know we had any females today.” The interview never got any better than that. My vague idea to study foreign languages and maybe do something in the foreign services was not enough to get me past my mediocre math and science scores. No Navy scholarship for me.
My PSAT scores were more useful. As we filled out the personal information section, there was a spot to enter two school codes. If you did well enough, your scores would be sent to those schools for them to take a look at you. I wrote in the codes for Stanford University and the University of Oklahoma (OU). Knowing what I know now, those two choices are proof that I had put no thought into this before I sat down for the test since those schools couldn’t be more different. OU made sense. I grew up in Oklahoma and both my parents and two uncles have degrees from OU. But I have no idea why I entered Stanford. I did well enough on the test and both schools received my information.
I immediately heard from OU. The letter went something like this:
“Dear Gage, we are thrilled to know you want to join us at the University of Oklahoma. Here’s a scholarship, $500 each semester for one year. You’ll be part of a prestigious group of students in this scholarship program who will meet regularly with our top faculty. You can live in honors housing with the best and brightest in our incoming class. And oh, here’s an application for you to fill out, but it’s just a formality. You’re in.”
Okay, not really, but that’s what it felt like. OU wanted me.
Sometime later, I received a letter from Stanford. I wish I remembered it exactly, but it went something like this:
“Dear PSAT National Semi-Finalist, thank you for sending us your scores. We used to think any student who sent us their scores would reach out to us, but we’ve come to realize that’s not always the case. So, we’re reaching out to you and if you’re still interested, we’d like to hear from you.”
Of course, I didn’t understand the differences in these two colleges and just where I fell in their pools of applicants as reasons for those different letters. I also didn’t understand how few of my high school classmates were likely to go to college in 1975. Only about 33% of high school graduates would go to a four-year college that year. I knew not everyone in my class was planning on college, but I thought most of them were. Of course, that’s who my friends were, good students, college-bound. Within that small group, I was also unusual in that I wanted to go away to college. I wasn’t interested in a local college or even UT up the road. There were some high achievers thinking about the Ivy League, but many of those truly top students chose to attend Rice in Houston. I didn’t know much but I knew those schools were not for me. And I knew I wanted to ‘go away to college.’
OU met what criteria I did have. It was 450 miles away which put it out of state. I wouldn’t have a car so there would be limited trips home. I would definitely be going away to college. Some might say I cheated a bit on that since both of my grandmothers lived within an hour’s drive of campus meaning I did have a place to go when I needed a break. Still, OU was away, they offered me a scholarship, and seemed to want me to come. That was enough for me. With no more thought than that, the decision was made. I would go to OU.
In 1975, good grades and good scores were really all I needed. In contrast, in 2015, I served as a member of the selection process for a prestigious scholarship program. The students interviewing for that scholarship had longer, and frankly more impressive, resumés than I did several years into my career. Great grades, AP classes, leadership work, volunteer experiences, their own businesses, and non-profits. It was amazing.
I have no way of knowing if those students loved what they were doing the way I loved my more limited involvement in high school drama productions and a couple of clubs. I do know I was able to find my way in high school doing a few things that I truly enjoyed. None of what I chose to do was directed toward being competitive in my college applications. My decision as to which college to attend was important, but I had no thought that it would define my life’s trajectory. It was simply what came next.
Would my experience have been different if I had gone to Stanford? Of course. But would it have been better? It depends on what one means by better, doesn’t it? What I do know is that I’m glad I didn’t view my college decision as a high-stakes, competitive process. I’m glad I didn’t find Stanford’s lack of interest devastating in the way so many students experience a rejection from a preferred university. I picked OU, so I knew what came next and where I was going before I graduated from high school. Luckily for me, that was enough.
Gage: I just finished reading today’s blog and thanks! I felt the same way in 1971. Got into the university close to home and did it with good grades and an OK ACT. The pressure today that families put on their kids is too much. Now that I have retired I have time to look back at all the pressure to succeed no matter the cost. The years in college should be for growth, experiencing life and learning how to be an adult. Thanks again.