Bumper crop of top students . . .

June 01, 1999|By Bob Massa

THE NATION's colleges are in the midst of a transformation the likes of which hasn't been seen in years. Suddenly, there's a rush of high-achieving students -- those who would only have applied to elite private schools a few years ago -- applying to flagship public universities.

As a result, their peers with slightly lower SAT scores and grades are increasingly being squeezed out of the flagship schools.

Two major factors are fueling this trend: status and price.

Elite colleges, such as the Johns Hopkins University, have always attracted their share of top high school graduates for a variety of reasons, including noted professors, superior facilities, high-achieving students, diverse course offerings and distinguished reputations.

Many students apply to such private colleges because of the status associated with such a brand name. Often ignored is whether the college's academic and social atmosphere are right for a particular student.

More applications

As tuition costs have climbed in recent years, more top students have applied to flagship public universities. Ten years ago, the average Hopkins applicant applied to four colleges; today it's eight, with one or two public universities in the mix.

The flagship public colleges recognized this trend and the new-found opportunity to compete in the prestige market, which they entered by establishing relatively small honors colleges within their large universities. This approach allowed major public universities and colleges to compete for better students.

As more top students began to enroll in these programs, newly accepted applicants and their families could justifiably claim some degree of status at a bargain price.

But is this status chase in the best interest of students? Hopkins, Penn, Swarthmore, Berkeley, Williams, Michigan -- these are great institutions, but they are not for every student. Each school has a distinct academic and social style. Just as it's not a good idea to pick something to wear based on brand name alone, one shouldn't choose a college simply based on its name.

As a college admissions administrator for 25 years, I've come to the conclusion that too much importance is being placed on what a college's name can do for a student after graduation, rather than on how a college's environment will best help a particular student flourish intellectually and socially.

Brand names

A high price can mean quality and often does. But the value of the particular educational experience is a different matter. Large merit scholarships or huge state subsidies may lower the "list price," but the value to the student depends on how a college's faculty, facilities and programs combine to create the most meaningful and useful education for a particular student.

Several years ago, when I was unable to award an academic scholarship to one young woman, her mother, who had previously told me that her child would attend a State University of New York school if she did not receive a scholarship or grant from Hopkins, announced that her daughter was going to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology because, "If I have to pay full price, I might as well get the best."

I wonder if those parents really knew what was best for their daughter.

As students with high standardized test scores flock to schools based on status and price, those good students, who are now being denied admission at top public and private colleges, should look for the gems of the higher education community, where education takes place on a personal level and achievements abound.

Good students need not worry; there are very good colleges out there. And the more top students who enroll in them and graduate from them, the greater their status will be.

Robert J. Massa is dean of enrollment at the Johns Hopkins University.

Pub Date: 6/01/99

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