Familial stake in the ratings

April 11, 1997

A COVER of Time magazine loudly declaimed last month: "How Colleges are Gouging U". Having exposed the "crisis of the canon" and the spread of "political correctness", is the American media about to reveal massive corruption and thievery in the halls of higher education?

Not to worry. The article focussed on America's elite Ivy League private universities and asked why their tuition fees have been rising to the point where the cost of attending, including room and board, is almost $32,000 (Pounds 18,000) per year. It treated those schools evenhandedly, noting the remarkable growth of their endowments, the high cost of competition and the demanding price of prestige.

The article signals the climax of this year's admissions cycle. American high school students are now receiving letters informing them whether or not they are admitted to university - and, if so, whether or not they got into their preferred choices. Also, many 17-year-olds are praying they have been awarded sufficient financial aid to make a four-year degree possible - and their parents are seriously calculating the sacrifices to be borne.

Time's article registers both the culmination of one graduating class's efforts and the commencement of another's. The issue appeared on news-stands alongside the latest editions of three major guides to and unofficialratings of America's colleges and universities, produced, respectively, by Time, Newsweek and US News & World Report. For the record, according to the US News volume: the top three "national universities" are Yale, Princeton and Harvard; the top three "liberal arts colleges" are Swarthmore, Amherst and Williams; and the three "best values" among "national universities" are the University of North Carolina, Texas A&M, and the University of Washington.

I regularly notice such things, but now I have a personal stake in the process. Our elder daughter, Rhiannon, graduates from high school a year from now and, like other parents for their kids, we want the best for her. She deserves it. Taking mostly "advanced classes", her grades are nearly perfect; plus, she recently scored a total 1,300 on her verbal and maths Scholastic Aptitude Tests, placing her in the 88th percentile nationally (the "SATs" are the closest thing we have to A level).

Notably - for such things count in the admissions process - she is active in the art club and plays violin in the Green Bay Civic Symphony and singles for her high school tennis team. Her high-school scholarly labours make mine seem mediocre. She and her younger sister love seeing the senior year report card which my mother sadistically relishes showing them. My marks ranged from the highest "A" down to a couple of "D" grades (reflecting not simply an uneven performance in favour of extracurricular activities, but also the antagonisms with a few teachers).

My own college search involved applying to places my family definitely could not afford and I am sure my parents were relieved when both Tufts and Princeton rejected me. Fortunately, I ended up at the more "proletarian ivy", Rutgers University, the State University of New Jersey, paying for my education by way of summer jobs and student loans. I have no regrets.

My daughter wants to study architecture, a six-year university programme (four for the B Arch, plus two for the professional M Arch). In the months ahead, she will be writing away for prospectuses and we will try to arrange visits to selected campuses. Like most good students, she already has received brochures from universities trying to garner her attention. Celebrating the great food, music and carnival atmosphere of the Big Easy, the one from Tulane University in New Orleans is most enticing. Having pursued my PhD 90 miles up-river at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge, I enjoy the references in my imagination, but I then recall the Gulf Coast's heat and humidity and appreciate the fresh snow falling outside our Upper Midwestern home.

My wife and I have been honest with Rhiannon about what we can afford, especially since her younger sister is equally bright and equally entitled to our support. Thus, we have long argued for the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

A great institution and the flagship campus of the UW System, Madison costs an in-state student about $10,000 per year (unfortunately, Wisconsin - in contrast to many states - provides no discounts for professors' children at state campuses).

However, Madison does not offer architecture, and the UW campus which does is not very appealing. Moreover, as "great" as the university is, everyone knows and the college guides attest that UW-Madison professors are "inaccessible to undergraduates". As a parent and a professor, I do not find such words promising of a great education.

When we look beyond Wisconsin, costs increase dramatically. Out-of-state students at public universities pay twice what state residents pay and, by reputation and the guides' accounts, the other "Big Ten" universities like Indiana, Minnesota and Michigan are no better when it comes to professors' treatment of undergraduates.

However, there is one major public university where the faculty apparently perform against the grain of big-school norms. According to the Newsweek guide, students at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville report that their professors are "attentive and accessible". Moreover, possessed of a most attractive campus, laid out by Thomas Jefferson himself, Virginia has a renowned school of architecture (as one would expect of Jefferson's university).

Even before I bought the guides it was high on our daughter's list. At more than $20,000 per year, Virginia is priced high for out-of-state students. But I am consoled by the fact that it is less expensive than one of the elite private institutions.

We are just starting out on the year-long haul. As higher education is my "business" and I find the whole subject fascinating - not to mention that I am an anxious parent - I have to remind myself that it is Rhiannon's life, not mine. She needs to explore and select, not me.

Yet, given the investment, it seems imperative that I work through the process with her. Pending her continued permission, I promise to report back on our progress in spring 1998 -another year older and probably deeper in debt.

Harvey J. Kaye is the Ben and Joyce Rosenberg Professor of Social Change and Development at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay

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