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The Source (And Consequences) Of Our Collective Confusion

Updated: Apr 14, 2022

Last Updated on November 10, 2020 by Real College Matters

15 May 2019

Forgive me if I write too much about our older son during the next few weeks. It’s been an emotional year of “lasts,” and his journey through high school has and will continue to inform my counseling practices.

Almost three years ago, Bob had just returned home at the end of his first year at boarding school. From my perspective, the kid was living large. In addition to all of his fundamental needs being met, he earned good grades, participated in exciting athletics, and enjoyed a whole new world of friends. But he was in a funk, a funk which seemed to transcend the re-entry friction which inevitably accompanies a child home from a place of more independence.

Sitting on our slab of concrete which served as a basketball court, I tried to draw him out.“What’s the hardest thing about being a teenager in 2016?”

(Five seconds pass.)

“I guess all the mixed messages.”

“What do you mean?”

“Well, you and a lot of adults tell us that achievement doesn’t matter as much as who you are inside, but the end of the school year rolled around and the guys getting all the attention were the ones going to the Ivy League.”

“Do you not think they deserve the attention?”

“Sure. But other guys do, too. I’m just answering your question.”

As a ninth-grader, Bob was arguably not in a position to judge the distribution of accolades. His observation struck me hard, though. I’d long assumed the achievement culture itself was the cause of surging mental health crises in teens. My son introduced a new spin on this: could it be possible that confusion is as bad as—or possibly worse than—the pressure to perform and the dozen-plus APs? Maybe not, maybe so.

Now think about us parents. We also absorb more than a few apparent contradictions relating to college admissions in the myriad communication we receive—from the news, from high schools, colleges:

  • We’re told it’s necessary for our kids to fail, but 99% of the news out of universities proclaims “the most competitive pool of applicants ever;”

  • We’re told college is about education, not job training, but colleges which can boast strong ROI (return on investment) metrics are quick to do so;·

  • It’s all about test scores and grades, we hear; then, nope—it’s all about holistic review;

  • We’re told to make sure our students take the most rigorous courses possible. Then we hear that character is the new gold standard, so we need to force our kids to be super virtuous. But we’re also told to stop being helicopter parents and basically get out the way. It’s tough to pull all that off, right?

I believe the source of at least some of ambiguous messages is that we haven’t decided for ourselves whether colleges are schools or businesses. Generally speaking, their messaging aligns with educational values, but their admissions practices remind us that they abide in a very competitive marketplace. More succinctly, they talk like schools but must act like businesses. They want to transform but are responsible to transact. They want to enroll and fund as many underprivileged students as they can but must rely on strategies like Early Decision to control their revenue and enrollment. The result? Mixed messages; confusion; fear; a half billion dollars charged in application fees in 2017.*

There is a way through this muddled mess. It’s a different topic for a different day. For the time being, I’d love to hear from anyone who relates to confusion I’ve described. Heck, I’d be glad to hear from anyone who doesn’t. Email me at

*I’m a longtime fan of the data set compiled annually by Michelle Kretzschmar, at The Excel spreadsheet is available for purchase on the site. The half-billion dollar figure was calculated by 1) multiplying column BF (total applications) by column HF (undergraduate application fee) for all 1604 colleges included in the set and then 2) summing all the results.

I was unable to find information about fee waivers, so the half-billion result quantifies “fees (hypothetically) charged” vs. “fees collected.”

Note that about 400 colleges within the data set do not charge an application fee.

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