Ethical College Admissions: Dealing With Disappointment

The focus on hyperselective colleges and the Operation Varsity Blues scandal misses the fact that most colleges accept more than half their applicants, writes Jim Jump.

April 22, 2019

Several weeks ago I received an email from a college counseling friend asking for advice. The counselor had just had the kind of “what went wrong?” meeting that is standard at this time of year when directors of college counseling turn into directors of blame for students and parents shocked by the realities of the selective admissions process.

The counselor had met with a mother who wanted a “postmortem.” The student, strong but unhooked, had been admitted to one highly selective national university but also wait-listed and denied at a number of elite colleges and universities.

The term “postmortem” should have been a hint as to how the meeting would go. The student wasn’t present (and may not have known about the meeting), but the mom was accompanied by a professional court transcriptionist. The meeting was less a conversation than an inquest or competency hearing.

That meeting happened right about the time that newspapers around the country were publishing their annual “record low admission rates at elite colleges” stories. We didn’t quite reach Frank Bruni’s “Stanford set a record by admitting no one this year” moment, but we’re getting closer every year. The backdrop to those stories was the first round of court appearances by defendants in the Operation Varsity Blues scandal.

I find myself wondering if there is a perverse relationship among those three events. Has selectivity become a false idol for certain segments of higher education? Is reporting about hyperselectivity making admission to an “elite” college more desirable but at the same time convincing the public that selective admission is neither rational nor fair? And does that create an environment where desperate parents feel that they must engage not only in gaming the system but actually racketeering to obtain the status that comes from having your child attend a certain caliber of institution? Is college admission the victim or an unindicted co-conspirator?

Then, of course, there is the question, How can anyone who applies to a university with a 10 percent admit rate be shocked when they don’t get in? You have to understand that the odds are long. There is a reason you applied to multiple colleges, because you can’t be certain that you will be admitted to a particular institution. You have a right to be disappointed, I tell students and parents, but you probably shouldn’t be shocked.

And yet they are. So why is that? It’s because all of us understand and react to the college admissions process on two different levels. One is intellectual, and the other is emotional. Intellectually they understand just how challenging it will be to earn admission to a given place. Emotionally they don’t really believe it and become invested in a way they’re not conscious of. As a result, when what you know in theory could happen actually happens, it stings to the core emotionally.

That’s just as true for those of us in the college counseling world, maybe more so. We know too much about how admission works. We know that merit is necessary but not sufficient for admission. We know that colleges use the admissions process to achieve institutional goals that are rarely publicly articulated and change from year to year. We know that the stellar student who has done everything right and that everyone in the community considers a sure thing for the Ivies actually may have a 1 percent chance of admission, and we know that the decision to apply somewhere early may also be a decision to make admission at other selective institutions unlikely. We are trapped between the Scylla of supporting students’ dreams and the Charybdis of honesty and preparing them to deal with reality.

A complicating factor is the myth, prevalent in many independent schools, that college counselors are like Hollywood agents, cutting deals with admissions offices for their clients. It is our job to make the sale for our students based on our and the school’s “special relationship.” If I have that power, I’m unaware, and I always confront that myth in parent meetings. It always gets a laugh, but it’s nervous laughter.

What’s the media’s role in all of this? In the case above, the stories about how hard it is to get into college should have alleviated the need for a postmortem. When most media coverage of college admission focuses on selectivity or efforts to obtain admission through fraudulent or criminal means, it ignores the fact that those colleges are not representative of the totality of higher education and also promotes a message that attending an “elite” college is a necessity. And that’s just not the case.

Stories about record low admit rates illustrate a fundamental dilemma within journalism. Should journalists tell the public what they want to hear or what they need to know?

What’s missing in the “record low admit rate” stories is context. Some of that context can be found in a new analysis from the Pew Research Center.

The Pew study uses U.S. Department of Education data that shows that only 17 of the 1,364 four-year colleges and universities examined admit fewer than 10 percent of applicants. Another 29 colleges admit between 10 and 20 percent. That’s just more than 3 percent of four-year colleges and universities. By contrast, more than 80 percent of colleges admit more than half their applicants, and more than half admit more than two-thirds of those who apply.

So is admission to college becoming more difficult? The best answer to that question is “It depends.” In the college admission world, as in the larger world, there is an increasing gap between rich and poor. The wealthiest, most selective colleges are experiencing record application numbers and record low admit rates, but focusing on that story misses the broader narrative that most colleges are admitting almost any qualified applicant.

There are far more highly selective colleges than used to be the case. Twenty-five years ago, there were four colleges or universities admitting fewer than 20 percent, and now there are 10 times as many. Many of the colleges that have most lowered admit rates during that time are private, urban universities like Vanderbilt University, New York University and Washington University in St. Louis.

The Pew analysis suggests that over the past 15 years, admission rates have dropped 10 percent or more at just under half the institutions studied. The drop in admit rates is driven largely by the fact that students are applying to more colleges, probably in response to articles about how hard it is to get in to college. In 2002 the average student submitted four applications; in 2017 that number was closer to seven. The Pew study dismisses the commonly held belief that the Common Application is responsible for increasing application numbers, finding no difference in growth rates between colleges that use the Common App and those who don’t.

The ongoing saga of the Operation Varsity Blues scandal will offer plenty of opportunities for postmortem opinions on what went wrong and what it means. I have done and will likely do my share, but I also hope we can focus less on the spectacle of Hollywood celebrities in federal court and more on the truth about college admission reflected in the Pew analysis.


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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