District News

Challenge Success’ Denise Pope Urges Byram Hills Students to Focus on College Engagement

To be a high school student at Byram Hills these days often means obsessing over a GPA that is through the roof, earning sky-high scores on college admissions exams, building a well-rounded resume and feeling pressure that there is always something more to do.

With that intensity comes an average of nearly three hours of nightly homework, hours at extracurricular activities and too little shuteye as students strive to gain admission to the nation’s top colleges.

“Our students feel a tremendous amount of pressure to get accepted into highly selective colleges and universities,” Principal Christopher Walsh said. “They lose sight of being a kid. Many of our students wind up mortgaging their high school years for something they don’t have a lot of control over.”

To help counter this stressful burden, Byram Hills is hoping to inject more humanity and balance into the college admissions process by urging students to focus more on engagement, or what they will do at a university, and less on feeling that the right school for them is automatically the most selective one that accepts them.

As part of the Byram Hills work with Challenge Success, a nonprofit that promotes engagement and well-being, the group’s co-founder Dr. Denise Pope of Stanford University came to Byram Hills in February. She spoke to 10th and 11th graders about the importance of finding a college that is the best fit for them, and gave a similar talk to several hundred parents at an evening presentation.

“It’s what you do in college, not where you go that matters,” Dr. Pope told sophomores and juniors during an assembly on February 4.

Dr. Denise Pope

Dr. Denise Pope of Challenge Success spoke to Byram Hills students and parents in February.

Dr. Pope referenced the Challenge Success report, “A ‘Fit’ Over Rankings: Why College Engagement Matters More Than Selectivity,” which reviewed key research and encourages students and families to look beyond the rankings.

She asked the Byram Hills students to rank attributes they would want in a college, and compare their responses to factors used in published college rankings to define high-ranking, highly selective schools. Those factors included name recognition, the alumni giving rate, having highly competitive admissions and small-class sizes.

“How many of you had other things listed as essential besides the ones I just named?” Dr. Pope asked students, and most raised their hands.

“Be really aware that the measures that they’re using are really subjective,” she said. “They want easy data to collect and some of these measures ignore a wide range of other things that matter.”

She asked students to consider if the level of college selectivity matters when it comes to learning, and future income, job satisfaction and well-being.

“The people who learn the most are the people who work hard and study the most at any college,” said Dr. Pope, who cited the Gallup-Purdue Index in the findings. “You could be a total slacker at Harvard and working your butt off at SUNY Purchase and this person working hard at SUNY Purchase is going to learn more than the slacker at Harvard. Going to a selective school is not going to lead to more learning. It’s not going to lead to more job satisfaction or well-being.”

The only small exception, she said, is for income when it comes to students in a traditionally underserved minority group or if they were the  first generation in their family to go to college.

“Overall for most of you in this auditorium, if you go to one of the top 300 colleges in the United States, income is not going to make a difference,” she said. “For everyone in the auditorium, in terms of learning, job satisfaction and well-being, it doesn’t make a difference at all.”

What does matter when it comes to the future?

Many hands went up when Dr. Pope asked students if extracurricular activities at college were important to them, and she agreed they are essential.

Another factor she cited is the availability of professional internships. “That’s a way to apply what you learn and that does make a difference,” she said, also mentioning project-based, hands-on curriculum, the quality of teaching and the academic program, and research opportunities.

Other things students should seek in a college: Can you have a mentor, work on a multi-semester project or be part of a lab, can you become part of an extracurricular community, are there professors who care about you and who make learning exciting?

“This is what you want to be looking for in a college,” Dr. Pope said. “In the research, this is the thing that actually makes a difference to those long-term outcomes.”

And this is what she means by finding the right fit college.

“Fit is basically this engagement picture,” she told students. “Where will you thrive and engage? That’s the place that you want to go to. There are lots and lots of fits for every student. There’s not just one college out there for you.”

Mr. Walsh said Dr. Pope highlighted many of the issues that can arise when students focus on getting into college only as an end goal.

“She really tried to get our community to think about college rankings and how they are comprised and what the current rankings are missing,” he said. “Hopefully, she gave students and parents some additional confidence to push back on the current mindset around the college application process.”

During her visit, Dr. Pope also spoke with building administrators about the high school master schedule, students’ limited free time, project-based learning and authentic assessments.

The work with Challenge Success, made possible through the generous support of the Byram Hills Education Foundation, will continue, Mr. Walsh said, “with the goal of promoting a new vision of success that promotes balance and engagement.”