SAT tutors. High-priced essay coaches. Over-the-top parents who make selecting a college feel like a matter of life and death.
They have become commonplace in admissions “hot spots,” largely in the Northeast and on the West Coast places where the college application process is palpably more intense than elsewhere.
But admissions anxiety is creeping into other parts of the country.
It shows up in this fast-growing region, where counselors at the public North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics are hearing more from pushy parents and seeing more pressure on students to apply to college early. Ravenscroft, a college prep school in nearby Raleigh, recently dropped an advanced placement class from the senior curriculum because students were already taking on too much.
A recent college fair in Chapel Hill attracted several parents researching colleges without their children. At Durham School of the Arts, senior Caitlin Millward says homework usually keeps her up past midnight, and she can hardly remember when she last read for fun.
“The colleges want to see kids who aren’t just cogs in a wheel, but nobody has time to be anything else but a cog,” says her frustrated mother, Cathy Millward. “I’m not really happy with the whole game.”
The increasingly feverish pressure for slots in selective colleges has attracted widespread attention lately and several attempts to relieve it. Harvard, Princeton and the University of Virginia recently dropped their early admissions rounds. A national admissions group voted earlier this month to prohibit the growing practice of admitting some students even before the start of their senior year.
The attention focuses mainly on places such as New York, New England and California, and scattered pockets elsewhere Chicago, Houston which have long traditions of sending students to competitive private colleges. In those areas, Ivy League bumper stickers are coveted, and a child at a big-name school is especially valuable social currency. Students are more likely to take SAT prep courses, apply early, and apply to many schools and also to be literally losing sleep over the process.
But these days, regions that had been relatively sheltered from such pressure, such as the Sun Belt and Midwest, are seeing more and more of it.
“The Northeast and California and the mid-Atlantic are certainly the areas with the highest anxiety and hype,” says Bill Dingledine, an educational consultant in Greenville, S.C. “It’s not quite like that here. But it’s moving in that direction.”
Some blame the media for fueling admissions anxiety, but they point to other factors, too. Families who move from the hot spots may bring their high-intensity outlook with them. And there really is more competition because of population and economic growth. Many colleges in North Carolina are becoming significantly more selective, for example.
It’s a trend measured in both anecdotes and some telling statistics.
In states below the Mason-Dixon line, enrollment in Kaplan SAT/ACT prep classes has grown at more than seven times the company’s overall national growth rate over the last five years.
“I’ve got to do what I’ve got to do,” says Lauren Grochocki, a senior at Rockwall High School outside Dallas, who took an SAT prep course last year and an ACT one this summer.
“It’s a little stressful, but if I can get a 29, it’ll be so much better in the long run,” she said of a score that would put her in the 95th percentile nationally.
In North Carolina, the number of AP exams taken has increased from about 28,000 in 1998 to more than 70,000 in 2005. In Texas it has increased from 74,000 to more than 200,000.
The number of private college counselors, often seen as a symptom of anxiety, is rising. Five years ago, a national organization of private college advisers had just one qualified member in Minnesota; today it has 11. Kentucky has gone from none to three, Virginia two to 13.
Bev Taylor’s New York counseling service, The Ivy Coach, charges up to $21,000 for college advising and flies personal SAT tutors around the country. She says most of her students now come from outside New York, from places like Florida, Omaha, Neb., and Minneapolis.
Historically, the Northeast emerged as a hot spot partly because the more competitive private colleges are clustered there. Many good students in the South and Midwest have been steered to flagship public universities, where a good academic record was once enough to get in.
That’s no longer necessarily true. Last year, the University of Florida turned down more than 1,300 applicants with high school GPAs over 4.0, for a freshman class of about 7,200. UNC-Chapel Hill turns away nearly two-thirds of applicants.
Less certain where they’ll get in, students worry and apply to more schools.
“Fifteen years ago it was much easier,” says Kathy Cleaver, head of college counseling at Durham Academy, where some students apply to as many as 15 schools. “It was a buyer’s market. You had a pretty good sense of who would or would not get in somewhere. Today, it’s more unpredictable.”
“That puts panic in people,” she said. And that uncertainty sends more scrambling to SAT prep classes.
“I’ve given up saying you shouldn’t do it,” she said, “because our kids are out competing against kids all around the country who are doing it.”
In Texas, a law guaranteeing students in the top 10 percent of their high school class admission to any public university has made it significantly harder for suburban students outside the top 10 percent to gain entrance to the University of Texas’ flagship Austin campus. Merit aid policies have significantly raised the bar at the University of Georgia, making it far harder for many students to get in than in their parents’ day.
Some say universities’ aggressive recruiting is partly to blame for the admissions frenzy.
“Universities have been very effective at going out and shaking the trees around the country,” said Steve Goodman, a veteran private college adviser. “When the University of Pennsylvania or Georgetown goes to your city and has a dog-and-pony show, that does rustle up interest among the sophisticated students.” The message, he said, is “we’re great, but we’re also really hard to get into,” which feeds anxiety.
It’s not that recruiting is inherently bad, Goodman and others acknowledge; it expands horizons and increases the odds of a good match. Last year, Savannah Country Day students chose a number of small schools far off the area’s usual radar screen: Pomona in California and Carleton and St. Olaf in Minnesota.
The test-prep companies also often criticized say their expanding presence is helping students, not hurting.
“I like to think we’re a solution for these kids,” said John Polstein, CEO of Kaplan Test Prep and Admissions. “We spend a lot of time in our programs trying to demystify the (SAT and ACT) exam, trying to reduce the pressure.”
At the North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics, a residential public magnet academy, the students are among the best in the state. There is competition, but the students insist it is still pretty friendly.
“We don’t get that here,” said Morgan Kearse, an aspiring biologist with at least three Ivy League schools on her wish list.
Adds classmate Nicole Mack: “This school allows you to compare yourself against yourself. We’re not so cutthroat to bring everybody else down.”
Still, one student recently told counseling dean Gail Hudson she wanted to apply early to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology because of the name, even though North Carolina State was a better fit. Last year, Hudson had to convince a parent that Carnegie Mellon really was a better fit for his son than Princeton.
“These are the kinds of parents who will call and say, ‘Don’t let my daughter leave your office until you convince her to apply to Brown,’” Hudson says.
The trick to keeping the anxiety at bay is for adults to set the right tone, the counselors say.
But keeping things calmer here than in the traditional hot spots won’t be easy: Every state in the South except Louisiana will have more high school seniors graduating in 10 years than today.
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