’Tis the season for college applications. If this year follows recent trends, we will see record numbers of applications at several universities. Duke University broke 30,000 applications last year; Boston University was over 60,000. Last fall, UCLA became the first university to receive over 100,000 applications in a single year.
What concerns me about these record numbers is the growth in the percentage of students who apply to seven or more colleges. According to the National Association for College Admission Counseling, 36 percent of first-time freshmen applied to seven or more colleges in the fall of 2015. Just 10 years earlier, in the fall of 2005, 17 percent of first-time freshmen applied to seven or more institutions.
There are more students applying to college than ever before, but there are even more students applying to several colleges, perhaps believing that additional college choices will ensure they land at a perfect match. As a college counselor at an independent school, I have witnessed this growth firsthand. At my school, the average number of applications per student has grown by almost three over the past 15 years, with last year's number just under eight applications per student.
There are many costs to these additional applications -- not the least of which are financial. U.S. News & World Report says the average application fee for private and public colleges in 2016 was a little under $50. Throw in the $12 fee to send test scores to each college, and the additional applications take a big bite out of the applicant’s wallet -- before the tuition bills even start coming due.
My primary concern, though, is the toll taken on students’ well-being during the application season. Students have to balance being successful high school seniors while working on college applications, many of which include supplemental writing sections. The applications add stress, and we live in a cultural moment when anxiety diagnoses, rates of depression and sleep deprivation among teens are rising. We ought to worry about how college applications contribute to these problems.
The work of two social psychologists, Sheena Iyengar and Mark Lepper, offers another reason to think critically about the cost of applying to many colleges. Although the idea of having more choices seems desirable, Iyengar and Lepper have shown that more choice can lead to a decline in motivation.
To confirm their hypothesis, Iyengar, Lepper and a team of assistants set up a booth with samples of gourmet jams in a California grocery store. Every hour, they alternated between offering a selection of six and 24 jams for tasting. As we might expect, more customers stopped at the booth when 24 jams were offered.
The results quickly become counterintuitive, however. Even though 20 percent more shoppers sampled jam when more varieties were on display, only 3 percent of those customers actually purchased jam. By contrast, nearly 30 percent of those who tasted from the more limited selection eventually purchased jam. In other words, consumers initially confronted with fewer choices were motivated to purchase the product at a much higher rate than consumers exposed to many options.
These results challenge decades of psychological and economic theory that believed more choices were always preferable. Additional studies by the pair confirmed that more choices not only have detrimental consequences for motivation, they also reduce the choosers’ subsequent satisfaction and increase their feelings of regret. They call this phenomenon "choice overload," a term we might remember when counseling students about the size of their college list.
Of course, higher education, unlike jam, is not a consumer product. And yet, part of what drives seniors to apply to more and more colleges stems from contemporary culture’s framing of college as a consumer product. As Hunter Rawlings, the previous president of the Association of American Universities, has written, “most public discussion of higher ed today pretends that students simply receive their education from colleges the way a person walks out of Best Buy with a television.”
Like with other commodities, students and their families consult online reviews and rankings, assuming that what makes a college positive or negative could be known ahead of time. Applicants come to view themselves, in this way, as passive buyers of a prepackaged college experience, and applying to more colleges maximizes their chance of purchasing the best one.
Large-scale economic transformations and the rising cost of tuition contribute to the view of college as a commodity. The colleges themselves, however, deserve part of the blame, too. Relentless marketing transforms academic institutions into brand names, trading on their perceived prestige and the amenities offered to students rather than what actually happens in the classroom.
According to Nate Kreuter, an English professor and regular contributor to Inside Higher Ed, the branding of colleges “allows universities to sell the perception of what the university achieves, rather than focusing attention and resources on academics.”
For the colleges, the applicants resemble commodities, purchasable items that enable institutions to rise and fall in value. College admissions offices encourage students to apply, knowing that a lower overall acceptance rate -- the ultimate result of increased applications -- improves a college’s place in the rankings. As acceptance rates go down, students feel less comfortable with their chances for admission and grow compelled to send out more applications. Rising tuition costs also force applicants with financial need to shop for aid offers at more schools. The cycle becomes self-propagating, and the ultimate winners are the schools, not the students.
Lower acceptance rates and a commodified view of higher education have led seniors to send out more and more applications. We have several reasons to discourage this trend, and the studies of Iyengar and Lepper add another. By increasing the number of colleges on their lists, students may be less motivated and more regretful at the college they eventually choose.
Students should know that the investment they are making is not in a college but in themselves. Their educations are far more determined by their own efforts than by the colleges that admit them.