Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Moms quit jobs for their child's college dreams

Kajal Kumar knows the value of a good education. She's a career woman who poured years of her life into studying to become a certified public accountant with an MBA.

But after nearly two decades climbing the corporate ladder in New York, the 46-year-old stopped managing employees and began micromanaging her two daughters.

Instead of overseeing company accounts, Kumar organizes piano lessons, SAT preparation courses and Advanced Placement class homework assignments. She wants to give her daughters a shot at a top-notch college education.

"I had a very good, promising career," Kumar said. "But it wasn't as important as making sure my kids did well and just setting them up for the future."

Stay-at-home parenting is nothing new. About 5.1 million mothers stay at home full time, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. But Kumar's decision to quit her job came at an unconventional time -- when her children were grown teenagers and had entered high school. Unlike maternity leave, think of Kumar's time off as a college-prep leave, say college admissions counselors.

She represents a group of highly educated mothers who are sacrificing careers to usher their children through the increasingly competitive college admissions process.

There are no statistics counting how many mothers compromise their careers to help their teens with college admissions, but college counselors say they've witnessed more cases of mothers pausing their jobs or completely quitting their jobs. Over the past five years, Jeannie Borin, president of College Connections, says she saw a 10 percent uptick in mothers who quit or postponed their career to get their teens into college. Her counseling company offers services in 32 states.

These mothers, who can afford to quit their jobs, may stop working for months, a year or several years leading up to the admission process, say researchers and college admissions counselors. They reduce their full-time hours to part time or request a temporary leave. Because many of them have jobs that require advanced degrees and specific skills, it's usually easier for them to transition back into the work force.

"They know it's going to be an intense year and they take a leave to that effect," Borin said. "The college frenzy has affected the entire family."

Since the mid-1990s, there has been a dramatic increase in the amount of time college-educated mothers are spending with their older children, according to a March study from the University of California, San Diego. Women spent six hours a week on child care in the mid-1990s, but that number jumped to about 12 hours a week after 2005, the study said.

Economics professors Garey and Valerie Ramey, who headed the UCSD study, theorized the rising amount of time spent on child care by a parent likely is associated with difficulty in the college admission process and juggling college preparatory activities. They found that college-educated parents have more resources and are better equipped to help their children with the process.

"We were shocked to find other mothers who had graduate degrees and had given up their careers and devoted their time to their children," said Valerie Ramey.

The panic of getting her 17-year-old daughter into a highly ranked university hit Rebecca Marder hard.

Marder, 56, of Los Angeles, California, holds two master's degrees in counseling that took her nearly 5½ years to earn. But a year-and-a-half ago, during daughter's junior year in high school, she put her private counseling practice on hold to help her through the college application process. Junior year is a crunch time for high schoolers, as they compile college wish lists and tour campuses.

She became her daughter's college applications manager, scheduling campus tours and researching academic programs. She also became a videographer, recording her 17-year-old at each college visit as she weighed the pros and cons in front of each school.

Marder has three older children, ages 25, 23, and 19, but she said this is the first time she stopped working, because she saw that expectations of high school students had grown since her eldest child entered college.

Marder said it is a dilemma. "We can be seen by others and, more importantly, by ourselves, as 'irresponsible' for not taking an active role in our child's application process, or as driven and overprotective if we do get involved."

She was relieved to learn this month that her daughter had been accepted by her top choice, New York University. She immediately reopened her practice, which was crucial, she said, because she had gone into debt during her time off.

Managing a child's college application process can be similar to a corporate job, says Hilary Levey, a fellow at Harvard University who specializes in family studies. Levey conducted dozens of interviews with mothers who stopped working and stayed at home for their children. She says she talked to mothers who used their Blackberry devices to organize schedules and help their teens craft resumes.

"Raising the child sometimes becomes a career in itself," Levey said. "Instead of getting a promotion and measuring progress in professional sense, a way to measure how well you are doing is how well your child is doing."

But guiding a teen is a very different experience than raising a newborn or young child, say some mothers who have given up their advanced degrees to become full-time moms. Several moms say their decision to stay at home with their teens as allowed them to strengthen those relationships.

Cherie Rodgers, 57, of Santa Monica, California, found herself sharing special moments with her daughter when the stress of writing essays became too daunting. Together, they would take a break and enjoy an episode of a reality TV show together.

"If I had to do it all over again, I would do the same thing," said Rodgers, who put her career in family law on hold for four months last fall.

She said she considers her decision a success: Her daughter is juggling admissions offers from four selective colleges. Even so, she said, her daughter probably could have gotten through the process without her.

For Kajal Kumar in New York, her relationship with her college-bound high school senior also deepened. Kumar does miss getting dressed up for work and commuting into bustling Manhattan, but her decision has eased the stress on her family. Her husband continues to work.

"We wanted to make sure we could give her all the tools she needed to succeed," Kumar said.

Her eldest daughter is headed to Vanderbilt University this fall. But the family's college admissions process will start all over again when the youngest daughter, who is in high school, begins eyeing colleges. And Kumar will be staying at home.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

New generation of college hopefuls apply to many schools

The Washington Post

By Daniel de Vise
Thursday, April 22, 2010; B01

Scott Yu had the strongest possible credentials: a perfect SAT score, a perfect high school transcript and conservatory-quality piano skills. But his first foray into college admissions, an "early-action" application to Stanford, landed in limbo with a deferral.

His faith shaken, Yu responded the way any straight-A student would, with a flurry of work. He applied to every college in the Ivy League, along with Duke, MIT, Washington University in St. Louis, the University of Maryland and the New England Conservatory in Boston. For his efforts, the Rockville teen reaped 12 offers of admission. He now faces a not-very-painful choice among Harvard, Yale and MIT.

Yu, a senior in the Science, Mathematics and Computer Science Magnet Program at Montgomery Blair High School in Silver Spring, represents a new generation of college applicant. Spooked by single-digit admission rates at the top private schools, students sweeten the odds by applying to more of them. And, thus, the applicant pool runneth over.

Harvard, the nation's oldest college, crossed a symbolic threshold this year when it received more than 30,000 applications for about 1,600 seats in its freshman class. With 1.5 million students expected to enter four-year colleges this fall, that means that about one in 50 applied to Harvard. Brown University passed the same milestone this year, Stanford last year.

One-fifth of college applicants nationwide apply to seven or more schools, twice the rate of a decade ago, according to data from the National Association for College Admission Counseling.

Yu, 18, knew he was a strong candidate. But he didn't know how strong. The early rebuff from Stanford -- a school not in the Ivy League but just as selective -- unnerved him. He sat at his computer with two Harvard teddy bears for luck as he checked for news April 1, the deadline for most admissions departments to let students know whether they got in.

"I didn't mean to apply to this many schools," he said. "You can't really gauge your qualifications as a candidate until you get in somewhere."

Students apply to more schools partly because they can: Today's online applications are more easily replicated than the paper forms of previous decades. But that's not the only factor. The biggest surge has come at the most selective schools, where fewer than half of applicants gain admission. Students apply to twice as many schools as their parents did on the theory that they are half as likely to get in.

Admission rates fell this year to 6.9 percent at Harvard, 7.2 percent at Stanford, 7.5 percent at Yale, 8.2 percent at Princeton, 9.2 percent at Columbia and 9.3 percent at Brown. As recently as 2003, when fewer students competed for the same number of seats, all of those schools admitted more than 10 percent of applicants.

Worldwide interest

Ivy League schools are getting more applications from every part of the globe. Diana Barthauer, who lives in Switzerland, started with a slate of 50 schools and narrowed it to 20. She netted 15 offers, including Columbia, Stanford and Dartmouth, and rejections from MIT, Princeton and the University of Cambridge in England. Two colleges in China haven't replied.

"The reason I did so many applications was that the admission rates are so low," she said. "But then, I pushed them down by doing it, so it's kind of ironic."

Is there any harm in applying to colleges en masse? Counselors and deans are divided.

The fundamentals of admission advice have not changed. Most students are counseled to apply to at least three schools: one that is deemed a "match," a less selective "safety" school and a more selective "reach." Two of each would not be deemed excessive. "I say four to six. I used to say three to five. They end up applying to six to eight," said Robin Groelle, director of college counseling at St. Stephen's Episcopal School, a college-prep school in Bradenton, Fla.

Some students apply scattershot to top schools, without regard for "fit" or "match." They raise their chances of getting in somewhere. They might also be wasting their time.

"It's more work for us, and it's more work for the colleges," said Timothy Gallen, director of college counseling at the private Solebury School in New Hope, Pa. "It's playing the game, more than anything."

The process also can be expensive. Applications to selective colleges cost about $50 each, although fee waivers are available for low-income students.

The expanding applicant pool is not simply a matter of more applications per student. There has also been a growing population of college-bound seniors, although it is thought to have peaked last year and is expected to decline. And a larger share of applications is going to the most selective schools, which together receive 31 percent of applications but enroll 18 percent of freshmen. Deans say their applicant pools are larger, more diverse and better qualified than in previous generations in terms of grade-point averages and SAT scores.

"The long and short of it is, there has been a remarkable democratization of higher education in the past 50 years in the United States," said William Fitzsimmons, admissions dean at Harvard. He said his department's goal is to get a Harvard application "on the kitchen table of every student in America who has a chance of getting in."

'Come out of nowhere'

For the broader population of public and private colleges, the explosion in applications means more selectivity, but also more headaches.

The average four-year college, public and private, received 24 percent more applications in 2006 than 2002, according to an analysis of the latest available data by the admissions counseling group. The average admission rate narrowed from 71 percent in 2001 to 67 percent in 2007. The share of students who were admitted and chose to enroll also declined in that span, from 49 percent to 45 percent.

The rise of mass applications has complicated the task of predicting who will enroll. Increasing numbers of applicants "come out of nowhere" and have no connection to the college, said David Hawkins, director of public policy and research at the admissions counseling group. "And [colleges] just don't have much intelligence on what these students' intentions are."

Colleges have courted mass applicants -- and higher application numbers -- by adopting the Common Application and putting forms online. But they also pay closer attention to an applicant's "demonstrated interest," Hawkins said, weighing such factors as correspondence or a visit to campus.

Admissions departments rely more heavily on early-decision and early-action programs, which deliver decisions to applicants sooner, in trade for a hope -- or an expectation -- that they will attend.

The University of Pennsylvania locked in half its freshman class this year through early decision. The effect on regular applicants was somewhat like scouting tickets for a rock concert that had been heavily pre-sold. With 26,938 applicants for 2,420 slots, the school's overall admission rate was 14 percent. For regular-decision applicants: 10 percent.

"How many offers of admission can we go out with on April 1, knowing that we already have 49 percent of our class spoken for?" said Eric Furda, dean of admissions.

Despite the long odds, some in the industry envision an emerging buyer's market in college admissions. The ease of applying to any college, anywhere, gives motivated students a fighting chance in shopping among schools with single-digit admission rates.

"I think they know that they can be consumers in this process, whereas maybe 10 years ago, it was the college that was picking the student," said Kristin White, director of marketing and communication at Westover School, a private girls school in Connecticut. "They're comparison shoppers now."

Missan DeSouza, a senior at Westover School, applied to 19 colleges. Some, such as Wellesley and Connecticut College, fit the liberal-arts mold of Westover. Others, including John Jay College and West Virginia University, had strong programs in forensic science, an interest she acquired from her mother, a Brooklyn police officer. She added several to the list because they offered strong academics and a lower price, or promised merit aid.

Thirteen colleges offered her admission. Ursinus College included a $30,000 scholarship, and John Jay would effectively cost nothing. But she is leaning toward three others: Wellesley, Middlebury College or George Washington University.

"I'm feeling it was really smart of me to apply to so many," she said, "because now I have enough options."