Monday, March 17, 2008

Why 'second-best' won't doom college-bound kids



By Ed Sevilla | Opinion | USA Today

Springtime brings a special kind of "March Madness" to anxious college-bound high school seniors and their parents. Will they win admission to their coveted first-choice school, or must they settle, sadly, for their second choice?

Meanwhile, weary high school guidance counselors advise families to seek balance and eschew the headlong pursuit of prestige.

Such efforts deserve more support. From my perspective as a Yale graduate and Wharton MBA who oversees admissions and financial aid at a four-year private liberal arts college, I believe that second choice does not always mean second best.

A high school senior who is not admitted to his or her preferred college should not foresee a lifetime of failure emanating from a thin envelope. Here's the financial big picture: If you are on track to graduate from a U.S. college, you already have won.

According to the U.S. Census, workers 18 and older who hold a bachelor's degree earned an average of $56,788 in 2006, more than 82% higher than the $31,071 earned by those with only a high school diploma.

More college applicants

The economic logic of supply and demand is driving this year's high anxiety. Demand is up: The Census projects that the rising tide of high school graduates will number 3.3 million in 2008. And the college-bound among them are applying to multiple institutions.

According to the results of Cooperative Institutional Research Program studies, administered by UCLA's Higher Education Research Institute, 57% of college freshmen surveyed in 2006 applied to four or more colleges; only 20% did so in 1967. Anecdotal reports from the front lines in 2008 indicate that the number is growing.

Yet the supply of available seats in top-tier colleges is relatively fixed. For example, the size of the incoming Yale freshman class is virtually the same as it was when I graduated 25 years ago. Even the proposed expansion plans in New Haven, Conn., can give little comfort to this year's applicants. Add to that volatile mix the intense interest of "helicopter parents" who cherish credentials in our global, knowledge-based economy, and the result is too much pressure on today's high school students, for the wrong reasons.

Find the right school

Curiously, there is not enough pressure for the right reason: finding the school that is the right fit. Today, students can receive a top-notch education at any number of the 2,629 U.S. colleges and universities. If an applicant simply focused on the top 10% of those institutions, they would select from a pool of 260 schools. Given the relatively fixed supply of seats in prestige colleges, there are other ways to view this world.

On many campuses today, students can learn from a professor who holds a Ph.D. from an Ivy League or similar top research institution. Thirty years ago, in most cases, students had to attend one of a small set of colleges to accomplish that feat. But the supply of U.S. Ph.D.s has grown from 32,946 in 1976 to 45,596 in 2006, according to the Survey of Earned Doctorates.

So why are parents pushing their children so hard for admission to an elite college? Regrettably, admission to a first-choice college has become a referendum on Baby Boomer parenting skills, and the popular rear-windshield decal is often seen as the ultimate prize in our "winner take all" society.

Yet, I remain hopeful that we can correct our collective shortsightedness. Let's start by revisiting why we send our children to college in the first place. Certainly, our desires for their better economic future play a predominant role. But college still claims a larger public purpose, which includes preparing critical thinkers to engage productively with the wider world.

Parents and students would be wise to examine the missions of the schools they are considering (even the second-choice ones), and the way that the institutions are living their missions. They will find that such public purpose is not the monopoly of a handful of "brand-name" elite colleges, but instead pervades a community of scholars that extends to campus after campus, from coast to coast.

Ed Sevilla is vice president for Enrollment Management and Marketing at Stonehill College in Easton, Mass.

Why 'second-best' won't doom college-bound kids - Opinion -

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