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I have a new favorite college admissions-themed adjective -- “highly rejective,” as in “highly rejective colleges.” I was first introduced to the term by friend and "ECA" reader Mike Oligmueller several weeks ago, and it was apparently first coined by Akil Bello on Twitter back on March 12. Last month a post by Jon Boeckenstedt for his excellent Higher Ed Data Stories blog was titled “The Highly Rejective Colleges.”

“Highly rejective” is obviously a play on “highly selective,” but is it more than that? Are “rejective” and “selective” synonyms -- different attitudes reflecting the same truth? Are they opposite sides of the same coin, such that a college is selective if you happen to get in and rejective if you don’t? “Selective” certainly sounds more affirming and less cold, but is that a good thing?

Will 2021 come to be known as the year of highly rejective admission? The group of colleges and universities labeled by sobriquets ranging from “highly selective” to “hyperselective” to “elite” have had record low admit rates this year, with Harvard University bottoming the list at 3.5 percent. But does a low admit rate equal “highly rejective”? What if many of those not admitted are not denied admission but rather wait-listed? Does that make a college “highly wait list-ive”?

The more interesting question is whether 2021’s highly rejective numbers are a product of COVID-19. Any attempt to analyze or provide context for this admissions cycle is at best an incomplete first draft of history, but it certainly appears that the chasm has widened between rich and poor institutions, or what Jeff Selingo calls “buyers” (poor) and “sellers” (rich). The most popular institutions have thrived, but there are many good and venerable colleges struggling to make their class -- and maybe struggling for survival.

The popular narrative is that test-optional policies have emboldened students to apply to places they wouldn’t have had they been required to submit SAT or ACT scores. I wonder if the test-optional explanation is sufficient. Is the increase in highly rejective admission a short term by-product of COVID-19, or has COVID-19 merely accelerated and accentuated a trend that has played out over the course of my career?

Over the past 30 years, the number of colleges and universities that qualify as “highly rejective” has proliferated. In 1992 there were 20 colleges that admitted fewer than one-third of applicants, according to data provided in that year’s U.S. News & World Report “America’s Best Colleges” guide; today there are 75 to 80. There were two colleges that admitted fewer than 20 percent, and today that number is closer to 40.

So what is responsible for the change? Are there far more students graduating from high school and going to college? Are students applying to more colleges because it is easier to do so, thanks to innovations like the Common Application? Or is the increase in “highly rejective” colleges a product of the influence of college rankings?

One factor is the evolution of college admission into a sophisticated business. The move to a business orientation brings with it not only enhanced use of marketing techniques and data analytics, but also acceptance of the adage that if you are not moving ahead, you are falling behind. One of the easiest ways to demonstrate progress is to increase the number of applicants and decrease the admit rate.

To borrow a phrase made popular by late-night TV advertising, but wait, there’s more. There is a deeper issue here, a fundamental clash of worldviews about the essence of the college search and higher education itself. Is college about brand or experience, and is college choice about prestige or fit?

Selectivity has always been closely aligned with the quest for prestige, believing (or at least wanting us to believe) that the harder a college is to get into, the better it must be. That view is explained by Marxist theory, with the Marx in this case being Groucho -- Groucho Marx never wanted to be a member of a club that would have someone like him as a member. That, my friends, is the rationale for selective admission. The assumption is that the less likely it is that a place will have you as a member (offer admission), the more desirable it becomes.

At some point low admit rates changed from being a by-product of success to a metric of success and ultimately became the goal of the admissions process itself. For colleges and universities wanting to swim with the sharks, a key part of institutional brand today involves worshipping at the altar of rejectivity.

My computer’s version of Microsoft Office does not recognize "rejectivity" as a word, but in fact the term is associated with psychologist Eric Erickson’s psychosocial stages of development. For Erickson rejectivity refers to a sense of stagnation and a lack of meaning in one’s actions that may occur between the ages of 25 and 64.

In a college admission context, the gospel of rejectivity is an antidote to an institutional sense of stagnation. Highly rejective colleges derive meaning and status from their ability to turn away more applicants, and the belief in rejectivity explains college admissions conventions from “recruit to reject” to the use of early decision as a tool to lock up a large portion of the entering class, making “regular” admission much more competitive.

But has rejectivity gotten out of hand? Several years ago New York Times columnist Frank Bruni, who recently announced that he will be leaving the Times staff for an endowed professorship at highly rejective Duke University, wrote a tongue-in-cheek column where he claimed that Stanford University would be admitting not a single student for that admissions cycle. Today we might call that perfect rejectivity. The premise for that column doesn’t seem quite as funny today as when it was published.

Thirty years ago, the lowest admit rate for any college was 17 percent. Has the increased rejectivity produced a better college admissions process? Colleges are continually pushed to be more rejective by boards, rankings and even bond-rating agencies. But does a 95 percent rejection rate produce better classes than an 83 percent rejection rate, or does it increase the sense among the public that the system is rigged? College admission depends on public confidence and trust in our process and our profession. That confidence and trust have already been threatened by the shenanigans of wealthy parents in the Operation Varsity Blues scandal. Does excessive fealty to the gospel of rejectivity pose a greater threat?

I don’t have an answer, but as a college counselor, I struggle with my responsibility to students and parents. Good college counseling requires a Wallenda-like balancing act between supporting students’ dreams and making sure they understand the reality they face. It would be unethical for me to discourage students from applying to certain schools, but is it ethical to encourage them to apply to schools where their chances are almost nonexistent? How do I avoid feeding the beast of rejectivity?

Can we band together to reject rejectivity, or at least put it on a wait list?

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