In my last post, I presented a list of college application “frequently asked questions.” Because research is a hassle, I didn’t do any. My answers were all based on what I’ve heard from parents in my community and from my older daughter. I regurgitated these people’s collected wisdom in slightly distorted form to inject humor. My main point was to satirize the doom-and-gloom attitude of pretty much everybody around me (except my wife, who also finds the prevailing attitude pointless and annoying).
That being said, I assumed that my answer to the first FAQ—”Is it harder to get into college now?”—was basically correct. (My answer was, “Yes, it absolutely is. Your child is way, way smarter, more industrious, and more resourceful than you, and yet won’t be able to sail through the process and attend a top college like you did.”) I took everybody’s word for it that top colleges really are more selective nowadays, simply because this opinion was always given with such an air of authority. I took it on faith that my community was actually basing this position on facts and research. It turns out that these people are all just a bunch of ninnies, mistaking fear for reality … Chicken Littles all, spouting falsehoods irresponsibly. This post debunks all that and presents a theory on the origin of this mass hysteria.
The conventional wisdom
All the parents and high school kids around me say the same thing: “It’s way harder getting into a top college than it used to be.” This is stated as irrefutable fact and when I’ve expressed skepticism, I’ve been shot down. The evidence given (if any) is the lower rate of acceptance—i.e., the number of rejected applications. So many more students are being rejected, the logic goes, our crop of kids may well be among them.
I have instinctively doubted this, and in trying to buck up my daughter I said, “It’s probably just more pack fodder. The field is larger, but not the front of the group that actually has a chance.” I chose this bike race analogy to try to make the dialogue briefer and a bit less dull. My point was, if you have 20 good racers who are all competitive, and then a bunch of poseurs buy fancy bikes and jump in to the race, without a prayer of placing high, your race hasn’t really gotten harder. It’s just gotten bigger.
My daughter refuted this counterpoint on the grounds that a) students with really good grades and SAT/ACT scores are being turned away, and b) everybody knows it’s gotten harder—this is just established fact. Out of sheer laziness and a sense that pessimists are usually right, I never pursued the truth. Until now.
The truth is, the increased difficulty of a top student getting into a top school has been greatly exaggerated. Here is a summary of my findings:
- The number of high school seniors is shrinking
- The number of qualified applicants to top colleges has not significantly grown
- Students apply to far more colleges than ever before, out of fear of being rejected and because electronic application methodologies like Common App have made this so easy to do
- This application inflation is greatly decreasing the acceptance rate
- This acceptance rate number is illusory because so many applicants are not qualified
- Colleges are deliberately encouraging behaviors that shrink this acceptance rate number, to appear more elite
- Looking at the metric that matters—the percentage of top students accepted by at least one top college—paints a picture that is astonishingly rosier
And now, here is my point-by-point evidence of the above, to thoroughly document and explain what is really going on.
The number of high school seniors is declining
This article in The Atlantic states, “The number of American high school seniors is shrinking, having peaked in 2011.” This is also stated by Time magazine here. (Actually, the Atlantic cites Time on this point, but presumably The Atlantic does fact-check.)
The number of qualified applicants to top colleges has not significantly grown
The Atlantic reports that “according to [education company] Noodle[.org]’s data, the number of seats at competitive colleges has grown faster than the total pool of qualified applicants—raising a student’s chances of getting into a ‘selective college.’” Meanwhile, US News & World Report declares, “As selective as they’d like prospective students to believe they are, colleges and universities have been watching enrollment decline for five years, according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. Last year alone, it dropped 1.4 percent, or by about 270,000 students, at institutions nationwide…. Part of that is due to the shrinking supply of 18-year-olds and to families’ concerns about the high cost, and relative value, of college.”
Students are applying to far more colleges than before
The Atlantic reports, “Many high achieving students will apply to 10 or 15 schools, so you’re looking at doubling or even tripling the number of applications from the same pool of applicants. Application inflation is linked, [the Noodle.org VP] believes, to the Common App.” The Washington Post reports, “More than 800,000 students used the Common Application last year to submit some 3.5 million applications to more than 700 colleges. Plenty of students today apply to colleges they have hardly any intention of attending.” The New York Times explains it thus: “Enabled by technology that makes it easier to copy and send electronic documents and driven by the competitive anxiety that plummeting admission rates produce, top students have been sending out more applications…. In essence, the growth in applications per student creates a vicious cycle, causing admission rates at the best schools to artificially decline, students to become more anxious, and the number of applications per student to grow even more.”
Application inflation is greatly decreasing the acceptance rate
The Washington Post article describes the acceptance rate number in somewhat useful terms: “The top 20 national universities in the U.S. News & World Report rankings, for instance, enroll only about 100,000 students out of 17 million undergraduates nationwide. So the denominator is rising as the numerator stays the same in an equation that is more like the odds of playing the lottery for most students and parents.” This explanation is only somewhat useful, though, because of course colleges aren’t accepting students at random. This is the whole problem: the acceptance rate is being treated like odds in a lottery when in fact colleges have an objective basis to discard most applications.
This acceptance rate number is illusory
As reported in Time magazine, “What many parents and students don’t realize is that increasing numbers of applications isn’t necessarily a sign that it’s harder to get into a selective school; rather, it’s a sign of changes in behavior among high school seniors. More and more people who aren’t necessarily qualified are applying to top schools, inflating the application numbers while not seriously impacting admissions.” The New York Times makes a similar analysis: “[Admission rates] don’t represent the true odds of a well-qualified student’s being admitted to a top school. That’s because anyone can apply to college, well qualified or otherwise. Selective colleges immediately toss the long shots and dreamers from the admissions pile in order to concentrate on students with a legitimate shot at getting in. But they don’t parse their admissions statistics that way, in part because it’s in their best interests to seem as selective as possible.”
Colleges are deliberately shrinking the acceptance rate
US News & World Report declares, “Some [colleges] have encouraged the applications boom, with its resulting effect on their ability to predict yields, by urging marginally qualified students to apply. Known as ‘recruit to deny,’ this practice makes them appear more selective and boosts their standings in some college rankings.” The Washington Post reports, “Colleges buy more than 80 million names of test takers from the College Board annually. In some cases, schools simply encouraged more students to apply as a way to improve their standings in the rankings.”
As far as I can tell, my daughter has received solicitations from every college in the country, even the ones she’s sure would never accept her. She now holds the distinction of getting more junk mail than the rest of the family combined (to say nothing of her e-mail spam, which currently stands at over 2,500 messages with 50 in the last week alone). Hell, Carleton College even sent her a Frisbee!
The metric that matters
My favorite among these articles is the one from the New York Times, which makes a valiant effort to talk us off the ledge: “For well-qualified students, getting into a good college isn’t difficult. It probably isn’t that much harder than it was generations ago. The fact that everyone believes otherwise shows how reliance on a single set of data—in this case, institutional admission rates—can create a false sense of what’s really going on.” The article goes on to say:
Some students are applying to 20 or more schools: to increase their odds of making a single match. The most important elite college admissions statistic, then, is not the percentage of applications top schools accept. It’s the percentage of top students who are admitted to at least one top school. And that number isn’t 5 percent or 20 percent or even 50 percent. It’s 80 percent. It turns out that four out of five well-qualified students who apply to elite schools are accepted by at least one…. Since there has never been a time when 100 percent of well-qualified students were successful in the college admissions market, the truism that elite colleges are far more difficult to crack than in years gone by can’t be correct: 80 percent is too close, mathematically, to nearly everyone.
Needless to say, this Times article should be required reading for all parents of college-bound teenagers, and for those teenagers.
My daughter’s reaction
When I presented all this to my daughter—the one person I’m willing to bother arguing with about this, because I hope to reduce her anxiety—she was understandably skeptical. She immediately began Googling all this for herself. “You don’t have to do that,” I said. “I’ve already compiled the relevant articles for you.” She gave me one of those looks. Acknowledging that of course she’d fact-check me later anyway, I asked for a few minutes of her attention to read her some of the passages I’ve quoted above.
My daughter didn’t actually seem relieved. Perhaps all this seems too good to be true given the atmosphere of doom she has been trapped in for the last year or so. Or maybe being optimistic just feels weird and wrong at this point. She immediately came up with some hard questions. “What do they mean ‘top school’?” she asked. I cited the article: it defines top school as “one of the 113 schools identified by Barron’s Profiles of American Colleges as the most selective.” My daughter, naturally, looked this up on the spot and read off the list. I’d heard of at last 90% of the colleges listed, and they really are elite. (My alma mater, UC Berkeley, didn’t even make the list.)
Next she questioned how the Times defined a “well-qualified” student. The answer is, it’s “combined SAT scores (or an ACT equivalent) of at least 1300.” My daughter stared in blank disbelief. “That’s not high at all. That’s like 60th percentile,” she said. Then she fact-checked herself: it’s actually 90th percentile. Competitive, sure, but not insanely high. Could the Times really be right about this? Well, they based their findings on the applications of 800,000 students. And they’re the New York Times, for crying out loud.
Why the hysteria?
So the natural question is, how could every adult I’ve talked to about this be so wrong? Why this widespread panic? I have two theories.
First, it’s far more exciting and engaging to paint everything in the darkest shades possible. FUD (fear, uncertainty, and doubt) gives a nice urgent edge to your sidebar chatter at book club. FUD also makes better headlines, which might be all most people bother to read. Consider this one , in Business Insider: “It was the hardest year on record to get into elite colleges—admissions experts explain why.” What’s remarkable about the article is that it doesn’t really support this “hardest” assertion, but rather says much the same thing as the other articles I’ve cited. For example: “The steady uptick of college applicants, especially at elite schools, is stark, driven in part by the emergence of Common App, which allows students to apply to many schools at once.” It goes on to say, “There may be reason to view this lowering acceptance rate with some skepticism.” It trails off talking about how the strong cohort of high-scoring international applicants, “while it may drive down the overall acceptance rate, likely has less impact on US applicants than is sometimes believed.”
Meanwhile, beyond being typical drama queens, I think a lot of these parents are responding to their deep-seated fear that their kid(s) will wash out. (If so, they’re likely sharing their kids’ experience.) Perhaps by portraying the college admission game as nearly unwinnable they’re assuaging, in advance, the shame of their kid’s defeat.
It’s tempting to have sympathy for these beleaguered people, but in fact I’m kind of pissed off. Their willingness to be readily duped by deliberately misleading statistics, and to heap that unfounded fear on their poor children—and mine!—has caused untold unnecessary anxiety. And that’s not the only collateral damage. By creating so much fear and angst, our communities are teaching children to be self-absorbed and monomaniacal. My teen years involved a lot of messing around, having fun, killing time, and basically being a kid. Our current crop of teens are like 16 going on 40. Practically every action they take has their college admission in mind. As a group they’re just a huge buzz-kill. You know who they remind me of? Stressed out middle-aged parents. It’s pathetic.
Will it ever end?
Alas, I’m not sure getting into a good college will actually help. By that point, worrying and hand-wringing will have become a habit that is hard to shake. I’m basing this on a couple of things.
The first is an anecdote shared with me by an acquaintance whose sister works at Duke University, and whose job includes interviewing prospective students—i.e., those who have been accepted—to determine scholarship eligibility. She was struck, my acquaintance told me, by how unexcited and often downright sullen many of these kids were. I mean, here they’d been accepted by Duke, but they seemed so downcast! So finally she asked one of them why he wasn’t more excited. “I’m still waiting to hear from Harvard,” the ungrateful, over-privileged little shit replied.
Here is my second anecdote, from spending an afternoon at UC Berkeley at an internship fair. My role there, as I was quick to explain to every Cal student I talked to, was simply to answer their questions and describe the culture at the company I work for. I made it clear that I wasn’t the one evaluating them. But almost every student treated our chat like a job interview. They all had pretty extensive résumés, even the freshmen (which made up a surprisingly high proportion of the group, given that they were only like six weeks into their college careers). They all had this air of desperation about them.
One interaction in particular illustrates what I’m talking about. This student asked me, “What classes should I take?” I replied, “Well, I didn’t major in Computer Science, so I wouldn’t know anything about that.” She pressed on, “No … I mean, what classes should I take?” She was practically winking at me. I finally grasped her meaning: she meant what classes would look good on her résumé and help her get an internship at my company. I had no idea. I told her, “What I’ve witnessed in tech is that a lot of engineering types don’t write well. I think you should take a couple of writing classes.” She seemed perplexed and asked, “Can I?” I replied, “Of course you can! You can take whatever class you want! And you should … I mean, you’re at a world class university. You should take advantage of your opportunities here!” Her expression was priceless, like a light bulb on a dimmer switch gradually coming on. She had clearly never thought about college in any other terms than advancement and career prospects. “Wow … I guess I can!” she replied, astonished.
Call to action
If you’ve been sowing doom and gloom by parroting all this received wisdom about colleges being more selective, please stop. If you have a freaked out kid, please tell him or her to relax and try not to worry. And if you don’t believe me about any of this, go click on some of the links I’ve included here and read these articles for yourself.
As for me, next time some fellow parent trots out all this malarkey about college admissions being way more competitive, I’m going to tell him flat-out that he’s wrong. No, I won’t subject him to a withering argument … I’ll go one worse. I’ll ask him to read this post. This of course will end the dialogue forever, since as you well know, nobody reads this blog … except, apparently, you (and I hereby offer my congratulations at your intellectual stamina).
This post only scratches the surface of my disgust at prevailing attitudes toward higher education. For a more comprehensive (but lighter-weight) survey, check out my previous post.
For further reading
For further reading
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