Saturday, May 4, 2024

Q&A with Anna Esaki-Smith


Photo by Sky Smith



Anna Esaki-Smith is the author of the new book Make College Your Superpower: It's Not Where You Go, It's What You Know. She is also a journalist and an international education consultant. She lives in Chappaqua, New York.


Q: What do you see as the most important issues for high school sophomores and juniors and their families when considering which college to attend?


A: The biggest issue is for them to see the forest for the trees. Despite the frenzied focus on the Ivy League, only an estimated 4 percent of undergraduate students enroll in these universities. That means a disproportionate amount of attention is being spent on this very small group of students and a very small number of schools.


The average high school GPA for Cornell University, for example, is a 4.07. And the all-in cost of attending Cornell – meaning tuition fees plus accommodation, food and other living costs - is around $90,000. Those academic and financial benchmarks automatically disqualify most students who are looking to apply to college. 


These “disqualified” students are bright, capable, and ambitious, but are being bombarded by hype around schools that, for them, aren’t realistic options. Their needs and aspirations are not being addressed in a measured, informed, and strategic manner.


That’s what inspired me to write my book, Make College Your Superpower: It’s Not Where You Go, It’s What You Know, which encourages promising and enterprising students to use data and information to figure out how to get the best return on their university degree.


I want students to be excited about the prospect of going to college, rather than to dread the application process. And I want them to see that a university education is just part of the journey - they need to consider what life will look like after they graduate.


Q: How do you think the admissions process has changed in recent years?


A: There have been two significant changes in recent years. One is the exponential growth in the number of college applications. Colleges and universities are racking up record-high application volume – we’re talking peaks being hit not only by Yale and Dartmouth, but by the University of California system, Northeastern University, and tiny Bates College.


There are three main reasons for this: the Common App, which has made applying to many schools with just one application possible; anxiety from the pandemic, which prompted students to apply to more schools than ever from the fear of not getting in anywhere; and the test-optional environment, with around 80 percent of colleges and universities not requiring an SAT or ACT, thus removing a much-dreaded barrier.


One student applied to 200 universities during a single application cycle. While that is an extreme case, the ballooning of application volume is not a good trend for students nor institutions.


The second change is that 47 percent of high school students are graduating with an A-level average. That’s a lot of 4.0 GPAs!


Grade inflation at the high school level has made the job of university admissions officers more challenging than ever, as they seek ways to discern one seemingly excellent student from another.


This grade inflation has also contributed to the huge number of students applying to elite universities, and that has also driven the acceptance rates in the Ivy League to record-low levels. Harvard hit a record-low acceptance rate of  3.41 percent for the Class of 2027 a few years ago – that’s miniscule!

Q: You’ve said that “it’s never been a better time to be a student.” Can you say more about that?


A: There was a time when going to a famous university could really make a huge difference in a student’s life. That student had access to famous professors, received a top-notch education, and then could tap an influential alumni network for prestigious internships which could lead to jobs and a pathway to prosperity.


Branded universities were regarded as gateways to life among the social and economic elite. And certainly, even today, a degree from an Ivy League university or an MIT or Stanford can set a graduate off on the right foot.


But with our tech-disrupted economy evolving daily and employers increasingly focusing on skills rather than prestigious credentials, there are more opportunities than ever for students who graduate with useful knowledge and abilities. In this age of AI, “human-centric” skills such as creativity and critical thinking will be valued more than ever.


And post-graduation incomes no longer depend on where a student studied. An engineering graduate from a public university can earn the same salary as an engineering graduate from a more highly-ranked counterpart. The brand means less than what the student brings to the table. 


Brand also means less when the demand for expertise far outstrips the supply. For example, there are currently 3.5 million cybersecurity jobs that are unfilled globally, with a 750,000 shortage in the US alone. The human resources managers tasked with locating cybersecurity talent care less about where a potential hire went to school than they do about that graduate’s skills.


And in our innovation economy, ideas matter more than degrees, too. When you use Venmo, DoorDash, Uber, PayPal, and Spotify, do you care which university the person who had these incredible ideas went to? Or even if they went to university at all?


Q: How important are university rankings?


A: Despite many students’ continued obsession with branded colleges and universities, rankings do serve a purpose. They provide useful data to students and their families about colleges they are considering, such as faculty-student ratios, graduation rates, first-year retention rates, and even borrower debt.


Rankings also provide international students a way to assess potential universities because many of these students are unfamiliar with the US higher education system. In addition, some parents of international students cannot understand English, so a numerical ranking gives them a way to place a university in the higher education universe.


However, there are dozens of rankings that serve different purposes beyond a simple number. Which one has, say, the best marketing program? The best business school? The one situated in the best college town or city? There’s even one ranking that tells you which university has the happiest students!


But, useful as these rankings are, students shouldn’t rely on a company to tell them where to apply. Each student is a fully realized individual with nuanced aspirations and goals. They also have unique financial and personal parameters. Rankings are only useful as one datapoint in making the most important decision of their young lives.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I’m working on a zillion things! I’m a Forbes contributor, so I always have a number of stories percolating.


I’m currently looking at the so-called “enrollment cliff” or expected drop in the number of high school graduates, which will become more apparent in 2025. This is occurring because of a fall in birth rates after the 2008 global recession and now, 16-17 years later, many schools will struggle to fill freshmen seats.


I’m also working on a story about student mental health, because so many young people are suffering from depression and anxiety.


In terms of longer projects, I’m very interested in how AI will transform higher education and the impact that will have on the workforce. Considering how rapidly AI is developing, that endeavor is like trying to hit a moving target!


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: High school students have faced unprecedented challenges in recent years, from the disruptive impact of the pandemic on their education, the subsequent gaps in learning and periods of isolation, and immersion in social media.


This is occurring against a backdrop of gloomy climate change predictions, severe political divisiveness, and ongoing global wars and conflicts. So, I feel strongly about supporting students as best we can in areas within our control. 


We can’t solve a political crisis or stop the oceans from warming, but we can make young people more aware of how a university education can help them achieve goals and make a difference. They deserve our utmost care and attention, after so many years of struggle. And we will all be the ultimate beneficiaries of what they end up accomplishing!


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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