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

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."

Lloyd Thacker, of the Education Conservancy, in Portland, Oregon, says that the role of sports in Ivy League admissions is becoming widely noticed. "I think deans are trying to do a good job" (that is, are trying to admit only qualified athletes), he says. "I just think there are institutional pressures. Any real change has to come from presidents demonstrating leadership beyond their own institutional self-interest." (In the summer of 2003 the Ivy League presidents did raise academic standards for athletes and limit the number of recruits.) Tom Parker, of Amherst, thinks the first step toward addressing this problem—and the related one of "legacy" admissions—is to be completely honest about them. "Schools should come right out and say, 'We are practicing affirmative action. This is our admit rate for legacies. We reserve X places for athletes.' These people get in at the cost of academic standards, and it should be said, because everybody knows it. Pretending otherwise just engenders cynicism." In the meantime, though, prospective Ivy Leaguers might want to stay in shape.

The financial squeeze

One prospect worried the people we interviewed more than any other. It was the financial pressures that together threaten to make four-year colleges, especially private ones, largely the preserve of the well-off—a reflection of social advancement rather than a means toward it.

The individual forces behind this shift are familiar: the polarization of incomes; the squeeze on state and federal support for higher education; the already high cost of private education and the rapidly rising cost of public institutions. Another factor is the boom in "merit aid" programs at schools both public and private. Merit aid is financial assistance given for reasons other than financial need, and it is the fastest-growing category of financial aid. This is because merit aid helps colleges attract students with higher SAT scores, and from more-prosperous families, than might otherwise enroll. Steve Goodman, an independent educational consultant in Washington, D.C., offers the example of a student he was advising who was accepted by Syracuse. "The school threw six or seven thousand dollars at him that he didn't need," Goodman said. "They offered the money to be sure he would come." Michael Sexton, the dean of admissions at Lewis & Clark College, in Portland, Oregon, says that the use of merit aid depends mainly on where the institution stands "on the food chain" of colleges. "For those of us just below the upper echelon, it's one of the tools we can use [to attract top students]." Since overall aid budgets have been flat, more merit aid means less need-based aid at all but the very richest colleges.

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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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