educationvirtual children by Scott Warnock

What just might really happen at college for your kid

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We’re coming out of that fast-paced, manic season of high competition, painful watching-and-waiting, brightly-colored sweatshirts, and intense travel. No, I’m not marking the end of youth sports spring seasons — I’m talking about college admission season (well, really, this is just the end of high admissions season. Like youth sports, college admissions is a year-round and even life-round activity nowadays). Most students know now where they’re going to college. Parents have written placeholder checks. Car adornments have been purchased. Parties are planned. It’s exciting.

There is a kind of junior resume arms race going on around college admission, some of which starts when kids are tiny, as Hilary Levey Friedman says in “Competitive Kids.” I still have a few years to go – but only a few! – before I go full-tilt myself with this, but working in the higher ed has caused me to pause and think about the academic promise of a college education and what good things just might happen intellectually and academically to students during those years.

I work at a really good university with committed people and a structure designed to help students succeed. By and large, it does just that. I’ve also had many opportunities to visit other schools over the past few years, and I’m struck by how many great teachers are out there working in higher ed. Lots of faculty work hard to figure out how to teach their students more successfully.

When they are looking at colleges, I wonder how much people really consider what their kids are going to learn — and how. On college visits, too often the students are seeking a good-looking campus tour guide and wondering if the gym has amenities like a climbing wall and lazy river. Parents are like, “Wait, do I see ivy on a wall over there? This is the place for us!”

But how many people ask questions about what will happen academically, on the classroom level, with their children? In my experiences at open houses, those inquiries are few.

So here’s what might happen academically in a college environment for you, kid. Here’s what will make it special. It’s kind of shockingly simple. You’ll make a few friends who are on a path to success in an area you’re interested in. You’ll get to build a relationship with one or two smart, hard-working teachers who care about your future. If you go to college ready to reach out and grab those things, if you seek out and cultivate those relationships through your own intellectual engagement, you will find success — perhaps regardless of where you go.

Yes, it’s a fact that bigger, older, richer schools have bigger, older, richer networks. I can’t deny that. And I appreciate when people admit this straight up: They are applying primarily for the network. But that’s not a direct commentary on a school’s academic promise. Some places also have extreme specialties for people with defined talent in one area.

In a general sense, though, in college, you’ll get a rare chance to think and to develop deep intellectual relationships. As many people have observed, including Megan McArdle in this article, the college “bubble” is in jeopardy of bursting. It’s becoming increasingly difficult to justify paying just for a network and a nice sweatshirt. But you can still pay for a place that’s a good fit intellectually, that pushes you in ways you never imagined. And in that regard, you have many choices.

Student-to-be, if you ask the right questions and look for a school where it appears the other students who are engaged and where there are teachers who will give their time to cultivate intellectual relationships that may span years, you may find college is all you hoped for and more.

Scott Warnock is a writer and teacher who lives in South Jersey. He is a professor of English at Drexel University, where he directs the University Writing Program. Father of three and husband of one, Scott is on two local school boards and coaches all kinds of youth sports.
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4 Responses to “What just might really happen at college for your kid”

  1. Interesting article, Scott. Would you have any particular questions you would tell parents and prospective students to ask?

  2. Great timing Scott!

    you might know that we are in the college visit vortex with our now, technically, senior daughter. MANY great looking schools and some majors and programs that really stood out for us. I’m going to forward the link to this article to my daughter. I know she’s going to be great wherever she goes, but this might just help her find the place where she’ll flourish!


  3. Great article for parents to share with their children. So much to consider when choosing a college. Thank you!

  4. Here are some starting questions, Blythe: Who will teach my son/daughter’s first-year classes? Where are their offices?

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