And yet, as I listened to the presentation, I had some of the same language and buzzwords that I heard back when I was in high school, particularly regarding foreign languages, PE electives, and AP/Honors courses. A student inevitably asks "Do we need a foreign language? It's not required right?" to which the counselor would respond "Yes...but it'll look good for colleges." A similar answer was given for the honors and AP courses. I know I'm guilty of using this same logic to my students, but the more I heard it coming from another adult, the more I stopped and thought "wait a second..."
When I was in high school, I tended to believe what the adults said about college. It seemed to be this highly selective, academically minded, infinitely wise institution that carefully looked at all applications and only accepted the best. Anyone who's ever been to college knows...that's hardly the case. Maybe that was the reality fifty years ago when only a handful of high school students continued their education after graduation, but college these days is anything but rigorous. It's not to say there is no challenge in college (many of my friends in the music school or the sciences had WAY more work than I did) but it's hardly a giant leap in difficulty. In fact, in many cases, college was a step backwards when it came to academically as universities tend to accept...well...just about everyone. After being told college was going to be a place where "they won't accept work like this" or "you'll need to figure it out for yourself", I was shocked when I arrived and found that...just about everyone got in...and it's pretty much just like 13th Grade. It turns out they need students/customers way more than we need them, and your high school schedule doesn't matter quite as much you were lead to believe when selecting classes. Your understanding of the MLA format doesn't really apply (because no one in college uses it) and your ability to master Calculus because it "looks good" is irrelevant because (unless you have a math major) you're probably never taking math again.
Now...does this mean that students should stop taking Calculus, drop out of their foreign language courses, aim for straight C's in high school and refrain from extra-curricular clubs and activities? Absolutely not. However, let's stop pretending like the only reason...or even the primary reason to do these things is because it might help you "look better" when you ultimately apply for college and move on after graduation. By doing so, I worry we degrade the value of the knowledge for its own sake. If something is worth doing...then it's worth doing. For example, I haven't taken anything math-related (aside from statistics) since 2005 and I probably never will again. I've never once had to measure a parabola, and still don't really know who uses integrals. And yet, I'm glad I took Calculus because it was an academic challenge worth pursuing. Did it make me "look better for colleges"? Maybe, but who cares. It was worth taking...because it was worth taking. The same goes for my history courses, my foreign languages, even my seven years in band. I didn't really realize it until years later, but it was worth doing simply for the exposure, the experience, and the residual memory. It had nothing to do with a transcript and a resume.
Now, of course, I don't mean to pick on our guidance department with this post; they were just the catalyst that got me thinking about this issue. In truth, all teachers do this in class everyday, because frankly it's a lot easier to blame the future than sell the present. If a student complains about needing to learn MLA citations, it's really easy to say "well, in college you'll need to be able to do it without any help" rather than convincing a student that citing things is the adult, professional thing to do. It's much easier to say "in-class essays are valuable because they prepare you for college essays" rather than simply stating that it's valuable to be a human that can think, speak, write, and communicate in an organized manner no matter the time crunch. Just last week, when students were complaining about writing their most recent paper, I caught myself saying "listen, next year, you're just going to be given a paper and told 'you have two weeks to write this, good luck!' so be grateful for the time and guidance you're getting now." While there might be less structure for them next year, I should have just argued that writing is valuable in its own right...not just as preparation for a future doom.
So there it is, the secret is out: colleges really aren't the boss battle in the giant game that is Education. Getting good grades might get you into a slightly better school, but that's hardly the reason to get the grades or take the more challenging courses. In the end, you're either motivated or not; no amount of higher-education-threatening will help...because at the end of the day, "colleges" care a lot less than we think...