Anxiety is woven into the college application process for families across the economic spectrum. American parents spend almost half a billion dollars each year on independent education consultants, not counting the cost of test prep or flights and hotels for campus visits. The college application process triggers family aspirations—and fears. And given the lottery-like scale of the competition (Princeton admitted 1,941 students or just 5.5 percent of their 35,370 applicants), it’s not surprising some families resort to extreme behaviors.
The behavior of parents with so little faith in their children they resorted to bribery is reprehensible. But the crime is a weak signal from the future. Scandals, random acts of civil disobedience, and extreme events often seem ‘weird’ or incomprehensible — until they become repetitive and turn into a pattern we recognize. The college bribery scandal is just that, a signal something is amiss. But what is it a signal of?
• The emergence of new models of learning. I talk with a LOT of 16 and 17 year-olds with a 4.0 grade average, stellar recommendations and a list of service projects to assure sainthood, and they STILL didn’t get early admission or their first choice school. Princeton aside, elite schools are taking just 10% of their applicants. Life isn’t fair. We hope it’s just; we hope the 10% selected are a diverse group, and we hope the selection process is uncompromised. But when only one teen in ten is selected, nine great kids will not make the cut. Parents may panic when they realize that college admission is, to some extent a lottery. But here’s what they’re missing: the emergence of lifelong learning or the 60 year curriculum as the new education reality.
The four-year model of education is becoming less meaningful in a world in which continuous learning is becoming the norm, a vehicle for steady adaptation to change unfolding at warp speed. Kids who take a more fluid approach to education may take a gap year to expand their experiences, enroll in classes online, choose two years of community college, drop into an elite school for a semester, take a job with a start-up for two years and sign up for a set of Master Classes. Portfolio development will be a more normal approach to work, life and learning for a new age. The four year college model will not go away soon, but it’s being altered by the emergence of online MOOCs and specialty platforms for mastering knowledge with extreme flexibility. Today’s ten year old will experience very different models of education. Rather than bribery to get Johnny into an elite school, parents will need to anticipate a wide span of learning experiences for their kids.
• Anxiety about the future. Visionaries like Elon Musk, Steve Jobs, and Neri Oxman are transforming the fantasies of sci-fi writers like Ray Bradbury and Isaac Asimov into reality. 5G and the internet of things is ubiquitous. Alexa and Hey Google are learning our habits. AI, robotics, biotech, and blockchain are developments altering the nature of work, industries and careers, making families fear for their children’s future. But the future is arriving at warp speed. We can be paralyzed and resort to fearful responses, or prepared, embracing opportunities that emerge when one door closes and you’re forced to carve out a new one. When supported and loved, children are resilient, adaptive to whatever new circumstances they face. The parents who paid big bucks to illegally outsmart the system would have done better investing in their children’s resilience.
Families who pay attention to weak signals from the future are better equipped to anticipate and prepare for the future—without resorting to unsavory practices. What other weak signals from the future do you see? And what are they signals for?
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