The College Process & Progressive Ed: What’s Wrong

What does the college process mean? When I use that term, I am referring to an all encompassing idea that includes the primary, secondary and tertiary processes. Everything from application to enrollment deposit, and the ancillary processes like private college counselors, audition or portfolio coaches, test-prep, college bootcamps, essay workshops, case study programs, campus visits, pre-college summer programs, etc.; all of which are meant to increase the likelihood that a student will be admitted to the school of their choice. So, what does this have to do with progressive education? As it stands today, very little.

Before I go too far down that rabbit hole, I would like to mention briefly that I am an admissions officer for one of the few progressive institutions of higher education in the United States: Bennington College. I knew very little of the progressive world previous to my employment with Bennington, but as I became more familiar with the philosophical underpinnings of progressive education, all sorts of things started clicking for me in my work as an admissions professional and also in terms of making sense of my underwhelming public education experience (let the healing begin). This is also what lead me to the Human Restoration Project.

I am of the opinion that, in regards to the college process, there are three criteria that lead to success:

  1. The student has a sense of who they are and are unlikely to be influenced by outside agents. They see their community as a network of mentors or consultants to use, not authorities to delegate choice to.

  2. The student has a sense of purpose or at least an understanding of interests that have been differentiated from the dominant paradigm. Or if they have adopted those interests, can articulate why they are important to them as an individual.

  3. Have a good sense of the kind of environment that will help facilitate the meaningful pursuit of that purpose or those interests.

In a system where students are constantly compared and competing against each other, where compliance is the standard by which all are measured and external validation how one derives a sense of self-worth; few are prepared to make an educated choice about which path is the best for them. In our system, success is defined within the narrow constraints of a letter grade and a test score. So students look at the college process through that lens: what are the rules of the game and how can they be mastered so that my desired outcome is likely to be achieved and my worthiness verified?

At this point, the system becomes very self-referential. What is the desired outcome (i.e. which schools should I want to go to)? Well, what does US News and World Report tell me? What does the Princeton Review tell me? What does my private college consultant tell me? What does Bob the lawyer next door tell me? What are my parents telling me? Very rarely do students ask what they want for themselves, or if they do, it’s still within the framework of the externally validating paradigm. The logic goes something like this, “I want to be successful. Everyone who goes to Stanford is successful. Therefore, I should go to Stanford.” And then the inevitable, “If I don’t go to Stanford, I won’t be successful.”

These students have spent their entire lives in a system that reinforces this foundational proposition: something outside of myself has the answer; a system that constantly paints the world in binaries and hasn’t made room for ambiguity, critical thinking, self-awareness, risk taking, creativity, or collaboration. Is it any wonder that students flail and experience so much stress around this process? Is it any wonder they pursue name brand schools with such fervor? Is it any wonder that only 57% graduate from college within six years after starting?

What does progressive education have to do with the college process? Potentially quite a bit. If we take some of the basic concepts that a progressive education has to offer, we can see how that path would have a much greater likelihood in leading to the three foundational criteria that I laid out at the beginning of this post.

  1. Self-direction — ownership and agency of a process, allowing deep investigation into multiple areas of interest, using inquiry as a launchpad and connecting purpose to their learning.

  2. Project Based Learning — a process oriented approach where theoretical exercises are given real world applications. Failure is assured, resilience required, critique critical, navigating ambiguity essential, creative problem solving inevitable, and outcomes unpredictable. Students gain quite a bit of confidence in their ability to navigate dynamic situations.

  3. Public Exhibition — students have the opportunity to receive a response to their work from a broader audience. They publicly share their successes and failures, answer questions, defend their thesis when necessary while using these interactions to deepen their own understanding of who they are, what they are interested in, and where they are headed.

  4. Narrative Evaluations — students receive and incorporate meaningful feedback, eliminating external ego-feeding/defeating peer comparisons which activates their intrinsic motivation and provides a space where they are much more likely to make an honest assessment of their strengths and weaknesses.

  5. Dismantled Power Structures — a natural byproduct of the progressive approach, the student becomes their own personal authority (in the truest sense, not the faux confidence or obstinate sense) where they use all of the resources at their disposal in the service of facilitating their own learning. In this mode, teachers become mentors or guides, not compliance police officers, and have a much larger store of energy reserves to be applied toward helping students to become the best possible version of themselves in the world.

At a time when there is a lot to be discouraged about, I believe the progressive education movement has something positive to offer the world, especially as it pertains to the college process. An empowered individual making informed choices based on their deepest held values is much more likely to feel fulfilled, and much more likely to make a positive contribution to their community. I believe that our definition and measurements of educational success needs a radical tear down and rebuild, and that progressive education is the best place to begin that process.