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Published: Thursday, 9/28/2006

Higher ed gets some low marks

I'll grant you that, as the parent of a high school junior, college is much on my mind these days. But then again, it's on a lot of your minds too.

It's a simple demographic fact: so many of us Baby Boomers, the proverbial bulge in the snake's belly, have or are preparing to ship off our progeny to the halls of higher education.

But what makes the college conversation more compelling these days is who else is concerned with higher-ed - professionally, yes, but also personally.

Take, for instance, Education Secretary Margaret Spellings and Massachusetts Institute of Technology Admissions Dean Marilee Jones.

Both have voiced concern recently over the American college experience. Both spoke out not wholly because of their professional interests, but because of their recently acquired backgrounds as mothers of college-age children.

Ms. Spellings on Tuesday announced her plan to push through some of the policy ideas that surfaced in her higher education commission.

One of the big notions she's putting her weight behind is the idea of greater transparency among colleges - specifically, an information clearinghouse to put the so-called performance of higher-ed institutions under greater scrutiny.

The education secretary also would like to streamline the financial aid application process, and boost the amount of federal aid. She also vowed to make it easier for families who are college shopping to compare the relative value of colleges and universities. College shopping, she maintained, should be no more confusing than car buying.

Ms. Spellings is the mother of a college sophomore and, as the Associated Press wrote, "admitted she's been frustrated, as a mom, in getting those answers herself."

Meanwhile at MIT, the kind of powerhouse university that attracts such kids as the recent applicant who built a nuclear reactor in his garage, Dean Jones reported the irony of encountering increasingly accomplished kids whose creativity and verve have been drilled out of them.

"Nine years as dean, and the mother's-eye view she got of college admissions last year, have persuaded her something is wrong," the AP reported. "Now, from the surprising pulpit of a university famous for its overachievers, she has become perhaps the field's most visible and outspoken champion of revamping admissions."

The parental pressure on college-bound kids these days, the dean said, is "making our children [literally] sick." We've produced a sleep-deprived group with no spare time to daydream, "a generation of kids trained to please adults."

And yes, she said, when her daughter was in middle school, "I was every bit as bad as the parents I'm talking about."

It's striking, I think, that the government's highest-ranking education official and the gatekeeper at one of the country's top universities both say that some very basic aspects of the college experience just aren't right - and that they said so as mothers, not mere officials.

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