Parents turn up heat when colleges turn down kids

Author: Bonnie Miller Rubin, Tribune staff reporter

Retail clerks have their Dec.26. For cable TV repairmen, it’s an outage the night of the big game. And in college admissions circles, it doesn’t get much tougher than the second week of Aprilp. “This is when we hunker down and batten down the hatches,” said Dan Saracino , associate provost and director of admissions at the University of Notre Dame. “It just goes with the territory.”p. Acceptance letters from most of the nation’s top-tier schools are mailed out around April 1. The following days bring obscenities, threats, arguments and pleas from outraged parents whose children get the dreaded thin envelope.p. They call, they write, they even storm the door of the admissions office. Irate families have been known to jump in the car and drive hundreds of miles to argue their case.p. Some schools have implemented a “blackout period” during which families are prohibited from contacting key decision-makers. At Union College in Schenectady, N.Y., callers to the admissions office are politely informed they can call back in three days.

“It’s as if parents have to move through the stages of grief,” said Union admissions director Daniel M. Lundquist, who brought the practice with him from the University of Pennsylvania. “In three days, they usually move from anger to acceptance.”

At Notre Dame, Saracino has had diplomas and class rings returned from disgruntled former Domers whose children didn’t make the cut. The items are forwarded to the alumni office, where they usually are later sheepishly reclaimed.

“You can’t take it too personally,” said Saracino, a 30-year veteran of admissions—the last seven in South Bend. “I need to have a thickness of skin so I can still sleep at night, but not so thick that I don’t empathize with them.”

The enmity is most pronounced at the nation’s most competitive schools. This year at Notre Dame , 11,483 students vied for 1,975 slots. At Duke University, where some 16,700 applicants jockeyed for one of 1,600 spots in the Class of 2008, admissions director Christoph Guttentag walked into his Durham, N.C., office this week acutely aware of the target on his back.

“We create disappointment left and right, so you know it’s coming,” he said. “There’s so much emotion tied up in this process that people can respond in very intense ways.”

Over the years, parents have berated him and tried bribery (he collects clocks). Some explode like a volcano; others opt for a long, slow simmer.

One parent recently sent her child’s summa cum laude transcript from another prestigious institution—four years after being denied entry to Duke.

Another weapon in the arsenal: withdrawing donations. Guttentag has a missive from one disgruntled father who taped a single penny to the stationery—the last cent he would ever give his alma mater.

“We know that disappointed people will lash out at us—just as we know that having a conversation with them is part of our responsibility,” he said.

The frustration is erupting in part because the admissions process has become so competitive in recent years at the nation’s top schools.

Many elite schools—once a bastion of white European male privilege—now recruit from a much wider pool, meaning some applicants who would have been admitted previously are turned down.

And though a 1,400 SAT score and B-plus average would have been sufficient when Saracino graduated from Notre Dame in 1969—or even when his daughters attended in the 1990s—that wouldn’t make it today.

“We’re saying no to valedictorians,” he said.

Because so many qualified applicants are turned away, the selection can appear arbitrary, admissions directors conceded.

“You might as well pull the top 1 percent and the bottom 10 percent out of the pile and throw the rest of the applications down the stairs and see what lands faceup,” said Lundquist, who received 4,200 bids for 550 spots at Union College.

That seeming capriciousness has increased the intense lobbying efforts by parents. It is certainly what motivated one Chicago-area mother to follow up after her daughter was turned down by Brown University despite stellar credentials.

“I thought this was about merit,” said the mother, who like most parents was unwilling to discuss her actions for the record. “She was just devastated … and I just wanted to make sure that the admissions department knew that.”

Many parents begin positioning their children early for admission to a selective college, signing up for costly private schools and test-coaching services. When the investment doesn’t pan out, administrators said, the sense of betrayal can be both personal and profound.

For many parents and their high-achieving offspring, it’s the first time they’ve been told no, Guttentag said.

Almost every other aspect of life—from settling lawsuits to appealing taxes—is negotiable, he said. “This is one of the few processes that cannot be influenced or controlled. It’s just not clear to people where this activity falls in the scheme of human and commercial interaction.”

The complaints almost always come from adults, not the applicants themselves, according to the admissions directors.

Said Lundquist, “Most kids would be mortified if they ever knew that their parents are picking up the phone and reading us the riot act.”

The effort parents put forth to argue and plead is energy misspent, the directors said. Only when an error has occurred—for example, one high school sent the transcript of a different student with the same name—are decisions ever reversed, Saracino said. “In 30 years, I can count the times on two fingers.”

The toughest customers, he said, are not the furious ones, but those who are inconsolable, like the father whose daughter’s lifelong dream was to attend Notre Dame.

“I can’t go home,” the despondent man told Saracino, saying his daughter had been going to the school’s football games since she was in diapers. “I just don’t know what to say.”

“That’s when I talk to them father to father,” Saracino said. “I told him to go home, hold his daughter and tell her it was Notre Dame’s loss.”

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