Quashing the College Admissions Rat Race MIT Dean Takes Aim at Admissions Anxiety

Daily Herald (Arlington Heights, IL), September 18, 2006 | Go to article overview
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Quashing the College Admissions Rat Race MIT Dean Takes Aim at Admissions Anxiety


Byline: Justin Pope AP Education Writer

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. -Though just teenagers, the applicants to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology are a scarily accomplished lot.

They start businesses and publish academic research. They lead every extracurricular club and master the SAT. One even built a working nuclear reactor in his garage.

But surprisingly few have done what Marilee Jones, the woman who actually picks the one in seven MIT applicants to get in, thinks 18-year-olds ought to be doing.

Not many sleep eight hours a night, or eat three meals a day. Few spend time each day just staring into space.

And Jones is blunt about the consequences.

The quest for perfection "is making our children sick," the MIT dean of admissions told a recent gathering of college admissions professionals in Boston. She means it literally, snapping off statistics on the increase in ulcers, anxiety disorders and control disorders such as cutting and anorexia.

"Kids aren't supposed to be finished," she said. "They're partial. They're raw. That's why we're in the business."

For years, high school teachers and counselors have been complaining about the emotional and physical toll of the competition for slots in selective colleges. SAT prep classes and an arms race of extracurricular resume-building, they say, are draining the fun out of life for their students.

College officials have been slower to see it as a problem - though that might be changing. A group of presidents from prominent colleges has been talking behind the scenes about possible steps to "lower the flame" - to use the buzz phrase - surrounding colleges admissions. And Harvard just announced it will end early admissions, partly because it adds to admissions anxiety.

Jones, who sports a shock of red hair, speaks bluntly and loves the Rolling Stones, is neither quiet nor behind-the-scenes by nature. Nine years as dean, and the mother's-eye view she got of college admissions last year, have persuaded her something is wrong. Now, from the pulpit of a school famous for overachievers, she has become a champion of revamping admissions - and a sharp critic of colleges for their complicity in the problem.

"Nothing will change unless we get up, look ourselves in the mirror and say, 'I'm responsible,' " Jones told her admissions colleagues. "We have to look ourselves in the eye and say, 'Am I an educator, or am I a marketer?' "

Yet, many enrollment czars - including MIT's former admission's dean, who is now at the University of Chicago - say the finger should be pointed at parents, not a university's standards.

"The fact is we certainly live in a winner-take-all society with tremendous competition to gain that edge," says Michael Behnke, U of C's admissions' dean and Jones' former boss at MIT for 10 years. "That is part of our culture as a whole, but I think the admissions process as a whole, works well."

Behnke pins the blame on parents "in a few zip codes" freaked at the thought their children won't be as successful as they were. They will fight for every advantage, no matter the admission hoops placed before their children, he contends.

At U of C, essay requirements and interview opportunities provide counselors the ability to see beyond the resumes, like Jones wants, he notes.

On the other hand, universities appear to also contribute to admissions' shellshock. A 2005 survey by consulting firm Noel- Levitz found the average four-year private college spends more than $2,000 to recruit each student it enrolls.

"The profession has been transformed in the last 20 years to become almost internecine - competition, competition, competition," said Lloyd Thacker, executive director of the Education Conservancy, a group working to lessen admissions anxiety. "It's the coach mentality to admissions: Win at any cost."

Students are the losers, many say.

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