Pacer Notes: College 'race' is flawed and unfair
I am beginning a race this year. It may not be a race in a typical sense — it's more like climbing a mountain on a time crunch. It's the college race: a cutthroat, two-year-long sprint with a grand prize of a shiny acceptance package from Dream U.
It begins with the PSAT, the precursor to the much-dreaded SAT. At first glance, this test only has real benefits to sophomores and juniors. As a junior, you can quality for hefty merit scholarships, and sophomore year serves as a warranted practice run. However, school boards and parents across the country, anxious for their students to get some edge over the others, have pushed the PSAT down to as early as eighth grade for certain students. My brother and I both took it in middle school, and ever since, our inboxes have been full of colleges begging us to "claim our free guide to admissions" or "live on campus during the summer scholars program." It was stressful, seeing all these institutions begging me to attend their colleges when I hadn't even entered high school. But little did I know, my middle school self was only warming up for the race to come.
I am enrolled in a PSAT prep class this year. Every Saturday at 1 p.m., I drive myself downtown, search for a parking spot, and enter the classroom at Portland State University. I sit in a windowless room with thirty other high school freshmen, sophomores and juniors giving up hours of their weekends to get the tiniest advantage over other students for a coveted National Merit Scholarship — or in the case of freshmen and sophomores, almost nothing at all, except maybe a couple more emails from Ivy League schools. After class, we all go home and do our preparation homework: a couple practice tests, reading the Princeton Review PSAT Guide for strategies, or experimenting with different ways to think like the authors of the test. Our teachers are totally transparent with the goal of the course. It's not to help you understand the material. Rather, the instructors tell us that the class is helping us "game" the test — to do everything a little faster, a little more efficiently than the other students so we can get one step closer to a scholarship.
Although I'm nowhere near finishing the brutal college race, I already have questions about the first leg. Is eighth grade the proper time to introduce students to the PSAT? When most of them haven't even finished Algebra 1, or even been in a high school classroom? Is it okay for colleges to actively solicit students at this age, pressuring them to declare their interest in a particular school? And most importantly, why isn't there more attention being focused on standardized tests and socioeconomic divisions? Certainly, affluence helps students learn how to "game" the test. Wealthy people can pay for expensive prep classes for their children, huge books full of strategies guaranteeing perfect scores, and even private test prep tutors.
This is especially true in our community. Most of the students I know are taking some sort of test prep course this year. Some have been preparing since they were freshmen, their eyes always set on that perfect 1600. I know people with tutors, with parents that shove books into their hands and tell them to study when they're not doing homework. Why? Perhaps it's because these parents, who work so hard to obtain the means required to live in Lake Oswego, are afraid of their children squandering their life's work. Or maybe it's because parents are scared that others will judge their ability to raise a child if their student stays at home instead of going to Cornell. Either way, it's evident that the college race isn't fair to anyone. Not to people of lower socioeconomic status, not to parents and especially not to students. Much like the tests, the college marathon can be "gamed," and wealth, status, and pride can determine whether you start on mile 0 or mile 26.
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