Reforming Selective College Admissions

Deirdre Henderson offers a parent's view on fixing what she says is a broken process.

February 28, 2006

A friend who has been a high school counselor and college admissions officer for the past 25 years recently asked me how I would change selective college admissions practices. As the parent of two children who have played in the college admissions sweepstakes, the last in 2004-5, I found this request rather refreshing. Nobody ever asks parents, the people who pay the bills and bear ultimate responsibility for their children’s well-being, what they think of the current process. Nor, for that matter, do they appear to ask the students.

To the extent anyone in academe is talking about the scandalous commercialization of admissions and the consequent erosion of educational values and integrity, it seems to be the admissions community talking to itself. In this conversation, parents are sometimes viewed pejoratively as part of the problem -- or even worse, the cause of the problem.  

The stereotype condescendingly invoked is a classic of the psychobabble mode: neurotic, striving, over-involved Baby Boom parents mercilessly push their hapless children to achieve at ever higher levels so parents can validate themselves and their social status through their offsprings’ admission to prestigious colleges, preferably those very high in the U.S. News and World Report rankings. As with most stereotypes, this is a convenient and self-serving extrapolation from the behavior of a small group of people, designed to misrepresent, belittle and dismiss the larger group.

While there is certainly enough blame to go around for the current admissions frenzy, primary responsibility rests squarely with the colleges and universities, which seem unwilling to own up to the predictable consequences of their own behavior. To wit:

  • Colleges and universities cooperate with the superficial and methodologically dubious magazine rankings, in some cases to the extent of manipulating information to improve their profile. They often tout the rankings in their marketing materials as if the rankings actually mean something.
  • Colleges and universities stuff our mailboxes with expensive, glossy brochures and seemingly personalized letters inviting our children’s interest so they can increase applicant numbers, apparent selectivity and, not incidentally, rankings.
  • Colleges and universities are the members of the College Board, the multi-million dollar admissions testing and publication empire whose proprietary interest in the ubiquitous SAT I and SAT II tests would appear to be at odds with an objective evaluation of the educational value of such tests.  Not surprisingly, the College Board is headed by a former businessman and politician, not an educator.
  • Colleges and universities spend millions on enrollment management and marketing consulting firms. Some of these are enterprises large and influential enough to hold week-long national conferences to which admissions professionals flock in order to learn the latest strategems and techniques to sell their schools, attract customers, mold image, promote brand and increase yield.  The word “education” is noticeably absent from such activities.
  • Colleges and universities continue to use early decision, a  practice that is of no real value to students and survives because it functions so well to increase applicant “yield” (and rankings) in what some commentators have called the admissions “arms race.”  Even more reprehensibly, some colleges buy highly qualified students with “merit aid” in an attempt to improve their academic profile and ranking, remaking financial aid into a means of improving institutional image and undermining their responsibility as engines of opportunity for the poor and underclass.

Under these circumstances, when parents help their children game the selective college admissions system, they are exhibiting a perfectly rational response to a commercialized and manipulated process that is anything but transparent, not of their making, and not within their capacity to change. Baby Boomers, the most highly educated generation in history, learned well at their colleges and universities how to question, analyze and take action. They recognize a market when they see one. That they now bring these skills to bear on behalf of their children should surprise no one, least of all the institutions that educated them.  

However inequitable, unethical and psychologically questionable the use of test prep courses and tutors, college consultants, essay writers and editors, athletic consultants, and mammoth charitable contributions to influence admissions decisions may be -- and I personally object to all of them -- these products and practices are the predictable consequences of the marketplace of admissions that has been created by the academy. If colleges operate admissions on the market model, which is exactly what their enrollment management and marketing practices do, they should not be surprised if the morals of the market place prevail.

Most parents do not like the current admissions process and are concerned about its effects on their children. The increasing pressure to view high school as a mere staging area for college admission skews children’s intellectual and social development in ways that are not appealing. Nevertheless, selective colleges breathlessly tell us every year that their applicants are more “qualified” than ever. I cannot help wonder what that means. Does it actually translate into better students and better classrooms?  

Andrew Delbanco, a well-known professor of humanities at Columbia University, does not seem to think so. In a hard-hitting 2001 op-ed article in The New York Times, he wrote, “Every year I read that our incoming students have better grades and better SAT scores than in the past. But in the classroom, I do not find a commensurate increase in the number of students who are intellectually curious, adventurous or imbued with fruitful doubt. Many students are chronically stressed, grade-obsessed and, for fear of jeopardizing their ambitions, reluctant to explore subjects in which they doubt their proficiency.” Surely, these are not the qualities we want in our students or our children, but current admissions practices have the consequence of rewarding them.

Pushing Back

Some parents are rebelling. An iconoclastic couple I know, for example, are minimizing the effects of the college admissions process on their child’s high school education. They sacrifice to send their child to a highly regarded Eastern prep school and do not want preoccupation with college admissions to dilute the superlative educational opportunities they are dearly paying for. So, rather than spending junior year searching for colleges, visiting colleges, testing for colleges and preparing to apply to colleges, and senior year applying to colleges, interviewing at colleges, nervously waiting to hear from colleges and recovering from applying to colleges, their child is postponing applying to college until she takes a gap year after high school. They are negotiating with the school to provide its usual level of college counseling during the gap year, so their child can concentrate on getting a fine high school education for four full years.  

So, what would I ask selective colleges and universities to change about the admissions process?  A lot.

(1) Adopt a policy that your institutions will not provide information to or cooperate in any way with the rankings done by U.S. News & World Report or any other publication and publicly state that such rankings are unreliable and uninformative as guides for college selection, college admission or any other purpose. In an enlightening article, “Is There Life After Rankings?”  in the November 2005 issue of The Atlantic Monthly, Colin Diver, president of Reed College, described what happened when Reed declined to cooperate with the annual peer evaluations and statistical surveys that U.S. News uses to compile its rankings. Reed asked the editors of U.S. News to simply omit Reed from its listings. Instead, the editors arbitrarily assigned the lowest possible value to all of Reed’s missing variables, resulting in a precipitous drop in Reed’s ranking. After an outcry about this rather retaliatory action by U.S. News, it switched to basing its ranking of Reed on “published” data sources, and Reed recovered some of its ranking decline. But since much of the information required to complete the magazine’s ranking formula is unpublished, who knows how the U.S. News editors arrive at these values for Reed.  

The good news for the college is that despite not cooperating with the tyranny of rankings for the past 10 years, the number of applications for admission is up significantly as is the quality of applicants, as indicated by conventional measures as well as Reed’s own internal assessments. As important, Reed has continued to offer an academic program that is widely recognized for its integrity, rigor and student involvement and achievement. So, concludes President Diver, there is life after rankings because, “Participants in the higher education marketplace are still looking primarily for academic integrity and quality, not the superficial prestige conferred by commercial rankings.” Amen. In my dreams I see the presidents of Harvard, Yale and Princeton announcing they will not cooperate with the magazine rankings;  and, when HYP fall in the U.S. News rankings as Reed did, the credibility of the ranksters is destroyed, magazine sales plummet, and the rankings house of cards collapses.

(2) Work on a way to provide more meaningful comparative information about your schools.  The National Survey of Student Engagement sounds like an intriguing start.

(3) Discontinue mass mailing of marketing materials to prospective applicants. Parents and students consider them “junk mail,” are skeptical, if not cynical, about the information contained in them, if they read them at all, and are not influenced by them. Many parents think that such crass marketing is unseemly for academic institutions. Discontinue mailing those seemingly personalized letters to high scorers on the PSAT and PLAN; they are misleading and self-serving. Redeploy the funds spent on marketing mailings for targeted efforts to recruit worthy students from economically marginal or deprived backgrounds, or – what a concept -- use these funds to reduce tuition across the board. 

(4) Abolish early decision. Consider all applicants for admission at one time. Everyone knows ED applicants are admitted at higher rates, and nobody believes the often-proffered explanation that this is because the early applicant pool is stronger. The consequence of early decision is that the college admissions process starts earlier and earlier in high school, diverting students’ attention from true intellectual growth, diluting their willingness to take intellectual risks and causing them to view high school as an exercise in sculpting a college admissions resume. Inevitably, the ubiquitous early decision system tacitly encourages students to apply early to “game the system,” even if they are unsure of the choice.  

(5) Abolish use of the “academic index” (and similar numerical calculations). This gives undue weight to college admissions tests (fueling the test prep mania), and reduces an entire high school transcript to one number. It causes applicants and parents to disbelieve admissions officials’ claims that every application is “carefully considered.”

(6) Discontinue “merit aid.” Instead, work on providing more need-based financial aid, including to the financially strapped middle class, and on decreasing the debt burden for financial aid students. 

(7) Disclose on the admissions section of the college’s Web site how, specifically, review of applications is conducted, as well as those groups that will be given special consideration for admission, all other things being equal. These may, of course, change somewhat from year to year. Be honest and open about what you are doing. Applicants and their parents think admissions offices have hidden agendas. This creates the kind of paranoia that fuels the industry that has grown up around getting “inside information” and “gaming the system.” Sunshine on the admissions process will help disarm the college consulting industry.

(8) Adopt a policy that applicants who take the SAT, ACT or any SAT subject test more than twice will not be considered for admission. We all agree that students have better things to do with their time than become serial standardized test takers. This policy would send a strong message that you want them to do those better things.

(9) Require applicants and their parents to sign a statement that discloses any paid services used to prepare for college admissions tests or to advise on or help prepare the college application.  False statements will result in automatic denial of admission. Yes, I know that some people will lie. But most will not, and you will send a clear message that you are on to the game and that the ability to buy such services will not help in admission.

(10) Revise the Common Application to eliminate essay questions. Instead, have a personal essay administered by the College Board, or other testing organization, in a controlled environment, written in the student’s own hand, and forwarded to the colleges to which the student applies. Students should be given ample time for this exercise and be required to do a draft and final copy. The choice of questions would vary from year to year. In addition, require, as some colleges currently do, that students submit a short high school paper graded by a faculty member. This combination of writing samples would provide a more accurate picture of the student and his or her abilities than the current corrupted essay process.   

I have, of course, been told by jaded parents and admissions veterans alike that hell will freeze over before selective colleges reform their admissions practices, particularly since demographers predict a coming drop in the size of the applicant pool, which will increase competition for qualified applicants and encourage even more marketing and enrollment management. There are, thankfully, some countervailing forces: The work of the Education Conservancy, a nonprofit organization that encourages changes in the college admissions process to put students and educational values foremost, has the support of some courageous admissions professionals and gives me hope.

What is still missing is strong, publicly articulated leadership on admissions reform from the presidents of the country’s most-admired colleges and universities. As I said, in my dreams… 


Deirdre Henderson is a mother and lawyer who lives in upstate New York.


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