Ethical College Admissions: The Cult of Selectivity

Jim Jump hopes that Stanford's recent announcement that it won't boast about admissions statistics leads to reflection at other colleges about the quest for more and more applicants.

September 17, 2018

College admission observers and the idealists who hope to reform it are always on the lookout for an announcement by an individual college or university that augurs a paradigm shift in the admissions world. We are almost always disappointed.

Back in 2006, when Harvard and Princeton Universities and the University of Virginia all announced the end of their binding early decision programs within a couple of weeks, many pundits saw it as the beginning of the end for early decision. Just like Mark Twain's death, the demise of ED turned out to be greatly exaggerated.

More recently, decisions to reset tuition by places like the University of the South and Drew University did not lead to a stampede of followers. And it is still too early to know whether the announcement this summer by the University of Chicago that it is joining the test-optional movement will have repercussions -- and coattails.

Now we have a new candidate. Several weeks ago Stanford University announced that it will no longer issue news releases trumpeting its application numbers. The information will not be secret, as it will still be reported to the Common Data Set, but Stanford will not contribute to the annual obsession with application numbers and admit rates.

That obsession led New York Times columnist Frank Bruni to write a column, published just before April Fools' Day two years ago, announcing that Stanford was not admitting a single student in the 2016 admissions cycle. Not everyone recognized it as a joke, a phenomenon I am all too familiar with from my own attempts at humor.

Will others follow Stanford's lead? I hope so. One of the challenges of writing a column with a title as presumptuous as Ethical College Admissions is that it is very easy to fall into being nothing but a critic, focusing only on what's wrong, and tilting at windmills. Stanford's announcement is encouraging for those of us who believe the college search and admissions processes should be about discernment and fit rather than hype.

That's also why it may be doomed to failure. The cult of selectivity, with its creed that the harder a place is to get in, the better it must be, is deeply engrained in public consciousness about college admission.

So why is that? It is easy to place blame on U.S. News & World Report and its college rankings, which focus on metrics like admit rate, per student spending and alumni giving because the one thing U.S. News can't measure is the quality of learning at any institution. That's like trying to rank "America's Best Churches" without considering spirituality.

But there's plenty of blame to go around. Media coverage of college admission tends to focus on selectivity and the most selective institutions as if they are representative of all of higher education. The annual "hardest admissions year in history" story that prompted Stanford to move away from announcing admissions numbers has much in common with political coverage that focuses on the "horse race" at the expense of issues and substance.

Increasing selectivity is also a priority for presidents, provosts and boards. One of the corollaries to the business mentality in higher education is the belief that if you are not moving ahead, you are falling behind.

Several years ago I talked to a longtime friend who was on the admissions staff at a highly selective national university, and he told me that they had just passed the 30,000 mark in applications, which might have been the verbal equivalent of the press releases Stanford will no longer send out. I asked him at what point they would hit the "too many applications" threshold. "We're already past that point," he responded, but added that they were under pressure from the university administration to continue to grow the number.

Some of that is vanity, but it also reflects the realities of the marketplace. I have been told that several years ago an Ivy League university received a record number of applications one year, then fell short by 150 the next. The university was seriously worried that its bond rating would drop as a result.

There is also a little of Groucho Marx in all of us. Most of us believe that any club that would have us as a member -- or college that would have us as a student -- is probably not worthy of us.

Can Stanford's announcement make a difference in the landscape and culture of college admission? It is one of a few elite institutions with the gravitas and power needed to do so. I wish more of the nation's leading colleges and universities would use their bully pulpit to send messages about what is and isn't important in the admissions process to dispel the mythology that surrounds college admission.

I understand why they're reluctant. In the back and forth motions filed this summer in the court case involving Harvard's affirmative action policy and its resulting treatment of Asian American applicants, lawyers for the university argued that publicly releasing information about Harvard's holistic admissions process would lead to applicants tailoring their applications to whatever "formula" they perceived Harvard as using. I am sympathetic to that concern, even as I am skeptical that admission policies and procedures are proprietary or trade secrets.

Making a statement that selectivity is not important does not expose any trade secrets (unless the secret is that selectivity is an end in itself for colleges). It also helps us find a possible escape route from the vicious circle into which we've all fallen. Students and parents see the stories about how impossible admission has become, and in response submit more applications. Colleges aren't sure which applications are serious, and in response place more students on wait lists. That leads to stories about how college admission is impossible, which starts the cycle all over again.

Stanford's announcement is not a move against transparency, but rather a stand against overemphasis on application numbers and admit rate. I hope others in our profession will speak out in support and help "de-program" the cult of selectivity.


Jim Jump is the academic dean and director of college counseling at St. Christopher's School in Richmond, Va. He has been at St. Christopher's since 1990 and was previously an admissions officer, women's basketball coach and philosophy professor at the college level. Jim is a past president of the National Association for College Admission Counseling.


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