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An ‘F’ for College Admissions

The American college application system is fundamentally broken. For months, and sometimes even years, applicants labor over strategies, compile college lists, tabulate expenses, attend info sessions, and rewrite essays until words lose their meaning, all in preparation for the unbearably stressful day that decisions are released. It is a crushing process that beckons students in with ostensibly wonderful promises, only to require from them inordinate amounts of time, money, and stress with no guarantee of success. Colleges are meant to usher young adults toward lives of excellence and learning. However, students who make it to their perfect colleges do so not because, but in spite of the current system. As it stands, the college application process fosters false expectations in students, monopolizes their time and money, wrecks their mental health, and discourages them from realizing their highest potentials. For the sake of all those it claims to help, the college admissions system must be reformed.

Over 10 million students apply to colleges in the United States every year. In the beginning, guidance counselors typically recommend that applicants compile a balanced college list of safeties, matches, and reaches that will ensure them at least one acceptance. But with every year that goes by, students are growing more and more uncertain about what constitutes a logical list. The Higher Education Research Institute reported that in 2005, just five percent of freshmen applied to seven or more colleges. By 2016, that number had skyrocketed to 35 percent. One reason for this trend lies in decreasing college acceptance rates. From 2002 to 2017, 45 percent of colleges’ acceptance rates decreased by at least 10 percent. Of these, the acceptance rates of 3.4 percent of colleges, including almost all of the most selective institutions, dropped by 50 percent or more. At the same time, the admission rates of 55 percent of the schools studied remained stable or even increased. However, because highly-selective colleges receive outsized media attention, their decreasing acceptance rates disseminate the idea that it is becoming more and more difficult for students to get into all colleges, causing them to apply to more schools in order to increase their chances of admission. 

Further increasing the complexity of the admissions process is the fact that colleges are incentivized to increase their total number of applications, thereby decreasing their acceptance rates. This process helps them earn higher positions in the U.S. News & World Report’s annual ranking of colleges. Every year, colleges buy the names of about 80 million test-takers from the College Board and place them on their mailing lists. Throughout the months leading up to application deadlines, the colleges send these students emails, brochures, and sometimes even free merchandise. The objective is to encourage students to complete an application, regardless of whether or not their qualifications merit a legitimate chance of acceptance. Some schools, such as Harvard University, send over 100,000 students letters stating that “your strong grades and standardized test scores indicate to us that Harvard and other selective institutions may be possibilities for you.” Yet, every year, Harvard accepts fewer than 2,000 applicants to its freshman class. 

So, as colleges bombard students with messages, often personally addressed to each recipient, students are instilled with the usually false idea that they are likely to be admitted. This belief encourages them to apply. As a result, highly-ranked colleges’ acceptance rates decrease and, over time, students adopt the perception colleges across the board have become more selective. Students then agonize over their college lists, occasionally applying to 20 or 30 schools just to assuage their fears of rejection. 

Another facet of the dishonesty cultivated by the college application system is the demonstrated interest dilemma. Prestige is tied to high yield rates, so colleges dedicate significant resources to ensuring that the students they accept are likely to accept them back. This quality has come to be known as a student’s “demonstrated interest.” Over 70 percent of colleges place some level of importance on demonstrated interest, tracking the metric by recording students’ number of visits to campus, time spent on the colleges’ websites, and amount of contact with admissions representatives. If students fall short in this category, one that almost always requires large amounts of time and money to satisfy, they likely will not be accepted. Compounding the problem is the fact that because students are applying to more and more colleges, they inevitably have little desire to attend some of the schools on their lists. Thus, colleges initiate misleading PR campaigns to get more students to apply, while at the same time, students fake demonstrated interest to get some of their colleges to accept them. While this pressure results in high levels of frustration and stress for many students, low-income applicants are hit especially hard, as the system benefits students with the time, money, and resources to demonstrate their interest.

This process is extraordinarily unfair and costs students a great deal. At the most basic level, each application requires money. Some low-income applicants apply and qualify for fee waivers, but those who do not must pay an average of 45 dollars per application. For the top 61 most expensive universities, including all eight of the Ivys, that number soars to 75 dollars. Students are essentially being tricked into spending hundreds of dollars to apply to far more schools than necessary, a point that does not even factor in the exorbitant cost of college itself. 

It is no surprise, then, that the rigor of the college application process has taken a massive psychological toll on students. For months, and sometimes even years, students tear themselves apart trying to figure out how to get into college. Ultimately, however, there will always be too many students for the number of slots available, particularly at very selective schools. In 2013, the American Psychological Association quantified teenagers’ average school-year stress levels with a rating of 5.8 out of 10, a number that far exceeds the healthy standard of 3.9. Additionally, in 2019, Challenge Success found that out of 43,000 students in high-performing high schools in the United States, 66 percent said they were “often or always worried” about getting into college. The college application process is set up such that failure is far more pronounced than success, resulting in devastating and untenable psychological consequences for students.

The main alternative to the lengthy and expensive traditional admissions process is applying Early Decision (ED) to one school, a binding program that commits applicants to attend the school should they be accepted. Yet, the existence of Early Decision forces students to strategize: should they apply Early Decision to a safety or match, potentially forfeiting any possibility that they would have gotten into a reach, or should they wait and instead face the flaws of the Regular Decision process? Additionally, all ED applicants must commit to accepting whatever financial aid package their chosen school offers, a setup that disproportionately hurts low-income applicants. These applicants already face a slew of societal disadvantages, including the fact that they typically have fewer resources to guide them through the overwhelming Regular Decision process. The Association for Education Finance and Policy reported that 50 percent of low-income students perceive their ability to get into selective colleges as lower than what their academic abilities would suggest. Essentially, because the current college application process is so inexplicably difficult and expensive, it discourages students from reaching for the college they most want to attend. 

The litany of problems with the college admissions system leaves many avenues open for improvement. Perhaps a version of the National Resident Matching System used by medical residency programs, as well as by New York City public high schools, and Questbridge, an organization that connects high-achieving low-income students with selective colleges, could be incorporated into the process. The protocol in the residency system is relatively simple: medical students rank residencies in order of preference, while residencies simultaneously list the students they most want to admit. Students are then matched with the highest residency on their list to which they have been accepted. Despite potential flaws in the matching system relating to its binding nature, financial aid, and lack of diversity, it could be very effective if incorporated into the college admissions process on a smaller scale. A viable first step could involve a version of Questbridge that was expanded to include low-income applicants to all schools, not just highly-selective colleges. Or, a matching system that includes students of all income levels could initially be implemented solely among the Ivy League schools. Over time, the matching process would evolve to suit the college admissions system, opening opportunities for it to be enacted among various cohorts of colleges across the country. Many other more incremental improvements could also be made, including encouraging transparency in expected qualifications for admission, eliminating or decreasing application fees, and amending the college ranking systems to exclude distorting factors such as acceptance rates. 

As of now, however, high school seniors are facing an untenable pathway toward higher education. College is meant to be a time of personal betterment, challenge, and exploration. But, to get to college, students must first endure a merciless process in which they are consistently misled by the institutions they worship. Still, there is hope. Many of the students who made it through the tribulations of college applications are now advancing into positions of political and societal power. In the end, the graduates of a broken system are those most likely to piece it back together, transforming the college application process from an illogical and backwards obstacle course into a conduit to student success. 

Image via Unsplash (John Schnobrich)