Karen Heller: New college grind: Getting in

A new book explores the pressure of the process.
A new book explores the pressure of the process.
Posted: March 20, 2011

The United States has almost 4,500 institutions of higher learning. China - 1.3 billion-strong China! - has fewer than half that. So you would think that looking for the right college in this country, long on debt but rich in quads and keggers, would be - what is the word I'm searching for? - fun.

But here, my friends, you would be wrong.

"The subject entangles our deepest yearnings, our vanities, our social ambitions and class insecurities, and most profoundly our love and hopes for our children, with the largest questions of democracy, of equality, fairness, opportunity, the social good, even the nature of happiness," notes Andrew Ferguson in his funny, frightening, and illuminating Crazy U: One Dad's Crash Course in Getting His Kid Into College.

Ferguson's journey with his son, incisive aperçus, and "whoa, just wait a minute" moments convey the current process' lack of logic, reason, and wisdom, the very things you hope your child acquires while you empty your savings account and pile on debt. Ferguson discovers that the SuperKids, students with vertiginous GPAs and board scores, can still fail to get into their first choices and end up at "safety" schools.

Most American students attend affordable community or welcoming campuses in the state system (what advisers tend to label "nonselective"), but those aren't the teenagers we're talking about. Ferguson's world, and perhaps yours, is one of talented students at top high schools seeking acceptance at what guidebooks label "elite" schools. The search is what Ferguson deems "a high-class problem."

With privilege, as any novelist or therapist can attest, comes misery. Almost everything that was once thought a source of happiness - weddings, infants, the financial wherewithal to send a child to private school or college - has been transformed into an ordeal by a stressed, competitive community. Someone should write the book When Good Things Happen to Anxious People.

Actually, Ferguson has.

Why do "selective" and "elite" colleges charge more than $50,000 a year for tuition, room, and board, annually raising rates at double the rate of inflation? It seems like a price-fixing setup questionable enough for the Justice Department to investigate. (It did, in 1989.) The simple reason colleges charge so much is that they can, even when so many grads finish with a mound of debt yet end up folding cardigans at J. Crew.

When critics question whether high tuition is worth it, they bring up Bill Gates, Larry Ellison, and Steve Jobs, innovators, billionaires, and dropouts all. The only problem with this argument, revived last week in a New York Times blog post, is that only a few people in the world are like these guys, and most probably your child is not.

Somewhere along the way, best became synonymous with hardest to get into, with a decided bias toward the nation's Northeast quadrant. The Princeton Review's The Best 373 Colleges - why 373? - lists six schools in Vermont but only one in Nevada. One in 50 high school seniors applying to four-year colleges applied to Harvard for this fall, partly because, with a $27.4 billion endowment, Harvard gives full-need scholarships, but also because one person's best became everyone's best, in the way everyone yearns to drive a German car or date George Clooney.

Consequently, the recent decrease in the number of high school seniors did not result in a dip in applications at "elite" schools, as professionals and parents of older students promised they would. No, it got worse. With the Common Application, students apply to 14 schools at a time, often the same 14 schools. Columbia's admissions this year spiked 32 percent. What was once a "safety" school has become a "don't even bother."

Yet, despite the coaches and the books, mistakes seem more pervasive. The epidemic anguish about getting into college has produced highly knowledgeable, possibly overprepared students and parents who derive less happiness from the experience.

Increasingly, students all yearn to shoehorn themselves into really selective, expensive colleges, the equivalent of Gucci stilettos, when a better fit might be something more roomy, comfortable, and affordable, like a pair of running shoes, by which I mean a state university. With all the wealth of choice, I keep hearing about bright, talented children guided by bright, talented parents who end up at the wrong college.

Students see choosing a college as akin to getting married, finding true love. They trend toward early decision, locking in their love early, thereby sparing themselves the agony of dating, and possibly being rejected by, other schools. But there's a reason 17-year-olds shouldn't get married. They haven't a clue what they really want. So they want what everyone else wants in an environment of heightened expectations, which is a recipe for rejection and heartbreak.

The trick is to try to make this wealth of choice an adventure, to return some "fun" to the process. Or so I keep telling myself and my son as we light out for the territories - at least before the Chinese show up to enjoy our embarrassment of academic riches.

Contact columnist Karen Heller at kheller@phillynews.com or 215-854-2586. Read her work at www.philly.com/KarenHeller. Follow her at Twitter @kheller.


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