Choosiest may not mean best

Some people worry that, if they had it to do over again, they might not get into the colleges they chose as undergraduates. Kathryn Napper has no such doubts. As admissions director at George Washington University, where in 1975 she earned her bachelor's degree, she knows which letter she would send herself - and it wouldn't be a letter of acceptance.

When Ms. Napper applied to GW three decades ago, the university admitted more than three-quarters of its applicants. This year, fewer than 4 in 10 will get the sought-after thick letter. Under a crush of applications that has doubled in 10 years, GW is riding a surge of popularity that has made it a downright competitive place. In fact, never in the school's 182-year history has it been harder to get in.

On college campuses throughout the country, similar stories are being written. According to a 2000 national survey of admissions officers, more than half of private universities reported that their admissions had grown more competitive in the previous five years. With applicant pools swollen by the largest cohort of college-bound students in American history, even public universities once considered "safe schools" are turning away students in record numbers.

But it's not just demographics that underlie the trend. In the competition for top students, being choosy is often a good thing, bringing greater prestige and posture in increasingly powerful national rankings like the one published annually by US News & World Report. Universities have gotten the message that to impress students, it helps to reject a lot of them.

Case Western Reserve Univer- sity in Cleveland, for example, is hiring more admissions officers and pouring money into national marketing with the goal of nearly tripling its applicant pool. The State University of New York has instructed its campuses to tighten admissions, either by accepting fewer students or by enticing more to apply.

Underlying those strategies is the belief that students are not just consumers of higher education, but part of the product. When admissions officers trumpet the high board scores of their classes, in part they're selling the idea that whom you study with matters as much as where - that students learn more in a competitive atmosphere surrounded by bright peers.

Is competition always healthy?

But does living and working with other smart people really boost a student's performance? A cluster of recent studies suggest the answer is less than clear. "It's mostly been assumption up to this point," says Bruce Sacerdote, an economics professor at Dartmouth College and one of a cadre of researchers trying to quantify what, if any, effect students have on one another's academic performance. "Nobody's completely nailed the question."

In 1999, Professor Sacerdote compared the grades of some 1,500 Dartmouth freshmen to learn if they did any better or worse than their entering marks would predict when they lived with smart roommates. Because the university randomly assigns roommates, he was able to factor out biases such as previous friendships and hone in on the potential effects of one peer relationship that students don't choose for themselves. He found that rooming with a student in the top 25 percent of the class did seem to improve students' grade - by about 0.15 points on a four-point GPA, or about halfway from a B to a B-plus.

Similar findings have been made by David Zimmerman and Gordon Winston, both professors of economics at Williams College, who discovered that students who ranked in the middle of the pack at three selective universities got slightly worse grades if they roomed with someone in the bottom 15 percent of the class. Earlier, Professor Zimmerman also had found a positive effect on midrange students who had a roommate with higher scores on the verbal portion of the SAT, but in neither case did studies show much effect from roommates on students at the top or bottom of their peer group.

Moreover, experiments in the psychology lab of another Williams professor seem to indicate that, in some cases, studying among smart peers can do more harm than good. In a three-year study, George Goethals assigned students of varying academic ability to work on simple tasks, such as critiquing newspaper articles. Students are very acute in gauging where they fall in the academic pecking order, says Professor Goethals. Often, those who perceive themselves to be intellectually overmatched simply disengage from the experiment.

"The answer seems to be yes, students affect each other a great deal," he says. "But the effects are complex. You have to tell a complicated story about the influence students have on each other."

That's a different story from what many parents hear, or believe. Bruce Hammond, co-author of "The Fiske Guide to Getting into the Right College" and director of college counseling at Sandia Preparatory School in Albuquerque, N.M., says he sees many families fixated on a coterie of brand-name schools that they perceive to be superior in all cases.

"There may be 20 to 30 things that go into making a great education, and the quality of peers is definitely a big part of it," Mr. Hammond notes. "But it's certainly not the whole thing. I'm just not sure that it's worth all the hysteria."

The allure of prestige

But whether or not students benefit from selective environments, there is still a powerful allure in being part of a chosen elite. The hardest part for parents, Hammond says, often is getting beyond the ego factor and evaluating what conditions best allow their children to excel. "Everyone wants to get in to these highly selective schools, and to be able to stand apart from that is difficult."

You can trust Kathryn Napper on that. Every day, she repeats the mantra of finding the right school, not the most impressive one. Yet last year, when she took her daughter to visit private high schools, she found herself falling into the trap of not looking beyond the name on the gates.

After being admitted to a highly selective school with a big name, Napper's daughter said she really preferred one with a lesser name.

"Well, guess where her mother wanted her to go?" Napper says. "I wanted to kick myself. Luckily, my daughter was strong enough to say, 'I'm more comfortable here.' And you know, after a day or two, her mother got over it."

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