Years before he became an unabashed cheerleader for the burgeoning KIPP (Knowledge is Power Program) empire, Jay Mathews was once a high school senior applying to college.
He landed during his first year at Occidental College, a Los Angeles college that later became known as the way station for a certain 44th President. Like Obama, Mathews transferred to an Ivy League institution-Obama to Columbia, Mathews to Harvard-and, like Obama, Mathews’ children eventually attended Sidwell Friends.
While at his second college, Mathews discovered a passion for journalism that has served him admirably, as a staff reporter for The Washington Post, author of a respectable biography of Jaime Escalante and creator of the Top 100 High Schools in the country.
In Harvard Schmarvard, Mathews offers us his take on the college admissions game. As readers of this blog know, I am working my way through a number of these books, and have found that they roughly divide into two major camps: those that purport to provide secrets for how to gain admission to elite colleges and universities, and those that emphasize students finding the right match for themselves.
Ironically, like the yin and yang symbols, both types of books give some space and rhetorical attention to the other aspect. Loren Pope’s book about colleges that changes lives basically conveys the message that you can have your meaningful experience and not sacrifice an Ivy quality education, while Bill Paul’s Getting In has some brief language about finding a school that is a solid fit for the student.
In Harvard Schmarvard, Mathews tries to have it both ways, but ultimately ends up writing more about the elite side of things while claiming to focus more on the match.
Written for a student audience, the work is broken down into bite-size chapters with helpful recaps, pictures and student anecdotes peppered throughout the text. Compared with the other books I have read, this one emphasized students’ being themselves and letting their passions show through, rather than trying to cohere to a preconceived and cookie-cutter idea of what colleges want.
At the same time that Mathews rather effectively espouses this doctrine and criticizing authors who convey superior attitudes to their student readers, he is also telling us about his children’s journey from their top-notch secondary school to various high-flying colleges. Beyond the personal, he spends far more time talking about the high-level performers than average students.
To his credit, Mathews does include as an appendix a list of 100 colleges that he considers underrated. Many of these may be familiar to readers of Loren Pope, and my attention was piqued by places like Loyola Marymount University and University of the Pacific, to name a couple of West Cost colleges.
As with many books, works of arts, or movies, sometimes a nugget is what you take with you. In the case of Harvard Schmarvard, it will be Mathews’ emphasis on students’ being who they are and his appendix more than the at times glaring inconsistency between his words and lived experience.