Susan F. Paterno is not a fan of college admissions. It favors the wealthy over the poor and good test-taking skills over being a good person, and the system's many twists are invisible to most people, she says.
Paterno gets to share her gripes with the system -- and also to talk about why college is important -- in her new book, Game On: Why College Admission Is Rigged and How to Beat the System (St. Martin's Press). Paterno is director of the journalism program at Chapman University.
She answered the questions that follow via email.
Q: What motivated you to write this book?
A: As I shepherded my four children through college applications, I noticed that the admission landscape had changed drastically in recent years, especially for my youngest child. I wrote the book that I wanted to read when my two younger daughters were applying to college. There were so many books on the market with snippets of useful information, but none explained why college admission had become an anxiety-provoking rat race. Not just the superrich hiring Rick Singer to get their unqualified kids into elite colleges, but middle- and working-class families without the means to pay the college admission industrial complex to compete against the advantaged -- the rich, the legacies, the elite athletes.
So many of us are in what admission executives call the “unhooked” category -- we have no legal advantage that so many colleges confer. I wrote the book to help families like ours beat a broken system, to give parents the information they need to find and access quality, affordable degrees for their children. Even more important, I want to empower people to change this busted system and make it fair and equitable. If you look at the research, higher education post-Reagan became an engine of inequality when historically it had been a ladder to upward mobility -- though largely for white men until the 1960s and 1970s.
Q: You discuss the "myth of the perfect fit." What is that?
A: Nearly all students choose schools based on factors other than affordability, a Gallup poll found, confusing “right fit” with being accepted to a “dream college” regardless of cost. Though few families can pay for college without significant discounts, schools rarely award students enough grants to make attending truly affordable. Figuring out how to finance a degree without going broke or into debt is what makes “right fit” so complicated.
Colleges and families define “right fit” very differently. Families use emotion to find “right fit” colleges. Colleges use logic, algorithms and secret formulas to find “right fit” students to meet revenue goals. That disconnect -- between what colleges and students want -- can lead to debt and disappointment. Emotion, not logic, is why parents send their children to colleges they can’t afford.
Q: You discuss the "tyranny of testing." Do you hope the current trends -- dropping SAT and ACT requirements during the pandemic -- will stay?
A: Fewer than 60 colleges are test blind-- meaning they refuse to consider test scores for admission and financial aid decisions. The rest -- including test-optional schools -- will continue to advantage high-scoring applicants to maintain or better their U.S. News & World Report “Best Colleges” ranking.
Many state colleges and universities still base financial aid on test scores. Even if the influence of the SAT and ACT wanes, admission decisions -- including scholarships -- will be based on how well students perform in GPA-boosting Advanced Placement classes and on the annual marathon of the College Board’s expensive AP exams. Test optional is not a silver bullet. Separating high-stakes test scores from financial aid is the next frontier.
Q: Your book gives many examples of the advantages of the wealthy in the process. What can a poor family do?
A: I have a chapter in my book with a 12-step program for middle-, working-class and low-income families to identify and apply to affordable, best value colleges. The chapter translates the confusing jargon of academia and explains clearly and simply the relationship between grades and standardized test scores and financial aid, particularly for need-blind, no-loan opportunities.
Q: Is there a better way to admit students? Or is your book a guide to what we are stuck with?
A: The pandemic shone a bright light on how free-market lawmakers have turned higher education into a ruthless market. If we want to make affordable degrees an unalienable right for everyone, we have to rewrite the rules that rigged the game in the first place. Once considered a social obligation, higher education has been rebranded as a benefit. From World War II to 1980, it was widely accepted that young people were entitled to affordable, decent, quality higher education. Ronald Reagan and his free-market allies in Congress flipped the equation, shifting more costs to students and their families.
Making public universities in all 50 states truly affordable -- especially those with missions to educate the disadvantaged -- will begin to right past wrongs and put the nation on the path to a more equitable future. Joe Biden has promised student debt relief and hundreds of billions of dollars in new education spending for preschool through college. But the administration faces strong resistance from free-market lawmakers in Congress. Until voters elect lawmakers committed to making public higher education a right, not an entitlement, the hunger games of higher education will persist.