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Hoping to Attend Elite Colleges, Students Pay Up for Extra Edge

By Samuel G. Freedman

Consider this situation. An ambitious and talented person, having worked extremely hard for a decade or more, sees a competitor suddenly performing at an inexplicably higher level. That first person comes to believe the second must be obtaining secret, unacknowledged help. So, rather than risk being left behind, he pays for the same stealthy assistance.

Such was the story of Barry Bonds, the baseball slugger who turned to steroids in the late 1990s, according to the detailed account in the book “Game of Shadows.” As the authors, Mark Fainaru-Wada and Lance Williams, recount the events, Bonds made a Faustian bargain, believing that his home-run rival Mark McGwire had similarly sought an unearned advantage, one invisible to the rapt public.

Such is also the story of admission to the elite colleges and universities in this country. Under the pretense of fair competition, tens of thousands of high school students and their families employ the scholastic equivalent of steroids — test-prep courses, private consultants, Internet mills for massaging if not entirely creating their essays, exaggerated or cynical accounts of their community service.

The system is broken, even in the estimation of its participants, and it is so thoroughly broken in so many ways that counselors, students, parents and deans can agree on little else than that somebody is at fault — somebody, invariably, other than themselves. As professional baseball has belatedly tried to drain its own ethical swamp, the moral morass of high-stakes college admissions continues to be an object of regret instead of reform.

“There’s a victim consciousness,” said Marilee Jones, the dean of admissions at MIT. “‘It’s not my fault, it’s somebody else’s fault.’ I hear that over and over again. It’s the parents’ fault or the admissions officers’ fault or the counselors’ fault. What I say is, ‘Look, it starts right here, right now, with me.’ We really mean well and we think we’re doing the right thing. It’s hard for us to turn around and say that what we’re doing is really hurting kids.”

To be fair, the fanatical pursuit of admission characterizes primarily the most selective 50 to 100 colleges and universities; the national acceptance rate for undergraduates is actually a lenient 70 percent. But among the top tier of private liberal-arts institutions, application rates have grown by one-third or more during the last five years alone. Meanwhile, the available spaces have remained the same and the number of high school seniors, the baby boomers’ baby boom, has hit its peak.

Beneath all the statistics lies a widely heeded yet thoroughly unexamined truism — that the student who does not get into Stanford or Yale, or at least Emory or Skidmore, will lose out in the contest for the supposedly finite amount of opportunity in America.

“It’s the same group of schools that are seen as the ticket to the promised land,” said Jim Conroy, a counselor at New Trier High School in Winnetka, Ill., a suburb of Chicago. “I call them the ‘Plus schools’ — people like us. It’s not about the quality of education, it’s about the connections.”

One result is a frenzied search for angles. Parents seek to have their children classified as learning disabled so they can receive unlimited time on the SAT. Children invent clubs so they can list themselves as president of something on college applications. Scott White, a guidance counselor at Montclair High School in that New Jersey suburb, recalls the envy of one student for a classmate with cancer because “he’ll have a great college essay now.”

Beyond these dubious personal choices, entire industries have emerged to meet and further stimulate the demand for any perceived edge. The undergraduate test-prep business now has revenue of $726 million a year, up 25 percent from just four years ago, according to the market research firm Eduventures; even the College Board, the nonprofit organization that oversees the SAT and that for decades insisted that the test could not be gamed, sells its own test-prep program online. The Independent Educational Consultants Association, which represents private academic counselors, claims about 3,500 members, up from 200 only a decade ago. About 100 more consultants apply for membership each month.

The private operators charge an average of $3,300 for their services, said Mark Sklarow, the executive director of the group, and consultants routinely start working with students in ninth or 10th grade.