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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

This week, on a number of NPR programs, we're hearing about alternatives to the college admissions game. Getting into the country's most highly-selective colleges has become a frenzied process. There are more students competing for spots, funding has been cut back, and there's the multibillion-dollar industry of consultants, test prep scores, marketing and rankings by organizations such as the Princeton Review and U.S. News, and World Report.

Well, here's NPR's Margot Adler with a story about a number of university presidents and deans who have come together to try to regain some control over the admissions process.

MARGOT ADLER: Marilee Jones, the dean of admissions at MIT, stands before an audience of parents.

Dr. MARILEE JONES (Dean of Admissions, MIT): I wanted to start another revolution tonight, because I want us to be able to give our childhood back to our children. And we're going to start, in fact, tonight…

(Soundbite of applause)

ADLER: She's speaking in Concord, Massachusetts, the home of the American Revolution. But when you talk to her at length, she conceives that creating real change - let alone a revolution in college admissions - will be difficult. You might wonder why Jones - the dean of admissions at one of the most selective schools in the country - would want things to change. But she says going through the process with her daughter gave her religion.

Dr. JONES: Just watching what happened to her and watching my own behavior -which was crazy - and watching that effect that it had on her.

ADLER: Jones has spoken to 300 high schools and parents groups across the country. Her message is not so different from that of Lloyd Thacker, a former college admissions officer, who runs a foundation called the Education Conservancy.

A few years ago, he began questioning the rankings by U.S. News and World Report. The magazine rates colleges on factors like SAT scores and percentage of applicants rejected. He came to believe that the rankings had taken control of the admissions process away from the institutions themselves, fueling competition, and turning universities into market-driven businesses.

Mr. LLOYD THACKER (Executive Director, Education Conservancy): We have more applications than ever before, more testing than ever before, more stratification than ever before, more financial aid being transferred from need-based aid to merit-based aid, more gaming, dishonesty and frenzy. Overall, there's a growing disconnect between admission practices and educational values.

ADLER: Thacker believes that this frenzy is permeating the culture, and leading to questionable behavior in high schools, and even in the middle schools.

Mr. THACKER: I have got to play the game in order to get in. I've got to take the toughest classes - SATs matter most. I've got to get a private consultant. I've got to do test prep. I've got to choose my activities strategically, directing it to colleges that I want to get in to. I've got to apply early to get in. I have to get in to the one, best college.

ADLER: Some argue this generation of students has been marketed to from such an early age, they are very influenced by image. They care about what's popular and hot. Not everybody is so negative about college admissions. Lee Bollinger, the president of Columbia University, says he is no fan of the rankings, and there is a problem with young people being influenced by image.

Dr. LEE BOLLINGER (President, Columbia University): But I just don't think it's of the magnitude that many people say it is. I think there is fundamental integrity to the admissions process across the country for colleges and universities, and I really believe that.

ADLER: It maybe understandable that rankings have taken on such importance. Leon Botstein - the president of Bard College - says, look, if you're a parent, you may well be asking your self…

Dr. LEON BOTSTEIN (President, Bard College): What is going to help my child make it in a world that is hostile, competitive and difficult? Well, if you believe, naively, that the rankings can be translated into graduate school admission, jobs, income, then one says go to the best place. Well, people love easy answers. What's the best place? Number one.

ADLER: Now, there's an attempt to bring presidents and deans together to discuss the admissions process. Lloyd Thacker is the editor of a book, "College Unranked: Ending the College Admissions Frenzy". It's a collection of essays written by more than a dozen university presidents and deans, and he has held several meetings he describes as productive but challenging.

Colin Diver has gone to those meetings. He's the president of Reed College. For many years, Reed has refused to participate in the various ranking systems. Diver says, on the surface, everybody condemns the rankings.

Dr. COLIN DIVER (President, Reed College): They will all say that this is a tyranny that they wish they could be relieved of. But then, when you say to them, fine. Join us. Drop out. They'll say we just can't imagine doing it.

ADLER: At one of the recent meetings in New York, Diver said he took a piece of paper and wrote on the top…

Dr. DIVER: I hereby pledge that my college will pull out of the rankings next year. And I signed my name to it, and I sent it around the room. And not a single person in the room signed it.

ADLER: It's a great story, but it might be too simple. First of all, so much information is now in the public domain that Reed is ranked, even if it refuses to send in any information. Here's MIT's Marilee Jones.

Dr. JONES: They'll put that information in any way. And then, as a school, you'll lose control of how that information is presented. And, when many of us decide, no, we want to be in charge of our own information, how we interpret it ourselves and not let this ranking agency, which already has so much power over us, make that call.

ADLER: Although Lloyd Thacker says that there have been really good discussions about the admissions process, finding a consensus has been difficult. For example, it helps your ranking if you retain students, if a high percentage graduate. Leon Botstein of Bard College thinks that's ridiculous.

Dr. BOTSTEIN: If you have high economic standards, and you flunk students out, maybe you're doing the job.

ADLER: But Robert Massa, vice president for enrollment and college relations at Dickinson College, says it's one of the good aspects of the rankings.

Dr. ROBERT MASSA (Vice President for Enrollment and College Relations, Dickinson College): It is important for us to graduate students who we admit. Just because that might make us look better in the rankings doesn't mean that it's evil. In fact, we should be doing that.

ADLER: Or let's take the thing that most university deans and presidents hate most about the U.S. News rankings: the institutional reputation part, which counts for 25 percent. Presidents and deans are asked to rate other institutions. Lee Bollinger of Columbia and Robert Massa of Dickinson just don't fill them out. Leon Botstein of Bard says, if you're lucky, college presidents know about their own institutions.

Dr. BOTSTEIN: But they don't know anything about neighboring institutions. They're not experts. They're not neurosurgeons telling you, you know, what good neurosurgery is. And the more intelligent ones don't even fill it out. People like myself, I fill it out simply to take revenge on my enemies and help my friends.

ADLER: He's being sardonic, but not everyone hates those reputational surveys. Reed College - which opted out of the ranking system years ago - did so partly because U.S. News decided to rely less on reputation, which tended to favor Reed, and more on things like retention of students and alumni giving. One other thing have hindered collaboration among colleges on these issues.

In the early 1990s, the Justice Department took a whole group of colleges and universities to court, accusing them of antitrust violations - essentially price fixing - because they were conferring with each other about the amount of financial aid they were offering individual students. Robert Massa of Dickinson College.

Dr. MASSA: As a result of that investigation, colleges and universities now cannot legally talk to one another about their financial aid and pricing policies. And what that does is it fuels competition for students based on price.

Dr. JONES: At the time…

ADLER: MIT's Marilee Jones.

Dr. JONES: …my boss - Chuck Best, who was president at MIT - he said, look, if this continues, if we're not allowed to talk to each other, you're going to see price wars that you can't even imagine. And he was right on, because that's exactly what happens now.

ADLER: Many say a cutthroat atmosphere has replaced a formerly collegial one. They argue that as colleges needed to appear more and more selective because of the rankings, they began to buy students by discounting their price - more and more of they aid money going to high-achieving students who don't need aid instead of those who really do.

No one believes that rankings or marketing are going away, and so many are focusing on small changes: humanizing the admissions process, decreasing merit aid, changing the essay questions, making the SAT optional, dropping early admissions. But what really needs to happen, says MIT's Marilee Jones, is a determination among presidents and deans to emphasize educational values, not simply business in admissions. She believes that change is coming, but it won't come easily or quickly.

Margot Adler, NPR News, New York.

SIEGEL: Tomorrow on MORNING EDITION, why Tufts University is offering applicants a chance to write quirky, unconventional admissions essays. And for more on top liberal arts colleges that are making the SAT optional, go to our Web site at npr.org.

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