'SAFETY' FIRST

They were a team: Kyle Sullivan-Jones, the teenager, with his father, Bruce Jones. Equipped with a $3,000 budget for bicoastal travel and application fees, along with a mutual determination not to lose touch with reality, together they would endure the college-admissions process. The elder Jones was an experienced high-school counselor in Barnstable, Mass. He'd been telling his son for years what he thought of the ordeal--the overheated expectations, the fetish for rankings. The two resolved to do it the right way, and in the end they achieved a perfect admissions season: eight applications, eight acceptance letters.

Some valedictorian football stars may manage that feat, but they have little in common with Kyle. He had a respectable 3.6 GPA and 1320 combined score on his SAT, along with a love for guitars and political success in organizing his school's first Mix It Up day, when everyone agreed to sit with strangers at lunch. But what he really had going for him was a keen sense, augmented by his father's expertise, of which colleges would accept him. His final selection included two sure things, Johnson State in northern Vermont and the University of Maine at Farmington. He had five less sure things: St. Mary's College of Maryland, Guilford, Lake Forest, Earlham and College of the Atlantic. And he had one "reach" school, Whitman, which not only admitted students who had significantly better numbers than Kyle, but looked for AP classes he hadn't taken. What he had done, in effect, was fashion a list of mostly safety schools. Most students choose one or two safeties on a longer list. Kyle had taken the opposite tack.

Being accepted by every school did not end Kyle's labors. Money was going to count heavily. "For an old liberal [and] need-blind egalitarian," says his father, "the packages were comforting and uncomfortable." The family was happy the five private schools offered grants ranging from 21 percent to 40 percent of expenses, although its share of the cost at Whitman--Kyle's final choice--was still $27,000 a year. "I'm two years from retirement," Bruce says. "Or maybe I'm not." And after being worried by stories of merit aid that went to more-affluent applicants, the Joneses admitted feeling sheepish they got help despite having a gross family income of $130,000. Maybe they should take a little more credit for navigating a system that has left so many other families so frustrated.

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