As this year's batch of college aspirants undergoes the traditional rites of test-taking, application writing, and anxious waiting, the Atlantic's November issue seeks, with its first annual "College-Admissions Survey," to offer some much-needed perspective. Five articles by James Fallows and others shed light on such factors as the increasingly chaotic and commercialized manner in which colleges select students and vice versa, the myths versus the realities about what makes a college good, and what happens to applicants who don't get in anywhere.
The goal of this package, the editors explain, is to tease out the "real admissions system" from the needlessly stressful and counterproductive "trophy admissions system," and to reassure those now in the throes of the process that finding the right school can be a far simpler and more rewarding matter than clawing one's way into somebody else's idea of the "best":
Admissions is a battlefield in a brutal competition for prestige. Everyone in America's college-aspirant class understands how this works. "Going Ivy" is a win. Being stuck at a safety school is a loss. The real admissions system is creative in finding room for everyone. The trophy admissions system is a you-versus-me competition for a limited number of spaces at a handful of schools. The real system emphasizes how many places a student might be happy. The trophy system emphasizes how few. The real system puts its greatest stress on what a student will do after he or she starts college. The trophy system cares only where he or she gets in....
The more clearly students and their parents understand how many choices they have, and how hard the real system will try to find the right match for them, the more confident they should be.
Today's preoccupation with the college-admissions process, of course, is hardly a new development. Indeed, as a number of Atlantic articles (ranging from the recent to the distant past) attest, who gets in where—and why—has been a matter of debate for more than a century.
In his September 2001 cover story "The Early-Decision Racket," James Fallows argued that early-decision admissions, an option now offered by many colleges, is an unfortunate practice that artificially boosts colleges' "selectivity," heightens the anxiety level of high-school students, and offers unfair advantages to wealthy applicants. In a related feature, "Confessions of a Prep School College Counselor," Caitlin Flanagan, a former college advisor at a California private school, reported on the seemingly irrational and incomprehensible crazes that make one elite school more popular than another, and reviewed a sampling of the many guidebooks that claim to offer the inside scoop on getting in. Flanagan suggested that neuroses about college admissions have worsened of late, and her anecdotal evidence about differences in attitude between today's beleaguered high school students and their parents—who recount their own much more laid-back approach to college selection—supported that contention.
In "The Organization Kid" (April 2001), a discourse on the pliant character of today's youth, David Brooks implied a strong connection between today's intensity of concern about getting into the right college and the slavishly conformist perfectionism which he argued now characterizes too many young people.
Kids of all stripes lead lives that are structured, supervised, and stuffed with enrichment....
The world they live in seems fundamentally just. If you work hard, behave pleasantly, explore your interests, volunteer your time, obey the codes of political correctness, and take the right pills to balance your brain chemistry, you will be rewarded with a wonderful ascent in the social hierarchy. You will get into Princeton.... There is a fundamental order to the universe, and it works. If you play by its rules and defer to its requirements, you will lead a pretty fantastic life.
Other articles have taken aim not at the applicants themselves, but at colleges trying too hard to woo them. In a March 1998 review of Michael S. McPherson and Morton O. Schapiro's The Student Aid Game, Donald Kennedy described how more and more colleges are using financial incentives to attract students. Second-tier colleges, he explained, frequently lure rich achievers by offering them free rides, while offering little or nothing to disadvantaged students whose clear enthusiasm for a particular college suggests that they will find a way to attend anyway. Kennedy argued that "need-blind" admissions policies (whereby qualified students are admitted, and aid is distributed afterward based on need) better serve both individual students and society at large.
Higher education should be accessible to students of high aptitude and accomplishment without regard to their ability to pay. It reflects both the meritocratic conviction that society needs the best minds and the egalitarian view that the opportunity to be at the top of the merit heap should be open to all.
Twenty years earlier, in "The Marketing of the Colleges" (October 1979), Edward B. Fiske, the author of The Fiske Guide to Colleges, warned that, in response to a decrease in the number of college-age kids, many schools were going to extravagant—and ethically questionable—lengths to attract enough students to stay in business.
Colleges run free bus trips to the campus or stage songfests, magic shows, and juggling acts in shopping centers. One midwestern college sends unsolicited letters to high school seniors which begin, "Congratulations! You've been accepted." At the last minute Northern Kentucky University canceled plans to release hundreds of balloons in a park in downtown Cincinnati, some containing scholarship offers which totaled $26,000....
Before we reach the point where Harvard is advertising on matchbook covers, we should probably consider whether selling education is significantly different from selling cars or soap.
Still other articles have considered the validity of tests purporting to measure the relative fitness of applicants for college admission. In "The Tests and the 'Brightest': How Fair Are the College Boards?" (February 1980), James Fallows argued that the Scholastic Aptitude Test has not turned out to be the agent of meritocracy its creators intended: studies show that it in effect serves more as a measure of standardized test-taking skill and of exposure to upper-middle-class culture than as a measure of general academic ability.
Standardized tests, created to offset one kind of privilege, have merely enshrined a different kind. The tests measure something, probably something of value—but whatever it is, it's clearly a symptom of social advantage.
Finally, in a May, 1892, article entitled "The Present Requirements for Admission to Harvard College," James Jay Greenough attempted to assure concerned readers that recent efforts to shift the focus of Harvard's admissions tests from surveys of memorized knowledge to dynamic assessments of reasoning ability, along with the abandonment of Ancient Greek as a strict requirement for admission, did not in fact mean that "Harvard has lowered her standards" or "has made it easier to enter her doors."
These days, of course, the worry is not low admissions standards, but high ones—that is, how difficult it is to get into the few dozen or so most selective schools. Given the extent to which the college a person attends is thought to shape one's chances for success in life, it is unsurprising that the college-admissions system remains such a significant source of anxiety and concern. Regardless of how the process evolves and what reforms are implemented, college admissions will undoubtedly continue to preoccupy Americans for years to come.