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

Why so many? There are some incidental reasons. Waiting lists can be a way to soften the blow for the children of alumni or for members of other important constituencies, rather than rejecting them outright. At some schools the lists, strangely, have also become a repository for some of the most highly qualified applicants. These colleges know that they are being used as safety schools by students who really want to get into more prestigious and selective institutions. Some safety schools welcome the role, for the occasional extra-strong student it brings them. Many others resent being taken for granted—and react by putting "overqualified" applicants on the waiting list rather than, as they see it, "wasting an admit" on them.

But the main reason for long waiting lists is enrollment management. To return to Williams: about half of the people it placed on its waiting list in early April did not send back the required confirmation that they wanted to stay on the list. Either they had decided to accept a spot elsewhere or they had lost interest in Williams. By early May, as students sent in their enrollment deposits, Williams was beginning to get an idea of how many of those admitted—and which ones—would be attending, and therefore what holes in the class it still had to fill. The number it admits from the list varies, but last year it was thirty-seven. These were not necessarily the ones who'd originally come closest to admission but those whose traits and skills best balanced the class. This is the main reason for such long waiting lists—to have access to what the dean of another school calls "critical mass," in a variety of categories, to add whatever element a class seems to lack. Men, surprisingly, are a new category: gender ratios at liberal-arts colleges across the country are tipping in favor of women, and some schools have reportedly begun practicing a stealth form of affirmative action that favors male applicants. Like all colleges, Williams then had to allow for "summer melt"—the students who have accepted, enrolled, and paid their deposits, but for a variety of reasons withdraw during the summer; the school took a few more from the list to compensate.

To further reduce uncertainty, many colleges have begun examining students' "expressed interest" and in effect adding a new category of financial aid, called "merit aid." Each is a deceptively bland-sounding practice that has become surprisingly controversial among admissions professionals.

Colleges that reward expressed interest are really doing nothing more than giving an edge to applicants who demonstrate that they are very interested in attending. In practice this means keeping track of the seriousness of a student's application. Some of the indicators—and the fact that colleges track them—would be obvious to an applicant poring over the fine print of admissions brochures, and some might not. Did she show up when college representatives visited her high school? Did she and her parents come visit the college and pick up material in the admissions office? Has she corresponded with the office? As best the college can guess, is she applying for real? And skipping ahead—if she applied and made it only to the waiting list, is she still serious about the school? If invited, will she accept?

This sounds perfectly commonsensical. But such measures could lead to a new kind of bias. The main professional group involved in college admissions, the National Association for College Admission Counseling, or NACAC, has begun studying the effects of such expressed-interest measures. NACAC's concern is that students who already have plenty on their side—those who are most sophisticated, best coached, and generally richest—will only gain a further advantage. Joyce Smith, the executive director of NACAC, has said that the more schools reward expressed interest, the more they penalize those who are unaware of this new twist. That, she says, includes students whose parents didn't go to college, immigrants, members of racial minorities, international students, and graduates of large public schools with small counseling staffs. Students who can't afford to travel for college visits are also at a disadvantage. Such discrimination is obviously not the colleges' intention; but a tool to reduce uncertainty and make admissions more businesslike could have that effect. The NACAC study is due out this winter.

Schools' growing focus on merit aid has provoked similar concerns. Since the expansion of college enrollment after World War II, colleges have generally proclaimed their belief in need-blind admissions—that is, they say that family wealth should not be a factor in judging students' applications. The corollary has been need-based aid—offering loans, grants, and scholarships to ensure that anyone the college admits can afford to attend.

By most estimates, fewer than ten schools are rich enough to apply both parts of the formula completely. Carleton College attracted widespread notice several years ago when it announced that it would no longer be fully need-blind in its admissions. Carleton had developed a reputation as the school for poor but very bright applicants, and it was getting more scholarship students than it could support. Many other private colleges are putting such a change into effect without announcing it. With donations down, endowments shrunken, government grants being cut, and more students requesting aid, they are protecting themselves by limiting their potential obligations to such students.

Merit aid—scholarship offers to students with strong high school records, even if they don't demonstrate financial need—seems like a logical solution. The idea that non-need scholarships can attract exceptional students is not new: it was behind the National Merit Scholarship program. The University of Virginia holds competitions for its Jefferson Scholars program, which covers all costs of attending the university. The Robertson Scholars program does something similar for students at Duke and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, as does the Flinn Foundation for students at Arizona's public universities.

What is different now is the routine use of smaller merit offers to attract students—and, surprisingly, to conserve a college's resources. How? An annual grant of, say, $5,000, offered in the financial-aid package that comes with spring admissions letters, might be enough to draw in a student whose family can cover the rest of the bill. That place might otherwise have been filled by someone whose request for need-based aid would have been much greater. "I call this kind of assistance 'non-need-based' aid, rather than 'merit' aid," says John Mahoney, the director of undergraduate admissions at Boston College. "Not all the students getting it are at the very top of the talent pool. They're solid students—and the college figures that by offering them a modest amount of aid, it can affect their enrollment decision."

The changed, more businesslike landscape means advantages for well-informed, connected students, and disadvantages for everyone else. The people we interviewed took seriously the role of American colleges as engines of fairness and mobility, and said this swing away from need-based aid should be watched closely—and, when possible, reversed.

Above all, the counselors and admissions officers who match students with colleges emphasized how many opportunities the current system provides—and repeated their hope that even amid the potential distractions and anxieties of this year's (temporary, they hope) chaos, students and their families will remain both calm and confident about ending up at the right school.

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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.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.
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