• Confessions of a Community College Dean

    In which a veteran of cultural studies seminars in the 1990s moves into academic administration and finds himself a married suburban father of two. Foucault, plus lawn care.

Title

The Admissions Two-Step

Getting in vs. being able to pay.

September 14, 2018
 
 

On the way back from the Michigan trip, The Boy and I were talking about the various schools on his list, and how he compares them to each other. It quickly became clear that the ranking process is more complicated now than it used to be.

I’m old enough to remember when college admissions was mostly a one-step process. You’d get in, or not. There were a few variations -- waitlists, say, or the early decision option -- but they were understood as variations on a theme. Students who were applying to multiple places would mentally rank them in a preference order, and as long as the decisions came back in binary form, that was pretty much that. Students applying to selective places might do a “reach” or two, a couple of good bets, and a safety school or two.

Now, it’s a two-step process. Rejections are still rejections, and probably always will be. Waitlists are still waitlists, with all of the nail-biting that may imply. But acceptances have taken on new shades of gray. With the cost of college having risen so dramatically over the last few decades, the decision process doesn’t stop once you have the “yes” pile.  It includes waiting for, possibly appealing, and comparing financial offers.

For most of us, my family very much included, list price is not an option. Luckily, I’m ensconced in the system enough to know that list prices are not to be taken seriously. An acceptance to a college that charges $60,000 per year and actually expects us to pay that is effectively a rejection.  And list prices don’t necessarily correlate with actual charges in any consistent way.

I told him -- and he already knew -- that the most he can do now is to decide on places he could see himself thriving, and put in the best applications he can. Then wait and see the offers, and compare those.

The frustrating part for him is that he has no idea at this point how the offers will compare, so he really can’t do a priority list that means anything.  It feels chaotic. The frustrating part for me is knowing that it’s entirely possible that he might get in to some places he considers wonderful, and be unable to go.  But in those cases, the parents are the bad guys.

I’m told that this is a very American problem.  It’s a function of several factors, not the least of which is state disinvestment in public higher education.  My grandfather worked as an electrical lineman for Detroit Edison; he was able to send his daughter to the U of M and his son to a local technical college without much strain.  Even after inflation, I make considerably more than he did, but sending even the first kid to college is financially daunting. Something changed.

And that’s with pretty good knowledge of how the system works.  Someone who takes list prices literally, or who doesn’t know to shop financial aid offers around, might preemptively narrow the field more than it needs to be narrowed.  That often plays out along lines of race and class in predictable ways.

I’ve been heartened to see some schools move away from “early decision” and towards “early action” instead.  They both offer earlier answers, but the latter isn’t binding. If you accept an early decision offer, you’re basically taking it on faith that the financial offer will be acceptable.  They have you over a barrel. Early action offers still allow for comparisons. For schools that place any value at all on economic diversity, early decision simply must go. It amounts to an express lane for the wealthy.

TB is a great student and a great kid.  He’ll be fine, and any college would be lucky to have him.  But it would be nice if we could go back to the one-step process. The second step just feels mean.
 

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