As today’s colleges and universities focus on underrepresented demographics to try and make education more accessible to everyone, the exact opposite continues to unfold. The total number of college applications continues to rise each year, and consequently, admission rates are falling to all-time lows. Stanford currently holds the lowest admission rate at an abysmal 5.1%, while top Ivy League institutions, such as Harvard, Columbia, Cornell and Brown, have all seen their admission rates cut in half in just the last ten years. The problem, however, lies not in the increasing levels of competition, but the way in which today’s increasing number of applicants are being assessed, and the economic dilemma that ensues.
Two of the most scrutinized college statistics, admission rate and yield, are changing the way in which schools approach the admissions process. Schools are now encouraging more and more students to apply for the same number of limited spots, whether they prove to be qualified for the school or not. As a result, colleges are able to flaunt the title of “most selective,” while students now find themselves having to pay for applications (averaging $40 a piece) to six or seven different schools.
Yield, which constitutes the percent of admitted students who decide to enroll, has led certain schools to focus on students that show a clear “demonstrated interest” in the school. Students who are willing spend the money to tour a campus and visit several times will gain an advantage in this department. Applying Early Decision to a school, which remains the most assured form of demonstrated interest, has become popular due to its higher admission rates. Now, several schools admit close to half of their freshman classes from Early Decision. Unfortunately, students who may not be able to afford a school are put at a disadvantage, as they must wait until Regular Decision in the spring to evaluate their financial aid options.
The largest economic disadvantage for many, though, comes far before the application process even begins. As it becomes more difficult for colleges to evaluate GPA scales and academic rigor of different high schools, they have to rely more on standardized tests. Until recently, the College Board has had held a monopoly with its SAT tests, but is now having to change them every few years to compete with the ACT. As a result, many students will turn to counselors and tutoring services to help decide which test to take and how to prepare for the changing tests. These tutoring sessions can easily add up to thousands of dollars, and many students will take the tests themselves (which cost over $50 apiece) multiple times to improve scores.
Say the average student takes the ACT once and the SAT three times, pays for a five-week SAT tutoring session, and applies to seven schools. This student will have spent over $3,000 dollars before even enrolling in a school, where he or she will then spend, on average, a total of $30,000 dollars per year for four or more years. It is not to say colleges don’t help with cost, because many do. Princeton, for example, graduates 83% of their students debt-free, with their phenomenal financial aid packages. The problem with cost, though, exists in the process of getting in. Coming from a low-income household means students simply can’t put themselves in a position to compete with those who have the proper resources.
The increasing number of applications clearly presents an issue with costs for lower income applicants, but even more problematic is the way in which the entire admissions process has become depersonalized. Most schools no longer have the time or resources to interview students face-to-face, and thus have to rely on numbers on a page to determine the feasibility of a 17-year-old applicant. As a result, schools advertise their “holistic” approach to reviewing applications, which basically means they don’t overlook parts of the application such as background information, essays, and extracurriculars. The problem remains that colleges cannot determine if a student will truly take advantage of his college experience by simply reading an over-edited essay on the topic “What is your favorite word and why?”
Colleges want to see how students have explored their passion in high school and have left an impact, but unfortunately for most students, they don’t even know what their passion is yet. It makes no sense that colleges, which advertise how their resources allow students to change the world, are admitting high schoolers that have apparently already done so. If a student needs to have practically started his own business or made the Olympics by age 17 to get into Harvard, why should he need to even attend Harvard? On the other hand, less qualified students fill their applications with meaningless extracurriculars and activities to make up for other glaring deficiencies, simply to look accomplished enough for a school where they will inherently struggle to succeed. The goal of the expanded application with activities and personal essay sections is to make the process more intimate — to be able to better understand the students and their backgrounds. By trying to collect more substantive material from students though, colleges continue to punish the enduring, working class students who go unnoticed. As colleges request the proverbial quantity over quality through expanding the applications’ content as well as overall number of applications, it becomes more difficult to find the special qualities in individual applicants. The families with the time and resources to embellish their child’s application with expensive additional courses and summer programs will always come out on top, as long as colleges continue to request more and more material. But neither the affluent nor the lower income families are to blame for the currently faltering admissions process. It is the colleges themselves who are complicit in the process and are the only ones who can truly change it.
Like any job application in today’s world, without a personal interview to discuss how a student will fit at a college or make the most of his experience there, no college or university can clearly distinguish between one stack of application papers from another. The lack of personal interaction in the college admissions process is setting the stage for the greater issue of graduation rates in America. Students spend thousands of borrowed dollars to reach their dream college, before they have even proven why they want to attend or what they want to get out of it, leading many of them to fail before even stepping foot on campus.
Featured image from Wikimedia user Inabluemn.
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