Let's hear it for the 'safety school'

Though college admissions scandals starring the rich and famous have dominated recent headlines, most college-bound high school seniors still apply with a hope and a prayer rather than a bribe. By the end of this month, most will have to make final decisions and send a deposit to their school of choice. Though some students apply to a dozen schools or more, even those who apply to only a few generally try to hit three categories: reach, likely bet and safety.

Students (and their parents) are elated when a “reach” school extends admission. It’s a confirmation of a student’s abilities and efforts. The student gains bragging rights among peers, and parents are proud to announce their child’s accomplishment. The high school checks off another top admission they can use to recruit new families to their programs. Everyone assumes the student will take advantage of the offer. But should she?

When my daughter applied to college six years ago, she loved the program at the small liberal arts college that she had also selected as her safety. It offered a robust, interdisciplinary environmental studies major and strengths in writing and theater. Students could apply to do a semester-long immersive study of the Chesapeake Bay and its environs, which included everything from learning how to forage food to interviewing residents of Smith Island about their perspectives on climate change. The campus was lovely, and though it was less than two hours from home, its rural setting was a world away from her childhood in Baltimore City and its public schools.

She applied early action, which provides early notice of acceptance without obligation to enroll. Within a month, she received an acceptance accompanied by a large scholarship that came with special opportunities: fully paid, off-campus excursions, dinners with famous writers, and a residence with other academically motivated students.

But I couldn’t let go. What self-respecting honors student applies to one school? What if it wasn’t really the best one for her? Couldn’t she get into a more prestigious school, and if so, shouldn’t she go there? Shouldn’t she at least have choices?

Under pressure from me, she dutifully applied to five more schools, hitting all three categories: reach, likely bet and another safety. After the final decisions arrived, she had one rejection, was waitlisted at two reach schools, and admitted to her likely bet and other safety with large scholarship offers. There, I thought. She has choices. And she chose her original safety school.

She reasoned that not only did she like the school, but being a top student there would provide her with more opportunities. At a more prestigious school she would likely have a run-of-the-mill academic record — and be stressed as she worked to maintain mediocrity. Her safety school really, really wanted her to come, and they were going to give her carrot after carrot to get her and keep her.

My daughter’s assessment proved far wiser than mine. In her four college years, she took advantage of every opportunity — because she had time. She went to hear writers and speakers and accepted the invitations to attend dinners with them. She took trips to Philadelphia and Mount Vernon and rode on a Revolutionary War era ship. She applied for and won grants to study environmental sustainability in Iceland and food justice movements in Milwaukee. She had many opportunities to conduct research with professors, who loved her verve and commitment. She ran the Student Environmental Alliance and spearheaded a campaign to encourage everyone on campus to stop purchasing bottled water. Now that she’s graduated, students still get a high-quality water bottle at freshman orientation, and the campus halls are dotted with water coolers for refills.

I regret believing that somehow a school with a bigger name would have provided her with a better education. The safety school opened more opportunities for my daughter than I ever could have imagined, and she graduated debt free.

Meanwhile, some famous folks may be going to prison soon because they cheated to get their kids into schools that may well be inappropriate for them. But behind these headlines, for every celebrity parent who games the system by bribing a coach, there are thousands of ordinary people who play by the rules but still fall victim to our society's destructive obsession with a small number of elite institutions.

So let's hear it for the humble safety school. Two years after graduation, my daughter has a dream job managing volunteer programs for a large, environmentally focused nonprofit organization. She is "safe" indeed: in her career, in her confidence, and in the excellence of her education.

Caitlin Cross-Barnet (socbaker@gmail.com) is a social science researcher and a mother of three.

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