A New College Try

Certain newspaper op-ed pieces have “Hyde” written all over them. Shortly after they appear in print, my email box quickly floods with messages from alums, parents and colleagues that begin with something like: “I’m sure you’ve already seen this, but I thought I’d pass along the attached link…”

Such is the case with this 6/24/17 NY Times piece entitled “On Campus, Failure Is on the Syllabus.”


It’s about a Smith College initiative called “Failing Well” that has been created to help high-achieving students — the only kind admitted to schools like Smith, but I’m getting ahead of myself… — adapt to the inevitable setbacks that occur during the transition from high school to college.  Similar programs are in development at many prestigious U.S. colleges and universities. It seems that deep trauma can beset first-year college students when they receive the first B of their lives. This change in script can be tough on kids raised in the era of Testmania and over-engaged parents. 

Having written a couple of books on college readiness, I was naturally interested in the topic. However, my interest was piqued due to the fact that I too am a “Smithie.” (It’s a long story.*)

On the one hand, I support the notion of helping these kids with initiatives like “Failing Well.”  At the same time, I find myself humming a few bars of Peggy Lee’s “Is That All There is?” That’s because it amounts to a back end solution to a front end problem. In other words: Maybe your admissions criteria is flawed.

A few years ago, I was talking with a highly respected veteran Bowdoin College athletic coach who was recruiting a Hyde athlete as a Polar Bear prospect. At one point, I uttered a line that my own college buddies and I often say to each other: “Bowdoin has gotten so competitive that there’s no way I would ever be accepted today.” He countered, “You know, I hear that a lot from alums. I disagree. These kids are doing what they need to do in order to gain admission today. You did that in your time and you would do the same today.” Coach caused me to reassess my thinking.

If what you want is intelligence and high grades, ambitious teenagers will do everything they can to show you that they’re capable on both counts.  If what you want is resilience and courage, they’ll respond accordingly.  However, never kid a kid. Don’t tell them that something is important while you simultaneously show them that it’s really not.

So, by all means, keep that “How to Fail” course, but place it on the back end. Because if you fail to give equal attention to your admissions criteria on the front end, you just might end up like Baby-Boomer icon Lucille Ball in the famous “Conveyer Belt” scene.  And that could force you to expand a useful one-off course into a full-fledged major.

Onward, Malcolm Gauld

* I spent the fall semester of my senior year as an exchange student at Smith and consider myself a proud alum!