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Overheated academic rivalry

I teach at Columbia, where I have wonderful students. Every year I read that our incoming students have better grades and better SAT scores than in the past.

But in the classroom, I do not find a commensurate increase in the number of students who are intellectually curious, adventurous or imbued with fruitful doubt. Many students are chronically stressed, grade-obsessed and, for fear of jeopardizing their ambitions, reluctant to explore subjects in which they doubt their proficiency.

I agree with President Richard C. Atkinson of the University of California when he says the SAT I aptitude test has become a means by which affluent students, by hiring tutors to prepare them, add to their competitive advantage. Atkinson set off a national debate when he proposed no longer requiring the test for admissions.

But the affliction in American education goes deeper. Our best universities are waging a take-no-prisoners war against each other _ boasting to the world not only about the rising SAT scores of their students, but also about the soaring numbers of applicants who want to come to their campuses. And they are doing everything they can to keep those numbers climbing.

At work, I lament these developments. But at home, I give in to them. I do not forbid my daughter, now a high school junior, from seeking help to raise her test scores. How can I when so many of her peers are doing just that? The rules of the game have become inequitable; but it is the rare parent with means who, out of moral compunction, requires his or her child to sit out the game.

America's colleges, though they express dismay at what is happening, are feeding the frenzy. Perhaps the most insidious and least understood development is the stampede in recent years toward early applications. At public schools in wealthy communities, like Scarsdale, the vast majority of seniors reportedly now apply early to college.

At Groton, a prestigious prep school, the figure exceeds 90 percent. I also gave in to this phenomenon; I did not discourage my son, now a college junior, from applying early to the college of his choice.

Why? Filing an early application, for which many colleges require a promise to enroll if admitted, is a way to beat the odds. At highly selective colleges, the chances of getting in from the regular pool may be 1 in 10 or even lower, while chances in the early cycle may be 1 in 3 or 4. At some universities, roughly 50 percent of incoming students are now admitted early; at Columbia, the figure for last year is 46 percent.

Certainly, the quality of early applicants is high, but the surge in their numbers may also raise the percentage of students who are able to pay their own way. Early applicants tend to come from families sophisticated about the college admissions process and less likely to need financial aid.

We need to slow down the spiral of irrational competition in which both students and colleges are caught. America's top universities should stop measuring the quality of their applicants by how much they outdraw the competition.

The percentage of students admitted by early application should be capped. Most of all, a concerted effort should be made by presidents and deans to repudiate the idea that getting into college is about learning how to win in an unregulated marketplace. How can we foster critical thinking about inequities in our society if students turn cynical about the system before they arrive in college?

The frantic competition among top universities is distorting the admissions process and threatens to undermine the meritocratic ideal that these universities proclaim.

Andrew Delbanco is a professor of humanities at Columbia.

New York Times