A great deal of attention has been given of late to the efforts of Lloyd Thacker  and others who seek to reform the college admission process. Citing an obsession with college entrance testing, run-away early decision programs, chronic misuses of college rankings and a propensity among colleges to strategically leverage their enrollments, Thacker points to a system out of control.
Lloyd Thacker is right. The high school to college transition does face serious problems. Far-reaching as they might be, the impact of the practices and behaviors of which he speaks is felt most acutely by the families and supporters of students who aspire to the so-called elite institutions in the United States. While many agree that something needs to be done, advancing a reform mandate to a handful of presidents from these colleges in closed-door meetings ( as Thacker has done ), though, is an exercise in futility at best.
The seemingly benign process that ushered generations of young people to the doorsteps of a college education has evolved, in some quarters, into a swirling caldron of angst and anxiety. Highly stressed parents primp and coif their kids with pricey test prep, essay-writing tutorials and summer camps made-for-college as billion dollar industries have emerged to cater to their perceived needs. Eager to attend the “best” colleges, students strain against the odds with the expectation that the objective is within reach. Like it or not, the rules of the game have changed and the halcyon days of the college admission process are gone, especially for families whose children aspire to “high end” schools. In an effort to restore order and dignity to the process, Thacker is appealing to college presidents and educational leaders to change the admission practices that are presumed to be at the root of the problem.
Thacker’s message is strong and his heart is in the right place but it is wishful thinking to expect anything more than sympathetic rhetoric from college presidents. Reaching out to them presumes that they can actually affect change and that they are predisposed to do so. Unfortunately, the odds are long against reformers on both accounts.
Reform is simply not a practical consideration for presidents. Institutional self-interest and an obsession with being viewed as the best have propelled their institutions head-long into directions designed to ensure success in the fame game. The rush to notoriety started more than 20 years ago in response to U.S. News & World Report unveiling its inaugural rankings. Cynically regarded as the “swimsuit” issue by college officials, it drew higher education into an era of rankings and accountability by lifting the mythical “pecking order’ among institutions out of speculation and into print.
As a young admission officer at the time, I distinctly remember the reactions of senior officers at my institution. The first was one of bemused interest as the ranking was reasonably close to advanced estimates and, according to quick calculations, placed us in the top 20 percent among national liberal arts colleges. Good stuff. Then horror set in as a closer examination of the list revealed that several of our peers, although “clearly inferior institutions,” were ranked above us! Without missing a beat, though, we began to meet with consultants and immediately set about to develop strategies that would vault us ahead of our competition.
It was perhaps this single, yet common revelation on campuses across the country that changed the way colleges think of themselves. Whether they fear the consequences of being left out of the ratings guides or see the opportunity to secure if not enhance their respective positions in the marketplace, institutions steeped in academic tradition line up to compete with each other in a high-stakes fame game. The jockeying for market position at colleges and universities around the country creates insatiable desires for more -- more of the best students, more selectivity and more notoriety -- and generates tactics that fly in the face of traditional norms for admission behavior.
As new agendas are played out, colleges determined to advance their positions find themselves caught between the reality of the emerging enrollment stratagem and the ethical rhetoric that has long framed the process. Whatever transparency had existed in the admission process has been sacrificed -- at the expense of reasonable communication with applicants and their parent -- in favor of competitive expediency.
And, yes, college presidents are complicit in this development. The spiritual leaders and academic visionaries of a by-gone era, they are now called upon to be business owners, CEO’s of multi-million dollar nonprofit operations that produce educational experiences. More important, they sit at the end of accountability within their respective institutions. And their deans of admission, formerly the “gate keepers,” are now highly skilled sales managers tasked with producing big and ever improving numbers (applicants, scores, yields and revenue per student) as they enroll their classes.
Given this level of engagement, it is unlikely that college presidents will be inclined to participate in a collective reform action. The pressure from trustees, alumni, faculty and donors to produce -- to get ahead and stay ahead -- is such that a single misstep could be costly. Rolling back an early decision program that nets nearly half of a class for an institution, for example, would have a deleterious effect on that institution’s yield and admit ratio -- key measures of admission prowess. Eliminating standardized tests would rob institutions of the opportunity to market the strength of their entering students. And operating a truly “need blind” selection process would deny them points of leverage in targeting highly valued candidates with admission and scholarship.
The new truth about the college admission process is that decisions to admit students and support them with financial aid are business decisions that reflect institutional values. Now, the operative questions with reference to students’ credentials in the selection process are “what do we need?” and “what do we get?” Elite institutions, in particular, admit whomever they want for whatever reasons might be important to them at the time. Why? Because they can. At any given time, an institution might need to bolster enrollment in a new academic program, foster relations with key donors, deliver championships or demonstrate a commitment to diversity -- all while doing what it takes to become more selective. It is simply a matter of colleges doing business -- a practical matter that makes sense as long as the rhetoric is in line with the reality.
That said there is probably little college presidents could accomplish even if they wanted to dive into the reform effort head first. The “frenzy” of which Thacker speaks is not caused by colleges. College presidents didn’t create this “mess” nor are they well positioned to clean it up. Rather, the frenzy that engulfs colleges and consumers alike is the product of a pervasive cultural phenomenon -- a potent cocktail of social, emotional and behavioral ingredients that produces neurotic obsessions with having or being the “best.”
Indeed, ours has become a culture that values the best appliances, the best cars, the best vacations -- and the best colleges, often at the expense of good values that would be more appropriate choices. And for each critical distinction we need to make, there is a consumer guide replete with research and rankings to make our jobs “easier.” In this instance, families are eager to buy what colleges are selling especially at colleges that hold the right amount of cachet. Much like a cultural virus, the frenzy associated with having or being the best has come to both transcend and permeate college campuses with tell-tale symptoms of paranoia and bold ambition.
Enter a third player into the frenzy -- the news media. Feeding on consumer and corporate anxieties, reporters fuel the frenzy by portraying a college-going process that is peculiar to a relative handful of families and skews our view of the bigger picture. With stories that feature outrageously expensive boot camps for college and the attempts of families to otherwise beat or buy the system, they further the notion that such behaviors are acceptable if not expected. The more provocative and controversial is the story,  the greater the affect on impressionable parents anxious for clues that will help their kids get into “top” schools.
Moreover, the propensity for focusing on top-tier colleges suggests that academic quality is reserved for a select few institutions (another of the fallacies that feeds the frenzy). Regrettably, a lot of the good and encouraging news of events taking place elsewhere in education fails to make the headlines. Educational success stories at colleges that lack cachet and innovations taking place at institutions outside of the limelight don’t seem to have the sex appeal to draw against the storied courtships involving the recruitment of students to elite institutions.
In the final analysis, the underlying issues are too complex and college presidents have too much at stake in what has become a world of rankings and accountability to risk upsetting the fragile balance of factors that determine their respective positions in the marketplace. Meetings such as Thacker has organized will be therapeutic exercises that play well to the media, but expecting any substantive action to come of them would be like looking to oil companies for low-cost fuel alternatives! In the meantime, families intent on pursuing colleges and universities regarded among the nation’s elite are left to deal with false hope and confusing rhetoric as they try to make sound educational decisions.
Reformers can make a difference, though, by directing their energies at families who are at risk of being caught in the frenzy. Families need to know, as Thacker points out, that academic excellence can be found in many places -- that academic pedigree is neither an automatic means to an end nor an end in itself. Parents need to know that there is a point of diminished return as they prep their kids for college -- that programming their children’s lives won’t guarantee admission success at the elite institutions. And students need to know that they can be themselves -- that pre-calculus is ultimately more important than an “SAT Math” tutorial and that holding down a summer job can be just as meaningful as joining a work party in Central America.
Families that aspire to prestige and relish the frenzy associated with getting into these places might be wished well in their efforts. It is time, however, to stop pandering to their plight. Instead, reformers should respond to the crying need for transparency and understanding in a process that has taken on circus-like proportions. In particular, students need to be able to sift through the noise of the recruitment process to find college homes that are best suited to their personal and academic needs -- places that value them for what they do well rather than simply wanting to pad admission statistics by counting their applications.
The frenzy can at least be calmed by making the process more easily understood. Reformers need to expose the hidden agendas. For example, let’s fairly establish and communicate the real importance of standardized tests, the impact of special admission considerations (to the school), the significance of the student’s demonstrated interest, and the role that the family’s financial circumstances play in determining who is offered admission.
In reality, test results are valued as competitive credentials. Many schools do look for evidence that the applicant will show up in September if accepted. Admission officers strategically weigh the return of their financial investments in admitted students. And students and families need to know that in light of institutional priorities, the admission process is not a meritocracy.
If families were able to look beyond the marketing and institutional posturing, they would be able to find educational solutions that truly make sense for their students In order to make a difference, then, reformers should dedicate their efforts to educating families about the realities of a changing process.
Moreover, we need to stop talking at and about families of the college-bound as though they are objects to be influenced and start reaching out to them as educators -- teaching them how to think about the process so they can be more purposeful in their planning and decision-making. Toward that end, college presidents and deans of admission should be challenged to bring the rhetoric of their enrollment campaigns into line with the reality of their strategic efforts. And the media must give equal time to constructive stories regarding college access that defuse rather that exacerbate the angst.
In doing so, it is possible to generate learning opportunities that create less anxiety and more insight. By defining the “best” within the context of what is good for the student, families will be able to recognize that the rich array of quality educational options reaches well beyond the precious few we hear about in the press on a regular basis. True reform will be accomplished when all families have the information they need, from colleges, from the media and from reformers as well, to navigate the college admission process with less stress and greater success.
Peter Van Buskirk is the vice president of college planning solutions at Peterson’s, a Nelnet company.Â The former dean of admission at Franklin & Marshall College and a three-time veteran of the college process with his own children, he travels to high schools around the country to educate families on the realities of the college admission process.