If you are the parent of a high school senior, this could be a rough time for you. Your child may be scrambling to meet a deadline for applying to college (Princeton’s deadline is Jan. 1). Perhaps you have been enlisted to proofread your child’s application essays; maybe you’re agonizing over whether to point out the many ways in which his argument might be strengthened with better evidence, or reorganized and better expressed. Or you might be kicking yourself for letting her switch to flute from the less-popular but in-demand oboe back in fifth grade.
In this issue, Merrell Noden ’78 explores the frenzied world of college admissions from the perspective of a parent. Noden’s children have years before they need worry about where they will attend college, but reporting on this topic has given their dad a head start on the heartburn. No one likes the degree of competition in today’s admission process — not least, Princeton’s dean of admission — but no one knows quite how to tamp it down.
For parents and colleges alike, several difficult issues are at work. How much stress can, or should, be placed upon a teenager? How much assistance in the application process is appropriate and ethical? How can there possibly be a level playing field in admissions when the things that give kids an edge — like SAT coaching, a helpful editor, and a counselor who knows the ropes — cost so much money?
To help make things a bit fairer for lower-income applicants, Princeton announced in September 2006 that it was eliminating its early-admission program and moving to a single application deadline, beginning with the class that will apply by Jan. 1 and enter next September. Critics of early admission have said that it works against low-income families, who require additional time and information to consider financial-aid opportunities at many colleges.
In the past, Princeton’s admission dean, Janet Rapelye, would have spent November reviewing some of the University’s thousands of early-decision applications. This year, she used the time to team up with Harvard and the University of Virginia — which also ended their early-admission programs — on a recruitment tour focused on families with modest incomes. Rapelye and her colleagues met with families and guidance counselors at 19 stops, including Los Angeles; Detroit; Little Rock, Ark.; and Jackson, Miss. In a press release, the deans said the tour would coincide with the time of year when prospective students with fewer preparatory resources were beginning their college searches in earnest.
The deans highlighted a finding, from the U.S. Department of Education, that public high schools have, on average, only one counselor for every 315 students. In California, they said, there is only one counselor for every 500 students.
Making up for that gap will be a huge challenge for places like Princeton and the low-income students who would like to attend. Meanwhile, we parents have some difficult things to think about, too.