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Selective College Admissions: Who can stop a runaway train?

The 70 plus college counselors assembled at the most heated breakout session of the ACCIS (Association for College Counselors of Independent Schools) conference didn’t know the answer to this question. Among peers they felt safe enough to plainly voice their frustrations with a system that is clearly under strain. I was the fly on the wall, the only outsider in the room. I listened intently as dozens of counselors from the top private schools in the country painted a picture of a system that seems to be buckling under the weight of an ever-rising tide of applications.

The concerns were many: the indiscriminate use of Fast Apps; disingenuous student search letters; the end of the “Holistic” Review; Moody’s credit ratings driving the behavior of admissions offices; hyper-selective colleges fueling scattershot applications via the Common Application. Counselors were frustrated. Their jobs have become more challenging, their ability to give strong guidance threatened. Several counselors admitted to growing disillusioned by the changes taking place.

The problem is a fairly simple one: there are too many students applying to too many of the same selective colleges and universities. The system, given its present level of resources, was not designed to handle the current volume of applications. Consequently, much has been sacrificed to the altar of expediency and efficiency to allow the schools, with their limited resources, to process the piles and piles of incoming apps.

What is driving the application frenzy?

One college counselor colorfully exclaimed, “We know the devil and it’s 3 faces: Moody’s, US News and World Report, and the Common Application.”

Moody’s

Moody’s, the first branch of the demonic trifecta, penalizes colleges and universities by degrading their bond ratings if their SATs, selectivity or yield drop. And bond ratings are nothing to sneeze at. When a university needs to borrow money for capital improvements or renovations, its bond rating determines the interest rate at which it can borrow funds. The Board of Trustees will put heavy pressure on an admissions office to maintain the institution’s AAA bond rating.

Private High Schools are locked into a similar set of rules determined by Moody’s. Their bond ratings are tied to their matriculation lists, SAT scores, National Merit and AP scores. To keep their boards happy, college counselors must attend to the selectivity of the colleges on their “matric” lists.

US News and World Report

By now, most of you are aware of Mephistopheles’ favorite publication, the US News and World Report. The US News annual rankings are responsible for narrowing the collective gaze of millions of high school students onto a handful of schools and rewarding these schools for rejecting as many students and being as “selective” as possible.

The Common Application

What started off as a movement towards greater accessibility has turned out to be something of a devil’s bargain. Many counselors in the room during the ACCIS breakout session once fought for and participated in the Common Application movement; today, they no longer rally to the cry of “greater access.” They are aware that the Common Application has yielded many negative, unintended consequences in the world of college admissions.

Though it does allow greater access, many would argue that the Common App. encourages students to apply to schools less discriminately. Press a button and instantly submit applications to 18 schools. This floods the system with more applications, necessitates many unnecessary “reads” by admissions officers, and adds a great deal of waste and inefficiency into an already strained system. As more students are haphazardly applying to more schools, these extra applications drive down the acceptance rates, making schools appear more “selective” in the parlance of US News. As schools become more “selective” (read desirable), students know that they have a slimmer chance of gaining a coveted admissions spot, so they feel compelled to apply to more of these selective schools out of hopes that one may take them. This in turn further drives down the acceptance rate. It’s a vicious cycle.

The pressure to drive in more applications

Because of the importance of selectivity, schools are strongly incented to drive in as many applications as possible. And the responsibility to bring in more applications falls on the marketing and the admissions departments. Many of the college counselors in the room, quite a few who have spent time “on the other side of the desk” understand the pressures admission officers feel to drive in more applications. In a year when Princeton increased its applications by 19%, Columbia’s increase of 2.9% looked paltry by comparison. Yale had the misfortune of falling 143 applications short of last year’s tally. These “failures” invoke institutional scrutiny and add pressure on the admissions officers.

Though the counselors understand the plight of the admissions officers, they do not have sympathy for those admissions officers who turn recruiting into a competition. Some admissions officers from the most selective schools in the country have even been known to brag about their successes in generating double digit increases in applications from year to year. This peeves the ACCIS counselors who want to know: “When are you going to have enough?” Other counselors chimed in: “Why are you recruiting so hard when you’ve already attained a 5% admission rate?” Where do we go from here? A 3.5% admission rate? Then what?”

Who could answer for the crimes of the admissions officers? One man appeared to defend his profession: Peter Johnson, the longstanding Director of Admissions at Columbia University. However, once the collective venting began, Johnson, the lone cowboy, knew he was in trouble. This would be his Alamo. In a comic gesture, he drew a bull’s-eye on a piece of notebook paper and solemnly held it up to his chest. And the arrows soon followed.

Manufacturing demand, how colleges are complicit in driving up the number of numbers

1) Use of The Common Application

Why was Johnson holding up the paper target? For starters, Columbia (along with Michigan and several other top profile schools) recently made the announcement that it was moving to the nefarious Common Application for 2010. You could almost smell the sulfur and brimstone. Columbia University currently has an acceptance rate of 8.3%; moving to the Common Application will only bring in more applications. Johnson defended the decision to switch over to the Common Application, “Who is Columbia not to give access to more students? Who are we not to be accessible?” But the counselors did not seem moved by this rationale.

2) Misuse of Student Search Letters

A counselor from a highly selective Northeastern prep school complained about the misuse of student search letters in the recruitment process. One of his students received student search letters from Harvard and Yale. His student approached him and said, “Hey, I’m getting encouragement from Harvard and Yale.” But this counselor had to break the sad truth to his student. This was not about the student’s merits, this was about keeping Harvard’s admit rate under 7% and Yale’s under 9%. When this counselor brought the student’s portfolio to NACAC to check things out with the Harvard Admissions Officer, his response was telling. “This looks a little light for us” (read: this kid doesn’t have a shot). The counselor then slammed down the search letter bearing Harvard’s insignia: “Then why the hell are you sending my kid this letter?!” The Harvard Admissions officer had no answer.

According to official propaganda, the colleges and universities are aggressively recruiting to stay ahead of the impending pop of the demographic bubble, the end of the echo boom. But this event remains years away. Other officers claim they must cast an ever- wider net to attract good minority applicants. The counselors at ACCIS did not seem convinced.

3) Beefing up International Recruiting Efforts

Several counselors also questioned colleges’ and universities’ increasingly aggressive efforts to recruit internationally. Columbia used to have 1 officer to handle international apps; now it has 4 dedicated international officers. But other counselors challenged how anyone could blame Columbia for recruiting internationally? There is a potential goldmine of full pay students abroad. China has its one-child policy, but often there are “6 wallets supporting that one child.” One counselor referred to China as “a well you could tap forever.” Colleges are hardly ignoring this reality.

4) Misuse of Fast Apps

Numerous counselors complained about the misuse of fast applications (fast apps) to expedite the application process for selected students. The counselors were concerned that these fast apps were encouraging students to apply to schools they’re not seriously interested in attending. One counselor lamented, “when every college sends out a fast-app, all kids will become a number.”

What is the impact of all of these applications on the admissions process?

As colleges and universities systematically drive up the number of applications, the admissions offices rarely receive commensurate increases in their budgets to process the additional applications. An admissions office may be budgeted for 25,000 applications, receive 32,000 applications and gets its budget cut. One counselor spoke of the resource challenges of the Duke admissions department. The Duke admissions department was built to handle 12,000 apps; In 2010 it received 26,694 apps. Duke’s system worked fine with 12,000 applications: multiple readers for each application, preliminary rating of each application, committee then final decision. However, when Duke is trying to use the same resources and the same system to process an additional 14,694 apps, it places a lot of stress on the system. Something has to give. And two things have been sacrificed:

1) The relationships between College Counselors and Admissions Officers

The first casualty was the strength of the relationship between the college counselors and the admissions officers. College counselors used to play a more active role in negotiating for the admission of their students. In the old days, the “counselor calls” were a key part of the process. It was a collegial interaction. Counselors and Admissions Officers discussed the merits of their applicants and the counselors could advocate for particular students and influence their chances of being accepted. According to the ACCIS group, the counselor calls for the most selective schools have been all but eliminated. The admissions officers no longer have time for the calls.

Without the calls to the admissions office, counselors have less leverage than ever before in this process. More than this, counselors can no longer tell students where they are likely to gain an offer for admission. Counselors are frequently at a loss regarding what will happen to their students’ applications. It’s too random. There are too many good candidates for each spot. As one counselor lamented: “We cannot guide them. The colleges have become too selective.”

2) Death of the Holistic Review

The second casualty in this process was the death of the holistic review of a student’s application. Dozens of counselors chimed in to address this particular concern. “The holistic review begins once we cross the 3.9 bar and the 750+ bar.” “Holistic Reading. Really?” “And what does “holistic” mean for the average unhooked prep school kid?” The consensus was that the holistic review begins once you’ve passed the academic litmus test. If you pass the academic review (GPA couched in schedule strength and test scores AKA the academic index), then you move on to the holistic review process.

Many believe that there is no holistic review at all without a hook. “Are we moving to the British Model where numbers become everything without the pretense of a holistic review?” Another counselor put things in context: “In the old days a private school student with no hook, high 600s and a 3.3 had a chance at Tufts or Wesleyan. Those days are over. It’s not so elastic anymore. Fewer chances are being offered to these kids. If you don’t have the 700 and the 3.5 it will be a challenge.” And college counselors understand: ” Why would you bother to look at the 3.4 pool when you can get everything you need from the 3.7 pool?”

What happens to those students without good college guidance?

The ACCIS counselors benefitted from low counselor/student ratios in their schools: in some cases one counselor oversees as few as 30 or 35 students. What happens to those students attending public schools with a counselor/student ratio of 300/1? Who will be there to tell them about the inauthenticity of the student search letters or counsel them away from applying to a list of schools exclusively comprised of the US News’ top 25? Students, left to their own devices, without proper guidance, may take the scattershot approach to college admissions. They may use the Common App and apply to as many schools as possible. As college guidance grows scarce in many of the budget-crunched public schools, this will only exacerbate the situation and add more applications to the ever-growing pile.

Counselor Solidarity and Closing Thoughts

This session was not a call to arms for the college counselors. It was more of a reflection upon a struggling system, which is often the first step towards any kind of meaningful, organized action. One counselor questioned whether there was a way out of this admissions “arms race:” “Is there any power that we have? Is resignation the answer?” One of his colleagues responded: “Secondary schools: we are 11% of the population who provide 40% of the students for selective institutions.” The problem is that “we tend to focus on “the 20” schools. We spend 90% of our time thinking about the 20. We should flip it.”

This made a lot of sense to me. There are more than 20 colleges in the admissions landscape: there are several thousand. As we soften our gaze, and embrace a larger pool of potential schools for our students, many of these competitive pressures subside and the frenzy of selective admissions abates.

It doesn’t look like Moody’s is going away anytime soon, the US News rankings are as powerful as ever, and the Common App continues to gain momentum. These competitive forces are going to drive the acceptance rates at the top schools to never before seen lows: 5% 3% maybe even 2%. It’s certainly possible. It doesn’t seem likely that we’ll be returning to the old relationship-based model of admissions; Admissions officers will continue to be asked to do more with less, and they will need to find a way to handle the growing stacks of applications.

For students reaching for the gold ring, there’s nothing wrong with applying to the top schools, those blessed by the writers of US News. It’s also healthy for us to expand our view beyond the scope of those uber-selective schools to include more options and a wider array of possibilities. I’m a fan of anything that gives our students a chance for some peace of mind, and a chance for them to define success on their own terms, rather than on the terms set for them by others.


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  • Richard

    Excellent post! The issue of yields/selectivity being tied to Bond ratings is something I was not aware of.

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  • In my effort to contribute to the quest for sanity and humanity in college admissions, I have been encouraged by guidance counselors and independent consultants to share my “research” chronicling email pitches from colleges to high school sophomores.

    An unsuspecting sophomore indicated interest in being contacted by colleges on the PSAT registration. As a result, that student received 44 emails from 44 different colleges during the first 7 days of March. Subject lines include such misleading teasers as:

    * Time is running out
    * Last chance
    * I’m Intrigued [student name]
    * Correct email address?
    * You’ve impressed us
    * Deadline Approaching
    * Relax, [student name]
    * Re: My previous email
    * You still have time
    * Only a few left [student name]
    * I haven’t heard back from you
    * Do you know the secret?
    * I forgot to mention

    Most invite action on the student’s part and imply that their offer is somewhat timely or “important”. One with the subject line “You still have time” promises to help relieve stress! That one reads, “Bottom line: When it comes to getting into a good school, you still have a little time – but getting started early can mean the difference between relaxation and stress when senior year rolls around.” [And to put that school in a “context”, its middle 50% range for critical reading and math SAT scores is 1030 – 1200.]

    Jokingly, I suggest that David Letterman do a top 10 most egregious! But more seriously, I invite college admissions directors to reflect on the effect of these practices on unsuspecting 15 year olds in 10th grade who are likely and maybe hesitantly just beginning to think about the world of college and college admissions. No wonder high school students and their families find the process stressful.

    My choice for the most bizarre college email pitch follows. That one with the subject line “Relax [student’s first name]” reads:

    “Dear [student’s first name],

    One way to keep yourself relaxed during your college search is to close your eyes, take a deep breath, and say to yourself millions of people have gone through this – and most do NOT live out of their cars.

    Another great way is to ask for A Short Guide to a Happy College Search [hot link].

    This unique guide shows you the right questions to ask and the smartest things to do (and what NOT to do) to stay calm and find the right college.

    When I send yours, I’ll also include information about X College and our unique program…”

    Jane C. Hoffman, MBA
    College Admissions Advisor and Founder, College Advice 101
    http://www.CollegeAdvice-101.com

    Associate Member: IECA
    Member: NYSACAC, HECA, Westchester/Putnam/Rockland Counseling Association

    Supporting students and parents in the college search and application process.
    Helping to identify the colleges that are the “best” for the student.

  • Valerie Broughton

    I’d like to comment on the lament worrying about the change in:

    The relationships between College Counselors and Admissions Officers

    I hope that readers of this post realize that the College Counselors in this discussion are those working in the most selective private college prep high schools in the country. I wonder what the average tuition at the schools is where they work. Their “relationship between college counselors and admissions officers” is part of what parents expected for their tuition dollars. That is, a hot line between their school counselor and a selective college admissions officer might have been part of their expectation when they enrolled their child in one of these top high schools.

    As an independent counselor who never has had, and never wanted, a “hot line” to admissions officers, I welcome this decline in private high school counselor access to selective college admissions officers. I believe this change levels the playing field.

    I, for one, am glad that this cozy relationship is at risk.

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