Is there a deeper meaning to the college rat race?
Students from Gunn and Palo Alto high schools pondered that question in a discussion with three Stanford University professors in a recent recording for the radio show "Philosophy Talk."
The discussion at Palo Alto High School, expected to be broadcast this fall, was part admissions strategy and part philosophy, mixed with some Stanford insider news and a large dose of youthful idealism.
The teens, mostly juniors about to embark on the college application process, questioned two philosophers -- professors Ken Taylor of Stanford and John Perry, retired from Stanford and now at the University of California at Riverside -- as well as sociologist Mitchell Stevens of Stanford.
The weekly radio show, anchored by Taylor and Perry, aims to bring "the richness of philosophic thought to everyday subjects." It is broadcast Sundays at 10 a.m. and Tuesdays at noon on San Francisco public-radio station KALW, and other outlets across the country.
Noting that colleges work hard to drum up applicants only to turn around and reject them in large numbers, Stevens likened the elite college-admission process to the exclusivity fostered by certain sought-after nightclubs.
"It's the velvet-rope syndrome," he said. "A club is as desirable as the quality of the people it turns away. ... It's one of the primary ways Americans kind of decide who's who."
Stevens spent 18 months working in admissions for an unnamed New England college before writing "Creating a Class: College Admissions and the Education of Elites," published in 2007 by Harvard University Press. He is now an associate professor in the Stanford School of Education.
Perry cited the "vicious circle" of colleges pumping up applications to boost their perceived selectivity, leading to "higher prestige, which means higher application numbers -- you get the idea," he said.
He advocated what he said is strong educational value in community colleges and state university systems, not just elite institutions.
"Why is there such intense competition over the relatively few spots in the so-called elite colleges and universities?" he wondered.
Taylor marveled at the "extraordinary obsession with pedigree and prestige" in American society. "The reason colleges want to be part of the selectivity is that they're selling themselves as a ticket into the elite class," he said.
"They're not just selling research and knowledge, they're selling prestige -- that's a branding thing.
"I bet some of the students in this audience believe the college you go to will make an enormous difference in the rest of your life," he said, motioning to several hundred Gunn and Paly students assembled in Haymarket Theatre.
Smelling hypocrisy in the elite admissions process, students questioned everything from the fairness of preferences for "legacy" and affirmative-action applicants to the marketing strategies of colleges.
"If the admissions offices are looking for the true person inside, but at the same time pushing and creating pressure on us to create this false identity, how is this paradox and hypocrisy affecting the future generations of America?" one asked.
Another asked, "We talk about how the best colleges aren't always the most prestigious ones, so how do we find the best colleges for ourselves and get past all the self-promotion of colleges trying to hike up their applicant rate?"
Another student wondered whether student stress would decrease if colleges ignored extracurriculars and assessed applicants on academics alone, cutting the pressure on them to rack up extensive extracurricular resumes.
The irony, said Taylor, who has sat on a Stanford committee that advises on admission policies, is that colleges truly do want students to be themselves, not robots.
"They really are searching for authenticity -- they really, really are," he said. "But they tell people that, and people don't believe them. They (applicants) think they're looking for a resume.
"Admissions officers are doing their darndest to see through resume-building."
Taylor said there even have been discussions about limiting the number of Advanced Placement classes the admissions office would consider, adding he did not know whether that would actually happen.
"Students come to college with nine, 10, 12 AP courses. Why? Because they think it's going to distinguish them. Stanford is wondering if we can do something to ratchet down the pressure."
More people began trying to "cross the velvet rope" than ever before after elite schools opened themselves to women and minorities in the 1970s, Stevens said.
"Admission to the elite class is no longer guaranteed just by birth or circumstance -- it's a highly competitive thing," Taylor said.
"I don't know if elites are good things or bad things, but they're inevitable things and, if we're going to have them, it's so much more preferable that they be diverse."
Perry and Taylor said they both have advocated for experimentation with a lottery admission system for students who meet a certain threshold.
The student questioners were assembled by teachers Lucy Filppu of Paly and Jordan Huizing of Gunn. Filppu teaches the junior Humanities course at Paly and Huizing a similar course called Philosophy and Literature at Gunn. Students read Plato and Aristotle and study world religions, finishing, at Paly, with Oscar Wilde's "The Picture of Dorian Gray" and Tolstoy's "The Death of Ivan Ilyich."
"The college rat race is so prevalent and raises so many issue as to who owns your learning, and what does it mean to be an active participant in your own sense of knowledge," Filppu said.
"I think the students love the idea that they can kind of be Socrates and question the status quo and ask, 'What does it mean to be an individual as well as all those test scores?'"