Studies have shown that once the kids are post-bar and -bat mitzva age, American Jews tend to discuss just two topics: the college search, and what to do about their aging parents.
The studies were conducted by me, at various diners and Shabbat tables. Granted, the methodology isn’t foolproof, but the results are unassailable. If you’ve started to get letters from AARP, you are probably expert in the differences between the SAT and ACT and are beginning to understand the distinctions between “continuing care” and “assisted living.”
But let’s put our parents aside for a moment (figuratively speaking, of course). Studies by people who actually do such things for a living confirm the Jewish obsession with all things college. According to a 2007 survey, 65 percent of American Jews between ages 22 and 50 earned a college degree, compared to 24 percent of non-Jews. Their relatively high incomes and disproportionate aspirations to the professional class mean that Jews don’t just apply to college. They strategize. They agonize. They spend a fortune on college prep. They compare grades and test scores on sophisticated guidance software, and examine tomes like the Fiske Guide to Colleges and Hillel’s annual College Guide with the diligence their forebears once brought to the study of Talmud.
And that’s just the parents. The children, who actually have to earn those grades, take those tests, and attend those colleges, are not only bearing the burden of their parents’ expectations but are competing with a historic number of other children for those same few slots at the best universities. (That assumes, of course, as Jews have since Abraham left Ur, that all of our children are above average. In truth, the college search can be especially fraught for kids with special needs or untypical learning styles, who have to jump their own hurdles when it comes to “getting in.”)
Back in the day, a “Jewish issue” meant Israel, synagogue and religious news, the work of our local agencies and national institutions, anti-Semitism, Jewish culture, the Hebrew and Yiddish languages, and Jewish celebrities.
But if a Jewish issue is one that engages Jews in a particularly Jewish way, perhaps it is time to add “college” to that list. That’s the proposal we brought to Richard and Thelma Florin, longtime community philanthropists with a keen interest in young Jews and their education. Thelma, a member of the NJJN board of trustees, heard our proposal for a regular feature that would focus on the college search, the college experience, and even alternatives to higher education — all examined from a distinctively Jewish angle. If NJJN — and by extension, the Jewish community itself — is not part of the conversations that dominate our dinner tables, we wouldn’t be doing our job as a community newspaper.
The Florins agreed to help us fund the project, and the result is “Getting In,” our new series on area youth and higher education. Starting this week, with a cover story on the “gap year” in Israel, we’ll feature regular articles and on-line content focusing on different aspects of the college search. The series will draw on the experience of NJJN staff and freelance writers and other “outsiders” with expert perspectives on college life.
The thrust of “Getting In” is helping families navigate an often exhausting and frustrating process. But we also hope to celebrate the achievements of our young people, and talk about the exciting, uplifting, and spirit- and mind-expanding possibilities of higher education. The college process shouldn’t be something to dread, but an opportunity for readers to explore who they are and aspire to be. We have our whole lives to be disillusioned. It shouldn’t start in 11th grade.
Personally, I’m done with the college search, after having gone through it with three of my own. Since I’ll have a hand in assigning and editing many of the articles, they’ll inevitably reflect what I learned along the way, including:
* It’s not just about the Ivies. Too much journalism about college focuses on the same small number of elite schools. Only a small number of our kids can possibly attend these schools, and concentrating only on them distorts the process.
* The high cost of college is a national shame. It forces students into debt or out of school altogether, and leaves parents bewildered and frightened over how they’ll ever afford it. We hope to offer advice on becoming smarter consumers of higher education.
* College is not only what goes on in the classroom. It is also what goes on in the library when you are studying, or in your dorm room, where you are getting a good night’s sleep before waking up and studying some more. (This, anyway, is what I keep telling my kids. I can only assume they see things the same way I do.)
We hope you’ll enjoy our new series on “Getting In.” Even if you don’t have kids in the pipeline, please share the features with friends and family who do. And we hope you’ll contact us with you own suggestions for topics.
And thanks, Richard and Thelma, for your support.