The Big Picture

Our annual survey of the admissions landscape uncovered recent and upcoming changes to the process, growing concern about tuition increases, and serious questions about whether colleges are fulfilling their mission

by James Fallows & V. V. Ganeshananthan

This past spring, as colleges mailed out letters of acceptance or rejection to applicants for the incoming freshman class, The Atlantic began contacting people involved in the admissions process to ask what had been surprising, significant, or simply new in this year’s cycle. Through the summer we spoke with dozens of people, from every region of the country. About half were high school counselors and private consultants who advise college-bound students (and their families) about where, when, and how to send applications; the other half were college admissions officers and deans who choose from among the applicants. The people we spoke with represented a wide range of high schools and colleges: public and private, large and small, coed and single-sex, with a variety of racial, ethnic, and economic makeups. We couldn’t cover every acre of the college landscape, but we believe we have a useful sample.

A year ago, when we conducted our first such survey, three major themes ran through the interviews. One was the increasingly chaotic nature of admissions at the most selective colleges. An ongoing demographic bulge meant that 20 percent more students were applying for a relatively fixed number of places at elite schools than had applied only a decade earlier. At the same time, pervasive grade inflation in high schools and the “recentering” of SAT scores (which raised applicants’ scores, on average, by more than 100 points) made it harder for admissions committees to tell one top-level applicant from another. This in turn made it harder for students to count on getting into a particular school. To protect themselves, students—especially well-informed ones from elite public and private high schools—began sending out more applications. This flood only increased the pressure on already overwhelmed admissions committees and made it still harder for anyone to predict which students would be accepted by which colleges.

A second theme last year was the pressure on all participants in the admissions process to “marketize” their behavior. Colleges tried to drum up more applicants, in part because turning down a greater number made them more “selective” and improved their standing in numerical rankings like those of U.S. News & World Report . Counselors advised students on how best to “package” themselves as appealing candidates. And the new discipline of “enrollment management” allowed colleges subtly to ensure that they didn’t have too many students who would ask for financial aid.

The third theme was the reminder that despite its problems, the American college system is so varied and flexible that nearly every student can eventually find a good “match”—a school that fits his or her skills, needs, and interests. Despite the maddening aspects of college admissions and the mounting financial burdens college placed on many families, virtually all the college officials we interviewed said they wished students and parents alike would approach the admissions process with less anxiety.

We found rich new evidence of all three themes again this year. The demographic and social pressures are still so intense that admission to the most selective colleges is hard for any student to count on. “From one year to the next, you can’t predict the difficulty of getting into a given school,” says Nancy Marcus, formerly an adviser at New Trier High School, in Illinois, and now an independent consultant. “Schools that were once ‘likelies’ for certain students—Northwestern, Vanderbilt, Colgate—are now reaches.” Fran Landau, the director of school counseling at Walt Whitman High School, in Maryland, says that decisions at top schools often seem inexplicable, or based on whether a student has forged a personal connection with an admissions officer. “It’s like the kids have to be exciting to them now,” Landau says.

The process is unpredictable from the colleges’ perspective as well. Bruce Poch, the vice president and dean of admissions at Pomona College, in southern California, says he used to see a two-year cycle in applications: they would surge one year, leading to a higher rate of rejections, and “the kids would be scared away the following year,” he says. “Now that doesn’t seem to happen anymore.” Charles Deacon, the dean of admissions at Georgetown, says that this year was the first time in thirty years that Georgetown accepted none of the students on its waiting list, which typically numbers in the hundreds. That was because the “yield,” or proportion of accepted students who decide to enroll, was higher than normal, owing to changes in other schools’ policies.

One difference from last year is a slight displacement downward in the glut of applications. Tom Parker, the dean of admission and financial aid at Amherst, says that applicants at “the bottom of the pool”—that is, those quickly eliminated from consideration—are not applying anymore, and that those applications are presumably “beginning to slide to less selective schools.” Andrew McNeill, the director of college counseling at the Taft School in Connecticut, concurs. This year, he says, he saw a surge in applications to less selective schools, indicating “we’re in the beginning of a shift in where that bubble applies.”

The marketization of the admissions process has only intensified over the past year, at both ends of the process. High school guidance counselors report that they are under ceaseless pressure to “produce” by getting students into exclusive colleges. This pressure is greatest at the most elite private schools, where parents feel they are paying extra for results. A sense that high school counselors are not doing enough has also led to booming business for private admissions consultants, most of them hired by relatively affluent families. (See “Independent Counsel,” by Nicholas Confessore, page 135.)

Meanwhile, nearly every college official we spoke with told us how some other college was playing the market, usually by aggressively prospecting for new applicants, many or most of whom it would ultimately reject. In addition to making a college statistically more “selective,” attracting a larger pool may enable schools to find students with higher test scores and less financial need. A number of colleges were described as using this “attract to reject” strategy, but one was mentioned by numerous interviewees: Washington University in St. Louis, which has gotten itself into the top ten in the U.S. News rankings—ahead of Columbia, Berkeley, the University of Chicago, and Brown—largely by attracting more and more applicants. Nanette Tarbouni, the director of admissions at Washington University, denies any attempts to influence the ranking and says that the school’s skyrocketing applications are a result of good word of mouth from current students about the school’s “exceptional experience.” DePaul University, the largest Catholic university in the country, has taken a very different approach: as the number of its applicants has risen, DePaul has grown. Its current freshman class of 2,350 is nearly two and a half times the size of the 1992 freshman class. Jon Boeckenstedt, DePaul’s associate vice-president for enrollment management, points out that if DePaul had not changed its class size, it would be accepting only 28 percent of all applicants—a level of selectivity comparable to Johns Hopkins’s—rather than the 68 percent it accepts now. Boeckenstedt says DePaul decided “to turn the extra demand into greater access, rather than greater selectivity,” because part of its announced mission is to create opportunities for “first generation” students—those whose parents did not go to college.

And just as they did last year, high school counselors and college admissions deans alike said they wished students and their families did not find the entire process so stressful. Most high school counselors emphasized the point examined by Gregg Easterbrook in this issue (“Who Needs Harvard?,” page 128): that although going to college makes a large difference in students’ future lives, where they go is considerably less important. Similarly, many college deans told us they would like to see applicants who are less tightly wound and overprogrammed than many of today’s students. This preference is unlikely to have much impact, though, because high schoolers notice that their laid-back friends aren’t generally getting into the most selective colleges. Robin Mamlet, the dean of admission and financial aid at Stanford, has often warned against the risk of overstressing students, and points out that the average student admitted to Stanford has taken only six Advanced Placement courses in the last three years of high school. But even she says that “students who are told to relax don’t believe that students who do relax will be accepted.”

In addition to these familiar elements, new themes and concerns emerged from our discussions with advisers and admissions officers this year. The details and emphases varied, with some observations contradicting others, but the comments fell into three broad categories. The first was the process of admissions, and how it was affected by changes in early-decision programs, the SAT, and the treatment of athletes. The second was the financial squeeze on higher education, and the widespread concern that what was once America’s most powerful vehicle for social mobility is being priced out of the reach of ordinary Americans. And the third was an even broader question about the public effect of higher education. With striking frequency, people involved in the daily work of colleges and universities expressed concern that their institutions were letting the public down.

The changing admissions process
One development in the year’s admissions news was entirely positive: the beginning of the end of the early-decision nightmare. Over the past decade the rapid spread of “early” programs has advanced colleges’ interests at the expense of students’, and wealthier students’ interests at the expense of everyone else’s. The essence of the early-decision bargain was that colleges would give students a better chance of admission (usually while pretending not to do so) in return for the students’ promise to enroll if accepted. This helped the colleges by locking in their class and improving their yield; and it helped those students who were absolutely sure by the end of their junior year what college was right for them. But it hurt many more students, by denying them a senior year’s worth of consideration of where to attend; and it severely penalized students who required financial aid, because they were in no position to compare different schools’ offers once they’d been accepted in a binding early program.

Last year’s admissions cycle was the first to show a noticeable effect from what is known as “single-choice early action.” Under its rules—which Harvard, Yale, and Stanford have now adopted—a student may apply to a college for “early action” and get an answer by December of his or her senior year. But—the crucial distinction—the program is not binding. If the student is admitted, he or she has until the normal May 1 deadline to compare admission and aid offers from other schools and decide which to accept. In exchange the student agrees to apply to only one school under any sort of early program. (If a college discovers that a student has sent multiple early applications, it can rescind admission or its financial-aid offer.)

Single-choice early action is a superior alternative to two other practices: the binding early programs that Stanford and Yale previously used (and that Princeton, Penn, and many other schools continue to use) and the nonbinding, non-exclusive early programs formerly available at Harvard (and still used at Georgetown, MIT, the University of Chicago, and others), which put no limit on how many early applications a student could file. This latter policy flooded the system with half-serious applications. The spread of the single-choice early plan has already reduced the wild oversupply of applications to Harvard, which last year had 50 percent fewer early applicants than the year before. “Our sense is that students were targeting their early application to the college they most wanted, and were realistic about their likelihood of a match,” says Marlyn McGrath Lewis, Harvard’s director of undergraduate admissions. Meanwhile, Stanford had 62 percent and Yale 42 percent more early applicants after they jettisoned their binding programs. Many people express views similar to that offered by Andrew McNeill, of the Taft School: “Single-choice early action is the future.”

The situation is murkier when it comes to the new version of the SAT. The students who started college this fall are the tail end of a fifty-year cohort that has taken the familiar SAT, with its oddball word-analogy questions and maximum score of 1600. Over the years critics of the test have made obvious (and well-supported) objections to this version of the test: it can’t measure certain kinds of intelligence; it effectively rewards high income and social standing; it is obviously “coachable”; and so on. But the SAT and its counterpart the ACT have continued to rise in importance, because standardized scores are the one way that admissions committees can measure applicants from different regions, schools, and backgrounds on some kind of common scale.

The complication is that this standard of comparison is now itself in flux. Starting in March, students will be able to take a new version of the SAT, which will be forty-five minutes longer and will have a maximum score of 2400 rather than 1600. The new test will eliminate the familiar “anthrax is to puppy as …” analogies, add harder algebra questions, and include an essay question that students will have twenty-five minutes to answer. The resulting essays will be graded on an “objective” scale of 1 through 6, by thousands of separate readers who will purportedly apply consistent standards across the country.

This year’s juniors, the high school class of 2006, in theory have the choice of taking either the old or the new SAT. (The classes of 2007 and onward will be offered only the new version.) As a practical matter, students aiming for selective colleges should be sure to take the new test, either by itself or in addition to the old. As Joan Bress, of College Resource Associates, in Worcester, Massachusetts, points out, “students submitting [only] the old SAT may be perceived as trying to avoid the writing sample.” But although that guidance is clear, it’s impossible to predict how colleges will weigh the new SAT in the short term. A number of admissions officials said that they would look at the essay scores but planned to collect data about their predictive value for several years before giving them significant weight.

Another factor in the admissions process that evoked a surprisingly strong note of concern from college officials was the role played by athletics. “The treatment of athletes is the biggest uncovered scandal in admissions,” says the dean of admissions at a selective college in the South. Cigus Vanni, of Cherry Hill West High School, in New Jersey, says, “Athletes simply take up too many spaces at competitive schools.” Vanni and others are not referring to the traditional football and basketball powerhouse universities that are chronically put on probation by the NCAA. They are talking about the “best” schools. Harvard fields teams in forty-one Division I sports, Princeton in thirty-eight. “Those athletes don’t just appear,” says Princeton’s dean of admission, Janet Lavin Rapelye, meaning that they are sought out and recruited. “Does it seem unfair to some parents? Perhaps. Are we making compromises? No.”

Lloyd Thacker, of the Education Conservancy, in Portland, Oregon, says that the role of sports in Ivy League admissions is becoming widely noticed. “I think deans are trying to do a good job” (that is, are trying to admit only qualified athletes), he says. “I just think there are institutional pressures. Any real change has to come from presidents demonstrating leadership beyond their own institutional self-interest.” (In the summer of 2003 the Ivy League presidents did raise academic standards for athletes and limit the number of recruits.) Tom Parker, of Amherst, thinks the first step toward addressing this problem—and the related one of “legacy” admissions—is to be completely honest about them. “Schools should come right out and say, ‘We are practicing affirmative action. This is our admit rate for legacies. We reserve X places for athletes.’ These people get in at the cost of academic standards, and it should be said, because everybody knows it. Pretending otherwise just engenders cynicism.” In the meantime, though, prospective Ivy Leaguers might want to stay in shape.

The financial squeeze
One prospect worried the people we interviewed more than any other. It was the financial pressures that together threaten to make four-year colleges, especially private ones, largely the preserve of the well-off—a reflection of social advancement rather than a means toward it.

The individual forces behind this shift are familiar: the polarization of incomes; the squeeze on state and federal support for higher education; the already high cost of private education and the rapidly rising cost of public institutions. Another factor is the boom in “merit aid” programs at schools both public and private. Merit aid is financial assistance given for reasons other than financial need, and it is the fastest-growing category of financial aid. This is because merit aid helps colleges attract students with higher SAT scores, and from more-prosperous families, than might otherwise enroll. Steve Goodman, an independent educational consultant in Washington, D.C., offers the example of a student he was advising who was accepted by Syracuse. “The school threw six or seven thousand dollars at him that he didn’t need,” Goodman said. “They offered the money to be sure he would come.” Michael Sexton, the dean of admissions at Lewis & Clark College, in Portland, Oregon, says that the use of merit aid depends mainly on where the institution stands “on the food chain” of colleges. “For those of us just below the upper echelon, it’s one of the tools we can use [to attract top students].” Since overall aid budgets have been flat, more merit aid means less need-based aid at all but the very richest colleges.

Taken together, these and other forces have convinced many officials that America’s four-year colleges, though more international and ethnically diverse than ever, are becoming less socio-economically diverse. “Low-income students are not participating at adequate rates,” says John Latting, the director of admissions at Johns Hopkins. “There’s some real talent, and they’re not participating in the most prominent institutions at nearly the rates that a pure meritocracy would suggest.” Latting points out that from a college’s point of view, it is more convenient in every way to stick with well-prepared students who attended well-funded high schools and whose families can cover tuition without assistance. “Recruiting low-income students is expensive and requires you to take a hit in the apparent quality of your class,” he says, because they generally have lower test scores. “But you have to be willing to do that, because so many things in the application process are biased toward standpoints and values ingrained in the upper class.” Similar concerns were expressed time and again in our interviews. Richard Shaw, the dean of admissions and financial aid at Yale, described how the complexity of financial aid was another barrier to less well-off students, who are “having a hard time just taking the first step to consider college.” The bad news, Shaw said, is that selective colleges are becoming economically stratified. “The good news is that it’s becoming a major topic.” This year Lawrence Summers, the president of Harvard, announced that the university would waive all costs for students from families with an annual income below $40,000. (Of course, such students would still have to get into Harvard in the first place.)

William Bowen, the president of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and a former president of Princeton, has recently argued that selective universities have turned into “bastions of privilege” rather than “engines of opportunity,” because the whole process that leads students to different levels of education is so heavily biased against the poor. For instance, in families from the bottom 25 percent of the income distribution not even one third of students take the SAT. In families from the top 25 percent more than two thirds do. To help correct such disparities, Bowen has recommended not just need-blind admissions but “class-based affirmative action” to run alongside race-based programs. Indeed in a report last year for the Century Foundation, called “Socioeconomic Status, Race/Ethnicity, and Selective College Admissions,” Anthony Carnevale and Stephen Rose argued that elite-college admission was far more heavily skewed against low-income students than against racial minorities. “There are large numbers of students from families with low income and low levels of parental education who are academically prepared for bachelor’s degree attainment, even in the most selective colleges,” they wrote. “Their numbers are far larger than those who currently attend.” Carnevale and Rose estimated that as many as 300,000 low-income students now have the potential to succeed in four-year colleges but do not attend them.

Rod Skinner, the director of college counseling at Milton Academy, a private school outside Boston, says that the shift toward merit aid and away from need-based programs raises a moral question about ensuring access to higher education. “If you look at the trends nationally, those who really need the money are not getting it, and therefore we have a sort of aristocracy emerging in college admissions.” Cigus Vanni, of Cherry Hill, agrees, describing the phenomenon as “aristocratic socialism.” There is an attitude, he says, of “this is my reward—I deserve it because I worked hard.”

Tom Mortenson, a higher-education policy analyst in Oskaloosa, Iowa, points out that California’s college and university system was designed from the start to give students from every social class a reasonable chance at higher education. Its three-level network includes community colleges throughout the state, the California State University system above them, and the University of California campuses, with their highly selective admissions, at the top. The intention remains, but the system is now under financial stress from underfunding and overcrowding. Peter Osgood, the director of admissions at Harvey Mudd College, in Claremont, California, points out that spaces have been cut from the UC system, diverting students toward crowded community colleges. “We’re cutting things at a time when we should actually be physically building campuses,” he says. “We’re going to be in a world of hurt if we don’t act soon.”

College and America
People working in higher education aren’t in it for the money. They care about scholarship, they enjoy working with young people, they believe that what they do matters. That may be why so many of the people we spoke with volunteered that the higher-education system was evolving into something less and less connected to any kind of public good. “Universities don’t benefit society enough directly, on a day-to-day basis,” the consultant Steve Goodman says. “They’re supposed to serve the public interest, but they’ve become no different from insurance companies.”

This line of reasoning has several strands. One involves a simple loss of ambition on the part of universities and their leaders. Robert Zemsky, a professor of education at the University of Pennsylvania, wrote last year in The Chronicle of Higher Education that “colleges and universities are seen principally as providing tickets to financial security and economic status,” rather than being involved in any larger public purpose. He noted that through the 1950s and 1960s many university presidents were leading public intellectuals. Agree with them or not, Clark Kerr, of Berkeley; Theodore Hesburgh, of Notre Dame; Kingman Brewster, of Yale; and others of their time played a larger role in public debates than almost any of their modern counterparts.

Many people expressed concern that colleges are not fully serving their own students, who often take on considerable debt or draw heavily on their parents’ savings in order to attend. “The amount of attention paid to undergraduates at the larger private and public research institutions is a national scandal,” says the admissions consultant Norman Puffett, who is also a dean at the College of Mount Saint Vincent, in Riverdale, New York, in a widely echoed sentiment. Outside the academy, discussion of higher education usually involves what happens before students begin their undergraduate education (that is, during the admissions process) and what happens after it’s over (that is, whether their degrees help them get appropriate jobs). What happens in between is largely a mystery. Concern about these very expensive “lost years” has fueled the important “accountability” movement, which hopes to measure how well colleges actually perform when it comes to educating their students. The National Survey of Student Engagement, or NSSE, has been a pioneer in this area, with studies that measure how often students at a given college do the things that have proved to be associated with real learning: writing papers, speaking in class, interacting with professors, and so on. Since 1999 NSSE has been used at more than 850 colleges and universities. Similarly, a group called the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education, based in San Jose, has produced innovative “Report Cards” every two years since 2000, judging each state’s public and private higher education on its affordability, the graduation rate of students, the contribution the graduates make to public life, and other factors. A still more recent effort, the Collegiate Learning Assessment, hopes to measure how well individual colleges teach their students to think. (See “Measure by Measure,” by Jay Mathews, page 134.)

Finally, in addition to the question of how well America’s colleges and universities are serving their current students is the question of how well they will be able to serve those in the future. Many of our interviewees stressed a concern that few outside academia are aware of. It is that the next five or six years will see a big surge in demand for college enrollment, which will be as rapid and dramatic in some regions as the Baby Boom, and will be overwhelmingly Hispanic. The fastest growth in America’s college-age population, in other words, will be in the group that has had the lowest college-attendance rate. One in seven Hispanic-Americans has a college degree, compared with one in two Asian-Americans, one in three white Americans, and one in five black Americans. This “participation gap” will pose an enormous challenge for higher education in the near future. “The stakes for serving this new population are very high,” says Peter Osgood, of Harvey Mudd. “If we invest in education as a society, we will produce a better, richer society, a better-educated electorate, and we may help lower costs for health care.” Or, if American colleges and universities cannot figure out how to serve this population, it may mean the reverse.

In sum, today’s students are competing for places in a college system racked by debate about many of its basic values and practices—but more animated by questions of common good and public purpose than it has been in years.

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