At a recent college fair in the affluent Bethesda-Chevy Chase area, only two colleges out of 60 declined an invitation to talk to students from three of the neighborhood's public high schools. Representatives from an additional 40 institutions asked to attend.
Among those delivering 20-minute seminars at the Bethesda College Night at Walter Johnson High School were seven of the eight Ivy League colleges and universities: Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Cornell, Columbia, University of Pennsylvania and Dartmouth.
That same evening, farther up the county at Rockville High, another college night was taking place. This time the sponsor was the Montgomery County Alliance for Black School Educators, and students from all county high schools were invited. More than 400 colleges had been invited. Thirty-seven showed up.
The following day, the Washington metropolitan area's largest college fair was just kicking off at the D.C. National Guard Armory. Billed as a chance for Maryland, Virginia and District students to go "one on one" with recruiters from hundreds of colleges, the two-day affair attracted some 12,000 students. For most Montgomery County high school students it was the only college fair they would attend all year.
Among those institutions represented under the blue and silver tinsel at the Armory were the Washington School for Secretaries, Community Colleges of Western Maryland, Diesel Institute of America and General Motors Institute. This time only one department of an Ivy League college set up a table -- the Columbia University School of Engineering and Applied Science.
Harvard's man at Walter Johnson wasn't there. He caught a 9 p.m. plane back to Cambridge immediately following his three 20-minute spiels. Yale's man in Bethesda, a local alumnus, went home to bed -- nobody told him about the Armory event. Princeton's man slipped back across the District border and worked the next day as he usually does, as a law clerk.
"I guess the Ivy League colleges just want to go to our Ivy League schools," said Rockville college night coordinator Judy Docca of the county Department of Human Relations. Only Dartmouth, among the seven Ivy League colleges that made pitches at Walter Johnson, sent a representative to the Rockville event, which was open to all county students.
Docca's perception that an "Ivy League" syndrome exists among representatives from the nation's prestigious colleges when they choose which Montgomery County public high schools to visit is borne out by examining the recruiting schedules of most of the county's 22 high schools. Although 75 percent of Montgomery County's graduating seniors go on to college, dramatic inequities still exist in the number of recruiters who visit particular schools, with the bulk of the country's top colleges recruiting heavily in the wealthy areas of Bethesda, Potomac and Chevy Chase.
Translated into starker terms, what this means for most Montgomery County students is that the farther the school from these neighborhoods or the lower the per-capita income, the less likely it is that they will see big name college recruiters on their campuses -- or any college recruiter. At Walt Whitman High in Bethesda, widely considered by college recruiters to be one of the top 10 public schools in the nation -- a "super school" as one Princeton recruiter called it -- students can expect at least 400 recruiters a year. At Poolesville High School, college counselors say they are lucky to see 60 in a year.
At Thomas S. Wootton High, which borders on Potomac, counselors say they usually see five college recruiters a day. At Damascus High School, in the upper northeastern sector of the county, counselors say in a busy week they will see six and maybe 60 in a year. Among the colleges and universities sending representatives this year to Wootton, where 95 percent of students go on to college, were Columbia, Princeton, Brown, Smith, Johns Hopkin, Amherst and the University of Pennsylvania.
When asked to name some of the more prestigious colleges scheduled to visit, Damascus counselor Anne Davis named three: St. Mary's College of Maryland, Shepherd College of West Virginia and Bucknell University in Pennsylvania. Most of the other colleges, Davis said, were Maryland state universities and community colleges
On Nov. 11 Poolesville High School will hold a college fair. Fifty colleges from the states surrounding Washington were invited. Twenty-one accepted. Among those scheduled to attend are the Washington School for Secretaries, the College of Notre Dame of Maryland, Towson State University, Pennsylvania State University and Catholic University. Counselors at Poolesville, which is one of the lowest college-bound schools in the county with only 47 percent going on to college, said they never even thought about inviting the Ivy League colleges. About one recruiter a week hits the campus.
At Sherwood High School in Sandy Spring, more than 200 college recruiters visit the west county school. According to counselor Richard Ranshaw, however, none are from Ivy League colleges. Instead, Ranshaw said his students see a lot of representatives from the Maryland state universities. "You can't compare Sherwood to Whitman," Ranshaw said. "Our kids are a lot less affluent. When you talk about Ivy League schools you're talking about $12,000-$13,000 tuition and other costs a year . Of course, those schools are going to go where there are the economic resources."
Institutions that have already sent representatives to Walt Whitman in Bethesda this year include Yale, Cornell, California Institute of Technology, Duke and Smith. Harvard visits once every three years.
"I think it would be a mistake to conclude that by our putting an emphasis on the Bethesda College Night that therefore we're going to nurture those particular schools," said Seamus Malin, dean of admissions at Harvard.
"But Bethesda is an area where there a lot of good, promising students . . . and at this fair we have a chance to hit a lot of kids from schools who send us a major number of applicants. . . . We're not seeing students who are random shoppers, but students who just need to have some fine points honed," Malin said. He added, however, that he met in September with counselors from all of the county's high schools for a workshop. Malin also said that Harvard frequently holds receptions in the Washington area that any interested student can attend and that the day following the Bethesda fair a Harvard student was in the Washington area visiting public schools in Prince George's County and the District.
"The National College Fair at the D.C. Armory , from our point of view, is an exercise that's not really worth the time that we have to put into it," he said.
Students who were worth talking to during the Bethesda College Fair, however, were from Walter Johnson, Bethesda-Chevy Chase and Walt Whitman. No other schools were invited and currently no other county fairs are planned that Harvard or any of the other seven Ivy League colleges will attend.
There is a growing concern among some parents and educators that the presence of recruiters at only a few schools will result in tracking. A student doesn't see a college, and therefore does not feel quite as encouraged to apply, they reason. While some educators doubt the influence an Ivy League visit has on a student's willingness to apply, others say that an appearance sometimes makes the difference between deciding to go to one college or another.
Says Jennifer Hantho, president of the Potomac and Chesapeake region of the National Association of College Counselors, "It's more significant than you might think. . . . Surveys we have conducted show that meeting a college recruiter is noted as one of the most important factors in deciding where to go to college."
Compounding the problem of Ivy League concentration in about six or seven of Montgomery's high schools is the lack of a uniform policy governing college counseling. A survey conducted last year by a school board advisory committee concluded that a wide variance exists in the type and quality of counseling available to students.
The level of counseling, the report said, "seemed to hinge on the enthusiasm and involvement of an individual counselor or parent group rather than the design of the guidance system."
"I was rather appalled" by the information students receive, said committee secretary Nancy Weicking. She said that not only were some students being given wrong information about dates and admission processes, but some were not getting any information at all.
Among the differences in college information county public high school students will receive this year:
This year at Bethesda-Chevy Chase, where more than 85 percent of the students go on to college, students can participate in a six-week college interviewing seminar. The interview for admission to a private college, admissions officials concede, can frequently mean the difference between acceptance and rejection. Also at Bethesda-Chevy Chase, a special course is given to prepare students for the verbal portion of the Scholastic Aptitude Test. In addition, B-CC, like all county high schools, offers a prepatory class before every aptitude test.
Among those colleges and universities sending recruiters to the Bethesda campus this year, in addition to the representatives at the college fair night, are Yale, Brown, Smith, Johns Hopkin, University of Virginia, Dickinson, Columbia, Wesleyan, Cornell, Vassar, Amherst, Haverford and the University of Pennsylvania. Harvard representatives are expected to visit later during the year and college counselors say they usually see well over 200 recruiters in a year.
Other high schools that have extracurricular college admissions seminars include Walter Johnson, Walt Whitman, Thomas S. Wootton, Springbrook and Bethesda-Chevy Chase. The sessions cover topics ranging from interviewing techniques to college essay writing. At Walt Whitman, beginning in 10th grade, students are asked to write a practice college essay in English courses. At Bethesda-Chevy Chase, some math teachers include college budget planning in the curriculum.
According to counselors from the following schools, some financial aid seminars are scheduled but no other special admissions programs are planned at Poolesville, Montgomery Blair, Wheaton and Seneca Valley.
At Damascus High School, counselor Davis says the school is planning an up-county college fair for next year, cosponsored by Montgomery College in Germantown. Nearly 60 percent of the Damascus High graduating class goes on to college and two seminars are planned: one on financial aid and another on college and career choices.
The wide gap between college counseling programs has some Montgomery County administrators disturbed, says guidance supervisor Darryl Laramore.
"We have a lot of good students who are not aware of the wide variety of private schools . . . and I find it disconcerting that a bright student from some place like Poolesville or Damascus, unless he or she is aggressive or has an aggressive counselor, might miss some options that would be available to them at a school like Whitman."
But still, Laramore, who says the county is looking into sponsoring a college fair for all Montgomery high schools next year, understands the colleges' position.
"I can't blame these colleges. Obviously, people who live in a $300,000 home are more interested in sending kids to highly competitive private schools; . . . they choose the schools where they're going to get the largest number of admissions."