The Self-Defeating Metaphor that Corrupts the College Search

Google the phrase “assembly line education” and you’ll see that, for decades, folks have likened our education system to an assembly line in a factory. In some ways, this is a very useful metaphor. It highlights the regimented way that we expect students to develop, setting up a fair critique of our education system as overly industrial, automated, and lacking a human touch. This metaphor also highlights the way that our current system encourages students to disengage and treat their education as something that is stamped on then by the all-powerful factory machines.

The assembly line education metaphor might also help to explain why students and families are so obsessed with attending the “best” college, and why so much of the college search literature emphasizes the concept of “fit.” Ken Robinson’s famous TED talk uses the assembly line metaphor to explain the way that creativity and individuality are pounded out of students. An assembly line manufacturing process values conformity and is assessed by the degree to which it can most efficiently produce the same product over and over. Students in this metaphor are the raw materials and are expected to allow the machinery to cut, twist, attach, shape, and mold them at will. In fact, the best raw material doesn’t do anything except whatever the machinery wants it to do. Individual agency isn’t just irrelevant; it’s detrimental because students (the raw materials) with agency are likely to take things into their own hands. All this does is gum up the works.

So what happens if these students, conditioned to believe that the assembly line does all the work, are given the opportunity to choose the factory that will complete the final stage of their production? It seems reasonable to expect these students to want to get into the best possible factory, assuming that if the best factory completes their assembly, then they will be the best and most successful product. Widen the gap between “successful” and “not successful” and getting into the best factory will seem even more and more important.

Maybe this helps to explain why so many students and parents spend countless hours and millions of dollars on test prep, college applications, essay writing tutors, and all the other resources that might give them a leg up in getting into the most elite college or university. After all, if the educational assembly line makes the student, then getting into the best factory matters a lot. By perpetuating a system that is grounded in conformity, we aren’t just telling students that agency doesn’t matter. We are telling them that it actually could be a bad thing.

Yet, it turns out that agency is fundamentally important to success during and after college.  Four decades of research tells us that success after college and learning in college is a function of what you do in college, not the school you attend. In other words, there is no best college. At most, there might be a long list of colleges and universities that are an equally reasonable fit.

Don’t get me wrong – colleges and universities can vary substantially in the quality of their educational design. Some schools make it easy to make the most of your education. Others make it insanely difficult. Often, variation in design quality can even exist between departments within an institution. In other words, the life you encounter in college will be a lot like what you encounter in your professional life, your social life, and your personal life. There will be good and bad and a lot in the middle. You can certainly make choices that increase the likelihood of good and minimize the likelihood of bad, but there will still be a lot in the middle. And what you do with the circumstances you encounter will make the difference.

In other words, find a college that is good enough and won’t cost you too much, then learn everything you can about how to make the experience meaningful. We spend far too much energy in our culture framing the college search as a high stakes hunger game in which the best you can do is hope to avoid the bad and get lucky sneaking into the good. In end, all this approach gets you is a deep sense of helplessness and an utter lack of agency. But if you start the college search knowing that you can make almost any institution work for you . . . then you are in charge throughout.

Turns out, that is the way to succeed in life.  Might as well tackle college in the same way.  If nothing else, it will be good practice.

Mark Salisbury, Ph.D., spent 25 years in higher education as a coach, admissions counselor, instructor, and academic dean.  His research on college students and organizational design has been featured on NPR and WNYC and has been published in the Chronicle of Higher Education and Inside Higher Ed.  Dr. Salisbury launched TuitionFit ( in 2018 to empower the public to create college price transparency through crowdsourcing and sharing information.