‘Gaining admission to college has been reduced to a game to be played, and education reduced to a prize that must be won,” says Lloyd Thacker, director of the Education Conservancy, a non-profit organization that is sounding the alarm about the highly pressurized, commercially driven “national blast of anxiety” that has come to dominate today’s college selection and admission process. Thacker is also editor of “College Unranked,” a collection of essays by admissions officers, college presidents, counselors and others, which has been hailed as an important effort to “yank back” the college admissions process from the commercial forces that have turned it into a multi-billion dollar industry, and to put the process back into the hands of students and their parents.

“In my conversations with high-achieving, ambitious kids across the country, my sense is that this process is not having the kind of educational impact that most educators would want,” says Thacker. “There are troubling signs — less engagement with learning and more gaming. Kids resent it. There seems to be more anger. A little bit of stress is normal, but when it gets to the point where the system is terrible and kids are not enjoying learning anymore, it needs to change.”

The college admission environment has changed profoundly over the last few years, chiefly because it has become big business, says Thacker. There is more money, more recruiting, more testing, more competition and consequently more fear and anxiety. The stakes are high because at the very core of everything is the future of our children and the perceived lifelong benefits that “the right school” and “a name brand” will bring. As Thacker states in his book’s introduction, “commercialism’s intrusion into college admissions has transformed a uniquely American educational experience into a problematic American commercial enterprise.”

How best should parents protect their child from the admission frenzy? What is your child’s best predictor of future success and happiness? Do middle and high school students need costly test prep and tutors to stay in the game? Thacker will discuss these pressing questions and more in his talk, “The Admission Frenzy, A Different Perspective,” on Thursday, April 12, at the Hun School of Princeton, presented as part of the CommonGround lecture series. The event is free and open to the public.

What troubles Thacker is the growing trend of education becoming a servant to the market rather than a service to society. “It has become all about selling,” he says. “This is the most marketed to generation ever and now the admissions process has become a stage. Whole industries have grown preying on fear and anxiety. Students and parents have a numbing dose of commercialism heaped upon them and that has resulted in an undermining of educational values.”

Indeed, a March 28 press statement from the Princeton Review touting the results of a survey of college-bound students and their parents (5,854 people in all) dubs the “nail-biting season” of March to April — when colleges send out their acceptance/rejection letters — “the other March madness.” Findings show that 65 percent of respondents reported high levels of stress about college applications, up six percent from last year.

There are certain issues, Thacker says, that are commanding growing national public interest and media attention:

The use of financial aid. While it has been and is still used to serve student need, there is a growing concern that financial aid is being used strategically to draw students who will increase the school’s rank in national surveys.

The use of outside agencies and private consulting services. Colleges are using these to conduct an image overhaul, to package and sell themselves as a brand.

The use of institutional funds by colleges for marketing and branding purposes. Today’s students are deluged with direct mail from schools with slick brochures and other marketing materials.

The growth of the college counselor/tutoring businesses. These services are offered to those who are willing to pay big bucks to secure a perceived advantage in the effort to get into “a good school.”

The growth of the test prep agency. This billion dollar industry is exploding at a time when colleges are paying more attention to test scores in students, mainly to increase their rankings.

So what should parents and college-bound students do in this fiercely competitive environment? Thacker acknowledges it’s tough, but he says that what we all need to do as a society is to arrange an environment where a love of learning is encouraged. “We need to issue an invitation to think,” he says. “Kids naturally want to learn. One of the best indicators of success in college is how often the family sits down together to eat and what goes on at the dinner table. Use it as an opportunity to talk about ideas, life, politics, opinions, things that matter, things you can engage in.”

He says parents can fight back against the insanely pressurized world of college admissions today by just saying no. “Instead of taking an SAT prep class, tell your kids ‘we’re going to spend Saturday afternoon going on a hike, going out to see a play, do something fun as a family.’ Kids today may have the highest GPAs and SATs, but they are less connected with learning. We as parents are guilty and so are lots of other people.”

He encourages parents to back off and let their children do things for themselves, instead of hovering anxiously and reducing their ability to be independent and self-sufficient. “Love your kids enough to allow them to demonstrate the independence you have instilled in them and you will be pleased at the testament to your love. The less we do, the more they will do and the more successful their entire college experience will be.”

One skill today’s kids lack, in his observation, is the ability to entertain themselves, a talent, especially in today’s world where kids tend to be overscheduled and over-programmed, with very little opportunities for free time and independent choice. “The most interesting kids I ever met did things for themselves,” he says. “What makes for quality education is the student and the attitude and behavior the kid brings to the learning enterprise.”

Thacker’s own attitude about education was shaped, literally, in his father’s lap, which he often shared with three sisters, as his father sat in his rocker and read stories that fed an appetite for learning. “Here, in this crowded nest of pajama-clad fledglings,” he writes, “imaginations sputtered, flourished, and under the influence of reading, were secured permanently as wings for living.” His book-loving father was a personnel manager and his mother taught elementary school. Thacker was born and raised in southern California’s San Fernando Valley. He majored in biology and political science at University of California at San Diego, and received a master’s in political science from the University of California at Davis.

After nearly 28 years in the college admission and college counseling professions, Thacker left his counseling job in 2004 to edit and publish “College Unranked” and to establish the Education Conservancy. He lives in Portland, Oregon, with his wife, Lori, a health care administrator at Oregon Health and Science University. They have two sons, a high school freshman and a 24-year-old who is studying business in graduate school.

Thacker says that his primary goal with the Education Conservancy is to establish more leadership in education in America. “Education needs to push back against irresponsible market intrusions,” he says. “All of it, the college enrollment management consultants, the ranking industry, agents for kids, the selling of test courses by the companies that produce the materials is part of an ingenious business plan and the kids are the victims.” He says we have to remember that a student’s skills and attitude contribute more significantly to quality education than where he goes to college. And college admissions should be part of an educational process directed toward student autonomy and intellectual maturity, rather than fear and brand-name hype.

“We deserve better,” he says. “Our students deserve better. We need to claim ownership of the process. It is tough. But there is a lot at stake.”

“The Admission Frenzy, A Different Perspective,” Thursday, April 12, 7:30 p.m. Common Ground, Hun School of Princeton, Edgerstone Road. Presented by Lloyd Thacker, the author of “College Unranked” and the director of the Education Conservancy, a non-profit organization dedicated to improving college admission processes. Free. Students and parents are welcome. 609-924-6700.

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