It's the summer before your senior year, and you're sweating. The college brochures are spread across the table, along with itineraries, SAT review books, downloaded copies of Web pages that let you chart the grades and scores of every kid from your high school who applied to a given college in the past five years and whether they got in or not. You're hunting for a school where the principal oboe player is graduating, or the soccer goalie, so it might be in the market for someone with your particular skills. You can be fifth-generation Princeton or the first in your family to apply to college: it's still the most important decision you've ever made, and the most confounding.
You're a parent watching your child, so proud, and so worried. Your neighbors' son was a nationally ranked swimmer, straight As, great boards, nice kid. Got rejected at his top three choices, wait-listed at two more. Who gets into Yale these days anyway? Maybe they should have sent him to Mali for the summer to dig wells, fight malaria, give him something to write about in his essay.
You're the college counselor at a public school in a hothouse ZIP code, and you wish you could grab the students, grab the parents by the shoulders and shake them. Twenty thousand dollars for a college consultant? They're paying for help getting into a school where the kid probably doesn't belong. Do they really think there are only 10 great colleges in the country? There are scores of them, hundreds even, honors colleges embedded inside public universities that offer an Ivy education at state-school prices; small liberal-arts colleges that exalt the undergraduate experience in a way that the big schools can't rival. And if they hope to go on to grad school? Getting good grades at a small school looks better than floundering at a famous one. Think they need to be able to tap into the old-boy network to get a job? Chances are, the kid is going to be doing a job that doesn't even exist now, so connections won't do much good. The rules have changed. The world has changed. You have a sign over your office door: COLLEGE IS A MATCH TO BE MADE, NOT A PRIZE TO BE WON.
"In my generation," says Bill Fitzsimmons, the dean of admissions at Harvard, "America wasted a lot of talent." Applying to college was less brutal mainly because "three-quarters of the population was excluded from these types of schools." Now 62% more students are going to college than did in the '60s, when Fitzsimmons was a Harvard undergrad, and while many of them head off to state universities and community colleges, the top schools are determined to tear down barriers to entry for the brightest of them. Admissions officers from Harvard, Yale and Stanford weave their outreach tours through low-income ZIP codes and remote rural areas, starting new summer academies for promising candidates and waiving their tuition if they do make it in. Harvard's class of 2009 included 22% more students from families who earned under $60,000 than the class of 2008. Like many other colleges, Harvard also gives some preferences to well-connected applicants like legacies (the children of alumni), but Fitzsimmons says his school is making a statement with its broader outreach. "The word has gone out that if you are talented, the sky is the limit," Fitzsimmons says. "If we don't take advantage of that energy, America will languish."
The math is simple: when so many more kids are applying, a smaller percentage get in, which yields the annual headlines about COLLEGE ADMISSIONS INSANITY. Princeton turned down 4 of every 5 of the valedictorians who applied last year, and Dartmouth could have filled its freshman class with students with a perfect score in at least one SAT subject and had some to spare. But in the meantime, partly as a result, partly in response to all kinds of social and economic trends, the rest of the college universe has shifted as well. The parents may be the last ones to come around but talk to high school teachers and guidance counselors and especially to the students themselves, and you can glimpse a new spirit, almost a liberation, when it comes to thinking about college. "Sometimes I see it with families with their second or third child, and they've learned their lesson with the first," observes Jim Conroy, a college counselor at New Trier High School in Winnetka, Ill. Their message: while you may not be able to get into Harvard, it also does not matter anymore. Just ask the kids who have chosen to follow a different road.
Small Is Beautiful
The apostle of the alternative way is a white-haired, bespectacled former education editor of the New York Times named Loren Pope, whose book Colleges That Change Lives is the best-selling admissions guide, ahead of A Is for Admission: The Insider's Guide to Getting Into the Ivy League and Other Top Colleges. He lays out all the ways in which the past 30 years have smiled on smaller schools. With rising prosperity, their endowments have grown. The number of Ph.D.s doubled from 1968 to 1998, meaning a deeper pool of professors to choose from. And in some ways the small schools gained an advantage over their prestigious rivals: after Sputnik, many colleges became research universities, "and smaller has been better for undergraduate education ever since," Pope says. "At big research universities, professors spend more time researching than teaching."