The Admissions Gap

By Miranda S. Spivack
Sunday, April 12, 2009

Neal Lerner is the third child in his family to apply to college. For his mom, Janet, and dad, Chris, it's a little like being on autopilot.

When Neal, 16, hit his junior year last fall, his parents already knew the drill. They dug out the phone numbers for the private math and English tutors who would help him practice equations, expand his vocabulary and improve his test-taking skills. They handed over the credit card so Neal could sign up for the SAT and the ACT, the crucial college entrance exams. And then they hunkered down for the long haul. Knowledgeable veterans of a process that has grown far more complicated than when they were in college, the Lerners, like many well-educated boomer parents, have adapted with little difficulty.

So far, they've had great success. One son is about to graduate from Northwestern University; the other is a sophomore at the University of Maryland; and Neal, the highly organized third child who charts the week ahead on a dry-erase board in his bedroom and has a 3.7 grade-point average, is managing the process quite well in spring of junior year at Montgomery County's highly regarded Thomas S. Wootton High School.

For the Lerners and their neighbors in the wealthier communities on the west side of Montgomery County, home of the high-performing "W" high schools -- Walter Johnson, Walt Whitman, Winston Churchill and Wootton -- the route to the college of their choice is well traveled. The information-sharing networks in areas such as the Lerners' Fallsmead community, on the border of Potomac and Rockville, are vast. And the outcomes are usually pretty good, perhaps partly because the local Zip code's median household income in 2007 was $172,442; several studies show a link between a family's income and a child's academic success.

More than 50 years after the Supreme Court outlawed school segregation in Brown v. Board of Education, you don't have to live in the wealthiest neighborhoods to obtain a challenging public education in the Washington area. Particularly in the suburbs, high school students of all backgrounds can avail themselves of high-level honors, Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate classes -- or attend specialized magnet programs.

But finding a way to vault over the next hurdle -- college admissions -- is not as easy, for reasons that are subtle and complicated. It can help if your parents are college graduates, educators say, or if they can pay for tutoring to improve your grades and scores on the SAT and ACT. If you can afford a private counselor to hold your hand through the process, you're also likely to have a better chance of moving ahead.

Across the country, the high school class of 2009 is expected to have submitted the most applications ever to institutions of higher learning. Those born in 1991 are part of a major bulge in the baby boom echo, and that has made it harder for even the most academically accomplished students to feel confident that they will get into one of their top choices. Many high school students report submitting nine, 10, 11 or more applications, with per-application fees of as much as $75; just a few years ago, five was considered a safe number.

The predicted crush of applications from current seniors has caused some juniors to speed up plans to take standardized tests, so they can retake them if need be. By this spring, the end of Neal's junior year at Wootton, he will have taken at least the two key college entrance tests: the basic SAT reasoning test and the ACT. He will have chalked up dozens of hours with private tutors and have a pretty clear idea of where he wants to apply to college. He did well enough on his first round of the testing regimen in December that he probably won't take the tests again in the spring or fall. But some of his affluent classmates will -- at $45 a pop for the SAT and $46 for the ACT -- often with expensive test preparation sessions in between.


After years of muted criticism, there has been a growing chorus of concern about increasing inequalities in access to higher education. Much of the debate centers on how to make college more affordable for lower-income students. But some educators also argue that standardized exams are a more accurate measure of economic privilege than of the potential to succeed in college and in life. Meanwhile, more nonprofit and government programs are cropping up to give disadvantaged students test preparation and other help getting into college.

Last fall, the National Association for College Admission Counseling broke new ground by urging colleges and universities to rethink their reliance on standardized testing and switch to exams that are more closely tied to high school achievement. The counselors' report suggested using measures such as Advanced Placement exams, the SAT subject tests, and tests linked to the specialized International Baccalaureate program.

"It is nothing even remotely like a level playing field," said William Fitzsimmons, dean of admissions and financial aid at Harvard, and leader of the commission that studied the issue.

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