The New College Chaos

College admissions officers say they now have many, many more applications than they know how to handle—and, often, less reliable information to help them decide which students to admit

Getting into college has always been stressful. But this year the experience is likely to be different from that of only three or four years ago, and in many ways worse. This, at least, was the implication of an extensive series of interviews that Atlantic reporters conducted over the spring and summer with college admissions officers and high school guidance counselors from across the country.

The people we spoke with came from a wide variety of institutions—public and private, large and small, religious and secular, with national or only regional reputations. Nearly all these people said that they wished parents and students would worry less about the admissions process. Most went on to point out how open, varied, and accessible American colleges actually are, for students who bother to look past the two or three dozen most sought-after institutions. The vast majority of American students do look further. Nearly three million people finish American high schools each year, and two million of them seek additional education; of those, perhaps 250,000, less than one tenth of all graduates, are involved in the struggle for places in the most selective schools. Admissions officials emphasized time and again that every observation about the pressure and uncertainty at those selective institutions should be balanced with a reminder of how accommodating and flexible the college network is as a whole.

An unusual number of admissions-related issues have been in the news this year, and officials naturally discussed the impact of specific recent events and trends—the implications of this summer's Supreme Court rulings on affirmative action; surprising changes in how the quest for gender and geographic diversity affects admissions decisions; the latest twists in the controversy over early-decision admissions plans. But their observations on what is new and significant for the high school class of 2004 centered on two big and far less publicized themes. One is that the admissions system is becoming more chaotic and unpredictable, the other that it is becoming more corporate and "marketized."

The system is chaotic because it is overloaded. Changes in demographics, technology, and society have saddled the most selective colleges with more applications than they know how to handle. More applications means an even higher rate of rejections, which makes a college statistically more "selective." Perversely, this makes it all the more attractive to the next crop of applicants, and the cycle goes on. The same forces have increased the number of schools considered highly selective. As a result, students—along with their parents and counselors—have a harder time predicting where they will get in. "The crystal ball has become a lot less clear," Larry Momo, a veteran counselor at the Trinity School, in New York City, says. For related reasons, colleges themselves have a harder time predicting who will actually enroll. The result is a wave of understandable but collectively detrimental behavior by all parties—colleges, high schools, parents, applicants—that feeds what Mark Davis, the headmaster of another private school, St. Luke's, in Connecticut, calls "the national hysteria about college admissions."

The system has become "marketized" in the sense that its participants need increasingly to think of themselves in business terms. A whole industry of "enrollment management" consultants has arisen to handle what is ordinarily known as "admissions" and was once quaintly called "crafting a class." For all but the richest ten or twenty universities, an important part of managing enrollment is being sure that enough paying customers will show up each fall—and that not too many students will take the school up on its offer to give financial aid to those who need it. (Most private colleges say they will provide need-based aid, but shrunken endowments mean that what they can cover is limited.) Students are taught to think about the "package" of accomplishments they will present to admissions committees. At the private schools and high-end public schools where admissions mania is most intense, counselors are expected to supply students and parents with a "product"—namely, admissions to prestigious schools. Many high school counselors can recount some variant on the following story. A student has just gotten into, say, Tufts or Pomona, which have become very selective. The counselor, hearing from the parents, starts to offer congratulations and is cut off by a bellow: "What happened with Yale?" A few counselors describe colleagues who were forced out, especially at private schools, because their record in college placements was not impressive enough.

As with other institutions—medicine, the media, the law—that have become more marketized in the past decade, this change has brought some improvements. A more open market for college admissions, no matter how fevered, is still fairer than the old system, which petered out in the mid-1960s, whereby Exeter's headmaster could earmark a few dozen of each year's seniors for admission to Harvard. But as in these other increasingly market-minded fields, some of the changes undermine what had been fundamental ideals and values.

Why is the system overloaded? The answer starts with the rising number of high school graduates in the past few years and then takes some surprising turns.

In the early 1980s about three million students finished American high schools each year. Since 2000 the number has been about the same. But during the intervening period the high school population went through a long decline. The classes that finished high school from 1991 to 1996 contained barely 2.5 million students each. So even if nothing else had changed, getting into any given college should be 20 percent harder now than it was a decade ago, because there are that many more contenders.

From the archives:

"The Marketing of the Colleges" (October 1979)
As enrollments dwindle and competition for tuition-paying students intensifies, more and more colleges and universities are resorting to hard-sell strategies which in some cases impinge upon the traditional standards and canons of higher education. By Edward B. Fiske

In fact the increase in difficulty is much greater, and even more so at very selective schools, because so many other factors have changed. Back in the "baby bust" years, when weak colleges worried about simply meeting enrollment targets and strong ones worried about losing the best candidates to rivals, colleges launched creative efforts to drive up demand. They intensified the "junior mailing" program, and high school students whose test scores or other traits made them attractive found their mailboxes full of brochures urging them to think about Vassar or Tulane. (The colleges bought the data from the Educational Testing Service, which had collected demographic information from students who enrolled for tests and later matched it with their test scores.) Mailings now go out to high school sophomores and, according to a recent report prepared by Edward Gillis, the admissions director at the University of Miami, even freshmen. Early-decision programs, which effectively offer an edge to students who promise to enroll, also took off as a recruitment tool. (See "The Early-Decision Racket," September 2001 Atlantic.)

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

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