There are about 120 shopping days left for the college class of '86.
With that on their minds, thousands of Fairfax County high school juniors and seniors and their parents trekked this week to the county's annual College Fair, where 300 eager college recruiters waited to lure the children of Fairfax's wealthy residents into the jaws of academe.
Fairfax is one of the few counties in the nation where high Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) scores, high income and high expectations converge.
For these reasons, it has become a mecca for college recruiters, from small colleges desperate for quality students who can pay increasing tuition bills to some of America's most elite universities.
"There are college nights all around the country," says Johns Hopkins University admissions director Jerry Schnydman. "But there are only a few college nights where you'll find all the very selective schools. Fairfax is one. Denver, Long Island and California are the others."
In a county where 8 out of 10 high school students go on to college, the right college is seen as a priceless trump card in the game of life. "I want him to get into a good school," says J.F. Franz, an accountant from Burke, who said he "dragged" his son David, a high school junior, to college night because "getting your degree from a name school is important."
"It's not important," adds Ted O'Neill, an electronics engineer whose son Vincent stood silently at his side. "It's essential."
But today -- even in Fairfax County -- college night also has become a chance to shop early for the best education at the best price. Nobody wants to make a $3,000 mistake. "My dad told me to come and check everything out and get the best deal," says Lake Braddock High School senior Kevin Saenz.
Fairfax County is the only jurisdiction in the Washington area that operates its own week of college nights, held at Tysons Corner Center and three area high schools.
Among the efforts staged elsewhere is a one-night event hosted by the District of Columbia and Montgomery County and sponsored by the National Association of College Admissions Counselors, which charges universities about $200 for the chance to meet thousands of college hopefuls. "Meat markets," one college representative calls the system.
There were 285 recruiters at Fairfax's Robinson High Tuesday night. From Harvard and Princeton universities to North Georgia College in Dahlonega, Ga., they came. The military academies, and nursing and secretarial schools were there, too. Some got their own classrooms, others were assigned to the field house. The University of Virginia, which takes 43 percent of its entering class from the Northern Virginia suburbs, was assigned the spacious student theater.
At the Tysons Corner night, an estimated 5,000 people wandered from booth to booth. Robinson's night was a smaller, more personal affair at which parents and children spent as much as half-an-hour with college representatives. Equal numbers of juniors and seniors showed up at Robinson. Although even the earliest application deadlines usually don't come until November, many students said waiting until October of senior year to visit a college night is folly.
"They're a little panicked," said senior David Gereski, as he watched parents carrying shopping bags full of college brochures. "By this time they should have been narrowing it down."
Fairfax County schools began sponsoring a college night about a decade ago. "The interest on both sides is phenomenal," says Robinson principal Robert C. Russell. "We get calls from the reps all the time, making sure they aren't being left out. And if a rep is scheduled to be here and doesn't show, people get very upset."
Cash is on everyone's mind these days. Last year, Fairfax college night included three different financial counseling sessions for parents applying for college loans, said Fairfax guidance counselor Mike Chuey. There was one lecture about getting the money, another about the financial aid form itself, and if parents brought their tax statements, there was another where a specialist filled out the financial aid form right there, he said.
Many students said the cash crunch is making them play it safe and apply to both a prestigious and costly first choice, and an acceptable second choice should the hoped for financial package not come through. Although low-interest federally guaranteed student loans are still available, college costs keep rising.
"There is money available . . . . everybody's a winner," the Duke University recruiter assured a roomful of parents and students after her slide show was over and she had quoted a tuition fee of $10,000. "There is money available."
Navy electronics engineer Philip Spector and his son, Larry, a junior, sat through the Johns Hopkins presentation. Like many juniors who scored well on the SAT, Larry received an early recruiting letter from Hopkins. The Spectors had questions about early entrance, the university's pre-medical school program -- and money. "I'm just going to apply and see what happens," said Larry.
"We're also thinking about University of Virginia, which is about half the cost," said his father. Larry wants to be a physician or a veterinarian.
"My son, the banker," said his father in exasperation over the high cost of fulfilling his son's aspirations.
Down the hall, Washington and Lee University recruiter Michael Hallman had grown accustomed to parental winces about his school's $8,600-a-year tab. "This is my fourth year doing this," said Hallman. "I go all around the country. A lot of people are scared about money this year. In fact, that's one of the first things they ask."
Many of the county's new residents said they chose Fairfax because of its school system, which boasts the highest SAT scores in the area, which average 35 points higher than the national norm. Fairfax has 15 percent of Virginia's high school seniors, but 46 percent of its National Merit semifinalists.
"The standards are so high," said Ohio emigre Diane Dix, whose daughter Cathy is a junior at Lake Braddock.
"It's so much more competitive here," said Cathy Dix. "There are advanced courses you can take each year that boost your grade average. The valedictorian last year had a 4.3 average."
It's enough to make a college recruiter spend four days in Fairfax, and then some. "You have to be willing to work morning, noon and night," said Allegheny College recruiter Susan Fennell. "There are fewer kids available so nothing less will do.
"And you can't use the hard sell. The kids don't want to be pushed. In the end, they still want to think it's their idea."