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Efficiency or Mediocrity?

November 2, 2005

Long gone are the days when whiteout was a key tool for applying to college. Most of today's college applicants probably don't even know what it is. So when admissions officers and high school guidance counselors gathered at the College Board's annual meeting in New York City this week, it was a given to most that their operations are increasingly online.

But a funny thing happened at a session on the electronic admissions process: real live debate. A well respected admissions dean told his colleagues that technology was damaging the process, encouraging a cookie-cutter approach by both applicants and institutions.

A good college admissions process "is not like computer dating -- it's like love letters," said Theodore A. O'Neill, dean of admissions at the University of Chicago. He said that current trends in online applications take away students' individuality and result in "generic" and "utterly boring" essays. O'Neill went so far as to predict that current trends in electronic admissions could pave the way for a nationally centralized system of deciding who gets placed in which college -- a development he said would be horrible.

"We'll be told what to do and we'll say 'yes -- it's more efficient,' " said O'Neill, who said that a central problem with admissions today was the drive to use technology to make things more efficient. "Yes, technology makes applying easier. I'm not sure it should be easier," he said.

Judging from audience reactions in a room packed with college counselors at some of the top high schools in the country, many of O'Neill's points resonated, as people nodded and applauded loudly for O'Neill and a guidance counselor in the audience who later endorsed some of his views.

But few if any (including O'Neill) seemed to think there was any chance of turning back, and some said privately that he was being a Luddite. (Although Chicago applications can be submitted online, O'Neill was introduced at the meeting as a Luddite, and he didn't disappoint.)

Jessica Marinaccio, director of admissions at Columbia University, offered another perspective. She said that she too once feared that technology would depersonalize the admissions process. She said that her office is more responsive to applicants and counselors as a result of having all application materials easily available, and that meetings where applicants are discussed are better informed as everyone can see all the material at the same time.

"Our officers are more engaged now," she said.

One issue that typified the differing opinions on online applications was the question of length. Alyse Levine, associate director of college counseling at the Dalton School, a prestigious private school in New York City, said that the technology forces applicants to stay within confined space limits (no more squeezing in an extra line before the next question) and forces students to check one box in various places (intended major, for example) where they might prefer to check more than one box. The technology also refuses to let students italicize or underline in their essays -- something many students complain about, Levine said.

Columbia's Marinaccio said that these were not real problems. Admissions officers know that there is no ability to italicize so no applicant is punished for having a book title in normal font, she said. As for the enforced length limit, "conciseness of communication is not a bad thing," she said.

Chicago's O'Neill would have none of that argument. "Who decides that you value concision instead of magnitude? Who are we to say that it should only be that much?" he said. And, his voice rising, he said, "You can't underline a bloody title? That's not trivial to people who care about words."

O'Neill called on colleges to reject the Common Application, a single form that can be used by students to apply to any of 276 competitive colleges. More and more colleges have been accepting the Common Application, in part because it appears to result in an immediate increase in the number of applications they receive -- and if they reject enough of those applicants, extra points for their U.S. News ranking.

Chicago calls its application the Uncommon Application and O'Neill said he gets angry when an applicant tries to tweak an answer from the Common Application for use at Chicago.

Susan K. Tree, an audience member who is director of college counseling at the Westtown School, in suburban Philadelphia, drew sustained applause when she talked about "how much more generic the process has become" as more colleges have used the Common Application or made their applications similar to it. The Common Application "cheapens the process," she said, while a good application "mirrors the soul of the institution."

As a counselor, she said, it is harder to show students the various ways colleges differ when their viewbooks, admissions materials, and public images all seem to be striving to be identical.

Robert S. Killion, executive director of the Common Application, also happened to be in the audience, and he told the group that colleges could customize the application. He said that making the application process more smooth had many advantages -- including such educational advantages as letting high school seniors focus more on academics. And he said no one forced colleges to do anything.

"Let's not confuse the bureaucracy of college admissions with a good matching process," he said.

O'Neill said that it wasn't a matter of colleges being forced, but of being led by technology to centralization and to loss of identity. For example, he said (to agreeing nods in the audience) that many educators think that the new writing test on the SAT is a sham. "This is not the kind of writing we value," he said. So O'Neill said that he will do his best to "suppress" its use by admissions officers at Chicago.

But he said that once the College Board made the test available, students felt that they had to take it and to submit their scores, and it will gradually seep into the process everywhere -- even if lots of experts have great doubt about its value.

Similarly, he said that there is something of a vicious cycle in play. With the arrival of technology, colleges cut support staff positions. In turn, educators need more technology since they don't have the time to do everything their lost support staff did. In turn, colleges end up eliminating those things that can't be centralized or more efficient. "We will some day say, 'what can you learn talking to someone face to face for 45 minutes?' " he said of an interview process that he fears will disappear.

Either the government will eventually try to take over admissions, he said, or groups like the College Board will effectively do so. He noted that many colleges -- including Chicago -- make use of software from the board for more and more functions in admissions and financial aid. O'Neill said he had "nostalgia" for the less efficient days when colleges did these things themselves -- and with more care.

He also noted the irony of all of his criticisms of the College Board when he was an invited speaker at its meeting. Wondering if the microphone he was using would be made into a tape, he said of board leaders, "you don't suppose they listen?"

 

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