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The Great Parenting Debates

College Applications Still Driving Kids – and Parents – Crazy

The glossy pamphlets still flood in: “Live, study, and work in both sleek high-rise towers and turn-of-the-century brownstones,” reads the gorgeously thick Boston University brochure. “Win a Hummer. All you have to do is attend an SJSU football game” trumpets San Jose State University’s.

As kids fill out their college applications amidst the shrinking of parents’ college savings and the drying up of student loans, colleges continue brand name campaigns set in motion well before the economic crisis.

The slick brochures stuffing mailboxes daily reflect schools’ desire to plump up demand, raising their rankings with US News & World Report and other magazines. The schools aim to boost their “selectivity,” a ranking factor based on the percentage of applicants denied admission. That's why colleges push their “brand names,” luring students to apply -- so the school can reject large numbers.

“All colleges say they are highly selective and then encourage us all to apply,” one high school student told a focus group convened by the Education Conservancy, a nonprofit group working to overhaul admissions procedures. “They are just playing a game for themselves.”

Wall Street also drives this ratings pressure, since both selectivity and “yield” -- the percentage of kids admitted who attend -- help determine a university’s bond rating. To be sure, capital projects may now go on hold. But fear of dropping enrollments will redouble schools reliance on consultants’ advice to marketthemselves like commodities.

This commercialization perpetuates the cachet of a small number of schools, helping to perpetrate the unfortunate myth that a child who attends a prestigious school is “set for life.” And that a family sporting an Ivy League window decal has won the Nobel Prize for Parenting.

This marketing of higher education institutions also sets kids up for the erroneous idea that admission to one of these schools reflects on their value as a human being. (“I have never wanted anything in my life as badly as I wanted to get into that college,” lamented a student in another Education Conservancy focus group.)

As if that weren’t enough, students are subject to angst-provoking mixed messages.

Colleges want you to take the most rigorous courses you can, but some schools don’t weigh the grades for these harder courses when computing GPAs.

That led my friend’s daughter to ask while touring a college, “Which is better – to get a B in a hard course or an A in an easier one?”

“They told me to get an A in the hard one!” she says.

That conundrum will figure even larger now as more kids apply to the less expensive state schools, which often don’t weight the GPAs or weight them differently from the private schools and each other.

Of course none of this calculation will matter if your “place” still goes to someone whose family can add millions to the school’s endowment.

All this competition, confusion and sleight-of-hand pressures parents too. You don’t want your child to spend hours memorizing otherwise useless test-taking strategies, and may not have the money for it anyway. But well-intentioned, moral parents wonder if their kids shouldn’t game the system lest the system game them.

Why not turn a blind eye as Travis portrays his one-time at a beach cleanup into deep commitment to slow global warming?

Why not advise Danielle to leave blank the “applying for financial aid” box to boost her chances of admission – so she can change her mind and apply for aid later?

You have to admire the guts of the parents of a student recently interviewed by Kenyon College Admissions dean Jennifer Delahunty Britz. The high school senior had quit varsity soccer so she could join the school’s Constitution Team. Its study and debate sessions might show her if, as she suspected, the law was for her.

“She had no question in her mind,” says Britz. “That’s what interested her.”

Her parents didn’t say, “You can’t quit soccer. That will look bad on your college application.”

Fortunately, a positive counter-trend to college admission craziness is gathering strength. The National Association for College Admission Counseling has recommended relying less on the SAT and more on tests reflecting what students have learned in high school. More and more schools are evaluating kids holistically, relying on classroom performance, teacher recommendations, and student essays. The National Survey of Student Engagement rates colleges and universities based on undergraduate educational experiences. And the Education Conservancy is working on a website that will further subvert the rankings game by matching students’ interests, preferences and goals with specific colleges.

Such initiatives provide a glimmer of hope that we are moving toward a college application process that privileges hard work and the desire to learn, diluting the nail- biting competition that is distorting our kids’ educational experience. By stripping away commercialization, it could remove the angst that derives from equating “demand” for a school with its educational value. And parents could heave a sigh of relief as they unequivocally promote honesty and authenticity in their children.

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