We are now entering the season of the college jitters. Soon the envelopes will be in the mail, each carrying the weight of somebody's future. For one month at least, fat will be in and thin will be out.
But something is happening in the academic world.
More and more frequently it is the college worrying about acceptance and the student worrying about value. The ivory tower is made of more than greenbacks, but the combination of an inflated economy and a deflated young population may be stripping it of prestige.
The most selective institutions still pick and choose among applicants. But colleges across the country generally accept 80 percent of those who apply. Some even recruit students with all the gentility of a PhD Barnum and Bailey.
More and more admission offices operate like marketing divisions. Some buy lists of names and numbers from college boards as if they were direct-mailing Christmas bulbs instead of course catalogs. Others have produced shopping-center extravaganzas at which they hand out balloons and frisbees, along with the allure of the degrees. Still others give bonuses to student headhunters.
To make up for a lack of 18-year-olds, as John Sawhill, the former president of NYU once said, they are also "going after adults with all the grace and dignity of the California gold rush."
There are attempts by the higher-education people to regulate themselves, but the competition for survival, particularly among schools that depend overwhelmingly on tuition, is likely to become more intense.
As the Carnegie Council on Policy Studies in Higher Education fantisized in one of its scenarios for the future: "Colleges and universities will compete for ever more scarse students in destructive ways, including false advertising, easy academic credits, soft courses, grade inflation. . . ."
Even now families are worrying about the degree that costs more but is "worth" less. The average price of college has gone up about 100 percent in 10 years. Tuition, room and board next year at Harvard will cost $10,540. Tuition alone at the state colleges in New York will be more than $1,000 a year.
Parents are paying more and students are owing more. As the government cuts back on loans, the real costs go up even higher.
It's not easy to think of this staggering debt as a sound "investment." From the late 1960s to the late 1970s, the number of people enrolling in college grew by 184 percent, but the earnings gap between college and non-college graduates narrowed from 40 percent to 25 percent. Now, with half the high school graduates going to college, the gap is still narrowing.
"There is the sense," says Russ Edgerton of the American Association for Higher Education, "that having the credential doesn't mean very much, but not having it is a disaster. The degree becomes a necessary, insufficient, credential for anything."
A circle of anxiety is created that pushes parents, students and colleges into thinking more and more narrowly about short-term gains: education that can be instantly translated into a "good" job. And this only adds to the problem.
Prof. Stephen K. Bailey, at the Harvard Graduate School of Education is "deeply worried about the attitude generally, that if you are a warm body and have the money, we'll take you. The end of that road is everybody having a degree that is meaningless."
He is not against the "democratizing" of college, or against vocational education. The goals of colleges -- from community colleges to four-year liberal arts programs -- are obviously and legitimately different. But, he says that "the ultimate test is whether at the same time you are constantly trying to improve the level of the thinking and understanding."
In terms of an investment, he says we have to think big, to think of a whole life, only 90,000 of which will be spent on the job. Real security has to do with the broad training of somebody for a versatile life."
The lingering value of college is still what Jack Arbolino of the College Board describes: "It's so that later on in life when you knock on yourself, somebody answers."
But it's hard sometimes to remember that, here in the season of the new college jitters.