A gamble on the college crapshoot

June 1, 2001

Even with the best prospects and preparation, deciding on a university is no easy task, writes Harvey J. Kaye.

My wife and daughter left me in mid-April. They flew to Boston, the Mecca of American higher education, to participate in the annual spring-break pilgrimage in which high-school juniors and their parents check out universities. Such sojourns involve touring campuses, investigating nearby neighbourhoods and meeting admissions officers. Only a few weeks before, graduating high-school seniors received their letters of acceptance or rejection from those very same admissions officers. The cycle continues.

The admissions process is complex. Seventeen-year-olds have to figure out what they want to study, where in the country they want to live, how large a campus they want, and how academically selective a university they want to try for. Admissions committees have to make life-shaping decisions. Parents have to figure out a way to pay for it all.

We have experience to draw on - our own (of more than 30 years ago) and our elder daughter's. But she made it seem easy by deciding quickly what and where she wanted to study. She applied "early decision" to the School of Architecture at the "public ivy" University of Virginia (early decision means you apply early, promise to attend if accepted and get a quick response). They wisely accepted her. She will soon finish her third year there. She now starts searching for a graduate school, and I start asking myself how four years can fly by so fast.

Our younger daughter, Fiona, is different. She has strong interest in two distinct subjects, theatre and international relations. Moreover, she has several institutions in mind - Harvard, Princeton, Brown, Georgetown and Northwestern universities - all of them highly selective and expensive (£20,000 each year).

Like other bright and conscientious high-schoolers, she prepared by researching schools online. I helped by procuring a variety of volumes assessing universities. We started with the latest edition of America's Best Colleges and Universities , produced by US News and World Report . I also bought the more insightful Fiske Guide to Colleges and The Insider's Guide to Colleges edited by students at Yale University.

Discovering a whole library of such works, I made the experience a scholarly venture. I could not resist Cool Colleges for the Hyper-Intelligent, Self-Directed, Late Blooming and Just Plain Different; Making a Difference College & Graduate Guide (for liberals); Colleges that Encourage Character Development; Choosing the Right College (for conservatives); The Whole Truth about America's 100 Top Schools (for real right-wingers); The Hillel Guide to Jewish Life on Campus; The Multicultural Student's Guide to Colleges: What Every African American, Hispanic and Native American Applicant Needs to Know about America's Top Schools ; and Harvard Lampoon's Guide to College Admissions (which, naturally, ranks Yale at the bottom of the barrel).

Fiona prepared in other ways, as well. She scored 1,550 out of a possible 1,600 on the Sats, the national tests that colleges use to assess applicants' verbal and mathematical aptitudes. With that score, her straight "A" academic record and diverse extracurricular activities, she definitely can try for an elite university.

Still, it is always a crapshoot. Last summer, Fiona attended an international relations programme for high-school students at Georgetown in Washington DC. She loved it for the subject and, maybe even more, because it gave her the chance to spend time with other teens who also had a real interest in political questions. She enjoys school and her friends, but her fellow students' utter lack of interest in politics frustrates her. This summer, she heads off to Providence, Rhode Island, for an intensive theatre programme at Brown. She hopes the experience will help her choose - if she must - between performance and politics. Of course, as she says, she could pursue both at university and then either go to law school or play a lawyer on television.

Every day the postman delivers slick prospectuses. Most end up in the recycle bin. But occasionally, a catalogue catches her eye. The mailings from the Claremont colleges in southern California offer magnificent shots of the San Gabriel Mountains, and the brochure from Wesleyan University includes idyllic scenes of its campus and autumnal New England foliage. We entertain ourselves by reading the public relations hype and the testimonials by professors, students and alumni.

Fiona has also broached the idea of applying to Oxford and Cambridge. My wife is British, I have a London graduate degree and Fiona has always considered herself a half-Brit (and full-time Liverpool FC fan). I thought she just wanted to make me anxious. I replied by asking her if she really could stand living so far from her mother (adding that British academics are not as nice as American professors). But she had it all calculated. She answered that the money saved in not going to a private US university could pay for her air fares to come home at holidays. I think she might be serious. So, if any Oxford or Cambridge admissions folk are reading this, I want you to know that my daughter is entertaining offers.

Harvey J. Kaye is professor of history and social change at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay.

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