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In College-Rankings Season, a Suburban Magazine Weighs Admissions Pressures

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It's the time of year for annual college rankings. U.S. News & World Report released its Best Colleges report overnight. (Princeton is No. 1 among national universities.)

Washington Monthly, in its September-October issue (and online in August), issued its fourth annual Best Bang for the Buck ranking of colleges.The University of California-San Diego was the top national university on lists meant to highlight colleges that do a good job of graduating low- and middle-income students while charging reasonable prices.

And next week, the Upshot blog of The New York Times will unveil its second annual College Access Index, a list of colleges that are doing the best job of attracting talented, underprivileged students. (Vassar College topped the inaugural list.)

Those publications are either national in scope (U.S. News, The New York Times) or influential in the nation's capital (Washington Monthly).

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Another magazine just out tackles, in a thoughtful and locally focused way, the familiar theme of pressure on students to get into top colleges. It's Bethesda magazine, a city/regional magazine published in the Maryland suburb of Washington, D.C., of that name. (Bethesda is also home to Education Week, but that is a matter of coincidence.)

"Students in the Bethesda area describe high school as a 'pressure cooker,'" Julie Rasicot writes in the lead story, "The Pressure to Get Into College." "They say they're often at the breaking point as they juggle college-level classes, play sports, and participate in extracurricular activities—all in pursuit of college admission."

Students are feeling more stress, the magazine reports, in part because of the race to get into top colleges. Bethesda is home to several of the Washington area's top public and private high schools. Parents work at places such as the National Institutes of Health or other federal outposts in the area.

Rasicot cites a story that made local headlines in Washington in June. A student in the math and science magnet high school in a similarly driven area in nearby Fairfax County, Va., felt so much pressure to be successful that she faked acceptances from Harvard and Stanford.

There's more to the Bethesda magazine education issue. Caralee Adams reports on the research and expert opinion that "more important than the reputation of the college is what students do once they're on campus." Adams interviews families who looked beyond "brand-name" colleges in favor of institutions that made the most sense for them.

(Both Rasicot and Adams have been contributors to Education Week.)

The magazine also has an extensive chart (apparently not available online) showing student-reported data about where those from seven public schools in the Montgomery County school system applied for college and how many were accepted.

Some select results for all seven high schools: Harvard: 196 applicants and 9 acceptances; Princeton: 216 applications, 20 acceptances; University of California-San Diego: 80 applications, 33 acceptances; Vassar: 49 applications, 7 acceptances.

The top destination was, unsurprisingly, the University of Maryland-College Park, with 1,806 applications and 1,148 acceptances from those seven high schools, which are: Bethesda-Chevy Chase, Walt Whitman, and Walter Johnson in Bethesda; Richard Montgomery and Thomas S. Wootton in Rockville, Md.; Winston Churchill in Potomac, Md.; and Montgomery Blair in Silver Spring, Md.

Bethesda magazine, like many city/regional magazines, appears to cater to an upscale readership. It operates in a market with one very well-established city magazine (Washingtonian), and at least one other suburban counterpart (Northern Virginia magazine). The magazine is thick with ads for real estate and high-end kitchen appliances. That doesn't necessarily mean it's doing well, but in general, city and regional magazines seem to have survived the recession and are holding their own against the rough winds buffeting all magazines.

Many city and regional magazines around the country borrow or adapt ideas from their counterparts in other cities. Bethesda magazine's College Crunch package is one idea worth spreading around.

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