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Parents get competitive on college

Senior Jonah Einson and his mother, Brenda Rich, are waiting for word from colleges.

Yoon S. Byun/Globe Staff

Senior Jonah Einson and his mother, Brenda Rich, are waiting for word from colleges.

If bragging has a season, this is it. Sometimes the other parents strike before Lora Tarlin, a Sharon mother, has even started her day, when she’s lying in bed scrolling through Facebook on her iPhone. “We’re deciding between Northwestern and Georgetown,” a proud parent’s post might read. Some parents list every school that accepted their child.

“It’s so annoying,” said Tarlin, the mother of a son riding the Dartmouth wait list. “It’s like, ‘My kid just got into such-and-such a school and he’s so great.’ Blah, blah, blah.”

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With elite schools accepting record low percentages of applicants for the coming school year and so-called “safety schools” no longer the safe bets they used to be, getting into the “right” college has never been more competitive — a challenge not just for students, but for a certain type of overinvested parent.

“There are very few benchmarks by which parents can evaluate whether they’re doing a good job,” said Bruce Feiler , author of “The Secrets of Happy Families,” and for a certain segment of parents, there’s no better benchmark than college admission.

“You’ve got the Apgar score when you’re born, and the US News [& World Report] ranking when they get into college, and then you’re done,” he said.

Colleges started sending out acceptances at the end of March, and by early April everyone had heard. And by now, the daunting facts are well known: SAT scores good enough in the 1980s probably meant rejection today. More students applied to more schools than in generations past.

Statistics on boasting are hard to come by, but Karen Arnold, an associate professor of higher education at Boston College, said “it’s reasonable to assume that this behavior has escalated.”

“Parents’ bragging or sour grapes,” she added, “comes out of being over-identified with their kids’ success.” And that can have a negative effect: “Students feel pressure that their success is reflecting on their parents.”

The boasting bump in some circles comes at a time when many parents and students do not have the luxury to stress about prestige schools. With competition intense, financial aid limited, lower and middle-income families are scrambling to find a school that is affordable and a good fit—not one that wows on Facebook.

As BC’s Arnold noted, financially strapped parents — unable to fly around the country on college tours, or pay for pricey college coaches or exotic volunteer opportunities — have the “opposite problem” of the status-seekers: They have not been aiming high enough.

A recent study found that high-achieving students from poorer families are much less likely to apply to top colleges, even though they would have a very good shot at getting in and qualifying for financial aid.

Money aside, parents can feel the sting of college admission season just because their child’s college of choice is not on the East Coast status roster.

Emily Stavis gets a chilly reception when she says her son may go to Pitzer College in Southern California, his first choice. “They’re like, “Oh, I’ve never heard of it,” reports Stavis, a co-owner of Stavis Seafoods in Boston. “The conversation stops.”

But it’s the high achievers who are making the most noise. Parents are sending “happy news” e-mail blasts, holding forth at dinner parties, and, seemingly constantly, posting status updates.

“Parents are using Facebook as a bragging platform,” said Mary Hanlon, a mother of five in Westwood. When her youngest was accepted to Smith a few years ago, she said, she did not consider posting. “That’s her accomplishment,” Hanlon said, “not mine.”

In one upscale western suburb, Carole Hughes — the mother of a high school junior, and a senior associate dean at Boston College — has a mantra she repeats to herself. “I will not become that parent.”

That parent employs many tactics. The most seemingly benign: rattle off a list of schools the student plans to visit during spring break of junior year. “They always mention the ‘reach’ schools,” observed Laurie Cohen, a mother of three in Brookline, “but not the ones their kids would probably end up going to.” She mimicked the monologue: “We’re looking at Brown, we’re looking at Penn, we’re definitely going to Stanford.”

But with the poor economy and student debt ramping up the importance of a marketable education, and a kid-obsessed society that makes parents take children’s success and failure as their very own, a laid-back approach can be hard to find among competitive, goal-oriented families.

And this time of year, nowhere is safe, and even money, once taboo, is freely discussed. Julianne Bloom a nurse in Boston, was at a party on the South Shore when she asked another guest if his daughter had decided on a school yet. “From there came the laundry list of all the schools she’d gotten into,” Bloom said, “along with the [scholarship or other] funds she’s gotten.”

The highly charged emotions of the season were captured by a Pittsburgh high school student who wrote a bitter op-ed piece in The Wall Street Journal. Since it was published in late March, the piece, “To (All) the Colleges That Rejected Me: If only I had a tiger mom or started a fake charity,” has gone viral, as parents e-mail it around.

“As the youngest of four daughters, I noticed long ago that my parents gave up on parenting me,” Suzy Lee Weiss wrote. “It has been great in certain ways: Instead of ‘Be home by 11,’ it’s ‘Don’t wake us up when you come through the door.’ But my parents also left me with a dearth of hobbies that make admissions committees salivate. I’ve never sat down at a piano, never plucked a violin. . . . Why couldn’t [“Tiger Mom” author] Amy Chua have adopted me as one of her cubs?”

Perhaps no one is better positioned to see the pressure those Amy Chua parents feel than Don McMillan, the president of Howland, Spence & McMillan, a Back Bay-based college-consulting firm with an international clientele.

“A lot of our work is managing expectations for parents, and getting them to understand the idea of a ‘best fit,’ as opposed to getting into the most selective college,” McMillan said, describing a scene where teens roll their eyes at their parents’ lack of understanding of today’s college landscape.

Back in the 1980s, when many parents of now college-bound seniors went to college, Boston University and Northeastern University were primarily commuter schools, he said. Today students from around the world are vying to get in.

Along the way, the college coach business has gone from 1,400 consultants in 2005 to 4,500 in 2012, and constitutes a $400 million industry, according to the Independent Educational Consultants Association, in Fairfax, Va.

The growth is both a symptom of increased parental focus and pressure, and a trigger for more stress, as competition for admission to top schools grows.

In Amesbury, Brenda Rich, the mother of a well-rounded student who didn’t get into any schools he’s very excited about, traced a route many a parent has taken before, and will take again, as acceptance standards get ever higher:

“He’s an editor of the newspaper. He’s on the student advisory council. He plays tenor sax in the band. He tutors math. He’s got pretty strong SATs,” she said, as her son hopes to move up from the wait lists at Northeastern University and the University of Rochester. “He didn’t find the cure for cancer while he was still in elementary school, but come on.”

Beth Teitell can be reached at bteitell@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @bethteitell.
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