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

And just as they did last year, high school counselors and college admissions deans alike said they wished students and their families did not find the entire process so stressful. Most high school counselors emphasized the point examined by Gregg Easterbrook in this issue ("Who Needs Harvard?," page 128): that although going to college makes a large difference in students' future lives, where they go is considerably less important. Similarly, many college deans told us they would like to see applicants who are less tightly wound and overprogrammed than many of today's students. This preference is unlikely to have much impact, though, because high schoolers notice that their laid-back friends aren't generally getting into the most selective colleges. Robin Mamlet, the dean of admission and financial aid at Stanford, has often warned against the risk of overstressing students, and points out that the average student admitted to Stanford has taken only six Advanced Placement courses in the last three years of high school. But even she says that "students who are told to relax don't believe that students who do relax will be accepted."

In addition to these familiar elements, new themes and concerns emerged from our discussions with advisers and admissions officers this year. The details and emphases varied, with some observations contradicting others, but the comments fell into three broad categories. The first was the process of admissions, and how it was affected by changes in early-decision programs, the SAT, and the treatment of athletes. The second was the financial squeeze on higher education, and the widespread concern that what was once America's most powerful vehicle for social mobility is being priced out of the reach of ordinary Americans. And the third was an even broader question about the public effect of higher education. With striking frequency, people involved in the daily work of colleges and universities expressed concern that their institutions were letting the public down.

The changing admissions process

One development in the year's admissions news was entirely positive: the beginning of the end of the early-decision nightmare. Over the past decade the rapid spread of "early" programs has advanced colleges' interests at the expense of students', and wealthier students' interests at the expense of everyone else's. The essence of the early-decision bargain was that colleges would give students a better chance of admission (usually while pretending not to do so) in return for the students' promise to enroll if accepted. This helped the colleges by locking in their class and improving their yield; and it helped those students who were absolutely sure by the end of their junior year what college was right for them. But it hurt many more students, by denying them a senior year's worth of consideration of where to attend; and it severely penalized students who required financial aid, because they were in no position to compare different schools' offers once they'd been accepted in a binding early program.

Last year's admissions cycle was the first to show a noticeable effect from what is known as "single-choice early action." Under its rules—which Harvard, Yale, and Stanford have now adopted—a student may apply to a college for "early action" and get an answer by December of his or her senior year. But—the crucial distinction—the program is not binding. If the student is admitted, he or she has until the normal May 1 deadline to compare admission and aid offers from other schools and decide which to accept. In exchange the student agrees to apply to only one school under any sort of early program. (If a college discovers that a student has sent multiple early applications, it can rescind admission or its financial-aid offer.)

Single-choice early action is a superior alternative to two other practices: the binding early programs that Stanford and Yale previously used (and that Princeton, Penn, and many other schools continue to use) and the nonbinding, non-exclusive early programs formerly available at Harvard (and still used at Georgetown, MIT, the University of Chicago, and others), which put no limit on how many early applications a student could file. This latter policy flooded the system with half-serious applications. The spread of the single-choice early plan has already reduced the wild oversupply of applications to Harvard, which last year had 50 percent fewer early applicants than the year before. "Our sense is that students were targeting their early application to the college they most wanted, and were realistic about their likelihood of a match," says Marlyn McGrath Lewis, Harvard's director of undergraduate admissions. Meanwhile, Stanford had 62 percent and Yale 42 percent more early applicants after they jettisoned their binding programs. Many people express views similar to that offered by Andrew McNeill, of the Taft School: "Single-choice early action is the future."

The situation is murkier when it comes to the new version of the SAT. The students who started college this fall are the tail end of a fifty-year cohort that has taken the familiar SAT, with its oddball word-analogy questions and maximum score of 1600. Over the years critics of the test have made obvious (and well-supported) objections to this version of the test: it can't measure certain kinds of intelligence; it effectively rewards high income and social standing; it is obviously "coachable"; and so on. But the SAT and its counterpart the ACT have continued to rise in importance, because standardized scores are the one way that admissions committees can measure applicants from different regions, schools, and backgrounds on some kind of common scale.

The complication is that this standard of comparison is now itself in flux. Starting in March, students will be able to take a new version of the SAT, which will be forty-five minutes longer and will have a maximum score of 2400 rather than 1600. The new test will eliminate the familiar "anthrax is to puppy as …" analogies, add harder algebra questions, and include an essay question that students will have twenty-five minutes to answer. The resulting essays will be graded on an "objective" scale of 1 through 6, by thousands of separate readers who will purportedly apply consistent standards across the country.

This year's juniors, the high school class of 2006, in theory have the choice of taking either the old or the new SAT. (The classes of 2007 and onward will be offered only the new version.) As a practical matter, students aiming for selective colleges should be sure to take the new test, either by itself or in addition to the old. As Joan Bress, of College Resource Associates, in Worcester, Massachusetts, points out, "students submitting [only] the old SAT may be perceived as trying to avoid the writing sample." But although that guidance is clear, it's impossible to predict how colleges will weigh the new SAT in the short term. A number of admissions officials said that they would look at the essay scores but planned to collect data about their predictive value for several years before giving them significant weight.

Another factor in the admissions process that evoked a surprisingly strong note of concern from college officials was the role played by athletics. "The treatment of athletes is the biggest uncovered scandal in admissions," says the dean of admissions at a selective college in the South. Cigus Vanni, of Cherry Hill West High School, in New Jersey, says, "Athletes simply take up too many spaces at competitive schools." Vanni and others are not referring to the traditional football and basketball powerhouse universities that are chronically put on probation by the NCAA. They are talking about the "best" schools. Harvard fields teams in forty-one Division I sports, Princeton in thirty-eight. "Those athletes don't just appear," says Princeton's dean of admission, Janet Lavin Rapelye, meaning that they are sought out and recruited. "Does it seem unfair to some parents? Perhaps. Are we making compromises? No."

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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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