Eyes on the college prize
(Page 2 of 4)
But a recent development shocks even her: Some parents lobby for special-education classification for children who don't need it. Their goal is to gain accommodations on standardized tests - more time to complete them, for instance - so the children's scores might get a boost.Skip to next paragraph
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• Mark Sklarow, executive director of the Independent Educational Consultant's Association in Fairfax, Va., says he deals with parents - some of whom know the college rankings in US News & World Report by heart - who have lost perspective when it comes to where their children will attend college.
In the spring, when acceptances and rejections arrive in the mail, he sees some parents "walk into the room almost physically diminished because they have to admit their child is going to Penn State or Virginia Commonwealth" instead of a more selective institution.
Are such reactions driven "by status or by what's good for their children?" Mr. Sklarow asks. "Unfortunately, I think it's both equally."
Lynn and John Tucker know what it's like to struggle with those competing impulses. They've been fighting the urge to obsess about their daughter's education since she was a little girl.
The family lives on the tony Upper East Side of Manhattan, and John and Lynn teach English at a local community college. Their daughter, Katie - a tall, slim girl with a mane of curly hair - is in seventh grade.
The Tuckers say they've bent over backwards to put Katie's comfort before their ambitions. When she didn't like the private school they enrolled her in ("The kids were too stuck-up and cliquey," Katie says), they let her attend the neighborhood public school. When dance class failed to enchant her ("She must be the only kid on the Upper East Side who didn't like ballet," her mother moans), they let her drop it.
Katie does enjoy piano lessons and singing in her church choir, but she also relishes free time go to the movies, ice skate, and shop with her friends.
"I'm really happy to see her doing all that normal kid stuff," her mother says. But Lynn also admits to darker moments when she has trouble taming her own competitive demons. Other mothers describe to her their children's schedules, jam-packed with "enrichment" activities that the parents hope will someday brighten up a college application.
"Then I panic and get this terrible fear that maybe we're making a mistake by not pushing her onto the fast track," Lynn says.
A generation ago, the Tuckers' own college choices were not surrounded by such white-hot competition. Lynn went to a state school a few hours from home. Her parents hadn't attended college, but they were fine with her choice because it was cheap.
John, on the other hand, attended a private boarding school and grew up in the kind of privileged atmosphere where it was simply assumed he'd head off to an Ivy League college, which he did. "There was no anxiety," he says.
The Tuckers likely represent many families who have kept the competitive urge in check. But when it does rear its head, what explains it?
Some observers say it's largely fueled by the collective ego and ambition of the baby-boomer generation.
When fewer students attended college, simply having a degree conferred prestige. Now that most of the nation heads for a four-year institution after high school, only brand-name degrees have real cachet, and it's cachet that baby-boomer parents crave, both for their children and themselves.
"It's about social advancement," says Leon Botstein, president of Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, N.Y. "It's the desire to tell the other parents on the commuter train, 'My child goes to Yale.' "
Many parents blame the US News & World Report college listings, which first appeared in the early 1990s. Ranking the schools suddenly turned institutions into marketable commodities, they say.
Before a pecking order existed, most people knew only generally which schools were the most selective. Now they know which ranks 34th compared with 39th.
But the reason rankings are so revered, say some social critics, is that they feed baby boomers' consumerism and self-absorption.