College sticker shock calls for that old teen-age ploy


One afternoon last spring, with age turning my brain to pudding, I pick up the youngest in my family at school and proceed to fall for the oldest dodge in every school-kid's book of defense mechanisms.

"The physics test," I say warily, for Sara, 17, has been worrying over it in increasingly frenzied installments, beginning with the moment two weeks earlier when the test was announced and initial anxiety set in, and one week later, when she realized the test was getting closer and her panic reached a fever pitch, and 10 o'clock the night before the test, when she actually cracked a book.

"Huh?" she says innocently as we drive home.

"Weren't you supposed to get it back today?"

She nods her head.

"What did you get?" I ask.

"Nikki got a 52," she says, the mention of her classmate's alleged test grade bursting out of her like a gangster copping a plea.

"Ouch," I say. "That must have been some tough test. So, what did you get?"

"Lindsey got a 49," Sara says in another rapid-fire outburst.

"Wow," I say, "I can't imagine why teachers give such hard tests. What did you get?"

"67," says Sara, practically in a whisper.

"All riiight!" I shout triumphantly, thinking of rolling down the car window to shout the news to everyone in the immediate world.

Clearly, I have fallen for the kind of ploy most of us used to pull on our own parents. You toss out a few friends' low grades (real or imagined) to give proper perspective and hope the old folks have been out of school too long to remember they pulled the same stunts with their own parents.

But here's the kicker. This was last spring, when Sara was a high school junior and beginning to think seriously about college. And what should arrive in the mail the next day -- an application brochure from Drexel Institute of Technology.

"News travels fast," my wife mused, tongue firmly in cheek. "They must have heard about that glorious 67 Sara got in her physics test."

Or, not. For the day after that, and almost every single day thereafter over the past eight months, comes mail from colleges all over America: Florida one day and Pittsburgh the next, followed by the likes of Stetson University (a college named for a hat?), Nova Southeastern (a college named after a lox?), and many others no one in my family ever even knew existed.

I find all of this stunning, which turns out to be merely another sign that I've been out of the loop a very long time. When I was leaving school, no college applications arrived unsolicited at my house. You had your eye on a college, you approached the college. The mountain didn't go to Mohammed.

Now, it turns out, there's a frenzy among colleges to seduce kids, and the schools spend an absolute fortune (which, no doubt, they pass back to families in the form of higher application fees, higher tuition, higher room and board) buying mailing lists and sending the loveliest brochures detailing not only the various curricula they offer but fraternity and sorority life, the glories of their athletic teams, the distance to the nearest off-campus taverns and photos slick enough to make the old Bay College campus look like the palace at Versailles.

Some of this is pretty ironic. All this sending of brochures indicates a huge hunger for enrollees on the part of the colleges at the same time they've created this frenzy of desperation among high school kids terrified that they won't get into the college of their choice, or any college at all.

This, at a time when college costs keep rising beyond all previous imagining. This, at a time when the country's increasingly divided into haves and have-nots, and the have-nots either give up on the college dream or mortgage their future with one high-interest student loan after another.

Between 1980 and 1995, four-year college tuition across the country rose 256 percent. That's three times the rate of inflation during the same period. Harvard now charges nearly $30,000 a year for tuition plus room and board. Bad enough, but at least it's Harvard. Johns Hopkins wants about $27,000. Breathtaking, but at least it's Hopkins. But, even a place like Penn State wants nearly $25,000 a year.

What makes it worse is the modern dilemma: Without that degree, go find a decent job.

The colleges love this. They love the anxiety of all these high school seniors awaiting word in the coming days and weeks on which high-cost institutions have accepted them, and which ones are turning them down.

And so, on the day that Sara brings us the news about where she'd like to go -- let's call it Reasonable University -- I know the conversation will go something like this with her mother and me:

Us: "How much does it cost to go to Reasonable?"

Sara: "Harvard wants $30,000 a year."

Us: "Ouch. The nerve of these colleges, charging so much money. How much does Reasonable want?"

Sara: "Hopkins wants $27,000 a year."

Us: "Ouch. Who can afford so much money these days? How much does Reasonable want?"

Sara: "Only $23,000 a year."

Us: "All riiight!"

Pub Date: 2/02/97

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