Sunday, April 11, 2004

The College Dance

For us, it’s just beginning.

As parents, we’ve had it pretty easy. When both our boys were little, we had the usual bumps along that way, from bad dreams to bullies. As they moved into their teens, the normal growing pains presented challenges, both physically and emotionally. But for all intents and purposes, and based on the anecdotal information we’ve gleaned from others who have gone before us, we were very lucky and coasted through baby-hood, toddler-hood, little kid-hood and adolescent-hood with the greatest of ease.

However, our oldest is just now hitting that age. And I’m not referring to challenges with sex, cars, money or studies. We actually have all of that under control, and have a mutual understanding, if not agreement, on most of the thorny issues that affect us. In the spirit of compromise, we’ve given up on the battle of keeping one’s room clean, while insisting that taking out the garbage is indeed a necessary task in the pursuit of one’s allowance. But as a high school junior, he… or should I say we… are flirting with that next chapter in our adventure, the search for the right college.

With somewhere near 4000 choices available in the US alone, it’s a daunting task. Obviously, each school has its own unique blend of academics, geography and social setting that makes it right for someone. But in our case, even if you set up the coarsest of filters and eliminate schools 9 hours away by plane (University of Hawaii), those that have strong Grazing Livestock Systems programs (University of Nebraska-Lincoln), and those ranked by The Princeton Review as the number #1 “Party School” in the nation AND #1 in the “Their Students (Almost) Never Study” category (University of Colorado at Boulder), there’s still a lot from which to choose.

But it’s not a simple equation of, “I like this one, therefore I’ll go here.” Schools have gotten pickier as the pool of applicants has grown. Enrollment is an all-time high of more than 15 million, up about 3 million from the mid-1980s, according to the U.S. Education Department. And those numbers are expected to grow another 19 percent by the end of the decade. That means that even if you are ready, willing and able to send your budding Einstein where they want, and can fork over the $40,000 a year many top schools demand, they might not accept you.

So you visit and read and study and research, looking for angles and contacts and implications. On the one hand, you’ve got to get your kid, whose biggest decision to date has been which tee shirt to wear to school, to decide what institution will be the first step on the road to rest of their life. On the other hand, you’ve got to package that kid as if he or she has known from birth what school they have been aiming for, and show how every step from the time they first ate solid food has been aimed at making them a valuable addition to that campus. To say there’re some inherent contradictions in the system is putting it mildly.

Luckily… or maybe not… there’s no shortage of help. In addition to the wisdom from guidance counselors, teachers, friends, family, all of which have their own take on the topic, there are lots of outside sources of information. There’re the colleges themselves, which pluck your kid’s name from standardized testing registration lists, and clog your mailbox with glossy brochures and posters. College guides abound, each offering their spin on the institutions and their unique attributes. At about $20 plus a pop, no potential applicant feels complete without at least 3 or 4. And web sites are ubiquitous: a Google search for “college review” returns over 5 million hits.

Then there are the ranking services. Some of these are merely sophisticated sorters. Put in your vital data and test scores, and they will return a list if institutions that match your criteria, and rank your chances with them. In the free services, you find and Stepping up a bit is, where $8.95 gives you an assessment of your chances of being admitted to 150 colleges. And further up the ladder is and College Confidential, which for $79 and $89 respectively, profess to do a more scientific job of rating the probability of making the cut at a particular school.

And finally, in this spin crazy world, come the counseling services. These organizations profess to be able to guide you through the maze to admissions. They help you pick the right school for you, and then shape your application and resume to make you that much more attractive to the institution. "We are strategists," advertises, a site that offers kids unlimited admissions advice. The cost for that expertise? $18,000, with no money-back guarantee.

And so we spend our evenings reading guides (at last count, three), our vacations visiting campuses (at last count, thirteen), and our sleepless nights wondering if we’ve missed anything( at last count, too many to count). We ‘re trying to keep a level head, and resisted the temptation, as one individual suggested, to spell our last name with a space after the first two letters so our son might be mistaken for an ethnic minority. We’ll see where the path might lead, but just in case… you don’t happen to be a trustee anywhere, are you?


Marc Wollin of Bedford applied to one college, got in and went there. So far, it’s worked out. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review and The Scarsdale Inqurier.