Competition In the New Economy: College expecations push students to the academic limit

By Elianna Cohen & Zach Wexman

Nicole Bruno is a Tam student applying to college just like most of her classmates. However, an important factor will greatly influence where she decides to attend college: financial aid.

“College is extremely expensive, especially with a single- parent income,” said Bruno. “A big factor in my decision is making sure there are scholarships I can apply for in addition to financial aid.”

Bruno is not alone. In a survey of 97 Tam seniors applying to college, over 50 percent reported that they are applying for financial aid.

Tam’s prospective college students are feeling increasing pressure from this recession.

The U.S. Department of Labor said that the national unemployment rate increased from 3.5 percent last year to 9.3 percent this year. According to MSNBC, tuition and fees at private colleges rose 5.9 percent overall, and in California, the UC system increased their tuition fees by 32 percent in 2009.

“Financial aid is simply a bigger factor now than it used to be,” said Tam career advisor Susan Gertman. “People used to be embarrassed and apologize to colleges when they didn’t have enough money to pay tuition, but not anymore. More students are talking about public universities.”

Gertman also said the Western Undergraduate Exchange (WUE), a financial aid program that helps parents send their kids to college, influences where students apply.

Gemma Yob, also a senior at Tam said, “I understand that living in Marin [appears to] set a precedent of not being qualified for financial aid. Marin is a wealthy county, but that doesn’t mean that I shouldn’t be considered for it.”

The increase in college tuition has resulted in more students attending community colleges. A September Mercury News article by Rob Roberson said, “For the third consecutive year, College of Marin watched the enrollment rise, with a 4.4 percent increase in students.”

Student over-enrollment has forced colleges to limit their acceptance rates. The decreasing college acceptance rates, such as Harvard’s drop from 16 percent acceptance in 1992 to 9.3 percent in 2009, have forced high school students to compete amongst each other to get the highest grade point average (GPA). Tam students have responded to the increased level of competition.

Tam is much more competitive now than when it opened as the Tamalpais Polytechnic High School in 1908. The school was known for its technical training as well as the opportunities it gave students from Sausalito and Mill Valley to earn a high school diploma without having to commute to San Rafael High. Some of the courses offered included dressmaking and advertising.

“I wish we still had these courses because there are things to know after high school that’s not covered in the college-prep curriculum we have today,” said senior Ali Ballantyne.

But currently, Assistant Principal Kim Stiffler said, “courses need to meet the times.” Community demand has led to an increase in competitive academic courses, which replaced many of the vocational courses offered in the past.

At the present, many students aim to have a GPA above 4.0. A GPA above a 4.0, which was not possible before 1990 at Tam, is obtained by taking AP and honors classes that boost students’ GPA an extra grade point.

“[Tam, like many schools, added AP courses] because colleges were looking for ways to distinguish the exceptional academic students, and students wanted to set themselves apart,” said English teacher Austin Bah.

Out of Tam’s 1,200 student population, 178 students are taking two or more AP classes and 60 students take three or more.

Another motivation for taking many AP and honors classes is the competition for financial aid. Financial aid organizations, such as the Jewish Community & Family Services agency, gives educational grants to students who

excel in their studies.

However, the Tamalpais High School District discourages students from enrolling in too many AP and honors classes. They recommend that each student does not take more than two Honors or AP classes.

“AP explosions happened in the 90s, with the change in national culture,” Mr. Bah said again. “Schools used to set quotas that would only let the top ten percent into an AP class, but this changed with the College Board. But who’s to say that if a kid wants to take a class, they can’t try?”

Retired honors science teacher Jerry Childers said in an interview last year, “It would be interesting to see how many people enrolled in AP and honors classes if Tamalpais High School took away the bribe of a weighted GPA. My guess is the enrollment of students in honors classes would be cut in half.”

One of Tam’s alumni reflected on how society’s expectations have changed. “Back then [in the 1950s] the choices were get married or get drafted, and this was all that was expected,” said Jeff Vendsel, class of 1952. He also mentioned how a high school diploma then was equal to a college diploma now.

In regards to the present year, Counseling Department Chair Evelyn Dorsett said, “We’re in about the same place we were last year in terms of applicants to private colleges.” Despite being in a similar place to last year’s class, she also mentioned that fewer students have been applying for early decision.

Not as many students are applying early this year because their parents aren’t sure if they have the money for four years of college, according to Dorsett. When students apply for early decision, they sign a binding legal contract that states if they are accepted they will attend that college pending their graduation from high school and withdraw all applications to other schools.

Dorsett, added, “A lot of students are applying to out-of-state public colleges, which will offer them a generous financial aid package.” She also mentioned the WUE program is going to be a good option for some people. Though a lot of students are applying to public out of state colleges, like Oregon, Washington, and Arizona, these institutions do not offer the WUE program. As a result, institutions that do not participate in this program limit students’ choices as far as where they can afford to go to school.

Not only are private colleges increasing tuition fees, but public colleges as well. The college tuition increase has occurred locally at College of Marin and across the nation. Despite the obstacles Tam seniors face heading towards college, their attitude is still optimistic.

Senior Brett Russell said, “College is going to be fun and you’re going to learn a lot, and it’s going to cost a lot of money to get there. But you’re going to make more in the long run, so you have to suffer through it.”

Senior Maddy Ball added, “Stressing for a month in high school is worth it for the rest of your life.”

Written by Elianna Cohen and Zach Wexman. This article was originally published in the November 2010 issue.