The American Interest
Policy, Politics & Culture
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Stress Test: Why the College Admissions Process Is So Nerve-Wracking

The process of getting into college grows more expensive, arcane, mysterious and nettlesome by the year for families and students alike. It doesn’t have to be this way.

Published on December 12, 2012

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In 2012, seventy top-tier American universities received 1,488,175 applications for admission. By April 1, only 429,077 of those applications had been accepted. That average rate of almost 29 percent left a lot of applications to be carted off to the recycling center or the digital trash bin. Almost every one of these elite schools was harder to get into than ever before. The toughest was Harvard, where only 5.9 percent of the applications got through. (Compare that to the national acceptance rate of about 65 percent.) 

I know this not only from the perspective of someone who went to college and sent children off to college, but as someone who served as president of a major American university and a distinguished liberal arts college. So, students and parents, let me tell you some things you already know, some things you might suspect, and some things that may surprise you. To university and college management and admissions professionals, let me offer a few suggestions I hope will improve a bad situation.

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hese seventy schools are hardly representative of America’s thousands of post-secondary educational institutions, large and small, public and private. But they are where admission and rejection count most. They issue the most sought-after “fat letters” or congratulatory e-mails to joyful applicants, alongside many more crushing “we regret to inform you” letters and e-mails.

The drama is extraordinary, and so is the amount of money in play. Each application costs between $50 and $90, and thus those 1,488,175 applications brought in between $75 million and $112 million. That ticket price could be considered fair, because soliciting and evaluating applications is necessarily labor intensive. On average, a college or university spends about $585 to recruit each applicant, $806 to recruit each admitted student and $2,408 to recruit each enrolled student.1

Money is not the only factor that makes the admissions drama so daunting. Think of the elaborate, time-consuming and anxiety-laden process as a cultural ritual resembling a mating dance. It brings together suitors (students) proposing to many and damsels (schools) coyly refusing many. Indeed, the most selective schools expend most of their energy rejecting people. Harvard said “yes” to only 2,032 and “no” to 34,302; Stanford, second most choosy, said “yes” to 2,427 and “no” to 33,415. 

College-bound students can be fickle, too; most apply to many schools to increase the odds of winning the favor of at least one of them. Those students have in recent years become more insistent but also more promiscuous; the schools have sought to be more alluring while spurning ever more suitors. The number of those applying to more than seven schools has risen from 8 percent in 1991, to 13 percent in 2000, to 25 percent in 2010—and some particularly insistent wooers now send in their billets-doux to more than twenty schools.2 The result is acute congestion in admission offices across the country. Northwestern considered about 32,000 applications in 2012 (it was “only” 18,000 in 2006), and the University of Chicago’s applications rose from 9,500 to more than 25,000 during that period. There are not more high school graduates (a steady state of some 3.3 million per year across the nation), but ever more of them are applying to the most prestigious places, almost all of which are private rather than public. These private schools are not as a rule increasing the size of their student bodies, so the acceptance rate falls as the volume of applications rises. What accounts for this stunning increase in the number of applications to the “best” schools? Five reasons come to mind. 

Firstly, Americans tend to be overawed by prestige and celebrity; nothing counts more than being associated with “the best.” Second, the belief remains strong that a college degree in an American economy increasingly based on knowledge and the brainpower to apply it is the exclusive ticket to a job and a prosperous future. Third, more international students, particularly from China, Korea and India, now seek entry into what they believe are the best universities in the world. Fourth, the “Common Application”, which can be sent to many schools all at once, renders multiple applications close to effortless. Fifth, social psychology plays a part. Few middle- and upper-middle-class teenagers have the maturity or discernment to consider a life path that bypasses college or university. Enrolling might prove an expensive error, but given the paucity of entry-level jobs, millions of young people can’t conceive of any alternative.

Yet another reason is harder to quantify: the belief that admission to a place like Harvard, Yale, Princeton or Stanford is a prime marker of success not only for the student but for the entire family. To achieve such lofty status in this postmodern, neo-tribal world, the family must do all it can to elevate that child. Indeed, the affluent, urban parents hysterically seeking to place their children in the most prestigious kindergarten—the better to position them for Harvard—are now a well-worn punchline. Affluent parents often hire expensive advisers to enhance the application, coach for interviews and raise SAT scores. They visit the schools (often a dozen of them) to make comparisons. They also study the other parents accompanying them on campus tours, probing for social (again, read: tribal) similarities and differences. 

The families’ effort is mirrored by the schools’. Despite pent-up demand, the schools want even more starry-eyed applicants, and invest considerable sums to swell their numbers. Even Harvard is eager for more. Like its peers, Harvard spends a lot of money to send glossy brochures extolling its virtues, because it’s better to reject many and admit few than to allow the competition to seduce even more applicants.

During this recession schools solicit more applications as a form of insurance; they must account for newly cash-strapped parents’ shrewd calculations. Meanwhile, publications like the influential U.S. News and World Report accord greater value to schools with high selectivity rates. Administrators also know what never occurs to most parents: The better the school does with such rates, the better it will do with the bond markets, and thus the better it can manage the fiscal resources of the school. The aim is to drive the admission rate down as low as possible while enrolling as many as possible of those admitted. In 2012 Harvard hit a record, as I say, admitting fewer than 6 percent of applicants, 81 percent of whom accepted. “Enrollment management” at Harvard and its counterparts is about seeking strategic advantage, estimating who and how many will apply, who will say “yes” but not show up in September, and who, if admitted, will come no matter what.

The relatively weaker (“back up”) schools amid the elite ranks employ strategies the stronger schools don’t need. Such schools use merit scholarships and grants to entice a student to enroll, and thus to keep other schools from acquiring them. Another strategy is the wait list, which allows an admissions office to defer offers until it knows which students on its short list will show up come fall. The wait list also allows it to calibrate the gender balance of the freshman class, which can be difficult given the declining numbers of eligible males. It can admit “legacy” candidates who looked unworthy in the first round, and accommodate sports coaches who want otherwise unqualified athletes to gain entry. But the wait list today is often just a more polite way of saying “no”, one offering delusory hope, and thus the appearance of consolation. It’s a particularly helpful tactic when it comes to legacy candidates and their families. In 2011, Vanderbilt had a wait list, but took fewer than 10 percent of applicants from that reservoir; Northwestern and USC took none from their lists; in 2012, Stanford took none and Harvard took only 25. 

And what of the controversial “early decision” (ED) option, in which the candidate applies to only one school in early November, pledging to enroll if accepted? College counselors enforce this binding agreement, and the school must respond within a month to six weeks. If the answer is “yes”, and if financial aid is not at issue, the student’s worries are over. All other applicants work through a different schedule, applying by early January and hearing from the schools by late March or early April. 

What are the advantages to early decision, and which students benefit from it? The student has locked up a school, likely a first-choice school. Advantage to the student. And research has shown that each successful early decision applicant has a hefty advantage over ordinary applicants. James Fallows, writing in The Atlantic, explains:

Christopher Avery, of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, and several colleagues . . . analyzed five years’ worth of admissions records from fourteen selective colleges, involving a total of 500,000 applications, and interviewed 400 college students, sixty high school seniors, and thirty-five counselors. They found that at the ED schools an early application was worth as much in the competition for admission as scoring 100 extra points on the SAT. For instance, a student with a combined SAT score of 1400 to 1490 (out of 1600) who applied early was as likely to be accepted as a regular-admission student scoring 1500 to 1600. An early student scoring 1200 to 1290 was more likely to be accepted than a regular student scoring 1300 to 1390.

The advantage to the school, however, is even greater. Once it has corralled a sizeable number of early decision applicants (including plausible “legacies”, athletes and those few students with parents of high giving potential), it has far fewer spaces to fill come spring. That helps it look better on the selectivity scoreboard, which will be good news to ship over to U.S. News and World Report and to those issuing the bonds that underwrite the school’s financial health. It’s also good for the school’s treasurer; early decision applicants tend to come from families that can either pay full tuition or else won’t be consuming much financial aid money.

Thus money once again enters the admission picture. Those likely to elect early decision are those who know about it, and they tend to come from schools, private and public, located in prestigious ZIP codes. Wealthier schools can afford counselors to help students navigate the inner workings of early decision; poorer schools can’t. The more practiced and savvy the counselor and applicant, the greater their chances of success. Most expert counselors know that early decision is not advisable if you need financial aid. Finally, early decision asks applicants to be certain of their academic goals and where they want to go early in their senior year. The academic significance of that year is thus eroded, the junior year becoming the more important one. Everything is forced forward; the present is sacrificed to the future.

For these and other reasons, the nation’s most prestigious and sought-after schools have for years worried about early decision. Some first rejected and later endorsed it; others used it for a while and then abandoned it. Many of the top schools still use it, but it is always subject to further refinement and change. In sum, it is a powerful tool for all concerned—powerful enough to do considerable damage.

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he application process, then, is complex, oriented to money and prestige, and takes place within an inner sanctum whose secrets are closed off to all save initiates and professionals. Owing in part to such mystery, nothing is guaranteed about any part of the process. Despite their curiosity and anxiety, applicants really don’t know, and can’t know, much about the schools. That’s the way with most suitors. Schools don’t know, and can’t know, much about those suitors. That’s the way with them, too. Each party wants to discover more, but the mutual ignorance is akin to that of arranged marriages—high hopes unstably founded on inadequate information. Nonetheless, every year, despite agony and uncertainty on both sides, the process pushes inexorably on. Each applicant must get into at least one school in order to make progress in the expected American way, and each school must have a sufficient number of young people turn up, tuition money in hand, to start each new school year.

But how do the schools decide? Is what they decide reasonable, or fair? According to college counselors, the ten most important criteria are grades in college preparation courses; grades in other courses; strength of curriculum; SAT or ACT scores; essay or writing sample; teacher recommendations; student’s demonstration of interest in campus visits and other contact with the admissions office; counselor recommendation; class rank if calculated; and the (optional) interview.

These are the stated criteria. Would that the situation were this straightforward and driven by such more or less fixed standards. Other criteria, however, play a hefty role in admissions; these are known as “hooks.” Being the son or daughter of someone who went to the school, particularly a private school, is a “hook.” At Dartmouth College, for example, about 30 percent of “legacy” applicants made the grade this year when less than 13 percent of regular applicants succeeded.3 Coming from Wyoming can enhance an application and so can the ability to play the oboe very well.  Being a member of a particular “under-represented minority” is a hook, but only at schools that have not, by law, prohibited every form of affirmative action. Pending the forthcoming decision from the United States Supreme Court about such preferential admission, this hook might vanish, but the others will stay in play. 

There is no more powerful hook, however, than being a star athlete; that status often sweeps all before it. In the Ivy League, for example, otherwise large admission obstacles are pushed out of the way when athletes who have been recruited by coaches apply. According to reporting in the New York Times, “Across the league, about 13 percent of each university’s incoming class is composed of athletes chosen from coaches’ lists.”4 Those athletes must appear strong enough to survive Ivy League academic challenges, but, after that, the coaches are in charge. As a result, students who can take advantage of the biggest hook there is comprise a bit more than one-eighth of the student body at those schools. William G. Bowen and Sarah A. Levin, who have researched the process with the utmost rigor, conclude that the average male athletes in the Ivy League (who consistently underperform their classmates off the field), were “four times more likely to be admitted than similarly situated applicants who were not on a coach’s list.”5

There are additional “hooks” to get a student in, but there are also factors that can keep a student out, considerations that often go unspoken but are powerful in their own way. Decades ago, the unwritten rule at some of the very best schools was “not too many Jews.’’ Today that prejudice has been replaced by “not too many Asians.” In both cases, academically superior applicants are treated differently lest the entering class be ethnically lopsided. Thomas Espenshade, a Princeton sociologist, estimates that in order to receive equal consideration by elite colleges, “Asian Americans must outperform Whites by 140 points, Hispanics by 280 points, Blacks by 450 points in SAT (Total 1600).” In such cases, many worthy applicants are excluded simply because they do too well.

Admission officers working through immense piles of applications must keep all these considerations, as well as others, in mind. The work is a formidable challenge to every ounce of their judgment, perceptiveness and experience. And it is tiring, with thousands of applications needing careful handling in a brief several months. What are the chances errors are made, excellent candidates passed over, less worthy ones winning favor? About this, one experienced admissions director has confessed, “most of the highly selective institutions in the country could easily fill their classes twice over with candidates possessing similar academic credentials.”6 Small consolation for the comparably talented suitor who sees his place go, for no ascertainable reason, to another. 

It turns out, therefore, that it is impossible for admission officers to defend each and every positive decision they make, to a rejected student or to anyone else. The variables are too many, the factors inconsistent with each other. How to weigh racial background against geographical diversity; how to assess an applicant who is the first in his family to apply to college against an applicant whose father and mother are alumni? The workings of intuition are impossible to articulate. As a result, individual decisions cannot be defended. What can be defended are the admitted students as a class. The school will say something like this: “We are immensely proud to have joining us a collection of remarkable, talented, diverse, and lively young men and women who are, in fact, the best class we have ever admitted.” No reasonable counterargument to such a handsome but fact-free claim exists.

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las, the ritual does not end even when the good news comes. The next step has to do, once again, with money. For those families unable to pay “full freight”, as the inelegant saying goes, a formula is devised to determine the amount of financial aid a given school is willing to offer an admitted student. The parent is obliged to fill out at least one form and perhaps others too, disclosing family assets, the size of the family, the number of family members in college and similar information. The basic form, known as the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), is often supplemented at selective private colleges by the CSSPROFILE, which demands additional information such as the value of home equity, any parental funds held in the name of siblings, and monies withheld from wages for medical expenses. The aim of these forms is to determine with great precision how much money can be exacted from the family. But the difference to be made up, noted as the family’s “financial need”, is not necessarily what the college or university will give. Here, anthropologists will note, various tribes structure things variously. 

The richer schools will often offer more. They have more. Some of them are so rich that they have been able to eliminate altogether one of the three elements in the traditional financial aid package: the loan. Almost all the other schools will offer some money in loans, some in an outright grant, and some in “work-study” opportunities. Keep in mind again that some schools will give “merit aid” to certain accepted students, some of them having “financial need” and others having none. Money thus serves as both an outright help and a formidable marketing instrument.

In any case, should financial aid be given to the family, it comes in most cases with the understanding that, in time, the loan making up part of that aid must be repaid. The average indebtedness is, per student, now more than $23,000 across the nation. Many students will carry this burden for years. So schools seek, with emollient language, to soften the pain. As the New York Times reports:

College marketing firms encourage school officials to focus on the value of the education rather than the cost. For example, an article on the cover of Enrollment Management, a newsletter aimed at college admissions officials, urged writers of admissions materials to “avoid bad words like ‘cost’, ‘pay’ (try ‘and you get all this for…’), ‘contract’ and ‘buy’ in your piece and avoid the conflicting feelings they generate.7

At this moment the wise parent, as well as the wise child, must not only probe beneath the euphemisms generated by the marketing experts, but also ask this basic question: Does such an investment make sense? Is it worth it either in concrete economic terms or in more abstract ways?

When parents ask about the value of the education, schools are glad to provide an array of answers. Campus officials happily lay out the same information they have already given to publications like U.S. News and World Report: figures about the percentage of the faculty with doctoral degrees, the ratio of small to large classes, the proportion of freshmen returning to campus the following year, the amount of money allegedly spent on each student, the graduation rate, the amount of alumni giving, and the school’s reputation in the eyes of college administrators elsewhere in the country. But some of these administrators seem not to have been attentive to the actual costs families will encounter. The most highly paid of them in the public sector, E. Gordon Gee of Ohio State ($2 million per year in total compensation), has admitted, “We have not been as conscious about costs as we should be, and that has now come home to roost.”8 With those costs running up the total loan indebtedness in this country to more than what the nation owes in credit-card debt, it is hard to understand how such a well-compensated college president, along with many of his colleagues, has been so bereft of “consciousness.”

Alas too, none of the answers provided by administrators speak to the fundamental issue for many parents: How much will the student learn? With what greater degree of competence will graduates be able to confront the challenges facing them when they leave campus? Put simply: Can the school demonstrate that the huge investment parents are making will return the dividend the school’s publicity advertises? No. Schools do not know what occurs to students during the time they are enrolled, partly because they have spent few resources and little time, if any, trying to find out. “Outcome assessment”, a method of internal investigation, has been left unused by the vast majority of this country’s universities and colleges.

One suspects that this is because, like all steps leading to self-knowledge, the results could prove distressing. What if it turned out that the investment produced only meager dividends? Given these dangers, the strategy is to declare to parents that the quality of the education can be inferred by the institution’s splendid attributes and the quality of the students admitted. This is tantamount to judging the quality of a hospital by the look of its buildings and the pre-existing health of its patients. 

What little is known is disturbing enough. The “College Learning Assessment” (CLA), employed by only a handful of schools across the country, has provided the database for one of the truly discouraging reports about what college students learn and don’t learn. In Academically Adrift (2011), Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa report that:

With a large sample of more than 2,300 students, we observe no statistically significant gains in critical thinking, complex reasoning, and writing skills for at least 45 percent of the students in our study. An astounding proportion of students are progressing through higher education today without measurable gains in general skills as assessed by the CLA. While they may be acquiring subject-specific knowledge or greater self-awareness on their journeys through college, many students are not improving their skills in critical thinking, complex reasoning, and writing.

Should the most sought-after schools begin to dig into the real value of attending any one of them, they will want to address some other surprising realities. In the first place, your future earnings, as a graduate, seem not to depend on your school. Two economists, Stacy Dale and Alan Krueger, show evidence for a remarkable and somewhat baffling reality: What counts instead is where you once dreamed of going. A student with a 1,400 SAT score who went to Penn State (less prestigious) but who had applied to the University of Pennsylvania (more prestigious) earned as much, on average, as a student with a 1,400 score who did go to Penn. Dale and Krueger go on to observe that “the average SAT score of the highest ranked school that rejected a student is a much stronger predictor of that student’s subsequent earnings than the average SAT score of the school the student actually attended.”9 These findings tell us more about applicants’ ambition and self-image than about the strength of schools; they partially undermine claims about future success that schools are fond of making.

Nor is it certain that universities and colleges make good on the popular claim that they successfully prepare their graduates for future leadership. Little data exist to support this, so it is best kept where it most actively flourishes: in brochures sent to high-school students and in commencement addresses. What the data do show is that while the most sought-after universities do well in, say, producing the CEOs of Fortune 500 companies, lower-tier schools do just as well, if not better. When it comes to members of Congress, the story is much the same. The most competitive liberal arts colleges, on the other hand, barely show up at all in any data about CEOs or members of Congress—a fact that, once again, seems to have more to do with a self-selection process based on factors that have nothing to do with educational institutions as such.

This only deepens suspicions that “success” is a very fuzzy term, one that probably has more to do with character than with formal education or affiliation. Perhaps the wellsprings of success, however defined, are to be found in an inward sense of self-understanding, confidence and command. Perhaps it means possessing wisdom in the face of adversity, or the ability to create and share happiness with others, or the talent to be forever curious about the workings of the world. These are, all of them, exemplary virtues, and may be inculcated or nourished in a college environment. But they can also be developed with or without a college degree, and fortunate people have sought and acquired them throughout the ages, higher education or no. For a school today to be able to honestly answer the questions parents may well ask, it will need to assemble the evidence that it does add something special, something unavailable or less good elsewhere, and something appropriate in value to the price that parents and children are now asked to pay. This the institutions have been unable to do. Absent this most consequential evidence, the ritual of admissions—elaborate, both fair and unfair, deeply complex and mysterious—might be no more than an exceedingly expensive folly, or a chimerical mission whose ultimate rewards are at best unknowable.

The college application process is indeed, for the young person, a rite of passage, one among many meant to lead toward adulthood. But there is something different about it. Consider the anthropological characteristics of rites of passage around the world: Young people endure them; they are difficult, awkward and often painful. Marking the transition into adulthood, they formally welcome the young into the community, be it tribal or religious (usually both at the same time). The end result is designed to be meaningful and healthy, for it is supposed to lead to long-term maturation. The American college application process has all these attributes save the last. Michael G. Thompson, a clinical psychologist, puts it this way:

The college admission process looks like a rite of passage, comes at the right time for a rite of passage, has some elements of a rite of passage, but does not work as a rite of passage to bring children through the separation-individuation phase of late adolescence. Getting into college makes everyone anxious, in the manner of a classic rite of passage, but it does not provide the climax, or the catharsis, that psychologically supports the age-mates and other members of the community. Instead, it too often leaves everyone more anxious, exhausted, and feeling bad about themselves, not less anxious, energized, and proud of themselves for having survived.10

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o what more must the schools now do? Four steps could make the process less frustrating, fairer, less expensive and above all better for educational outcomes. 

First, elite universities and colleges must bring to an end their over-heated competition to win the favor of U.S. News and World Report and the bond-rating agencies by inflating the total number of applications they solicit, a number wholly out of proportion to the number of students they know they will admit. They must inform secondary school counselors that they are doing this and encourage those counselors to get students to reduce the number of schools to which they apply.

Second, the schools must also curtail the use of early decision, a strategy notably helpful only to themselves and to those families whose incomes, knowledge and sophistication about higher education give them leverage to manipulate the process that is nearly impossible for other families.

Third, they must retire some of the “hooks” giving advantage to certain families and applicants, most notoriously those offered to athletes, and must reduce the number of hooks offered to legacy candidates. This will open the admissions door to many more genuinely qualified applicants.

Finally, they must be forthcoming about the financial risks of the education they offer, and in particular they must describe clearly and candidly the painful jeopardy felt now by millions of alumni who earlier undertook the loan portion of financial aid.

Doubtless, academic administrators will characterize all such steps as impractical, expensive, unwieldy and even dangerous to undertake without an agreement involving all players. But not taking them will allow the schools to continue to speed toward even more intense admission frenzy and confusion, greater and more expensive competitiveness, and further estrangement from a public eager to reap the benefits of first-rate educational opportunities but increasingly wary of their costs and their impenetrable mysteries. Colleges and universities have long depended on the goodwill of that public. It must not now be replaced by suspicion. 

12011 State of College Admission, National Association for College Admission Counseling, p. 6.

2Bonnie Miller Rubin, “Colleges grow their waitlists, leaving more students in limbo”, Chicago Tribune, May 3, 2012.

3Sally P. Springer, Jon Reider and Marion R. Franck, Admission Matters (Jossey-Bass, 2009), p. 37.

4Bill Pennington, “Financial Aid Changes Game as Ivy Sports Teams Flourish”, New York Times, December 22, 2011.

5William G. Bowen and Sarah A. Levin, Reclaiming the Game: College Sports and Educational Values (Princeton University Press, 2003), pp. 327–8.

6Admission Matters, p. 53.

7Andrew Martin and Andrew W. Lehren, “A Generation Hobbled by the Soaring Cost of College”, New York Times, May 12, 2012.

8Quoted in Andrew Martin, “Slowly, as Student Debt Rises, Colleges Confront Costs”, New York Times, May 14, 2012.

9Stacy Dale and Alan B. Krueger, “Estimating the Return to College Selectivity over the Career Using Administrative Earning Data”, Working Paper #563, Princeton University, Industrial Relations Section, February 2011, p. 25.

10Michael G. Thompson, “College Admission: Failed Rite Of Passage”, Independent School (Winter 1990).

William M. Chace is the former president of Wesleyan University and of Emory University.