Eyes on the college prize

Arthur Levine sensed something was very, very wrong last spring when a devastated high school senior confided to him that she was a failure. She had "only" been admitted to the University of Chicago, Wesleyan, and Swarthmore.

These three schools rank among the best in the United States. But they are not HYP - shorthand in admissions circles for Harvard, Yale, Princeton - and HYP was the goal she and her parents had fixed on.

"This is so damaging for kids," says Dr. Levine, president of Columbia University's Teachers College in New York. "What kind of world is it in which a child who achieves that kind of success feels like a failure?"

Unfortunately, some say, it's a world only too familiar to many young Americans today.

More and more, teachers, school administrators, and college counselors express concern about the fear and even desperation that have come to characterize the college-admissions process over the past decade.

"We've never seen this level of tension and competitiveness in US education before," says James Fraser, dean of Northeastern University's School of Education in Boston.

Some parents fret about college before their children are even out of diapers. Worries about admission to the "right" nursery school, an exhausting round of "enrichment" activities for young children and teens, and - in extreme cases - the expense of up to $30,000 for college-admissions counseling, are common features of middle- and upper-class suburbia across the US. Snobbishness about where a child goes to college is no longer largely confined to old-money East Coast families.

The tension is derived partly from numbers. There are simply more college applicants than ever. Statistically speaking, getting into a highly ranked college today is a longer shot than at any time in the past.

The booming economy in the 1990s left many middle-class families awash in disposable income. The kind of extra coaching, teaching, and talent-nurturing that were once assumed to be reserved for children of the wealthy has become accessible to a broader segment of the population.

More parents have grown accustomed to being able to offer their children the best of everything - and why would they lower their sights when it comes to college?

In response to this trend, some people have become sharply critical of parents, accusing them of seeing college as a commodity: Just as if they were shopping for a state-of-the-art home-entertainment center, they may not fully understand what all the special features are for, but they want to know what they're buying is considered the best.

But others take a more sympathetic view of a generation they say has good reason to feel confused. Parents are constantly being warned that much of American education is inadequate. At the same time, they frequently hear that a sharply honed set of intellectual skills will be the only hedge against a shifting job market.

In such a climate, it's perhaps not surprising that many long to see their children equipped with the best instruction possible.

Even those who understand the motives of hard-driven parents, though, worry about the toll it might be taking. Particularly alarming, some say, is that this competitive frenzy seems to be fueled by the hopes and fears of adults rather than the aims and ambitions of the young.

Stressed over letting parents down

Educators and counselors point to some disturbing evidence:

• In the past five to eight years, stress levels of students in middle school and high school have markedly increased, says Mike Peraino, who teaches an antidrug program in the Hingham, Mass., public schools. "Their parents are pushing them harder, both academically and in sports, whether they're into it or not," Mr. Peraino says. When he asks students what is stressing them, many say they're worried about letting their parents down.

• Kathryn Jens, school psychologist for the Cherry Creek, Colo., school system, is no stranger to the effects of pressure. She looks around on her job and sees "teachers being stressed, kids being stressed, parents being stressed."

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.

• 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."

The Tuckers try to strike a balance

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.

Craving the cachet

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.

"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."

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."

A new admissions landscape

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.

College talk at the kids' soccer game

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."

The walk doesn't match the talk

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?

"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.

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