Outsourcing Judgment

Image: Anthony Turba via Flickr

I received an email last week that read, in part:

I am writing to you to find out if you have a sense of how the individual leadership programs listed in your link are viewed by the colleges. I am doing this research because I am often asked by parents if these programs are worth the cost and I would like to be able to give them honest assessments. I am certain that they all provide great experiences for students who are well matched to each program, and I recognize the importance of this. However, in these economic times I also want to provide accurate information to parents who are making decisions not only for the sake of providing good leadership experiences for their children, but also for the sake of investing in extracurricular experiences that the colleges believe are valuable.

This is a counselor trying to walk a line, pushing back against the weight of a question that pervades many students’ high school experiences here in the US. The elephant-in-the-room question is, “What will the colleges think?”

As a college admissions officer, what I looked for in students’ extracurricular commitments was impact and intiative. I liked it when I could see that a student truly felt that what they had done had made a difference, in their life and/or in the lives of others. And I was impressed when I could tell that a student had expended some serious thought and/or energy in pursuit of their goal. Finally, because I was familiar with the process of putting together a class in selective circumstances, I cared – maybe more than I should have – about students having successfully competed for inclusion in a selective program.

But I don’t think there’s a summer program in the world that could all by itself make enough of a difference in a student’s candidacy for university admission for consideration of “the question” to be the driving factor.

As an educator, I want to help promote my students’ moving towards the thoughts and behaviors I associate with lifelong learners. When faced the “what will the colleges like” question, I think we need work hard not to teach them that outsourcing judgment is a “go to move” when they’re facing a decision about what’s best for them.

Okay, I’ll ‘fess up. I’ve got a copy of USNews & World Report’s “America’s Best Colleges” on my desk. I pull it out almost every day. But I use it more as a reminder of facts – how many undergraduates does the University of Rochester have? – than as a source of expertise. To someone like me, up to my eyeballs in instantaneous information about any program or school I’m investigating and busily helping to curate the information as it washes over the transom, the much-discussed rankings seem like a kind of lazy collective shorthand, a one-size-fits-all answer to all those folks who ask, “But is it a good school?”

What makes a strong summer program strong? What makes a good college good? And who do you want answering those questions? Call me a wild-eyed idealist, but I think the individual students’ votes should carry the most weight here. Some day in the not-so-distant future, they’re going to be making decisions about which city to move to, which candidate to vote for, which company to invest in… and as they live their way towards that future, I want to help them build the skills that will be the foundation of their own judgment. Including discerning when it does and does not make sense to trust someone else’s. And as much as students (and parents!) sometimes crave the easy clarity of someone else’s thinking, I don’t think we’re helping them when we let them off this particular hook.

What do you say when you get asked “the question?”

(Thanks to the counselor who asked the question,
to Dan Meyer of dy/dan,
and to Barbara Diamond of the KnowledgeWorks Foundation,
whose post today got me thinking about this in new ways.)


Posted on June 3, 2009, in big picture. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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