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Eyes on the college prize

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Arthur Levine sensed something was very, very wrong last spring when a devastated high school senior confided to him that she was a failure. She had "only" been admitted to the University of Chicago, Wesleyan, and Swarthmore.

These three schools rank among the best in the United States. But they are not HYP - shorthand in admissions circles for Harvard, Yale, Princeton - and HYP was the goal she and her parents had fixed on.

"This is so damaging for kids," says Dr. Levine, president of Columbia University's Teachers College in New York. "What kind of world is it in which a child who achieves that kind of success feels like a failure?"

Unfortunately, some say, it's a world only too familiar to many young Americans today.

More and more, teachers, school administrators, and college counselors express concern about the fear and even desperation that have come to characterize the college-admissions process over the past decade.

"We've never seen this level of tension and competitiveness in US education before," says James Fraser, dean of Northeastern University's School of Education in Boston.

Some parents fret about college before their children are even out of diapers. Worries about admission to the "right" nursery school, an exhausting round of "enrichment" activities for young children and teens, and - in extreme cases - the expense of up to $30,000 for college-admissions counseling, are common features of middle- and upper-class suburbia across the US. Snobbishness about where a child goes to college is no longer largely confined to old-money East Coast families.

The tension is derived partly from numbers. There are simply more college applicants than ever. Statistically speaking, getting into a highly ranked college today is a longer shot than at any time in the past.

The booming economy in the 1990s left many middle-class families awash in disposable income. The kind of extra coaching, teaching, and talent-nurturing that were once assumed to be reserved for children of the wealthy has become accessible to a broader segment of the population.

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