THE INCENTIVES ARE THERE. Washington Post education columnist Jay Mathews (via Betsy's Page) finds an instructive economics paper.

Two economists who work 2,274 miles away have identified the essence of parenthood in the Washington area since 1995. It turns out we have been spending all that time with our older children — chauffeuring, applauding, coordinating, correcting, planning, obsessing — because we have a deep need to beat the other stressed-out parents in getting our kids into good colleges.

The researchers are Garey and Valerie A. Ramey, a married couple at the University of California-San Diego. They have done the hyper-active parent thing themselves and have a son at Stanford University to show for it. They also admit that most of this exhaustive parenting is done not by men but by women, including, by her own account, Ms. Ramey herself. To sum up, college-graduate soccer moms are trying to outdo all the other soccer moms to get their children into a good school so their daughters can repeat the cycle with their own children.

The Rameys met at the University of Arizona, where both graduated summa cum laude. They are brainy academics who like playful labels, so their study is titled “The Rug Rat Race.” They cite national time-use surveys to show that between 1995 and 2000 the hours spent by college-educated women caring for or handling travel and activities for their older children increased from 6.6 to 10 a week. This was driven, they say, by the “increasingly severe cohort crowding at quality schools” like the University of Pennsylvania, Rice University or UCSD. “Increased scarcity of college slots appears to have heightened rivalry among parents, taking the form of more hours spent on college preparatory activities,” they conclude.

Note carefully: the Rameys met at Arizona, an institution that transcended its traditional party school image when the tight academic job markets of the late 1970s onward enabled them to hire up. And note the presence of UCSD in the list. Once upon a time there was California (as in Berkelium and Californium and Lawrencium.) Then came UCLA (motto: On! Wisconsin!). San Diego's campus was always well-placed to take advantage of a competition for faculty and students, once it got the resources, and its economics department famously raided Wisconsin during the early 1980s recession and rescissions.

Cohort crowding, however, is within the control of administrators at universities not currently the objects of those positional desires. There's no reason not to raise your academic profile, either slowly, or dramatically. To do otherwise subjects cash-poor but academically-striving students to something less than a higher education. (An amusing sidenote: Penn State's academic departments received additional resources once a dean discovered that the academic profile of a northeastern land-grant was, shall we say, somewhat lower than the academic profile of a midwestern land-grant. The reason? Penn State joined the Big Ten for sports.)

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