College Admissions Is Broken. Here's How To Fix It

Opinion |

College Admissions Is Broken. Here's How To Fix It

By Steve Palley     Sep 6, 2014

College Admissions Is Broken. Here's How To Fix It

Do you remember how difficult was to apply to college? I do. In the summer of 1998, I was a rising senior at a large public high school in rural Northern California.

My prospects seemed bright. I ranked in the top 10 of my 650-person class. I had taken all four AP courses offered by my school, good extracurriculars and done really well on the SAT.

I had gotten it in my head that Brown University was the place for me--don’t ask me how, I knew next to nothing about the place--and I asked my school’s top-notch college counselor what my chances were. She thought I had a good shot, but she suggested applying to at least three or four other schools just in case. I knew I was in for a stressful fall, but I fully expected to be hanging out in Providence the following year.

Stop right there and fast forward to 2014. I just described a recipe for utter disaster.

If a white, upper-middle-class kid with similar credentials were to apply to a single Ivy League school and a few other brand-name colleges today, he might well be headed for an accidental gap year. But this is a very unlikely scenario in 2014.

For one thing, that kid probably wouldn’t be talking to a public school college counselor--because there aren’t any left. They were laid off in droves during the Great Recession, resulting in a national student-to-counselor ratio approaching 500 to 1.

Instead, that kid’s parents probably would have hired a college consultant. They would have ponied up about $4000, on average, to get him through the hostile wilderness of college admissions in one piece.

Plus, our hypothetical student would already know he probably wouldn’t be going to Brown. In 2014, selectivity is synonymous with quality, so Stanford publicizes the fact that it rejects 69% of students with perfect SAT scores.

Students from wealthier backgrounds know this. Consequently, they apply to more and more schools every year, resulting in even more rejections. Assuming our kid was an average college consulting client, he would have ended up applying to 13 schools.

Meanwhile, less affluent kids don’t apply to enough schools, and sell themselves short. According to research by the College Board, 82% of high-achieving students from lower-income backgrounds do not apply to a single college that matches their academic credentials.

In a nutshell, despite the best intentions of many admissions professionals, today’s college admissions scene is a mess. Public college expertise has been privatized. Colleges and universities dedicated to egalitarianism have turned into gatekeepers. Practically everyone applies to the wrong schools. Wealthier students prioritize prestige over fit and put in too many applications. Poorer ones underapply and end up in community college or for-profit schools when they could do much better.

It gets worse. With total student loan debt soaring over the $1 trillion mark, and five-year or even six-year graduation rates replacing four-year as industry standard, the college confusion epidemic has real economic consequences.

What can we do about it?

The solution starts with improving the quality of college information available to high school students. There are three big use cases here to consider.

First, and perhaps most important in terms of social return, is to make sure that talented youngsters from tough backgrounds know about the opportunities available to them. One of the critical barriers here is financial. Students from underserved communities often assume that a four-year college degree is unaffordable and never investigate further.

There are already several nonprofit organizations, such as I’m First, educating these students about top schools that offer full-ride scholarships. Now we need to see the schools themselves get more proactively involved in seeking out candidates. I think that a consortium of colleges and universities could work wonders by marketing to lower-income students on Instagram, for instance.

Second, applicants desperately need college information that is relevant to them personally. The last decade has witnessed an explosion of online tools for researching colleges, but the flood of data has been accompanied by a drop in the signal-to-noise ratio. This is one of the factors driving the rapid growth of the college consulting industry.

Simply providing access to huge college databases isn’t enough anymore. Students need help sorting through this information, analyzing, and then applying it. They also need a realistic assessment of their chances, based on hard data, to counter the hysteria promoted by the college admissions game. The aim should be for students to apply to schools that match their individual complexities, regardless of “brand name.”

I believe that online expert systems are the future here. Admittedly, for instance, has built a very nice gamified platform to solicit data from students and point them towards the right colleges. StatFuse builds detailed statistical models on a school-by-school basis. And at ApplyMap, we are using techniques from the social and data sciences to quickly generate intelligent college strategies.

Third, students need to develop a better idea of why they’re going to college in the first place. Most high schoolers I’ve talked to don’t have a good answer to this question, other than the fact that they’re “supposed to” (and maybe want to get away from their parents).

Of course, a big part of the college experience involves figuring yourself out, but the more effort students put into self-exploration while in high school, the more likely they are to apply to colleges that fit them, and the better they will do once they get there.

Furthermore, there are many alternatives to pursuing a four-year college degree, from junior colleges and trade schools to online classes and coding boot camps. We should acknowledge that a traditional degree is not automatically the best choice for everyone, and work to destigmatize alternative pathways through higher education.

New online resources like Noodle explicitly remove the barriers between “traditional higher ed” and continuing and career education, which is a great first step. The Open Badges movement towards legitimizing “micro-credentials” and online certifications is also very promising.

Yes, college admissions has gone stark raving mad. Yes, its dysfunction hurts everyone, including students, educators, institutions of higher education, and society at large. If there is a silver lining here, it is that this sorry state of affairs is not sustainable. The system is already creaking under the weight of its own perverse incentives, and a much-needed dose of competition seems to be on the way.

Disclosure: Steve is the co-founder of ApplyMap.

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