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Eyes on the college prize

(Page 4 of 4)

There is a certain irony, some observers say, in watching the baby boomers obsess over external markers of success for their children. Isn't this the generation that scorned parents' materialism and conformity and spent much of their college time strumming the guitar and studying Eastern philosophy?

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"They found out the '60's were wrong," says Dr. Botstein. "Work does matter, after all."

Says one mother, sadly, of the intense parental competition she feels at her child's grammar school, "We were the generation that was going to change the world. And yet now we've been reduced to this."

Scratch beneath the surface with many of today's parents and it is still possible to find broader definitions of success. Robert Massa, vice president of enrollment and student life at Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pa., says he hears thoughtful perspectives from parents. "They say, 'I want my child to contribute to the world, be part of the community, to have enough confidence to be able to have a fulfilling life and career.' "

Even with this motivation, though, when it comes to college admissions, "The behavior so often belies their words."

Rural areas maintain a more relaxed attitude

Has the entire country been gripped by college mania? The hunger for prestige degrees is intense on the coasts, and affluent suburbanites throughout the country are rapidly catching up.

But in rural areas, cost-consciousness still often carries the day.

"We've got one kid looking at Dartmouth this year," says Todd Wolverton, principal of Creston (Iowa) High School. "But most parents here still say, 'State schools, doggone it, they're good enough.'"

If anything, interest in four-year-college degrees is declining a bit in Iowa, says Steve Westerberg, principal of Dension High School. Pragmatic Midwestern parents have not seen sufficient economic payoff from lengthy stints in college, and many would rather see their children take a career-oriented course of study at a community college or technical school.

"Most people here simply can't afford prestigious colleges," he says.

Brenda Renczykowski, who teaches Spanish and English at the local high school in rural Okabena, Minn., seems surprised at the whole notion of jockeying for admission to a prestigious school.

"Well, some of our kids go the University of Minnesota," she says. But if there are students and parents who yearn for more, "there can't be many of them. At least I never hear about it."

Alma maters don't determine everything

In the long run, attending an elite college may not provide as big a jump-start in life as people believe.

It's an issue that stirs much debate. First, there's little agreement on how to measure success. But even among those who accept salary as an indication of well-being, there's still considerable uncertainty about how much one's alma mater has to do with it.

A paper published by the National Bureau of Economic Research compares the 1995 incomes of two groups of people - those who had attended highly selective colleges (including Yale, Columbia, and Bryn Mawr) and those who were accepted at highly selective schools but chose to attend somewhat less selective ones (such as Penn State, Denison, and Tulane).

The latter group actually outearned the former by a slight margin. For some researchers, such data bolster the notion that the caliber of the student, not the name of the alma mater, is what determines success.

Parents tend to believe the connections made at a prestigious school will help their children greatly in life. But some college counselors say parents may underestimate the benefit many students derive from an opportunity to shine at a less competitive school.

They may also forget that graduate schools pull from a wide range of colleges, not just the most competitive.

"Two of the best students I've ever had came from a small religious college in Pennsylvania," says Susan DeJarnatt, a professor at the Temple University School of Law in Philadelphia. She had never heard of that college before, she says, but will never forget it now, after watching its graduates outperform peers, including some with Ivy League degrees.