September 28, 2021

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Should High Schools Post Their Annual College Lists?

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Students in U.S. high schools can get free digital access to The New York Times until Sept. 1, 2021.

Many high schools publish annual lists of colleges — or trade schools and military service branches — that their graduates will be attending or joining. Is there anything wrong with that?

Does it matter what the purpose of these lists is? For example, some schools use these lists to celebrate students’ hard-earned achievements, while other schools use these lists as promotional material to impress parents — and to compete with other schools.

What do you think such lists say about a school? What don’t they say?

In “High Schools Are Posting Their College Lists. Don’t Be Misled,” Ron Lieber argues that such lists overlook decision-influencing factors like money and value. The article begins:

Once the first of May comes and goes, eagle-eyed observers in communities across the country await the list. Who is going where? How does it compare with last year — and other schools nearby? And what will it mean for private school applications next year, or real estate values or the college counselor’s standing?

Maybe this isn’t your town. But in hundreds of places where the upper classes (and those who aspire to place their children in them) dwell, the list of colleges that high school seniors will attend is often as closely watched as the homecoming score and the police blotter. It’s true in private schools, and it’s equally so in high-achieving public systems.

It probably shouldn’t be. With each passing year, these lists become ever more misleading, owing to their fundamental financial ambiguity. When college can cost over $300,000 and discounts are legion, we can’t know why any given teenager attended one over another. Publishing these lists without any context about who is paying what (and why and how) is to pretend that we can.

Mr. Lieber draws a distinction between lists that include the students’ names and are shared with the community, and lists without names that then become the school’s “track record,” for sharing with families who are considering sending their children to the school:

Before we outline why that is, let’s be clear on what we are quite specifically not talking about here. If yours is a community that publishes a college list as a form of celebration, complete with names, that can be lovely. And if yours is one where continuing education is not a given, then acceptances and subsequent college matriculation (or graduates headed for trade school or an apprenticeship) may well be an outright triumph.

In either type of place, if all teenagers truly do want their intended destination available for public consumption — if you’ve asked, and they’ve consented — then fire up the confetti cannons and cue the Instagram sweatshirt reveals.

What we’re talking about instead is the list of colleges (without seniors’ names) that schools post on their websites or hand to parents of overeager kindergarten applicants. This is the same list that some sheepish suburb shoppers go hunting for online in the dead of night.

Mr. Lieber states that the lists don’t provide necessary context:

Now consider the money. We are mostly ignorant about the household incomes and family assets of the students who are able to attend (or not) any particular college. We remain clueless if, in fact, a more “respectable” (to again use the term that the financiers once did) school did not give a family enough need-based financial aid. And we have no awareness of which slightly less respectable colleges offered so-called merit aid to affluent families to persuade them to say no to other institutions.

“These are CliffsNotes versions of multiple, untellable stories that communities are co-opting into their own achievements,” said Emmi Harward, executive director of the Association of College Counselors in Independent Schools.

Moreover, to publish these lists is to encourage ill-advised comparisons. “There was a point when I felt as though my job as a college counselor felt like the role of our basketball or football coaches,” Ms. Bell said. “The results were not only public to our families but to other schools, and it was like ‘We beat them’ or ‘They beat us.’ And I said, ‘No, no, no, that is not what this is.’”

A collective movement to ban the lists may not be the right solution, either, given what could be lost. Plenty of parents are very much not shopping for a hothouse prep school, and having a diverse variety of colleges on a list helps signal that a high school isn’t a pressure cooker or some kind of factory. Ms. Bell likes being able to broadcast that some students go to, say, historically Black colleges or certain public universities that some families may have turned their noses up at a generation ago, she said.

There is probably no set of asterisks for these lists that wouldn’t bring their own problems — and more granular financial disclosures run the risk of invading families’ privacy.

Students, read the entire article, then tell us:

  • Do you think that high schools should share their graduates’ future plans? If so, with whom and for what purpose? What, if any, details does your school share with the public about its graduates?

  • When you graduate, do you think you’ll be eager for the world to know your plans? Or, will you likely prefer to share them only with people you know personally? Explain.

  • What can you tell about a school by its graduates’ future plans? What can’t you tell? Explain your answer.

  • What is your reaction to Sonia Bell’s observation that comparing her students’ lists of colleges and universities to those at other schools brought on feelings of competition, as though one school “beat” the others? Ms. Bell goes on to say “that is not what this is.” What does she mean? To what extent do you think people judge a school by how impressed they are with where its graduates go next?

  • Mr. Lieber ends the article with some hypothetical caveats for schools to include when they publish such lists. One of them reads:

Let’s be blunt: If you’re picking a school or a suburb based on this list, you’re almost certainly doing it wrong. While we have a role to play in preparing teenagers for college, their readiness is also born of the social class privilege in which much of this community is absolutely drowning.

Do you think such a statement is relevant? In communities that are not “absolutely drowning” in privilege, is social class also worth mentioning in introductions to graduation lists?


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Students 13 and older in the United States and the United Kingdom, and 16 and older elsewhere, are invited to comment. All comments are moderated by the Learning Network staff, but please keep in mind that once your comment is accepted, it will be made public.

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