College Rejection and What David Hogg and Other Students Need to Know

The story is all over the media: Parkland survivor, activist and Florida resident David Hogg did not get into four of the colleges to which he applied, most particularly public institutions in California.

Adding fuel to the fire, Laura Ingraham berated this student via Twitter for what she saw as “his” failures in terms of college admissions although she later apologized. From my vantage point, her efforts to backtrack are too little too late. I wonder where Ms. Ingraham and her high school friends were rejected for college and law school; her Tweet seemed personal to me.

Here’s why what happened in terms of Mr. Hogg is so wrong on so many levels. First, college admissions processes are far from an exact science. Subjectivity abounds. Who gets in where is closer to a crapshoot than anything else. Many parents, students and guidance counselors struggle to find a rational explanation to curb their disappointment. Even college admissions officers acknowledge a degree of arbitrariness in the whole process. Simply stated, many qualified students are rejected by the colleges they want to attend.

Although some students are pleased to get in anywhere and some students who should apply don’t, the college admissions process is often fraught with tension. Applicants, even if they are told otherwise by older wiser folk, assume that a negative decision is a reflection on them: they are they are not appreciated; they do not meet the standards. No one wants to be rejected from anything. And, even if the decision is arbitrary and whether one actually would be happy at the rejecting school is irrelevant. The decision feels mighty personal.

Second, as a factual matter, much has been written about the shortage of spots for admission within the California system. Perhaps these institutions view this as a positive; it will increase their rankings in US News. But, the admissions problems in the UC system are part of a larger problem, including the conundrum of how many out-of-state students public universities should enroll since these “outsiders” pay more than in-state students. A shortage of seats also means that community college students in the system who expected to transfer to a four-year institution are finding their pathway thwarted too. David Hogg is not alone.

Let’s assume David made good choices in terms of where to apply. For the record, I am not sure many students actually reflect fully on fit and know enough about institutional culture to know if they will thrive in at the schools to which they applied. Assuming the choices Mr. Hogg were wise, these schools are not the only ones at which he can succeed, thrive and be happy intellectually and personally. There are literally thousands of colleges and universities in America. Even if we only look at large public institutions, there are literally hundreds of them. Assume each state has several public institutions, it is easy to see how many institutions exist.

Now, how we determine institutional, as opposed to student, quality is surely a matter of some dispute. Ratings and rankings are generally not good predictors of whether students will succeed on all levels, except at the most elite institutions where graduation rates are above 95%. And graduation is not a guarantee of personal satisfaction with the education one received. Just read Calvin Trillin’s Remembering Denny for a telling tale.

I’ve always thought we need to deploy a totally different admissions process, a topic on which I’ve written and on which I took action as a college president. Yes, institutions would be filled with different students; but, that’s not necessarily bad. What if we had a lottery (assuming students met certain thresholds)? What if we had matching as is done with medical residencies? But I digress.

There is a further observation that most apt here. Some students decide on a set of colleges and change their mind when they progress from Grade 11 to just before their high school graduation. Their desires at ages 16 and 17 may not reflect what they want when they are 18 and about to leave home. And for students who have experienced what the Parkland students experienced, their choices could most assuredly change. Where they want to go, what they want to study, what size school they want to attend could all change.

Also, my experience with students tells me that there is real value in students taking a year between high school and college. For a goodly number of students, a year away from academia is a wonderful idea, filled with promise. Students can grow into themselves; they can participate in activities that interest them; they can work to see their personal strengths and uncover or reinforce their passions.

It is with wisdom beyond his years that David Hogg decided to take a gap year between high school and college. But his showing wisdom is not new.

Laura Ingraham’s boorish comments deserve to be resoundingly trounced. And, as students across our nation learn about their own college admissions options (and rejections), I hope this piece gives them some peace. Life is not over if you do not get into UCLA, Berkeley or Harvard or Yale. I can think of 100 schools right off the top of my head where students could thrive, depending on their interests, their passions, their personality.

And for those students who did get into the college or colleges of their choice and ultimately decide they are unhappy where they are enrolled, recognize that many many students transfer. And, the data show that transfer students generally do quite well at the institution to which they transfer.

One final thought. I hope that people appreciate that respecting others and their privacy is a basic feature of decency and maturity and wisdom. Apparently Laura Ingraham lacks all three. And David, if you want college advice, there are plenty of us who will happily provide you with our best thinking. Count me among the many willing to do that for you.

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Author, Educator & Commentator; Former President, Southern Vermont College; Former Senior Policy Advisor, US Dept. of Education; Former Law Professor

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