Bright College Years

A New York Times Notable Book of the Year

"An eye-opening, startling exposé. . . . Matthews's energetic and well-written report provides a dismal yet concise insider portrait of college life."--Booklist

"A wide-ranging, well-written and lively account of contemporary academia."--Christian Wiman, Dallas Morning News

"Anyone who reads college catalogues (which means all educators, parents, and prospective students) should read Bright College Years as well, to discover what goes on behind the ivy."--Samuel Hynes, author of Flights of Passage



An excerpt from
Bright College Years
Inside the American Campus Today
by Anne Matthews

Summer: The Price of Passage

On May weekend mornings of soft sun and river wind, the homeless of Manhattan will often gather to beg and smoke beside the Eighth Avenue entrance to Madison Square Garden. But on this clear warm Sunday, they only back againt its grey tile walls and stare. By car and bus and subway, on bikes, on foot, twenty thousand high school juniors are descending upon New York's annual college fair to find a future. By eleven o'clock, the sports arena's escalators and corridors swim with faces. I stop a few and ask their names. Shatel Javeed, raised in Bangladesh. Amparo Lopez, parents Cuban and Senegalese. Umpas Ninvanichkul, born in Tashkent. Disallo Momadou, from Haiti by way of the Bronx.

They are the new America, arriving at their Ellis Island. In the Garden's upstairs exhibition hall the noise is tremendous, a rising roar like a jet warming up, as anxious adolescents translate campus brochures into Spanish, Arabic, Creole, or North Jersey for the watchful parents and grandparents and small cousins trailing every step. In hundreds of college booths, slick catalogues pile and spill. Earn your B.A. in Pastry Arts at the Culinary Institute of America. Major in meditation at Naropa, America's only Buddhist campus. Videos of trees and stone towers play and replay. Campus recruiters in business suits, hoarse, smiling, watchful, line every aisle: yes we're looking for strong B students, yes, we have lots of sports, oh, no no no, financial aid is never a problem.

The American collegiate mosaic forms and reforms each year, but today some pieces are clearly missing. African Americans with academic talent are now recruited in middle school, wooed and fought over; the last thing they want are more brochures. Alumni children, like male athletes, remain a protected group. Well-off suburbanites, any sort, need not waste a fine warm Sunday. With adequate grades plus open-handed parents, college doors everywhere will swing wide.

Overachievers can sleep in, too. A public information fair like this, run by the national association of college-guidance counselors, is of no real use to the 100,000 students trying for places at the nation's thirty or forty most competitive schools, the trophy colleges with apply/admit ratios of twelve or fifteen or eighteen to one. For the supremely ambitious, prepped to exhaustion by vocabulary trainers and interview coaches, junior-year summer is a marathon's final lap. Imperial domains like Harvard and Stanford, name-brand enclaves like Wellesley and Oberlin, will often skip these open events, too. If they chose, they could sell every seat many times over, at any price. But 95 percent of American colleges are not at all selective, cannot luxuriate in debates over admitting smart versus talented versus energetic students. For the struggling middle ranks, especially--the obscure rural campuses and the big dull universities, the genteel church institutions stranded by time and change--a college fair is a good way to corral warm bodies.

Beside the show floor is a roped-off advising area. At its long tables sit two dozen counselors from area high schools. All are volunteers, giving up a Sunday to start would-be collegians through the campus maze. I slip into a chair between two of the most experienced. At my left is Paul Hecht, a lean man with curly grey-brown hair and a Wesleyan College T-shirt ("That's the Macon, Georgia, Wesleyan, you understand; the complete Southern-belle finishing school"). He heads the college office at Randolph High, on upper Manhattan's 135th Street. To my right labors Jeffrey Spielvogel, a calm, slow-voiced college counselor from Lewis High, in the suburban borough of Queens. The leeves of his salmon-striped dress shirt are rolled high, to no avail; the Gardon's air-conditioning surrendered long ago. But high-schoolers wait half an hour and more for an opening at the advising tables, and a stranger's interrogation: Grade-point average? Extracurriculars? Field of study? What do you want from life?

A self-assured blonde with splendid biceps plops into the metal folding chair across from Hecht. "I like volleyball and nursing, in that order," she informs him, sitting back expectantly. Her mother hovers, plucking at the girl's candy-pink blouse till her daughter backhands her, a swift, practiced blow. Hecht is deep in a battered Peterson's Guide to Colleges.

"Are you good at volleyball?" he demands, nose to index.

"Very," she says simply.

"NCAA Division One, then. Indiana. You'll love it," Hecht pronounces. Dazzled, she heads for the Indiana University booth and is replaced by a slender, anxious Hispanic girl from middle-class Forest Hills High, grade-point 3.5, wants to be a physicist, will consider only large East Coast cities.

"Not even Chicago?" Hecht asks. Her father pulls at her arm, whispers violently in Spanish. "No," she says softly, "my family doesn't even like it that I'm--sorry, I mean, Boston is my limit."

"Boston is a fine idea," says Hecht meaningfully. "Boston University, Boston College. Think twice about UMass-Amherst, their budget cuts have been shocking. Si su padre tiene preguntas, llameme." He offers his card with a smile and bow. A sallow, acne-plagued boy next slips into the chair: C average, no activities, no clear ambitions, no points for interesting ethnicity, no apparent personality (except for a wrist tattoo reading "Abdul + Betty").

"What about SUNY?" howls Hecht, above the crowd roar, meaning the vast State University of New York system. "Okay," yells the kid obediently, "but I really wanna go out-state." "Louisiana, you'll love it." "I been there already." "So, you don't need me! Go see the SUNY people. Go, go, you heard me." The patient slouches off, gnawing on his Walkman cord, just as a heavyset mother and daughter in matching beige warm-up suits arrive, gold hoop earrings swinging against their coffee-dark cheeks. Even before they sit down, the mother is talking.

"We're Jamaican, money is not a concern, she's pre-med, probably radiology but maybe pediatrics, from Brooklyn, we're getting tons of unsolicited recruiting videos, I hear that's always a good sign, what about the Ivy League, are there any Ivy schools she can commute to?"

Hecht, nodding cordially, makes an instant decision. "Columbia. Barnard. Possibly Penn. The better the university, the better it looks when you apply to med school. Take the financial aid if you can get it. What about Howard?"

They've never heard of it. "What are your outside interests?" he gently asks the silent daughter; she fingers her silky sleeve and shrugs. We wait. A furrow deepens between Hecht's brows. She shrugs again. They depart, a liner and its dinghy.

"A pity. No killer instinct, and she's been watching much too much TV," comments Hecht, leaning back to scan the faces surging past our alcove, intent, impassive, terrified. "Frankly, they've all been watching much too much TV."

A black pre-pharmacy candidate and a readheaded field hockey foreward present themselves, giggling. "This is like going to a 1-900 psychic!" Hecht's chair legs hit the floor. In two minutes and thirty seconds ("My personal land-speed record for deciding a life, ladies") he points them toward Syracuse, Tennessee, Old Dominion, maybe the University of Connecticut. "Do they have cosmetology at any of those schools?" the redhead demands. "Certainly not," says Hecht, miming a glove-slap. "But yes, I love your hair. And consider a Kaplan study course before taking the SAT's."

Hecht has been advising college applicants since 1976. His East Harlem High school--"as inner-city as you can get"--has an aviation club, a fine student newspaper, and a touring Renaissance music choir. He sends 94 percent of its students to college, 87 percent to four-year schools. "The good campuses come to us because we have a product," he explains. "For every dollar they give you, I tell the kids, any college gets three to five dollars back in state and federal funds without ever touching their endowment. You're cost-efficient. So sell yourselves. With care. This is a business transaction. Don't forget it."

An immensely pregnant girl in a red leather jacket bends over our table, peace medallion swinging. Her round brown face is shadowed with fatigue, but she will not sit.

"How do I write a good college application essay?" she demands. Hecht considers. "Keep it fresh, creative, literate, grab their attention for no more than one page, get out gracefully." She snorts, and stalks away. Many of the college-application brochures she clutches above the rounded shelf of her belly are full of personal questions, designed to provoke good essays: What would you do if you found a lion in the backyard? Given six inches of string, what would you create? If you could form a new political party, demands DePauw, what issues would it confront, and why? Life is filled with embarrassing and uncomfortable moments; please describe one of yours: Babson College wants to know. If you were to come upon a drowning child, inquires Guilford, would you feel compelled to save that child, even at great risk to yourself? Jeffrey Spielvogel watches sadly as the expectant mother vanishes into the crowds. I ask about the demographics at the high school where he teaches.

"Even five years ago, very WASP, but now we're strongly Asian. Korean, Chinese, Vietnamese, Filipino, Indonesian. A third of our students need extensive, extensive, help with English. Their SAT verbal scores get very, very low. Nor are they, um, sophisticated about what will be asked of them in college, even why they should be there at all. They only know they must go." He used to counsel kids to try for prestige campuses. Now he favors the best fit between applicant and campus.

"Their greatest fear is rejection," he explains. "I spend every spring stopping suicides, breakdowns, hysteria. Half I'll get into the New York State system, somewhere, somehow; the rest go all over, Georgia, Texas, California, and yes, the Ivies. But the parents! Parents from hell. Parents who second-guess and short circuit. Parents who won't come in for conferences unless they get a letter from a social worker. Parents who burst in to inform me, 'My child comes from greatness and will do great things.' Not with a 64 average and 380 math SATs, she won't."

Not all the prospectives wandering Madison Square Garden are seventeen. A quarter of U.S. undergraduates now are twenty-five and over: grown-ups reach for campus admissions packets, too, then hurry away to scan them in restrooms and stairwells. "For a son or daughter?" a Fordham rep asks kindly, smiling. "No," the middle-aged man murmurs, as he sidles off, "no, actually, for me." Women going back to school are happy and excited, the reps say, direct with their questions, even aggressive. The men are furtive and ashamed. Many have been out of work for months, or years; they know they must retool, learn computing, finish the degree abandoned in flush times, but they have knocked at too many closed doors lately, and this one comes especially hard. Whatever program they chose, the instructors may be their children's age, or their grandchildren's.

After an hour I walk the show floor, gathering great glossy sheaves of promotional brochures. Come to warm and caring Coker. Ohio University, you'll want to stay. It's easy to fit in, at Westbrook. "New York City: You Gotta Do It Once," Columbia pronounces. Alfred University ups the ante: "Your professors will know your name and your nuances; you will know their home phone numbers and their home cooking. . . . You'll never be bored here."

Run through our water sculpture on sunny days, invites Purdue. Join our surfing team, counters Pepperdine. "All dorms have free cable TV service," whispers Utica College of Syracuse University, "and students enjoy expanded personal fitness facilities." Food is a recurring motif. Sushi bars, waffle bars, made-to-order omelettes and fireside snack lounges crowd the catalogues. Graze our health food café, pleads Sarah Lawrence. Arizona urges "gorging on hot dogs at the Spring Fling." Swarthmore's brocure features a glowing, if cryptic, close-up of racially diverse students devouring chocolates while reading National Geographic.

Leafing through these splendid albums, with their heavy-coated stock of scarlet and jade and copper, their dazzling pop-ups and cutouts and wraparounds, would make anyone crave college. The copy is as soothing as Muzak in a mall, as sweetly urgent as the Shopping Channel. The same adjectives star page after page. Profound. Excellent. Life-enhancing. Personal. College will be fun, intimate, entertaining, fun, improving but nonthreatening. You will be painlessly prepared for a high-paying career. Hope, comfort, magic, all are here, whether you major in mall management at the University of Connecticut-Storrs, in astrophysics at MIT, in winemaking at the University of California-Davis.

"Mention us on the Veneto or the Ginza, and you'll likely receive a nod of recognition," claims Temple. Don't miss our lectures by Doctor Julius Erving, urges the University of Toledo, plus hot concerts "by Def Leppard, Michael Bolton, Cher and Boyz II Men." We recommend hot buttered popcorn and a fast game of backgammon in the student union, counters Iona, wanly. "Learn sophisticated research skills," Skidmore offers, but the next brochure in the pile is from Northwood University of West Palm Beach, carefully explaining that "even our English and art classes are taught from a business perspective," and reminding potential students not to miss the university's famous annual auto and fashion shows. The University of Central Florida is even more direct: "Our longest walk between buildings is ten minutes....Disney World and great beaches are an hour away." "When a little retail therapy is in order," admits Franklin and Marshall, "shop till you drop at the nearby mall's 190 stores."

By late afternoon, many of the teenagers in Madison Square Garden are hungry and dazed. Quite a few parents are looking grim, realizing a Sixties adolescence is not a sound touchstone for this new world. Families perch on plastic chairs along the rim of the show floor, recovering their self-possession, blinking at the mob. The Villanova booth is getting little traffic; its brochures ("Villanova: A Community of Scholars!") stress languages, history, physics. "I'm grossed," says a boy, dropping their material in the trash. A few booths away, a thin kid with a shaved head, two nose rings, and a sardonic, eager face reads an instructional catalogue aloud.

"'This course considers ways gendered identities are produced, repositioned, legislated, pathologized, theorized, and contested. Topics to be addressed include impersonation, passing, cross-dressing, veiling, voguing, fantasy and fetishism.' Hey, sign me up!" His father, very red, whips the book from his son's hand, nods abruptly to the rep, and stalks off. The rep slips the boy an application. He stashes it in his backpack, grins engagingly in thanks, and hurries to catch up with Dad.

The overflow crowd at the Financial Aid session comes out sweating.

"Sell my house! They say I can sell my house."

"I know, I heard. Either that or a third mortgage."

All around me, adolescents are still translating activities brochures, looking for little brothers' lost sweaters, flirting with friends. One or two, heading for the exit with slow, wandering steps, clutch their mothers' hands. A stocky father in a neat plaid shirt stops in mid-aisle, swings around, and holds out one wide palm, like the traffic cop he is. His dreadlocked son, hauling three shopping bags of shiny brochures, freezes in mid-whine.

"College," says the father, meaning every syllable. "College, or die."


Copyright notice: Excerpted from pages 21-28 and 34-35 of Bright College Years by Anne Matthews, published by the University of Chicago Press. © 1997 by Anne Matthews. All rights reserved. This text may be used and shared in accordance with the fair-use provisions of U.S. copyright law, and it may be archived and redistributed in electronic form, provided that this entire notice, including copyright information, is carried and provided that the University of Chicago Press is notified and no fee is charged for access. Archiving, redistribution, or republication of this text on other terms, in any medium, requires the consent of the University of Chicago Press.

Anne Matthews
Bright College Years: Inside the American College Today
Paper $14.00 ISBN: 0-226-51092-1
©1998, 288 pages
COBE: No sales to the countries of the old British Empire, except Canada.

For information on purchasing the book -- from bookstores or here online -- please go to the webpage for Bright College Years.