The risks in asking strangers for directions
September 7, 1989
College choice is one of the biggest decisions most young people make, short of marriage, and it is one that many are unequipped to make. This is especially true of kids from families with no experience themselves of higher education.
Ah, but help is provided in the person of the high school guidance counselor! Or not.
Autumn is nigh. Any day now we will hear the rustle of second mortgages in the breeze as parents help their college-bound kids pack up their Datsuns for the trip to The Greatest Experience of Their Lives.
In a world in which even an attorney general is expected to have a degree, the choice for the children of America's lumpen-bourgeosie is no longer whether to go to college after high school but where. That choice is a daunting one. Not because one school may teach you more than another; if colleges actually gave our young people an education they would have been shut down years ago. The choice will however affect who your fellow alumni will be, and that is crucial to one's hopes for a career, not to mention lower insurance rates.
But how to choose? I remember myself facing that decision twenty-five years ago. For many of my high school classmates, of course, college was a matter of parental diktat. For others it was the dictates of fashion; I recall one tragic case of a girl whose parents could afford the shoes she needed to go to Stephens or the tuition, but not both.
My family did not have a tradition of college-going which might guide me. True, Grandma K. had a B.A. but that feat was not offered as a precedent. It was as if she'd tramped Europe on a motorcycle, the achievement being a result of adventurousness and eccentricity that were unique to her and that her descendants could not be expected to emulate. 1 thus knew of college only what I had seen on TV and old movies; I spent much of my sophomore year in high school worrying about how I would look in a beanie.
District 186 had provided for the needs of students such as me. Springfield High School in the 1960s was the college-prep factory for Springfield's ambitious middle class. The curriculum was geared to that end, as were the school's attendance boundaries. So, indeed, was the staff. SHS—a three-year school in those days—boasted no fewer than seven guidance counselors, including a full-time college placement counselor. They were seers who could peer into a student's file like witches studying a boiling pot and see his future. They could explain the mysteries of financial aid forms, and never got the SAT and the ACT mixed up. Those of us without other sources of advice trusted them implicitly.
It was only years later that I realized that asking a high school counselor for advice about college is like asking your spinster aunt about sex. Whatever their other qualities—and some were fine men and women apart from working for 186—they were the pluperfect Midwest provincials, selected as carefully (and with an eye toward the same qualifications) as a sultan might choose the guards for his harem. Each of the seven counselors at SHS, for example, had taken their degrees from one of two Big Ten universities. Their biases favoring public over private schools and the Midwest over anywhere were both flagrant and systematic.
Guide us they were paid to do and guide they did—away from the Ivy Leagues and Stanfords, away from small liberal arts colleges of eccentric reputation, away from careers that were listed under "miscellaneous'' in their manuals. "You don't have to go away to school," they said soothingly. "We have plenty of good schools here in the Midwest." Or, "Why Clark University? Grinnell is just as good and Iowa is so much closer to home than Massachusetts." Or, "Zoo work is a pretty specific field. Have you considered teaching?"
Of course, there were some good schools in the Midwest. Michigan managed to maintain an intellectual standing in spite of being able to win football games, and the University of Chicago, while hardly of the Midwest, was at least in it. But beyond them? Our small colleges seemed suspect. (What kind of intellectual, I wondered, would live in Jacksonville or Decatur?) As for the U of I, it was (and remains) an academic Sears store. It is the kind of place where people may be trained to run the world; it is not the kind of place that might produce the people we need to change it.
Our counselors' chauvinism must have owed in part to alumni loyalty. Of the seven-person counseling staff, no fewer than six were graduates of the University of Illinois. For years I assumed that U of I grads in the counseling ranks get a bounty (football tickets perhaps, or Roger Ebert autographs) for every hayseed freshman they sign up for the alma mater.
However, I now believe that deeper motives were at work. One was the need of the counselors to protect their institutional position. As students we believed that they had our interests at heart, when in fact it was our parents' interests they were alert to. Was a bright student ever encouraged to attend a school his parents could not afford? Was the son of a Princeton man ever told that he might be happiest taking up hotel management at Western Illinois? Was it just my imagination that kids with bad complexions were steered toward small schools because those schools were less "social"?
It being the sixties, our counselors—no less than us and our parents—believed that if you looked for a school that was better than the rest you could be suspected of thinking that you were better than everybody else. The counselors were the priests of the Midwest cult of the average, and they steered many a sinner back from perdition. Eastern is good enough, my child; who do you think you are?
What was true then apparently remains true today, and not just in Springfield. A recruiter from a major Pennsylvania university confides that he bothers to attend "college day" information sessions at only two of the high schools in Chicago's western suburbs, because kids in all the others are so assiduously pushed toward area colleges and universities that nobody talks to him.
A few escaped, of course. Most of my classmates who chose to go away to school did so simply because it was away. College, any college, was a chance to escape Springfield, Illinois, family, the desk that awaited them at Dad's insurance company. We send our topsoil to New Orleans, our beans to Japan, and our brains to just about everywhere in between; it's why the Midwest remains so Midwestern.
Looking back, I am impressed at how often a student's estimates of her college needs proved (too late) to be more prescient than those of her counselors. In my imagined perfect school system, college counseling would be done by community volunteers. A kid who had an itch to be an architect, for example, would visit a real one, who could fill her in on what kind of training she would need and where she might get it, recommendations that would be informed by the experience both of himself and his colleagues.
I am certain that counselors don't like to think about the lives they steered down dead ends. I wouldn't, anyway. Those entering the field thus would do well to remember that college counseling is one of those jobs that is done less well the more conscientiously one goes about it. □