College admission is an imperfect system. It is designed by humans and as such is highly subjective and flawed, while also being complicated by many competing interests. That being said, there are always ways to improve our work and perhaps 2019 is the year that the many constituents in college admission (colleges, high schools, students and parents) will stop pointing fingers and start making changes.
In the first
of a two-part series, I asked college admission deans and high school counselors to share admission terms that should be abandoned in 2019. In this second installment, with the help of colleagues, I explore other aspects of admission that send the wrong messages to young people and contribute to an unhealthy experience of applying to college.
The use of non-binding Early Action and binding Early Decision applications in college admission has grown into an untamed beast. Though students once predominantly applied to college in January of senior year, the push for earlier applications has drastically changed the admission calendar, frontloading submission to early fall, or in some cases summer. Coincidentally, student anxiety, transfer rates and other maladies of this experience have also increased exponentially. Early Action, Restrictive/Single Choice Early Action, Priority Applications, Early Decision I and II, Rolling Early Decision, the list goes on. In order to bolster yield rates, secure deposits, and combat competitors, many colleges take nearly half their incoming class during these rounds, during which acceptance rates are typically much higher. What results is a rush to—often prematurely—form a list of colleges and submit applications. Applying to college can quickly become a game of strategy, rather than an intentional search for match and meaning. According to a 2017 report on The State of College Admission
by The National Association of College Admission Counseling (NACAC), “between Fall 2015 and Fall 2016, colleges reported an average increase of 5 percent in the number of Early Decision applicants and 6 percent in ED admits. The number of Early Action applications increased by 15 percent and the number of students accepted through EA increased by 16 percent.” In other words, it is getting worse, not better.
Not only do early applications elevate the frenzy around college admission, but these plans also favor the more well-resourced students who have greater access to counseling and the ability to focus on their college search earlier in high school. Gerry O'Brien, director of college counseling at Marian Catholic High School (IL) says, “what I would love to see retired is Early Action, especially the way that some universities now use it.” He adds, “several of the state universities here in the Midwest—like The University of Illinois, Purdue University, and Indiana University—have Early Action, but it is not the same as the way that the more selective universities use it. It ends up confusing the students.” The arms race to admit students earlier and earlier by selective schools simply increases the mania and bewilderment for applicants. Christopher Chiakulas, college and career counselor at Round Lake High School (IL) specifically believes that Restrictive Early Action (a non-binding option that limits students to applying to other schools early) needs to go. He explains, “It's difficult enough when working with first-generation students to explain all the different types of applications but then to throw in ‘exceptions’ to basic definitions makes it all the more confusing.” Eliminating the overuse of early applications has the potential to level the playing field, reduce student anxiety and return admission to college to a more thoughtful and deliberate experience.
Another factor in college admission that threatens the ability of students to approach the experience intentionally is “demonstrated interest.” This is just as it sounds—when reviewing applications, some admission offices incorporate the amount of engagement a student has with the college prior to applying. Schools that weigh interest in their decision-making process often track the number of times a student has been in contact through tours, high school visits, college fairs, email, and online interaction. In fact, a few institutions go as far as to examine how long a student has spent on their website and on specific landing pages. One admission dean shares that there are even reported incidents of applicants creating artificial intelligence “bots” to make it appear as though they are spending time on these websites and clicking or forwarding certain links to boost the demonstrated interest analytics. Logically, colleges want to know that applicants are legitimately excited about their institution and will be more likely to enroll if offered a spot (increasing the school’s “yield” and therefore position in the rankings). Obviously, there is nothing wrong with students being authentically excited about the colleges to which they are applying. Unfortunately, it can have adverse effects in admission when showing interest becomes more of a strategy for acceptance and less a genuine investment in a thoughtful college search.
The same 2017 NACAC State of College Admission report that explored early application data found that among the colleges and universities that responded, 25.5% said that a student’s demonstrated interest is of “moderate importance” in application review. Meanwhile, 13.7% of schools said demonstrated interest is of “considerable importance”. Other schools have acknowledged the issues of access and inequity that such factors can create. Mike Steidel, Dean of Admissions at Carnegie Mellon University (PA) writes on their website
Our undergraduate admission process is committed to focus more on diversity and inclusion of all populations by reducing or eliminating advantages that have been inherent in certain aspects of the admission process. The goal is to provide a more equitable, level playing field where all segments of our applicant population have the same opportunity in the admission process. We do not consider demonstrated interest in our admission paradigm. Demonstrated interest is a term used in undergraduate admission that describes the ways in which a prospective student shows a college that they’re interested by visiting campus and submitting additional materials that aren’t required in the application. As a result, we do not consider a campus visit or communication with the Office of Admission or other members of the Carnegie Mellon community when making admission decisions.
In order to emphasize a more equitable and meaningful admission experience, demonstrated interest as it currently exists, needs to be put to rest in 2019.
Will 2019 be the breakthrough year when high stakes standardized testing as we know it takes a fall? Let’s hope so. The list of colleges
that have adopted test-optional policies for admission continues to grow, with some high profile announcements from selective schools like University of Chicago and Colby College (ME) in 2018. There has been much research and debate about the value and predictive potential of the SAT and ACT, and for many educators standardized testing has simply outlived its usefulness. Bryan Pisetsky, college and career ready lead teacher at Marana High School (AZ) says, “standardized testing, to me, only indicates how well a student can sit for three hours and is in no way indicative of how well they will perform at the college level. Not to mention the unfairness of it all, meaning students of low income cannot afford the extra help often needed to increase scores. Therefore, I believe standardized testing should be left behind and completely abolished from college admissions.“
If we are unwilling to abandon standardized testing altogether, Dan Evans, director of college counseling at William Penn Charter School (PA) argues that “the term ‘recommended’ on college applications when it comes to standardized testing should be outlawed.” Evans says, “colleges need to ‘require’ or ‘not require’ SAT, ACT or SAT Subject Test scores.” He explains that “the term ‘recommended’ does little other than induce even more anxiety among students and cause them to further overthink what is already a stressful process.”
David Burke, director of college counseling at Pembroke Hill School (MO) agrees, saying, “SAT Subject Tests cause lots of student pain and hassle for precious little college gain.” He adds, “they haven't been revised or updated in a decade (despite major curricular changes at the AP level—see physics and U.S. history as examples).” Burke explains that “fewer and fewer colleges and universities require them, and even schools that do send confusing messages about the use and importance of Subject Tests. They're the standardized testing version of the floppy disk.”
O'Brien, at Marian Catholic High School, adds, “I cheer every time a college or university announces that they are going test-optional. I am hoping like I am sure many others are, that The University of Chicago going test-optional will encourage others to go test-optional.” More specifically, he says, “the part of testing that I hope is finally retired is the essay for both the ACT and SAT. It is used by so few colleges and it would make the testing day shorter.”
Noise in The Numbers
Whether through rankings, test averages, or percentage increases in applications, colleges and universities are eager to market the numerical wonders of their institutions. Ann Marie Strauss, director of college counseling at Garrison Forest School (MD) speaks for high school counselors everywhere saying, “I despise the phrase ‘record application numbers’.” She argues that these pronouncements from colleges “are institution-centered rather than student-centered.” She adds, ”they do absolutely nothing to ease the stress and anxiety of this process for kids, but rather, they add to it.” Bart Gummere, upper school head at Eastside Preparatory School (WA) takes it even farther, saying, “I'd love to leave behind colleges promoting their worth through misleading admission numbers, for instance ‘we had 8000 applications for 800 spots’.” Gummere explains that these statements can omit the context beyond the numbers such as “leaving out the fact that a 20% yield means they accept 4000 applicants to get those 800 students." These declarations may bolster alumni giving and appease an institution’s board of trustees, but when used in communication with prospective students, they only contribute to the frenzy.
To satiate an institution's data sharing hunger, perhaps they could use their marketing platform to tout retention rates or student engagement percentages. Better yet, sharing information about the ways that admitted applicants demonstrate concern for others, contribute to their communities, or exhibit intellectual curiosity in high school could send inspiring messages that might align with institutional missions more than application increases and selectivity indices.
The Value of a College Degree
Mike Sexton, vice president for enrollment planning at Santa Clara University (CA) says “let's drop the ‘is college worth it?’ debate.” He points out that “every bit of empirical evidence confirms that it is worth it, compared to the alternative of relying on your high school diploma to open doors for the rest of your life.” Sexton adds, “yes, there are some students who take on way too much loan debt at some art institutes, private colleges and proprietary schools with little promise of return on investment. That is a different issue that needs to be addressed through better financial literacy training.”
Ed Devine, regional director of admission for Lafayette College (PA) suggests that college admission move away from a singular focus on outcomes and Return on Investment (ROI). He says,
I remember when college consultants came on strong with a college's need to tout the outcomes of their graduates. The idea of parading successful alumni out in all our brochures, web pages, and presentations was the rage. A few years of this led into the ROI craze that, of course, led to ranking based on any type of ROI. While the outcomes are great to note, it subverts the idea of the four-year journey. Students feel all kinds of pressure in this search, trying to nail down a profession adds to this anxiety. I think they see our successful alum and think ‘I don't even know what I want to be.’ Their four-year journey of self-discovery, in other words, is sullied by the concept of directing them towards a predicted future. Knowing that a school will prepare them for the future is what we mean to relay in our messaging, but it is the accumulation of experience in their four-year journey that will lead to happy-success.
New Year, New Opportunities
As the yearly calendar resets to January, we find ourselves in the middle of the college admission cycle. It is an ideal time to look forward to how we can improve this experience for everyone involved. College Admission has the potential to send positive, mission-aligned messages that promote healthy, intentional and meaningful educational pathways. While perhaps many of these factors discussed here have a role to play in admission, it is incumbent on all educators, from school counselors to college presidents, to examine the impact they have on our young people and institutions and to advocate for meaningful change.Brennan Barnard
Director of College Counseling & Outreach, The Derryfield School
College Admission Program Manager, Harvard Graduate School of Education's Making Caring Common Project