The Absurdity of College Admissions, Cont'd

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

FiveThirtyEight’s Ben Casselman isn’t pleased with how I—or reporters at The Washington Post, Elite Daily, and The Huffington Post, among others—covered college admissions this year. The coverage is cliché and misleading, Casselman argues; it “ignores the issues most college students face.” It overlooks the fact, according to him, that the vast majority of U.S. undergraduates attend schools where admission is relatively easy, or that many of them are non-traditional students, or that nearly half of them attend community colleges.

First, I should point out that much, if not most, of The Atlantic's higher-education coverage has been about these issues. We’ve written about the challenges faced by single moms trying to get their college degrees. We devoted an entire cover story to community colleges. We lamented the state of public higher-education systems in states such as Louisiana, Kansas, and California. We looked at the states where high-school drop-out rates are rising despite positive trends nationwide.

That aside, I wholeheartedly agree that my three-part series isn’t obviously relevant to those Americans. As I point out almost immediately in the inaugural story, the problem I explore throughout the series—the mania of elite-college admissions—“is a crisis for the 3 percent.”

Still, while most U.S. teenagers may not be directly involved in that mania, I suspect its psychology is spreading into a growing sphere of American society. The frenzy is palpable, if only because selective colleges are incentivized to recruit students who have no chance of getting in: It boosts their position in the rankings. Meanwhile, younger and younger children are being subjected to this ruthless, competitive culture of “getting in.”

Take the way (public-school) kindergarten standards have evolved, for example. As I’ve reported before, up until the 1980s, “kindergarten was seen as a lighthearted environment where youngsters would be engaged in playful, creative activities while being gradually acclimated to basic academic topics (like shapes and colors) and skills (holding a pencil and using glue).” Then came the movement for high-stakes testing and the notion that rigor in kindergarten was key to giving kids an academic edge.

Or take the selective-admissions system for New York City’s public high schools, which I’ve written about extensively. Here’s an excerpt from my story, “The Cutthroat World of Elite Public Schools”:

New York City’s district-wide system of selective-admissions high schools—test-only and otherwise—causes headaches for parents and students across the city. “It’s not a perfect system by a long shot,” Szuflita said [Joyce Szuflita is a private consultant for families trying to navigate the education system in the city]. “If you ask any parent that was going through it right now, they would say it’s absolutely the worst system they ever saw.” Some parents have to take off work and tour as many as 20 schools. (That, ironically, is particularly difficult for the ones who work as teachers and are themselves in the classrooms being toured by fellow parents.)

As for the students, “you’re given a cornucopia of beautiful and horrible choices and then held up, feeling like you’re being assessed and placed and feeling like your life is not your own,” Szuflita said. “It feels very uncertain, and it feels like there are great triumphs and disasters.” In 2012, according to Szuflita, about half of the more than 77,000 eighth graders who applied to public schools got their first choices, while three-fourths of them got one of their top-three picks. But 10 percent of the students didn’t get a match. That’s nearly 8,000 students.

“With the variety,” Szuflita said, “comes tremendous anxiety.”