Vixit / Shutterstock / Paul Spella / The Atlantic

Where College Admissions Went Wrong

“Far too many students are learning to do whatever it takes to get ahead—even if that means sacrificing individuality, health, happiness, ethical principles, and behavior.”

This is the second story in a three-part series looking at elite-college admissions. Read the first story here.

In 2011, close to 200 higher-education professionals from selective institutions across the country gathered at the University of Southern California to come up with a plan to reshape college admissions. “The values and behaviors this system signals as important, and its tendency to reward only a narrow band of students,” a report on the meeting concluded, is crippling the mission of education. It’s also undermining “the social, economic, and civic vitality of our nation’s future.” The gathering confirmed the growing consensus—even among those intimately involved in the most notorious aspects of admissions—that the system is in desperate need of reform. The intense competition it fuels undermines students’ well-being; pressures applicants to fine-tune their test-taking skills and inflate their resumes; and distorts the purpose of higher education.

Instead of preparing themselves for college—or more importantly, for life—students spend all of their pre-college years preparing themselves for the moment of admission. “What we want is to have students who want to come and work hard because they can leverage their experience at the university and do something after they leave,” said Wesleyan University President Michael Roth. “One of my predecessors used to say to students, ‘If these turn out to be the best four years of your life, we’ve failed you.’”

Roth didn’t participate in the USC conference, but he agrees with its tenets. “I think that that’s the missing part now—this consumer mentality [of], ‘Oh, I got in and now I get to enjoy the exclusive club,’ rather than ‘I got in, and now I get to use these resources to do something after the university.’”

The people who are out in the field recruiting applicants are rarely venerable educators who drive and shape the educational objectives of the school. In many cases, the front line of the admissions process is a cadre of relatively low-paid twentysomethings. Ultimately, the USC/Education Conservancy event did little to change the status quo at selective colleges. The admissions mania has, arguably, only gotten worse. Students today still spend months and sometimes even years of grueling work to secure a spot, spending thousands on test prep and college consultants, drafting essays and enrolling in all kinds of extracurriculars, just to get into the running. And at the other end of all that work is what many critics describe as a lottery—even the most qualified students are merely gambling to get in.

Another campaign called Turning the Tide, which is being led by many of the same players, aims to do something similar, this time focusing on the character-building potential of the admissions process. Where as the USC report focused mainly on de-emphasizing test scores and admissions selectivity and treating admission into a selective school as “beginning of an educational journey,” this one aims to fundamentally alter students’ reasons for getting into college. Based on a recent survey which found that most of the country’s teens prioritize their own happiness or achievement over caring for others, Turning the Tide is calling on selective colleges to encourage applicants to engage in “meaningful, sustained community service,” contribute to their families, and focus on the quality (versus the quantity) of extracurricular activities.

But it’s unclear whether this campaign will gain any more traction than the USC iteration, and some—including Roth—are skeptical about its approach. “I do worry about trying to create a new system that will measure qualities that will supposedly make people better people. Because insofar as it becomes a new system, it will be gamed by people who already pad their resumes with all kinds of activities that supposedly show empathy, but what they really show is a desire to get into schools where empathy is a criterion for admission,” Roth said.

There are concrete steps that can improve the system, Roth noted, such as de-emphasizing standardized-test scores. As the Harvard Law professor Lani Guinier put it in her book The Tyranny of Meritocracy, the SAT “best reflects our national obsession with the moment of college admission, rather than with the post-graduation missions of those who attend our colleges and universities.”

But the base of the problem, as Roth sees it, is the fundamental American obsession with exclusivity itself. “Part of what’s attractive [about] going to a great Ivy League institution is not so much the anticipation of a wonderful undergraduate education,” he said. “But the fact that it’s just really hard to get in—that’s just a trait of our culture.” Once “you set up another grid, people will create another profile to match the grid as long as the competition for seats remains intense.”

* * *

The admissions process today “not only allocates opportunity—by deciding who gets into where—but it also allocates values by determining what matters in preparing for, applying to, and selecting a college,” said Lloyd Thacker, the founder and executive director of the Education Conservancy. It’s “become a formative process during which the signals sent by a host of stakeholders are shaping their attitudes, their values, and behaviors in very troubling ways. Far too many students are learning to do whatever it takes to get ahead—even if that means sacrificing individuality, health, happiness, ethical principles, and behavior.”

“In light of all that’s being expected of kids, academically and extracurricularly, how do we still make sure that they still develop these very important human skills so that they can be citizens of the world?” agreed Rod Skinner, who oversees college counseling at Milton Academy and serves as a faculty member for Harvard’s Summer Institute on College Admissions. “So it's not an ‘either/or’ [question]—it’s an ‘and’ conversation that we need to have. That ‘and’ is not easy, and that’s why people would prefer to make it ‘either/or’—because that’s an easier thing to manage.

The toy Sarah Ford received from Duke TIP. (Sarah Ford)

And the pressure is starting earlier and earlier. Sarah Ford, a senior at the New England elite prep school Milton Academy, said she’s been thinking about college since she was in the fifth grade, when she took a test to qualify for Duke University’s Talent Identification Program, or TIP, an initiative designed to search for and support gifted children. Ford said she still has a toy—a wooden transformer-like figure that was stamped at the center with the TIP logo— that came in TIP’s introduction package, presumably to lure youngsters into the academically rigorous program.

“The letter inside the package … offered me the opportunity to take a standardized test,” Ford said, explaining that at the time she didn’t understand the purpose of the exam but felt honored to be included. “My mom and I ultimately just treated the test as an opportunity to practice for the SAT.”

Ford signed up for her first SAT-prep class the summer before sixth grade.

By the time she moved to Massachusetts in the seventh grade to attend Milton, college was pretty much all Ford could think about. “A huge part [of going to Milton] was to get to a better school, to end up with more opportunities, ultimately to be able to have a good route to college,” she said. “I was very preoccupied by it—it was incredibly prevalent.”

But for all of Ford’s SAT preoccupations, selective colleges are moving away from using standardized-test scores as a key factor in admissions. Skepticism of the SAT (and its popular cousin, the ACT) is so widespread by this point that bashing it is almost cliché. And at the rate that colleges are making test scores optional—including Roth’s Wesleyan University—a world in which SAT or ACT performance is secondary in admissions decisions may not be too far off. (According to The New York Times, as of 2015, 850 colleges and universities were test-optional.) A growing body of research challenges the notion that test performance is a proxy for success in college. There’s broad consensus that the transcript is the single most valuable tool for predicting college success. According to research by William Hiss and Valerie Franks, who both worked in Bates College’s admissions department, the students who performed the best in college were those who had good grades in high school, including those who may have had poor SAT scores. “Many of us who have spent our careers as secondary and university faculty and administrators find compelling the argument that ‘what students do over four years in high school is more important than what they do on a Saturday morning,’” the authors wrote.

But even if they’re moving away from standardized tests, that doesn’t mean selective-college admissions are moving away from standardized expectations of what it takes to get in. It’s just that they’re adding more ingredients to their recipe for the perfect student—a recipe that’s harder and harder to pull off. Some of the country’s most selective schools stress that they reject many students with perfect standardized-test scores. According to a 2013 article published in Stanford’s alumni journal, more than two-thirds—69 percent—of the college’s applicants in the previous five years with perfect SAT scores didn’t get in.

The product of this ever-more complicated recipe has a familiar name: the “well-rounded student.” (In the early 20th century, as I recounted in part one, the big motivation to look beyond standardized-test scores was to stem the influx of Jewish students.) Efforts ensued to downplay the importance of any one measure of achievement, such as test scores, and look for a range of different strengths. But the search for well-rounded applicants created new problems. “We’ve taken the quirkiness out of the applicant pool,” said Jonathan Cole, a professor and former provost at Columbia University who wrote the recent book Toward a More Perfect University. “The kid who’s really extraordinary at something but doesn’t care about some other aspect of the curriculum has no chance of getting—very, very rarely will they get—into these most highly selective schools.”

The obsession with admitting well-rounded students has percolated throughout the higher-education landscape over the decades, making its way into all kinds of institutions that rightly want to prioritize more than just academic merit. But in competing with each other to enroll the crème de la crème of the country’s teens, elite schools—and, increasingly, schools like the University of Michigan and UCLA that weren’t traditionally considered “elite”—are still effectively encouraging all students to fit into a certain mold. This mold now includes prolific extracurricular involvement, leadership, and volunteer experience—all on top of high standardized-test scores and GPAs.

* * *

The arms race to identify and recruit the perfect students was in part fueled by a race to rank the best schools. Between 1970 and 1983, college enrollment increased by 47 percent. The growing demand meant a heightened interest in knowing how the country’s thousands of schools stacked up against each other. So in 1983, U.S. News & World Report launched its rankings. “For generations, colleges and universities had generally relied on a mysterious brew of prestige and reputation,” wrote the journalist Max Kutner in a 2014 Boston Magazine article about the rankings. “Suddenly, legacies and tradition—qualities that had taken decades, and sometimes centuries, for schools to cultivate—were less important than cold, hard data.”

U.S. News rankings often come up early in conversations about admissions mania. The rankings have shaped how colleges invest their resources and handle admissions because of what they take into consideration when grading institutions—things like academic reputation (peer reviews), selectivity (acceptance rate), and student caliber (average SAT score and graduation rate and high-school GPA). They gave us a standardized, numbers-driven definition of what it means to be a “good school.” And that definition was based, in part, on having the right students. Just as students with means began hiring tutors to help them prep for standardized tests, once the idea of a “good school” became standardized, schools started relying on a professional corps of consultants to help them recruit the right student body. So we entered the brave new world of the “enrollment-management consultant.”

It used to be faculty members who handled a college’s administrative functions. They were in charge of running the business operations; they were the registrars; they decided who was and wasn’t admitted. As the number of applicants grew, these roles became more and more specialized, and eventually, working in college admissions became its own profession.

Today, admissions officers’ responsibilities vary little from institution to institution. Often fresh out of college—where they may have been tour guides or admissions-office employees as students—many of them attended the institutions they now represent, according to Tom Green, who oversees consulting and strategic enrollment management at the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers.

Strategic enrollment management—the work that Green does—is a fancy way of describing the task of helping a college proactively create a student body that meets its academic, demographic, and financial goals. The consultants might advise administrators to admit 50 students from the South and another 50 who want to major in computer science, for example; they might warn against enrolling too many people from the bottom socioeconomic quartile to ensure a college retains a high graduation rate and low percentages of students who default on their loans. “Take a college that says, ‘I wish we had more students who are better quality’—a very common request, by the way, for colleges and universities,” Green said. “The consultant might say, ‘The process you’re using is yielding the same things you got 20 years ago. So let’s think about how the process can be refreshed or really pulled apart completely and put together differently,’” Green said.

“It’s a way of trying to proactively look at the institution’s mission, its vision for the future, the environment in which it operates, and trying to align all of those factors so that the institution isn’t just reacting to changes in demographics or funding,” Green continued. It “really tries to control the enrollment destiny and ... become the most efficient and most effective organization it can with the entire point of living out its mission and helping its students be successful.”

Green’s association, commonly referred to as AACRAO, has been around for more than a century, hosting conferences and publishing materials to acquaint members with best practices and help them with professional development. Green cited the upcoming Supreme Court decision on affirmative action as an example of issues under discussion. Another topic of focus is social media: “How do we use things like Pinterest, Instagram, Facebook … How do each of these things fit together and integrate into a more comprehensive and modern communications strategy so that we’re able to tell our story to prospective students? And from that, hopefully the right students will be attracted to the institution for the right reasons.”

Critics like the Education Conservancy’s Thacker charge enrollment-management consultants with homogenizing and inflating student expectations, and for similar reasons. Jonathan Cole and other educators worry that people who aren’t immersed in the day-to-day academic experience at a school are the ones tasked with designing that school’s student body. Admissions officers and enrollment-management consultants, according to Cole, see their institutions through a business lens rather than an educational one. In a National Association for College Admission Counseling survey that asked colleges to rate the importance of various skills for the position of chief enrollment officer, previous admission experience, statistics/data analysis, and marketing/public relations were the top three categories. Aside from having an advanced degree, which only half of respondents rated as “very important,” experience in academia appears nowhere on the list. “You would never find the faculty in any decent university that would allow 24-year-olds to determine who were going to be their colleagues on the faculty; nor would they allow these 24-year-olds to determine who are going to be their graduate students or their postdoctorate fellows,” said Cole, noting that admissions officers have often declined to go forward with his recommendations. “So why do we do it in undergraduate education?”

It’s unclear how siloed the admissions and academic functions actually are in higher education, and chances are it varies from institution to institution. The NACAC report found that admissions officers seek “recruitment assistance from faculty on a regular basis,” but as Cole implied, the extent to which the officers act on that advice differs. And ultimately, the NACAC report makes it clear that a tension between the academic and admissions worlds exists. The results of that assistance were, according to the report, “decidedly mixed.” “Perhaps the greatest challenge of working with faculty, according to some, is creating understanding and appreciation of the process and its importance to everyone on campus. ‘Faculty thinks it’s our job to “bring them in,”’ said an unnamed counselor in the report. ‘They don’t know how important recruitment is. They don’t have our back.’”

People on the admissions side of things are in charge of building a class—of strategically meeting an institution’s long-term goals through the art of recruiting and enrolling students. If there are only two seats for stellar jazz musicians with strong STEM skills and five such students apply, the question of which of them will make it in is largely up to chance. Cole recalls asking some of his students whether they’d support an admissions system in which a list of potential candidates for the 1,400 or so freshmen seats at Columbia were narrowed down to the best 5,000 applicants, which would then be admitted by lottery. “There’s not a single student who would go for the lottery system. They want to believe that in the sight of God there is a rank order from 1 to 36,000 and they’re among the elect,” Cole said. “They don’t recognize that there are other people who have been rejected for a whole series of reasons who really have as much potential in a variety of ways as they do.”

Admission, Cole said, often depends on “which person in the admissions committee reads your application; what their biases are, their presuppositions; whether they’ve had a bad egg-salad sandwich that day or read too many applications. These are all things that enter our decision-making process as human beings.”

“It is [a lottery],” Cole said, “but no one is willing to admit it.”