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The Great Parenting Debates

How to Relieve College Application Pressure

Baylor University's student newspaper, The Lariat, recently revealed that the school has paid already-admitted freshmen to retake the SAT. The program raised average test scores for incoming freshmen, and therefore could help the school’s US News & World Report ranking. Faculty, who hadn't known about this latest example of the misuse of testing in American education, were scandalized, and their Senate quickly passed a motion condemning it.

Embarrassed, Baylor decided to end the program that gave students a $300 campus bookstore credit for retaking the SAT and $1,000 a year in scholarship money if they raised their scores 50 points. Administrators at the Baptist university said that the program helped them to distribute "merit aid."

"It’s just like all of a sudden people removed their brains and went to Mars,” University of Washington director of admissions Philip A. Ballinger, told the New York Times, commenting on the Baylor program.

A terrific sound bite, but unfortunately this importation of market principles to schooling is becoming far too common in American education to pin it on creatures from outer space. (Just one example: programs paying high school kids to learn are proliferating, as a “quick-fix” to improve the education of kids in economically disadvantaged communities.)

You can't blame parents and students for paying attention to college rankings. Numbers are always an attractive way to sift through complicated questions, such as the quality of the thousands of American colleges and universities. That's why US News & World Report has been able to base its entire business model on rankings,as Columbia University journalism professor Sam Freedman writes.

But there’s a better idea: the Education Conservancy, a nonprofit group working to overhaul admissions procedures, is working on a website that will subvert the rankings game by matching students' interests, preferences and goals with specific colleges. A student would first answer questions designed to help her think about what kind of school she wants. Does she want a very rigorous education? a small or a large school? big or small classes? a place near home or farther away? Then she’ll get a list of colleges matching her educational goals, detailing school characteristics including educational philosophy, majors and departments, internship programs, even lists of courses. The site will also provide a way to talk online with a current student or faculty member. The aim is to help students figure out what kind of education they need and want and which school will provide it best.

Won't that website help calm the pressure and anxiety brought on by striving for a school just because it's highly-ranked? As families face the shrinking of college saving and the drying up of student loans -- and perhaps considering "downgrading" to a less expensive school -- it will help parents and kids alike focus on what counts -- the learning environment where their kids will spend the next four years.
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