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Counselors Seeking a Cure for 'Applicationitis'

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Milwaukee--Sharing stories of high-school seniors who apply to two dozen colleges or more, admissions counselors said here that greater efforts are needed to help college-bound students understand the admissions process.

The disease of "applicationitis"--in which fewer prospective students are sending in a skyrocketing number of college applications--was one of the hot topics at this month's 44th national conference of the National Association of College Admission Counselors, a group that includes both college and university admissions officers and high-school guidance counselors.

Among the other major concerns of the 2,300 conference-goers were standardized testing, rankings of colleges in the popular press, and the recruitment of minority students.

The applications phenomenon, the counselors said, is occurring against a backdrop of increased selectivity by the nation's most prestigious colleges and universities. It first became evident in the spring of 1987, when the number of students applying to some institutions swelled despite a decline in the size of the 18-year-old population. (See Education Week, May 13, 1987.)

In an effort to assure themselves of a spot at a top-drawer school, some students are simply making multiple applications, counselors here explained, resulting in a larger applicant pool for the colleges--and, in some cases, needless trouble and expense for students.

"One of my students sent out 20 applications last year," said Bonnie Fitzpatrick, a guidance counselor at Bethesda/Chevy Chase High School in Bethesda, Md. Based on her test scores and grade-point average, the student was "overreaching" in her college choices, Ms. Fitzpatick said. She was accepted by only four of the 20 institutions.

But the hope, however faint, that at least one selective school will admit them has been enough to snare many students, according to those here.

"The strategy is obvious--play it like a lottery," said James Gramentine, a counselor at the University School in Milwaukee, of the admissions process.

Several other counselors blamed colleges and universities themselves for helping fuel the increase in applications. They cited an increasing emphasis on marketing by colleges in recent years.

"They must share part of the blame," Mr. Gramentine said. "But high-school counselors must take a responsibility in this disease. I don't think we are doing a good job of keeping applications down."

Bruce Hunter, a counselor at the Wayland Academy in Wisconsin, said he asks students to do better re8search on the colleges that fit their goals. "I ask the students why they have appplied to each institution," he said.

Ms. Fitzpatrick suggested that the time may be ripe for a central application system, which would replace individual college applications, or for limit-setting by high schools on the number of applications their students send--a practice some private schools have already begun.

"I plan to talk to parents and ask them to limit their children to eight to 10 applications," said the Maryland guidance counselor.

Others said they considered "applicationitis" more of an East Coast phenomenon, with parents and students in other parts of the country less "angst ridden" about college admissions than many recent news reports have suggested.

"My prediction is that this is going to go away and we are going to return to a saner time," said Natalie Aharonian of Wellesley College in Massachusetts.

The counselors' meeting coincided with the publication by U.S. News & World Report of its annual list of "America's Best Colleges." And that popular issue of the magazine--along with college rankings in general--became one of the meeting's most widely discussed topics.

"Americans love lists," said Michael L. Donahue, an admissions counselor at Kalamazoo College in Michigan. "They like to see where things fall out."

But the consensus among the counselors was that rankings of the top colleges do a disservice to students going through the admissions process.

"Everybody is looking for the prestige factor," said Gary L. Williams, a counselor at Providence Country Day School in Rhode Island. "When this information shows up, families buy it hook, line, and sinker. It cheapens the decisionmaking process."

Fred Hargadon of Princeton University suggested that if rankings were so valuable, they should be published more frequently.

"Why don't we run weekly rankings of colleges?" he asked. "We could have an admissions directors' poll, just like the ap and upi basketball polls."

But while many here decried such lists as misleading and superficial, others noted that few institutions fail to publicize a favorable ranking.

"There is an element of competition that has surfaced," said Althea Benton, associate admissions director at Carleton College in Minnesota, which was rated 12th on the U.S. News list of the "best" national liberal-arts colleges. "We can put our own spin on this information."

In a consumer-oriented society, others noted, parents and students create a market for information about college opportunities.

"Such lists are going to be published," said Lucia Solorzano, education editor of U.S. News, who appeared at one conference seminar to defend her magazine's rankings. "It's incumbent on us to tell the public how to use this list."

In a year that has seen a number of top colleges drop scores on the Scholastic Aptitude Test from their list of considerations in admissions decisions, the association voted4overwhelmingly to add a section on standardized testing to its statement of ethical standards.

The section, which was not available in final form at the conference, addresses such issues as fairness in testing.

"With this, the members commit themselves to eliminating bias in testing, and it says they should consider tests as only one measure in the admission process," said Richard A. Stewart of Allegheny College in Pennsylvania, chairman of the group's admissions-practices committee. "We want institutions to do research on the most appropriate use of testing."

A long-standing argument used by some against standardized college-admissions tests has been their alleged bias against minorities and low-income students.

With colleges seeking to attract more blacks, Hispanics, and other minority-group members to their campuses, much of the conference was devoted to programs focusing on such minority concerns.

Counselors debated such topics as whether special recruitment brochures aimed at minorities were still desirable or effective, and whether admissions offices should have special minority recruiters or engage the whole office in the task of boosting minority enrollment.

One theme that emerged was the need for counselors to start discussing college with minority students as early as junior high school.

"We've got to look at ways to make the idea of a college education relevant to them before they reach their senior year of high school," said Bonnie Camenisch of Loyola Academy in suburban Chicago. "Guidance programs must give students a sense of self-esteem about college."

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