Uncovering genius in the aftermath of a mistake

There are countless stories of product development errors that resulted in brilliant inventions: penicillin, Post-it notes, Coca-Cola, and the color mauve. What about human error; when a group of high school seniors is offered admission to college by mistake? Can an administrative blunder result in undiscovered genius?

I’ve been thinking about those students who received letters of admission from Vassar, UCLA and the University of Ulster in the spring of 2012, only to learn later that they hadn’t made the cut. What happened to those students who planned to attend college as members of Class of 2016 at these schools?

I’m sure there is a grad student in search of a thesis topic, who will one day interview the admitted/rejected cohort and determine the long-term impact on success. I guarantee a significant number of these students used the experience to excel at an alternate institution.

What if these schools had honored their offer of admission?

Let’s imagine a freshman class at Vassar College that included the 76 students who had been sent a letter of admission by mistake.

I can hear the opposition preparing for debate.

In some instances, this would be impractical if the numbers of mistakenly accepted students exceeded the capacity of classroom and living space. There’s probably an argument that admitting a ‘second tier’ roster would impact national rankings.

At the top of the higher education pyramid, selectivity is the guiding principle. It’s no different at the most competitive corporations. Employers want folks who have the highest GPA, and go to war with one another over the same pool of candidates.

This is what they both miss; students who could thrive in a challenging academic environment, and employees who would contribute over the long term rather than continually fend off offers to join the competition.

Alexander W. Astin, professor emeritus at UCLA and author of a new book, ‘Are You Smart Enough? How Colleges’ Obsession With Smartness Shortchanges Students’ describes the focus on ‘acquiring’ vs.’developing’ students.

“When the entire system of higher education gives favored status to the smartest students, even average students are denied equal opportunities,” he writes. “If colleges were instead to be judged on what they added to each student’s talents and capacities, then applicants at every level of academic preparation might be equally valued.”

The next time the admission office makes a mistake; I hope they take a minute to consider the alternative.

It’s the undiscovered genius among the rejected that are the true ‘opportunity cost’.


How many people have a job @graduation?

On college campuses across the country it’s ‘conversion’ time; next level marketing to the chosen to turn them into the enrolled. How do you differentiate between alternatives? If you take the commodity approach, it’s all about guaranteed employment. Here’s the thing – there are no guarantees.

It’s reasonable to consider post-grad employment when you’re investing a significant amount of money in a college degree. But that’s what it is, an investment, not a purchase. For the student, ‘attending’ college is not a passive act, it’s a full-time commitment. The ROI is a direct result of the effort, not dollars expended.

Former Cornell University president and current AAU president, Hunter Rawlings weighed in on the value of college debate last spring.

“A college education, then, if it is a commodity, is no car. The courses the student decides to take (and not take), the amount of work the student does, the intellectual curiosity the student exhibits, her participation in class, his focus and determination — all contribute far more to her educational “outcome” than the college’s overall curriculum, much less its amenities and social life. Yet most public discussion of higher ed today pretends that students simply receive their education from colleges the way a person walks out of Best Buy with a television.”  

When you ask the question ‘How many students are employed at graduation?’ you’re asking about the resale value of the car.

No one in today’s job market is guaranteed work. Any individual who believes their institutional pedigree will stand alone to open career doors is delusional.

The level of student engagement in internships, research, community service and extra-curricular activities, combined with faculty, staff and alumni connections, are far better predictors of post-grad success than destination survey statistics.

The question to ask is ‘What are the resources available to assist students seeking work?’ The ‘support’ assets are the constant in a volatile job market. Access to this ‘capital’ is the true measure of a university’s commitment to post-grad employment.



When choosing a college, ask ‘Who will I become?’

The questions we ask when selecting an undergraduate or graduate program focus on the financial and vocational. What will it cost? Will I get a job when I graduate? What we miss is the critical question. Who will I become?

It’s not a question just for philosophy majors.

Each university community is a micro culture defined by traditions, behaviors and beliefs. Even the most jaded will be transformed by the experience. That’s why imagining your selfie in four years is as important as financial and career planning.

The Atlantic’s senior editor, Derek Thompson acknowledged this developmental progression when he examined the impact of college choice on future success.

“While hundreds of thousands of 17- and 18-year-olds sit around worrying that a decision by a room of strangers is about to change their lives forever, the truer thing is that their lives have already been shaped decisively by the sum of their own past decisions—the habits developed, the friends made, and the challenges overcome. Where you go to college does matter, because it’s often an accurate measure of the person you’re becoming.”

If you accept that college is a point on the developmental continuum, your challenge is to find a place where your past intersects with your optimal opportunity for continued growth.

If place defines you, it’s a campus where you’ll discover the gaps in your experience and explore every possible resource to fill in the blanks. Networking will not be an abstract process for job search, but a four year active engagement with faculty, administrators and colleagues.

Your future is not determined by the decision of an admissions committee, but by the sum of your individual decisions over time, and who you will become.








The week@work – March 30 – April 5

This week@work stories ranged from college admissions to a debate over foreign players in England’s Premier League and a stagnant US Jobs report.

On the college admissions front, McSweeney’s published ‘A Honest College Rejection Letter’ by Mimi Evans. In part:

“Dear Applicant,

The Admissions Committee has carefully considered your application and we regret to inform you that we will not be able to offer you admission in the entering class of 2015, or a position on one of our alternate lists. The applicant pool this year was particularly strong, and by that I mean the Admissions Committee once again sent candidates like you multiple enticing pamphlets encouraging you to apply, knowing full well we had no intention of accepting you.

However, you will be pleased to know that you have contributed to our declining admissions rate, which has helped our university appear exclusive. This allows us to attract our real candidates: upper-class kids and certified geniuses who will glean no new information from our courses or faculty, whose parents can incentivize us with a new swimming pool or lacrosse stadium…”

A high school senior in North Carolina responded to a rejection letter from Duke:

“This year I have been fortunate enough to receive rejection letters from the best and brightest universities in the country. With a pool of letters so diverse and accomplished I was unable to accept reject letters I would have been able to only several years ago.

Therefore I will be attending Duke University’s 2015 freshmen class. I look forward to seeing you then.”

The student will be attending the University of South Carolina in the fall and should be encouraged by the comments of 26 year old Jenna, described in Frank Bruni’s article on college admissions.She was not offered admission to her first choice college:

“I felt so worthless,” she recalled.

She chose Scripps. And once she got there and saw how contentedly she fit in, she had a life-changing realization: Not only was a crushing chapter of her life in the past, it hadn’t crushed her. Rejection was fleeting — and survivable.

As a result, she said, “I applied for things fearlessly.”

It’s Final Four weekend. Talented college athletes will be competing in both men’s and women’s basketball. Marc Tracy, writing in The New York Times, takes us back to 1965 when the Final Four included Princeton University and their star player, Bill Bradley. The story is about the athlete and the writer, John McPhee at the beginning of their careers. Published in The New Yorker, ‘A Sense of Where You Are’ was later released in book form. How did Bradley choose Princeton?

“Bradley was affluent. Having initially accepted a scholarship to play basketball at Duke, he chose Princeton, he said, because the summer before his freshman year he had visited Oxford University and was determined to return. A Rhodes scholarship seemed like a great way to do so, and he had read that Princeton produced the most Rhodes scholars.

“I came home from a date, woke my parents up, and said I’d like to change my mind,” Bradley recalled.

And yet in its way the book does argue the merit of incorporating athletics into education. Watching Bradley’s dual sense of where he is — on the basketball court and in life — serves as a reminder that most young people lack a sense of where they are, and that sports are one way to try to find it.”

In 2010 author Franklin Foer published his book, ‘How Soccer Soccer Explains the World’. He looked at soccer and it’s role in various cultures explaining how international forces affect politics and life around the globe. This week, in England an anti-globalization sentiment is growing as Premier League fans question how many potential players in soccer academies are losing opportunities to international players. The English league owes its popularity and skyrocketing salaries to globalization. Will England restrict the number of players recruited from abroad? The debate illustrates conversations that go beyond the ‘workplace’ of soccer and fuel the immigration controversy in both the US and EU.

The New York Times reported on the latest economic report:

“The yearlong streak of robust monthly job creation was broken on Friday with the Labor Department’s report that employers added just 126,000 workers in March, a marked slowdown in hiring that echoed earlier signs that sluggish business investment and punishing weather were exacting a toll on the economy.”

‘Uncommon Women and Others’ – The advantages of attending a women’s college

On November 21, 1977 a play opened in New York in a small theater at Marymount Manhattan College. ‘Uncommon Women and Others’ written by Wendy Wasserstein is a memory play set in1978 with reflections back six years earlier at a college for women.

Act One, Scene 1

Man’s Voice: “The college produces women who are persons in their own rights: Uncommon Women who as individuals have the personal dignity that comes with intelligence, competence, flexibility, maturity, and a sense of responsibility. This can happen without loss of gaiety, charm or femininity. Through its long history the college has graduated women who help to make this a better, happier world. Whether their primary contributions were in the home or the wider community, in advocations or vocations, their role has been constructive. The college makes its continuing contribution to society in the form of graduates whose intellectual quality is high, and whose responsibility to others is exceptional.”

Wendy Wasserstein graduated from Mount Holyoke College in 1971. The play opened at a critical moment in the women’s movement and was the first to depict contemporary women and their efforts to negotiate the world of careers, relationships, family, and society.

The play’s dialogue has passed its’ expiration date, but the value of a women’s college is as relevant today as it was in the early 70s.

A woman’s college is a place dedicated to the success of women, academically and professionally. In some ways it’s a more relevant ‘incubator’ of self-esteem and self-confidence. It’s a place where you see successful women as faculty, administrators and alumni and you have the opportunity to take on leadership roles and build life long networks. In laboratories and classrooms you engage in research and discovery absent of preconceived gender bias.

There are fewer than fifty women’s colleges remaining in the United States. Most recently Sweet Briar College in Central Virginia has announced it will be closing at the end of the spring semester.

I attended a women’s college. I developed my own voice, but more important I was given leadership roles as a student that prepared me for work. I managed budgets, planned events and interacted with administrators and alumnae. I learned how to make decisions and deal with their consequences. Most important, I left campus believing my dreams were without limits.

Near the end of the play, the offstage man’s voice fades into a woman’s voice “A liberal arts college for women of talent is more important today than at any time in the history of her education. Women still encounter overwhelming obstacles to achievement and recognition despite gradual abolition of legal and political disabilities. Society has trained women from childhood to accept a limited set of options and restricted levels of aspirations.”

A women’s college is a portal to unlimited options.

An inclination to learn from life – the value of college

College presidents used to be the influential, ‘thought leaders’ of their time, consulted by heads of state and corporate CEOs. It’s the rare college leader who steps out today and takes a stand amid the conflicting pressures of donor interests, state legislatures and government regulation.

In 2007 Michael S. Roth became president of Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut. Five years later he wrote an opinion in The New York Times with the title ‘Learning as Freedom’. In it he borrows heavily from the writings of John Dewey, an early twentieth century philosopher and leader in education reform.

At this time of year when students are deciding where to attend college amid a growing conversation on the value of college, it’s refreshing to take a step back into history and revisit the ideas of those who defined American higher education.

President Roth asks the question, “Who wants to attend school to learn to be ‘human capital’ ? Who aspires for their children to become economic or military resources?”

Why do we attend college? For Dewey “…schools first and foremost should teach us habits of learning…these habits included awareness of our interdependence; nobody is an expert on everything. He emphasized ‘plasticity’, an openness to being shaped by experience: “The inclination to learn from life itself and to make the conditions of life such that all will learn in the process of living is the finest product of schooling.”

President Roth concludes,“Dewey’s insight that learning in the process of living is the deepest form of freedom. In a nation that aspires to democracy, that’s what education is primarily for: the cultivation of freedom within society…Higher education’s highest purpose is to give all citizens the opportunity to find ‘large and human significance’ in their lives and work.”

For high school seniors, this is an important message. For the past twelve years of education your struggles are about to be rewarded with an invite to attend the college of your choice. But what about life after admission?

Frank Bruni gives voice to the concern that it’s all about the process in his article ‘How to Survive the College Admissions Madness’. “College is a singular opportunity to rummage through and luxuriate in ideas, to realize how very large the world is and to contemplate your desired place in it. And that’s lost in the admissions mania, which sends the message that college is a sanctum to be breached – a border to be crossed – rather than a land to be inhabited and tilled for all that it’s worth.”

Look beyond the letter and imagine who you’ll be a year from now. Where will you best exercise your inclination to learn from life?

When did we start ‘shopping’ for college’?

When did college become a commodity? When did the decision of the best place to go translate into a monetary return on investment? When did we start shopping for college as we would for any other ‘big ticket’ consumer purchase?

I’m guessing it started when the average cost of college exceeded the average annual income of the majority of Americans.

Add to that a financial aid vocabulary that includes terms similar to those we use when we buy a car: ‘sticker price’ (tuition without room and board and books and lab fees) and ‘discounting’ (need-based institutional grant aid and discounts granted in an effort to increase the probability that particular students will choose to enroll).

Unfortunately price has become the determinant where ‘fit’ and values should predominate.

This week high school seniors will log on to websites to learn if they have been admitted to the college of their choice. For some, the financials will limit the choice, but for all it’s time to commit to a plan for the next two to four years.

In recent years there has been a trend to vocationalism in the choice of college and major. At the top schools business and economics departments are growing while humanities shrink. And why? Because parents and students are ‘buying in’ to a belief that the highest ranked schools with majors closely linked to employers are the best choice.

I disagree.

There are no guarantees. In a past life I would meet in large auditoriums where parents would arrive with the ‘ten questions you should ask when visiting a college campus’. One was always: How many students were employed at graduation? Does it matter? If your child does not have a job when he or she graduates and the other 99% of the Class of 2019 does, it doesn’t matter. Given the volatility of the job market and the ever changing complexion of entry level opportunities, can we really project out four years? That didn’t work out so well for the Class of 2008, 2009 and 2010.

Here are three things I would consider above all in selecting a college today: faculty, location and internships.

You should select a place where the faculty is expert in their field, but also accessible. It’s important to spend time with professors outside of the classroom to truly optimize the academic experience. Too many students take a class and never meet with their teachers outside the classroom. For those of you in the ‘vocational view of higher ed camp’, faculty provide an underutilized professional network.

Next, location. I recommend a location near a large city, with a strong international presence for study abroad. If you are funding your education, you want to earn money during the summer months. In an urban area there will be multiple opportunities to acquire internships and work experience along with your class schedule during the academic year. Global experience is also critical. Students should study at least one semester outside the US, preferably in a country where english is not the spoken language.

Finally, internships. A few years ago employers visiting college campuses began to regard internship experience as a more important predictor of success than GPA. Internships are no longer an option. It’s equally important for a student to test their interests in the workplace as it is for an employer to preview the talent of the intern.

I haven’t mentioned major, because I think you should sample courses in your first year before you commit to an area of concentration. Interests change over time and students should explore a variety of academic areas.

Over the years I have asked hundreds of students why they selected where they attended college. Almost unanimously, the answer is about a ‘gut’ feel that this was a place were I ‘fit’ and could be successful.

You can’t shop for ‘fit’. Values are not for sale. Choice of college is about growth, transforming from the high school senior to a contributing member of a global community.