Why Another Book on College Admissions?
This is not a recipe for the best students to get into the top colleges, as describes much of what is written on the topic. First of all, most youngsters are not “top students.” A majority of those going through the college process are just trying to find a good match, a college that best meets their needs and goals. And most parents want what is best for their children. Yet there seems to be this prevailing sentiment that parents need to get closely involved in this process, from hiring SAT tutors and private counselors to pressuring teachers and coaches to give their children that added advantage. Yet what parents need to do most is support and protect their children while allowing them to grow.
I push my young son around the neighborhood on his tricycle equipped with a handle in the back. In the beginning, I needed to help him steer the tricycle for he had no concept of how to do it. Very quickly, though, I realized that the only way to help him learn how to steer was to allow him to start going off the sidewalk on his own. He soon learned how to correct himself and head on a straight course. I am still behind him, keeping him from hurting himself by hurtling off the curb or into oncoming traffic, but I no longer steer or control his bike. He knows I am there and finds safety and comfort in the fact that I will protect him from danger. But he equally knows he is the one steering and controlling the bike. As time goes on, he will begin to ride the bike without my being there at all.
This is the same role parents should take in the college admissions process. At a minimum, they should be there to make sure their children do not harm themselves, say, by missing deadlines that would jeopardize their college acceptance. Moreover, they need to be there to support their children who will be making some of the toughest decisions of their life to this point. Although there will be many other more important lifetime decisions, from choosing a spouse to selecting a job, this will be the first time in most children’s life when they have will have to make a lasting decision about their future. This book is an attempt to describe a sensible approach to college admissions. It is a tool to allow you to understand what is happening in the process and to help you to recognize when you should intervene and, even more importantly, the security to know when you should not.
As I recently overheard one student say, “It’s tough raising parents these days”. One college admissions director noted that “the increasingly bad ‘parental etiquette’ that college admissions officers are currently seeing comes from a confluence of several characteristics of our “Boomer” generation such as our sense of entitlement, our suspicion of authority and our bad habit of living too vicariously through our children.” Dean William Fitzsimmons of Harvard similarly notes: “Sports, music and other recreational activities used to provide a welcome break. No more. In high school, SAT prep has become a way of life. The problem can often be well meaning but misguided parents who try to mold their children into an image of success they value; and their children, being moldable as they are, often get on board and go along with the programs before they have the capacity to make such a choice for themselves.”
“The launching of a child stirs up everyone in the family,” notes high school counselor Michael G. Thompson. “For the parents it is the culmination of their child rearing, the end of the parental curriculum. From now if they act as parents for a college-age or older child, it will be by invitation only.”
“What is the main testing ground of fears about incomplete or inadequate child rearing?: the college admission process,” notes counselor Michael Thompson. “If you are afraid you haven’t disciplined your children enough--too much Dr. Spock or allowed your children to watch too much television and settle for low grades, and the child is neglecting to fill out her college application forms, the incriminating evidence of parental failure is right there in front of everyone. It is during the meeting with the college counselor at the end of the junior year, when the chickens all come home to roost--painfully and publicly.
“The frantic involvement of many parents in the process is, from my perspective, a cover for this profound parental anxiety: Did I do a good job with this child? Did I do everything I needed to do for this child? Is this child prepared? Is this child going to have a good life? I have seen many laissez-faire parents, not much in evidence in the tenth and eleventh grade years, swoop back into their children's lives at college admission time, trying to stuff all of their wisdom and discipline into helping their children at the last moment.
“Parents may need to be reassured as their fledglings leave the nest that they really have taught them how to fly. Since it is impossible to assess the quality of what parents have done for their children at this point, what is the next best thing? What comes closest to getting graded as parents?: the status of the college to which the child is admitted”.1”
Does it really matter in life where one goes to college? Yes and no. Late adolescence is an important time in one’s life, a time to try out new personalities and ways of thinking. Psychologist Erik Erikson called it a psycho-social moratorium, a time when you try out for who you want to be without the same consequence you might see later in life. As long as students follow my axiom: “Don’t do anything that can kill you,” there is little one can do that would have permanent consequences. College is a time when one should be surrounded by people with a variety of backgrounds and opinions and with people with a similar degree of intellectual curiosity. That, for almost all students, can occur at hundreds of colleges.
Many students feel that they can only succeed in life if they attend one of the 23 colleges that both admit fewer than 50% of their students and have average SAT scores over 1900. I hear repeatedly that this will have some magical impact on a student’s future career. My experience, as one who has worked in the field, hired others and interned in the personnel offices of some of the world’s largest corporations, is that this is simply not true. It may have an impact in some very limited situations. However, in virtually every other case, employers want to see what you have done in previous jobs, where you went to graduate school and what skills and talents you bring to the table. A similar case regards the belief that the “contacts” one makes at these elite colleges will open doors. You may have heard of or read that some political appointee was a college friend of the governor or president, but this is a rare occurrence. I ask you to look into your personal experience and think of examples where attending one college instead of another had a profound impact on someone’s life or career. I doubt you will find instances where this was true.
College Admission by the Numbers2
Everything you read in newspapers and magazines or hear on TV or radio about college admission would lead you to believe that it is almost impossible to get admitted to college unless you're super strong academically, have high test scores, have wealthy and/or famous parents, or have more "game" than anyone else around. This is not so. Let's take a look at some numbers:
3600 There are about 3600 two and four-year colleges in the US
1600 About 1600 of these are two-year colleges. Virtually all (with the exception of a literal hand full) are Open Admission, which means that they admit anyone who holds a high school diploma.
2000 That leaves about 2000 four-year colleges. Roughly 300-400 of these are Open Admission, meaning that when combined with two-year colleges, anyone who graduates from high school has at least 2000 colleges willing to offer them admission. A few hundred more admit more than 95% of those who apply.
135 The general public tends to regard "selective" admission to mean that a college admits fewer than 50% of those who apply. Colleges don't look at it that way, and call themselves selective as long as they don't admit EVERYONE who applies. Only about 135 colleges actually admit fewer than 50% of their applicants.
50 The 135 figure doesn't take into account ACADEMIC expectations, just what percent of total applicants are admitted. If we look at colleges that admit fewer than 50% of their applicants AND who have freshman SAT averages of 1250 or higher (on a 1600 scale), the number of colleges drops to 50.
24 The media tends to concentrate on looking at admission to the "best-elite-toughest-choosiest" colleges in the country, measured by acceptance rates and the academic profiles of freshmen. This tends to narrow the scope of vision to colleges that admit fewer than 25% of those who apply and that report freshman SAT averages of 1250 or above. This leaves only about 24 colleges.
Given the large number of excellent colleges and universities that do not fall within these three “elite” groups, selectivity alone is not an accurate measure of quality. The reality is that there are more and better college options available to students now than at any other time in our history. Though ever more costly from an admissions perspective, higher education is more accessible to a wider range of people than ever before.
A Few Thoughts on Admissions:
When there are multiple sections of the same course with random distributions of students, sometimes there are teachers who, year after year, have substantially higher student failure
rates than the other teachers. These teachers almost always reply that they are merely maintaining higher standards. But you notice that there are other teachers that seem to keep up high standards with a significantly lower number of failures. One cannot help but come to the conclusion that it is not merely the students who are failing but that the teacher is failing the students, both in the literal and figurative sense. And so it is with the outrageously low admit rates “achieved" by the most selective colleges. Admitting less than 10% of the students who apply should not be a source of pride but embarrassment. Selectivity measured by popularity rather than the quality of the incoming class or the experience of the undergraduate education is clearly something that rewards failure over success. The method used by rankings and the media to determine the top of the heap exacerbates this trend.
A true success in college admissions would be a very high admit rate along with a high quality class. How does one do that? University of Chicago has done that for years by putting essay questions that discourage those who are not erudite or intellectual from applying.
There is an alternate philosophy, that of making the application relatively easy to complete in order to find that "diamond in the rough", that kid in a rural Midwestern state, who is relatively unsophisticated but truly brilliant; who could, but never would, answer the questions on the Chicago application. But to find that one kid by encouraging 100 otherwise inadmissible applicants to apply is simply abusive. Many in the media have decried the Common Application as the cause of this trend of increasing 'ghost' applications. I have to admit that I was taken aback originally when I heard that U. Chicago, the college that prided itself on having the “uncommon application”, was jumping on the bandwagon. But then I realized that they were just making the data entry simpler and keeping the complexity where it should be. Criticizing the students or the Common Application for the increasing number of applications coming into colleges is a red herring. If the colleges, the media and the rankers truly accepted the reality that an increasingly lower admit rate is really a failure of the admissions process and took genuine steps to address it, the trend would change.
But doing so would take integrity, concern for students and a genuine desire to move to a healthier process. I do not believe that either the media or most of the colleges with these low admit rates have the stomach for this. What could they do to achieve this? How about denying more kids early decision or, as Northwestern does, only have two ED decisions, admit or deny? How about requiring more thoughtful and complex essays? How about simply returning applications and application fees of clearly unrealistic applicants? How about more insight into the process of admissions, such as the rating sheets used? How about going to truly rolling admissions? The time when many in the Ivy League were announcing their decisions, 5:59 pm on May 1, was more like the announcement of the American Idol winners than the results of a thoughtful process.
Chapter 1: The State of Admissions
A Recent History of College Admissions
Up until the early 1980’s, the college admissions process was fairly straightforward. Almost all colleges promoted themselves through their publications, primarily the “view book”, sent to students who had expressed interest in the college and through direct mail. Colleges would buy lists of names from the College Board of those students who took the PSAT or SAT (or from the American College Testing program for students who took the PLAN or ACT) and met some demographic or test score criteria. Admissions selection was usually based on academic factors with preference often given to children of alumni, athletes or those with other special talents, and, to a much more limited degree than today, to those from under-represented minority groups.
Financial aid was given to help families in need meet the cost of education. There was a single form that almost all colleges and the federal government used to analyze financial need and award financial aid, the FAF (Financial Aid Form). There was a standard formula that took into account a number of factors (income, cost of living, age of the parents, savings, equity, etc.) and that used a series of standard tables to determine what a family could afford to pay for college. This formula, the Standard Methodology, produced a figure, the Family Contribution, which was the same for every college to which a student applied. Financial Need was the cost of the college minus the Family Contribution. Most colleges, and virtually all highly selective colleges, agreed to meet 100% of financial need, meaning that they would, through a series of grants and loans, meet the full Financial Need of all applicants.
Thus if the FAF determined that a family could pay $5,000 for college and the college cost $15,000, almost all selective colleges would give students a financial aid package totaling $10,000. Colleges would use preferential packaging, giving financial aid packages with higher grants, which did not have to be repaid, and fewer loans to those students they most wanted.
The National Association of College Admissions Counseling (NACAC), the organization governing most of college admissions, prohibited colleges from using financial need to determine whether a student would be admitted. This policy, accepted by virtually all colleges, was called need-blind admissions. And the cost of college had risen less than the cost of living for the previous two decades and was affordable to the average upper middle class family.
A demographic shift occurred in the early 80’s with a marketable drop in the number of students graduating from high school. Even the most selective colleges began to scramble to maintain the quality and quantity of applications they received. A new phenomenon emerged on the admissions front, the Enrollment Manager. Prior to that, Admissions Directors controlled the marketing of the colleges and the selection of students. Financial Aid Directors determined what financial aid was given to students, generally based on the figures from the FAF. Both generally reported to the college president or someone else not directly involved in admissions. In the most common Enrollment Management model to emerge, the Admissions Director and Director of Financial Aid reported to the Vice President of Enrollment Management.
At this point, you might be asking yourself how these demographic, financial and internal managerial and admissions practices might have any meaning to you. The decisions made by the colleges, the federal government, NACAC and the media over the last 25 years have increased the hype, manipulation, uncertainty and, in the end, the mania surrounding college admissions and costs.
Colleges made a number of decisions that had a significant impact on students and parents. Several publications, most notably the US News and World Report, were starting to rank colleges, leading Enrollment Managers to put pressures on to get high rankings. These rankings usually were highly affected by the percentage of students accepted, the standardized test scores of those admitted and the numbers of students who accepted offers of admissions.
Thus colleges began aggressively seeking as many applicants as they could, merely to seem more selective by rejecting more and more students. The harder it became to get into college, the more students wanted to apply. And as the number of applicants increased in the 90’s, the strategy to maintain the status quo became a frenzy of scarcity. The most selective colleges were beginning to have admissions rates in the teens, and the media jumped on the trend. The Groucho Marx phenomenon became the rule of college admissions. It seemed that no one wanted to apply to a college that would admit them. Students and parents began to hire their version of the colleges’ Enrollment Managers. SAT preparation has become a rite of passage for many communities and the growth of the use of private college counselors has grown exponentially. One consultant now charges over $30,000 for her college counseling services. Recently, Michelle Hernandez, a former admissions counselor at Dartmouth, has offered a three-day college admissions boot camp for $10,000.
It was on the financial front that even greater changes were taking place. As financial aid budgets continued to increase, college presidents and boards were putting increasing pressure to increase revenues and decrease costs. Beginning in the 80’s, college officials began to realize that there was a much greater elasticity of demand for college than they had assumed, i.e. that costs could continue to rise without causing parents to abandon having their children continue to apply to prestigious, expensive colleges.
Thus years of increases below the cost of living were followed in the nearly thirty years that followed by tuition increases well beyond inflation. Colleges needed more and more money to be competitive: to build state-of- the- art science buildings, dorms, libraries and athletic complexes, to stay on the cutting edge of technology, to stay in the market for the best professors, to meet the needs of those on financial aid and to attract the best students with merit scholarships not tied to financial need. College tuition at the most expensive colleges (almost all college tuitions at these schools rose at nearly the same cost and rate) passed the $20,000 mark, then the $30,000 mark, and the then the $40,000 mark, with seemingly no end in sight. The cost of college every year was outpacing income year after year.
To increase revenue, every selective college began to market themselves aggressively both nationally and internationally. Colleges began to travel and directly market in areas where they had never previously sought students and started actively seeking international students, to whom they rarely offered any financial aid.
Then a shock wave went through the admissions world. One of the most selective colleges announced that though they were still need blind, they could not guarantee to continue to be so. This was soon followed by a pronouncement by one of the most prestigious women’s colleges of a specific policy to abandon need blind admissions: students who had very high need and were marginal in the pool would be denied. NACAC backed off, after a huge internal fight, from requiring colleges to be need blind in their admissions policies.
The colleges thought they had a fair solution to the problem of escalating financial aid budgets: promulgate a policy that only affected a very small number of applicants. The problem for parents was one of definition. What was a “marginal applicant?” Wasn’t admissions an inexact process where, at the most selective colleges, almost no one had a high assurance of admission? And what was “high need”? Parents began to become more and more anxious about not only whether they could afford college but also whether simply applying for aid would jeopardize the chance for admission for their child. Need Blind Admissions was replaced by the cynically named Need Aware Admissions.
A decision by the federal government at around the same time had an equally negative effect on the ability of parents to predict college costs. The government has given special consideration in its tax code to those who own houses. Interest on mortgages and real estate taxes on one’s residence are deductions from one’s income. The government decided to make the same decision about housing equity in the awarding of federal financial aid: housing equity no longer was in the formula for determining financial need. A new form, the FAFSA, the Free Application for Federal Financial Aid, was developed to reflect this new policy.
Unfortunately, high cost and high tuition colleges wanted housing equity data. Thus the College Board’s CSS Profile was born, where each college would have its own formula for determining need. Fewer and fewer colleges were meeting, with financial aid, even their own computations of what a family could afford to pay. The previous standard of meeting 100% of financial need was replaced with a policy of “gapping” where 90%, 80% or even 70% of financial need was met. In addition, more and more colleges were offering no-need merit scholarships to vie for the most talented students, often at the expense of need-based aid.
Thus we went from a relatively predictable system of admissions and financial aid to one of almost total unpredictability. At the most selective colleges, admission rates are in the single digits. In 2007, Harvard admitted under nine percent of its applicants. Stanford admitted less than 16% of students with straight A’s in high school or who were in the top 10% of their high school class and admitted only 20% with a perfect 800 math SAT score and 28% of those with a perfect 800 verbal score. Colleges have continued the aggressive marketing begun in a time of decreasing enrollment when the children of baby boomers have been swelling the number of students applying to college to record numbers.
Now one system with total uncertainty replaced a fully predictable one. Financial aid awards to the same students applying to similarly priced and endowed colleges began to differ by tens of thousands of dollars. More and more poor students were being denied simply because they were poor. Enrollment Management firms began to advise colleges on how to use financial aid to get students to enroll. “Financial aid leveraging” used complex demographic analysis to target financial aid. If it were discovered, for instance, that Asian students would more likely enroll if they were given automatic scholarships of $2000, that became policy.
Prior to the 90’s, a parent with a given income and assets could almost totally predict what level of financial aid they would receive. There were publicly available tables that determined the parental contribution from the FAF. Most high priced colleges agreed to use this figure to determine financial aid and agreed to meet 100% of need. Thus a student applying to five colleges could reasonably expect to get the same level of financial aid with only a small variation among them in the ratio of grants to loans. With the introduction of the CSS Profile, the abandoning of need blind admissions and meeting of 100% of financial need and the proliferation of merit scholarships and financial aid leveraging, all predictability of financial aid was lost.
At the same time, the cost increases at public colleges were far outstripping the increase in the financial aid from the federal and state governments for poor students. Except for public community colleges, even many public colleges have become no longer affordable for the poor and middle class parents.