Friday, December 27, 1996

Freshmen meet reality


In their first semester at the University of Pennsylvania, the members of the Class of 2000 have taken a course that none of them signed up for. It won't earn them a single credit or show up on their transcripts. It doesn't even have a name.

But if it did, the course might be titled "Reality 101."

Kristen Thomas took it. An honors student back at her Cleveland high school, she learned that life isn't one big A-plus after another. "Calculus," she sighed, clearly pained, "is kicking me in the butt."

Andrew Lurie took Reality 101, too. What he learned is that the world, even the intellectually charged world of the Ivies, isn't the genial melting pot of ideas and colors he'd expected. "There are these big blocs of people who don't intermix," said Lurie, of suburban Chicago. "It's like you've got the corn on one side of the plate and the potatoes on the other side. It's not soupy."

Jo-Ann Chen, of Chattanooga, Tenn., got a lesson in irony: While she can reach around the world with a few taps on her computer, she can't walk the one block to the library after dark by herself. "It's embarrassing that I don't have that freedom," Chen said.

As for Shirley Zilberstein, of Newton, Mass., she discovered that the top is an awfully small place.
In high school, she said, "we all headed every club. Here we're just tiny little specks among thousands. It's very, very humbling."

For Penn's 2,358 freshmen - winnowed from the largest applicant pool in the school's history - the last four months have been a kaleidoscope of rude awakenings, tempered expectations, quickly cobbled friendships and more work than play, more play than sleep. They've suffered the same discomforts as freshmen everywhere: homesickness, roommates who blare bad music, teaching assistants who barely speak English.

They've also grappled with a problem that doesn't reach freshmen at many other schools around the country: city crime.

Sunday, March 3, 1996

Why college costs so much

From the series Creating the Class of 2000

The economics of college is different from the ordinary economy.  The coin of universities is prestige.  Students and parents want to be graduated with the most prestigious degree they can get, believing that's the key to unlocking the doors to success. How do you gauge prestige? By how selective the school is -- and how expensive. Thus there's very little incentive to keep tuition prices low, but very powerful incentives for keeping them high. And plenty of customers out there, ready to pay the prices.

I tried to bring the phenomenon to life in this look at college admissions at one of the country's top-ranked schools.

(please click on images to enlarge)