Eyes on the college prize
(Page 3 of 4)
"It's about money, power, greed, and self-interest," says Gerald Celente, director of Trends Research Institute in Rhinebeck, N.Y. "This is the generation that brought conspicuous consumption to new levels. This is just an extension of that."Skip to next paragraph
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Another set of observers see today's parents pushed by a kind of fearful solicitousness for their children's welfare. Having lived through recessions and layoffs, they may see a prestige diploma as a way to secure their children's future.
It can also be tempting to view a child's academic success - often measured by admission to a top-flight college - as a referendum on parental success.
"There's this incredible vulnerability parents feel," says Sarah McGinty, university supervisor at the Graduate School of Education at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass.
"The back windshield becomes a kind of report card," Dr. McGinty adds, referring to the display of college decals on cars - a practice some say brings out "sticker lust."
Part of the explanation for the frenzy is more tangible: The competition for entrance into many colleges is a lot tougher than it used to be. The high school graduating class of 2001 was 2.83 million strong, the largest since the early 1980s.
Overall, it's a mark of progress for the US: Twenty years ago, only about half of high school graduates headed straight to college; now about two-thirds plan to. But students at top prep schools and strong public high schools can no longer count on acceptance simply because their admissions packages boast a string of A's, a varsity letter, and a few hearty recommendations.
Colleges and students both do far more shopping around than they used to. Hungry for racial, geographic, and economic diversity, colleges are working like never before to find kids who excel in all corners of the country. And top students from the suburbs of places like Dallas and Des Moines - once largely content to attend local or state schools - are now more apt to eye prestige schools on either coast.
There's also a new level of intercollegiate rivalry. A 1991 federal court ruling removed colleges' right to compare financial-aid packages they were offering to incoming freshmen. No longer able to work together to fit the right students to the right schools, colleges have become fiercely competitive themselves.
Still, college counselors say that in many ways the so-called "crunch" is an illusion. The US is blessed with an abundance of fine colleges and universities, most of them eagerly recruiting good candidates. In truth, any family with the means to pay for a college education has a wide range of solid choices.
What is good for the student is the other question families should keep in mind, counselors say. A bright but shy teenager, for instance, may be much more successful at a smaller, quieter school. A highly competitive environment could actually undermine rather than enhance the prospects of a kid in need of nurturing.
But it's not easy for parents to keep focused on that idea as they start feeling pressure to compare notes on children's future college careers.
Chris Coughlin, who lives with her husband and three daughters inPortland, Ore., says she feels it creeping up on her even though her oldest is only in eighth grade. "Standing at the soccer field, I start to hear those conversations," she says.
In suburban St. Louis, Pat Fogle tells a similar tale. "Everywhere, at parties, wherever you go, the burning conversation is college," says Ms. Fogle, a mother of two college-age children.
"You wish you could just walk away from it, but it's not so easy," she says. "I criticize, but I'm guilty of the same urge with my children. It's almost like we're all afraid and we don't want to do this, but no one wants to be the first person to say, 'OK, let's quit this.' "
What sometimes amazes her, she says, is that most of the parents doing the worrying are graduates of state universities, who have achieved considerable success. "And yet they wouldn't dream of sending their children to those same schools."