College Admissions 2004 October 2004

The Big Picture

Our annual survey of the admissions landscape uncovered recent and upcoming changes to the process, growing concern about tuition increases, and serious questions about whether colleges are fulfilling their mission

This past spring, as colleges mailed out letters of acceptance or rejection to applicants for the incoming freshman class, The Atlantic began contacting people involved in the admissions process to ask what had been surprising, significant, or simply new in this year's cycle. Through the summer we spoke with dozens of people, from every region of the country. About half were high school counselors and private consultants who advise college-bound students (and their families) about where, when, and how to send applications; the other half were college admissions officers and deans who choose from among the applicants. The people we spoke with represented a wide range of high schools and colleges: public and private, large and small, coed and single-sex, with a variety of racial, ethnic, and economic makeups. We couldn't cover every acre of the college landscape, but we believe we have a useful sample.

A year ago, when we conducted our first such survey, three major themes ran through the interviews. One was the increasingly chaotic nature of admissions at the most selective colleges. An ongoing demographic bulge meant that 20 percent more students were applying for a relatively fixed number of places at elite schools than had applied only a decade earlier. At the same time, pervasive grade inflation in high schools and the "recentering" of SAT scores (which raised applicants' scores, on average, by more than 100 points) made it harder for admissions committees to tell one top-level applicant from another. This in turn made it harder for students to count on getting into a particular school. To protect themselves, students—especially well-informed ones from elite public and private high schools—began sending out more applications. This flood only increased the pressure on already overwhelmed admissions committees and made it still harder for anyone to predict which students would be accepted by which colleges.

A second theme last year was the pressure on all participants in the admissions process to "marketize" their behavior. Colleges tried to drum up more applicants, in part because turning down a greater number made them more "selective" and improved their standing in numerical rankings like those of U.S. News & World Report . Counselors advised students on how best to "package" themselves as appealing candidates. And the new discipline of "enrollment management" allowed colleges subtly to ensure that they didn't have too many students who would ask for financial aid.

The third theme was the reminder that despite its problems, the American college system is so varied and flexible that nearly every student can eventually find a good "match"—a school that fits his or her skills, needs, and interests. Despite the maddening aspects of college admissions and the mounting financial burdens college placed on many families, virtually all the college officials we interviewed said they wished students and parents alike would approach the admissions process with less anxiety.

W e found rich new evidence of all three themes again this year. The demographic and social pressures are still so intense that admission to the most selective colleges is hard for any student to count on. "From one year to the next, you can't predict the difficulty of getting into a given school," says Nancy Marcus, formerly an adviser at New Trier High School, in Illinois, and now an independent consultant. "Schools that were once 'likelies' for certain students—Northwestern, Vanderbilt, Colgate—are now reaches." Fran Landau, the director of school counseling at Walt Whitman High School, in Maryland, says that decisions at top schools often seem inexplicable, or based on whether a student has forged a personal connection with an admissions officer. "It's like the kids have to be exciting to them now," Landau says.

The process is unpredictable from the colleges' perspective as well. Bruce Poch, the vice president and dean of admissions at Pomona College, in southern California, says he used to see a two-year cycle in applications: they would surge one year, leading to a higher rate of rejections, and "the kids would be scared away the following year," he says. "Now that doesn't seem to happen anymore." Charles Deacon, the dean of admissions at Georgetown, says that this year was the first time in thirty years that Georgetown accepted none of the students on its waiting list, which typically numbers in the hundreds. That was because the "yield," or proportion of accepted students who decide to enroll, was higher than normal, owing to changes in other schools' policies.

One difference from last year is a slight displacement downward in the glut of applications. Tom Parker, the dean of admission and financial aid at Amherst, says that applicants at "the bottom of the pool"—that is, those quickly eliminated from consideration—are not applying anymore, and that those applications are presumably "beginning to slide to less selective schools." Andrew McNeill, the director of college counseling at the Taft School in Connecticut, concurs. This year, he says, he saw a surge in applications to less selective schools, indicating "we're in the beginning of a shift in where that bubble applies."

The marketization of the admissions process has only intensified over the past year, at both ends of the process. High school guidance counselors report that they are under ceaseless pressure to "produce" by getting students into exclusive colleges. This pressure is greatest at the most elite private schools, where parents feel they are paying extra for results. A sense that high school counselors are not doing enough has also led to booming business for private admissions consultants, most of them hired by relatively affluent families. (See "Independent Counsel," by Nicholas Confessore, page 135.)

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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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