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Out Of Control Admissions Hype

By David Epstein

Apr 12, 2006 (INSIDE HIGHER ED) -- “It’s not all in your head. It is harder to get in to college this year,” begins a recent Washington Post article. It’s one of many articles appearing of late in major publications that inform kids and parents just how steep the hill ahead is.

Anecdotes of little Suzy and her 4.2 GPA getting rejected from Princeton aside, however, admissions experts say that, for the vast majority of students, thinking that college is harder to get into this year is, in fact, “in your head,” or at least your headlines. And many say that they are worried that these headlines can discourage students who may not be aiming for Princeton, but who need to find a good college fit.

The Washington Post article focuses mostly on the acceptance rates at some of the most selective institutions in the country, like Dartmouth College and Yale University. “The media often covers the most selective, expensive institutions where the odds of getting in are the smallest,” said Barmak Nassirian, associate executive director of the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers. A Nexis search of The New York Times for the last 60 days turns up 379 uses of “Harvard,” and 122 uses of “Staten Island.” “It can have an adverse impact in terms of the general impression, by osmosis, for people for whom it’s a non-issue.”

And experts say it is a non-issue for most students. Of around 3,500 nonprofit colleges in the country, only about 150 accept fewer than half of the applicants they receive. Some admissions personnel worry that the admissions hysteria is trickling down and could be discouraging some students and parents.

Nassirian wants students to know that “the Ivies are the exception, not the norm.” One recent New York Times article, entitled “To Land a Top College, Students Cast Wider Net,” reports on “a significant number of students” who “apply to many, many more” colleges sometimes because they’re nervous that they might not get any acceptance letters.

The article cites research from the Cooperative Institutional Research Program at UCLA, which found that 17.4 percent of college freshman surveyed in 2005 applied to at least seven colleges, whereas only 1.8 percent had done so in 1967. Joyce E. Smith, executive director of the National Association for College Admission Counseling, said that one factor in that statistic is that students apply to more places now because of the ease of online applications, and the use of the Common Application, which started in 1975, and can be filled out once and sent to any of 276 participating colleges. Additionally, she said, students tend to be more mobile, so their potential choices have expanded geographically.

The Times article adds, from the CIRP survey, that the proportion of students who applied to 12 or more colleges increased by 50 percent from 2001 to 2005. The article does not go on to note that the 50 percent increase brought the percentage from 1.4 to 2.1. Most of the students who are using such strategies, and who turn up in such articles, are from a relatively elite background, educationally and financially.

Kevin Carey, research and policy manager at the think tank Education Sector, pointed out that the statistic would have been far less intimidating had it been presented instead as a 0.7 percent decline in the number of students who didn’t apply to at least 12 colleges.

“To me that’s a pretty good example of how you see all these stories that really only apply to a small percent,” Carey said. “For the majority, this whole phenomenon means nothing.”

Carey said that acceptance rate at the most elite institutions are down about one percentage point, but that even at those colleges it’s hard to tell if it’s truly more difficult to get in. Because more applicants in that pool are applying to more places, it could just be that there are just more applications, not more applicants. If that is the case, “it’s not harder to get in, it just seems harder,” Carey said. “It’s not that there are many more students going to college. It’s going up a bit.”

Smith added that stories about lengthy waitlists are striking fear into the hearts of some applicants, even though it doesn’t mean a college has gotten particularly more selective. Smith said that, as students are applying to more colleges — sometimes even putting down more than one deposit — it’s becoming harder for institutions to predict their yield, so they often rely on a long waiting list.

Nassirian pointed out that most students don’t have to wait and worry about mysterious admissions procedures, if they simply check out a college’s official information. “Most places articulate exactly what it takes to get in on their Web site,” he said. “You have to have X years of math and X years of English, and at least, say a 2.2 GPA, and if it’s lower, even that may be subject to remedies.” It’s only at institutions where you have “1 spot for 10 applicants that” a college “begins to dole out rough justice.”

Bari Meltzer Norman, a former Barnard College undergraduate admissions counselor turned private admissions counselor, said that one of the first things she often hears from a client is, “I’m not going to get in anywhere/” Her advice to anxious students and families is to take the anecdotes with a barrel of salt.  She said that some students might hear terrifying rejection stories and not apply to particular colleges.  But the stories are “like a game of telephone,” she said.

In effort to quiet all the admissions noise, Dickinson College, in Pennsylvania, has an admission information page that includes blogs where high school kids can read entries by current Dickinson students. “We wanted to ease their concern and show them that these are real people who put their pants on one leg at a time,” said Robert Massa, Dickinson’s vice president for enrollment management.

Nassirian did say that there is some reality to the admissions crunch in some cases other than with Ivies. He said that, as public institutions have tried to become ever more elite, there has been a backlash against remediation that has reached all the way to community colleges, where, Nassirian said, some students in need of remediation are instead excluded from college altogether.

Massa said that students can miss out on the best fitting institution by falling for the hype. “All good marketing campaigns are made around concern and worry in people,” he said. “We’re made to worry, so all of the SAT prep classes are filled, and all of the colleges have so many applicants so they can reject a lot, and the media plays on this. Of course,” he added, “how difficult a college is to get into has absolutely nothing to do with the quality of learning at that institution. That’s been shown time and time again by studies.”

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