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High school counseling cuts concern admission staffers

STANFORD -- Stanford University admissions representatives who travel across the country say they have been struck by the effects of budget-cutting on high school counseling staffs, particularly in California.

While many public and private school counselors rolled out the red carpet and rounded up enthusiastic, well-informed student audiences for the Stanford recruiters, other counselors barely had time to answer the phone.

"In Los Angeles, it was very difficult for me even to schedule high school visits," said Julie Taylor, one of a dozen Stanford admissions staffers who gathered recently to review the university's fall outreach effort.

"I can remember one school where I'd call every day, all day, and students kept answering the phone. There were no real administrators in the office. Everything is breaking down - every little part of the system."

Some counselors didn't even manage to fill out recommendation forms for their students. Stanford has received many counselor recommendation forms filled out by teachers or principals instead, with attached notes explaining that budget cuts have reduced or abolished their school counseling staffs.

"I have a general sense that counselors are much more overworked than they used to be," said Annie Roskin, associate director of undergraduate admissions. "The caseloads for high school counselors are now so heavy that pre-college advising has taken a back seat."

Members of Stanford's Undergraduate Admissions staff visited about 600 high schools and about a dozen community colleges in the first few months of the school year.

In addition to the usual questions about Stanford's selection process and financial aid, a frequent topic of conversation was the potential effect of budget cuts on undergraduate education at Stanford and colleges in general.

Worried by reports of trouble in the Cal State and University of California systems, many high school students asked questions about class sizes, the percentage of courses taught by teaching assistants, and whether they would be able to graduate in four years.

Dean of Undergraduate Admissions James Montoya also found prospective students and parents "more concerned than they were a few years ago about physical safety," with questions about crime and earthquakes on the minds of many non-Californians.

Montoya also said he has noticed more of a gap in recent years between "the haves and have-nots."

"There are an increasing number of schools where students are at a clear disadvantage compared to their counterparts of 10 or even five years ago," he said.

"Resources are dwindling at these schools at the same time that they seem to be increasing at a select number of private and public schools. This discrepancy makes the selection process much more complex."

One thing that has gone up for nearly everyone is the level of anxiety associated with the admissions process. Some schools are even calculating their students' grade-point averages to the fourth decimal point.

"I don't remember this being such a big deal when I was in high school," said associate admissions director Jon Reider, an instructor in Stanford's Structured Liberal Education Program, who visited schools in Boston and Philadelphia, among others. "There is an urgency, a sense that this choice is going to affect their whole lives."

Associate director of admissions Vince Cuseo, soon to be the director of admissions at Grinnell College in Iowa, attributes much of the anxiety to the state of the economy.

"There's a real threat of downward mobility now," said Cuseo, who visited high schools in the Midwest.

"Students are worried that they're going to be worse off than their parents. And it costs more to go to college now, so they want more bang for the buck. Students are viewing college with much more of a consumer orientation than they did in the past."

Despite recent reductions in the Undergraduate Admissions travel budget, the staffers agreed that it was important to continue the individual high school visits in poor urban and rural areas where students might not have easy access to transportation.

In the suburbs, evening regional meetings for students and their parents proved both cost-effective and popular, as did breakfast meetings with high school counselors that were sponsored jointly by Stanford and other universities.

So far this year, Stanford has received applications from 13,524 students (see accompanying box). Reading their files will occupy admissions office staffers from mid-January until late March. Letters of acceptance will be mailed out during the first week of April.



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