On Stressing College Bound High School Seniors and Their Families

Talked recently with a college-bound high school senior about how they feel about their search and applications to college? I used to approach the exchange with good cheer. Now my queries are more sympathetic than enthusiastic. Students with hopes for admission to strong colleges and universities are stressed, confused, and increasingly ill-served by higher education. Their families face an equally daunting series of discomforts. They are more worried than happy. What happened?

New York Times columnist Frank Bruni outlines the problem and offers a compelling antidote in Where You Go Is Not Who You’ll Be. It’s a well-written and accessible book about the college admissions mania. He explicitly calls it mania, too, and with good reason. College admissions is a major source of stress and anxiety for many, and Bruni wants to de-stress his readers. As his title spells out, he thinks that things will turn out just fine.

The book is written for a minority of American families: middle-class and upper-middle class with children who aspire to attend residential colleges with strong reputations. Included are the ivy league colleges, the flagship state universities, and the high-quality liberal arts colleges and universities that dot the nation. The craziness Bruni describes includes test-taking, resume-building, interview preparation, visits, applications, acceptances, and the eventual decision-making of which college and why. It could be easy but it most definitely is not.

For those of us of a certain age, college admissions was a straightforward process. Working with a guidance counselor, most applied to three colleges: a stretch school, a reasonable fit school, and a safety school. The Goldilocks model was borne of simpler times. Not today when students apply to dozens of schools and sweat every detail. Families with more resources hire specialized coaches, tutors and advisors. Bruni underscores that newer is not necessarily better. A number of broad trends have contributed to the mess.

  • Measures and rankings have increasingly become the norm, within higher education and the public at large. US News shoulders much of the blame, but actually the reliance on lists extends well beyond that one ranking. As colleges jockey for status, one of the measures that has gained value is the acceptance rate. The more applicants and corresponding fewer admits, the greater the “exclusivity” of the institution. This has spawned massive investments in the “generating applicants” side of higher education.
  • The value of a college education has increasingly become understood by many as central to becoming a successful adult in middle-class America – or the way to reach the upper-class. Expectations for higher education and college outcomes are high and rising.
  • International students and their families also recognize the value of an American college degree. That means more international applicants.
  • The common application and other aspects of digital life have made applying to more colleges relatively easier. Bruni references high school students in 2014 applying to ten or twenty colleges. The numbers, I am confident, are bigger today. My eldest son, who is graduating this year from a Chicago Public High School, reports to me that it is normal for many of his classmates to apply to 25 or more colleges.

This may sound strange but there are solid reasons for the shift. We do not have new élite colleges. The consequence, then, is there are many more college applications in circulation for roughly the same number of slots. Graduating high school seniors still have the same likelihood of being accepted into a good college – overall. What has changed is that the likelihood of any one graduating senior being accepted into her or his top choice college or university has dropped precipitously. With thousands upon thousands of more applications, there is no clarity or rationality to the process. The idea of a “good fit” no longer holds. Most schools are stretch schools and no one really knows why.

Bruni’s antidote and the crux of this book are the stories of hundreds and thousands of wildly successful adults who found themselves at a college they did not expect. He talks with scholarship committees, foundations, Fortune 500 executives, journalists, and political leaders like Condoleeza Rice. The élite institutions are over-represented, to be fair, but there is little rhyme or reason to who becomes successful. What most interviewees share is a great fondness for their alma mater – regardless of its status. This is vitally important for everyone involved in the admissions mania to remember. For most, it does turn out just fine. For all those college bound high school students and their tightly wound parents and support systems, I recommend this book.

But Bruni’s book is a band-aid, not a cure. He give us anecdote and common sense. They are welcome and beneficial for those passing through the process. Missing are hard solutions and an argument for those who are responsible for all of this. We in higher education need to make some changes this if we want to make more friends. And I very much believe that all of us in higher education could use some friends.

In England, applicants are limited to five colleges. Other countries have similar caps. While they have much to recommend, I do not believe that they would find much favor in the United States. Similarly, I do not believe that schemes that automatically move students would be well-received. Our only really viable options involve variations on our faith in markets. We also need to collectively understand that the admissions process is not helping higher education or its students.

The long-term solutions are elusive and difficult. I do believe, though, that we can start small and make some gains. One relatively easy reform is to abandon the admissions rate as a ranking tool. I would even ignore it as a reporting tool. Generating more applicants is about marketing, not quality. There is no reason to acknowledge institutional commitments to marketing. Ins instead, I would suggest that the conversion rate is a better measure of a college’s quality and appeal. How many accepted applicants actually enroll? This metric would incentivize colleges to be more prudent in their application generation. A smaller number of “good fit” acceptances would rate as more valuable than scads of applicants and a small number of admitted students.

Broader reforms, though, are needed. We all could use better information on college’s preferences for legacy admits (the sons, daughters, and grandchildren of alumni), athletes, and the children of large donors. We could see better information and pathways for community college students. Most of them hope to transfer but only one in seven, on average, ever finish a baccalaureate after starting at a two-year institution. Colleges could be much more transparent about who they admit and why. Arizona State, under the leadership of Michael Crow, has already created a straightforward admissions process. Bruni cites Crow, who made the decision even though it had a negative effect on ASU’s rankings.

Above all, we have to find ways to get together and think through the consequences of mindless competition. I am all for competition that leads to meaningful results. Having a lower acceptance rate of undergraduates is not a worthy aim. And in our enthusiasm for measurements, we might also want to take the time to see if we can assess the harm caused by the admissions mania. I would wager that we can do better.

David Potash

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