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Bob Sipchen / SCHOOL ME

Admissions Mania: Can't We All Just Chill Out?

August 28, 2006|Bob Sipchen

Rory didn't get into Yale. Neither did Thomas. Gina did, though, and together their tales of rejection or triumph offer a lesson of considerable social significance -- even if one of these students is a fictional character in a raunchy summer movie.

High school senior Rory, for those of you who have yet to see "Accepted," is totally bummed when her first and only choice of colleges rejects her. Several of her classmates are similarly skunked, and the idiotic film brilliantly captures the anxiety of middle-to-upper-crust parents and their college admissions-obsessed spawn.

Relish the satire, as we enter this long season of nagging and resentment, envy and guilt, that officially began last week with the publication of U.S. News and World Report's annual guide to "America's Best Colleges."

Until recently, this madness was confined to a self-perpetuating educated class. But that's changing, as more smart kids without money or pushy parents take advantage of programs to put them on a footing with kids whose well-educated parents never doubted they'd attend top schools.

This long-overdue shift is going to require psychological adjustment on both sides of America's socioeconomic divide, as Thomas and Gina might attest.

Thomas Sloan just graduated from the Webb Schools in Claremont, where about $39,000 a year buys room, board and a virtual guarantee that students will get into a good college. Webb's science of college admission begins with a fine education. But full-time director of college guidance Hector Martinez and his assistant are also there to parlay that schooling into the best possible shot at America's elite schools.

Beginning in freshman year, Martinez offers one-on-one help to each of the 90 or so students per class. He encourages students to get SAT tutoring, nudges teachers for recommendations, drags representatives from 100 top colleges to the school for visits and takes students on campus tours nationwide -- just the sort of treatment that private school parents expect.

Sloan's parents are lawyers, and his going to college was a given. He did his part. He studied his way to a GPA of 4.0 (weighted to take Advanced Placement courses into account). He slaughtered the SAT and PSAT, becoming a National Merit Scholarship finalist. Still, Yale rejected him.

Sloan, whom Martinez praised as one of Webb's best writers, knows Yale is a reach for any student. He easily shrugged off the disappointment. Not everyone is so sanguine.

"Some of these families," Martinez says, "haven't heard the word 'no' in a long time."

I doubt the same can be true of Gina Gonzales' mom and dad, who emigrated from Mexico with only elementary school educations before their daughter was born.

Gina was a good student from the start as she moved from Los Angeles' Norwood Elementary to John Burroughs Middle School to Manual Arts High, where a single college counselor is charged with shepherding the higher-ed aspirations of all 4,200 students. Fortunately for Gonzales, a teacher pointed the intellectually ambitious girl out to a privately funded nonprofit organization called One Voice.

Sharmon Goodman, a One Voice college advisor, began guiding Gonzales through the same steps that Martinez and his assistants use to give Webb students an edge. Gina scored lower on the SAT than Sloan. Her weighted GPA was higher. By the time the letter from Yale arrived, One Voice had taught her enough about the arcane admissions racket that she expected disappointment. When she opened the envelope and "began turning red," her mother thought something awful had happened.

No, she blurted to her parents, Yale University had just invited her to enter its class of 2010. "They were like, 'Oh, that's nice,' " Gonzales says.

Remarkably, One Voice matches the Webb Schools' 100% college placement success. But the program nurtures just 25 to 30 students annually. Statistically insignificant. Almost every week now, though, I hear about similar efforts by groups such as Upward Bound and the Parents Institute for Quality Education, an organization that teaches immigrant moms and dads how to improve their kids' chances of getting into college. Meanwhile, L.A. Unified, which in 2005 sent only 12% or so of its students to four-year colleges in California and a smaller percentage out of state, is quickly adding programs to prepare its predominantly poor and minority student population for higher ed.

Sure, the end of affirmative action in California has driven down the number of minority students at the best state schools, such as UCLA. But I suspect this is in part because elite private colleges are increasingly eager to offer slots and money to the best underprivileged scholars.

The infiltration of the Ivy League and other top schools has been advancing in sluggish fits and starts since the civil rights era, and as a result we'll eventually see an unstoppable shift in the balance of power in college admissions. Let's not underestimate the psychological implications of that.

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