The New College Chaos

College admissions officers say they now have many, many more applications than they know how to handle—and, often, less reliable information to help them decide which students to admit

Getting into college has always been stressful. But this year the experience is likely to be different from that of only three or four years ago, and in many ways worse. This, at least, was the implication of an extensive series of interviews that Atlantic reporters conducted over the spring and summer with college admissions officers and high school guidance counselors from across the country.

The people we spoke with came from a wide variety of institutions—public and private, large and small, religious and secular, with national or only regional reputations. Nearly all these people said that they wished parents and students would worry less about the admissions process. Most went on to point out how open, varied, and accessible American colleges actually are, for students who bother to look past the two or three dozen most sought-after institutions. The vast majority of American students do look further. Nearly three million people finish American high schools each year, and two million of them seek additional education; of those, perhaps 250,000, less than one tenth of all graduates, are involved in the struggle for places in the most selective schools. Admissions officials emphasized time and again that every observation about the pressure and uncertainty at those selective institutions should be balanced with a reminder of how accommodating and flexible the college network is as a whole.

An unusual number of admissions-related issues have been in the news this year, and officials naturally discussed the impact of specific recent events and trends—the implications of this summer's Supreme Court rulings on affirmative action; surprising changes in how the quest for gender and geographic diversity affects admissions decisions; the latest twists in the controversy over early-decision admissions plans. But their observations on what is new and significant for the high school class of 2004 centered on two big and far less publicized themes. One is that the admissions system is becoming more chaotic and unpredictable, the other that it is becoming more corporate and "marketized."

The system is chaotic because it is overloaded. Changes in demographics, technology, and society have saddled the most selective colleges with more applications than they know how to handle. More applications means an even higher rate of rejections, which makes a college statistically more "selective." Perversely, this makes it all the more attractive to the next crop of applicants, and the cycle goes on. The same forces have increased the number of schools considered highly selective. As a result, students—along with their parents and counselors—have a harder time predicting where they will get in. "The crystal ball has become a lot less clear," Larry Momo, a veteran counselor at the Trinity School, in New York City, says. For related reasons, colleges themselves have a harder time predicting who will actually enroll. The result is a wave of understandable but collectively detrimental behavior by all parties—colleges, high schools, parents, applicants—that feeds what Mark Davis, the headmaster of another private school, St. Luke's, in Connecticut, calls "the national hysteria about college admissions."

The system has become "marketized" in the sense that its participants need increasingly to think of themselves in business terms. A whole industry of "enrollment management" consultants has arisen to handle what is ordinarily known as "admissions" and was once quaintly called "crafting a class." For all but the richest ten or twenty universities, an important part of managing enrollment is being sure that enough paying customers will show up each fall—and that not too many students will take the school up on its offer to give financial aid to those who need it. (Most private colleges say they will provide need-based aid, but shrunken endowments mean that what they can cover is limited.) Students are taught to think about the "package" of accomplishments they will present to admissions committees. At the private schools and high-end public schools where admissions mania is most intense, counselors are expected to supply students and parents with a "product"—namely, admissions to prestigious schools. Many high school counselors can recount some variant on the following story. A student has just gotten into, say, Tufts or Pomona, which have become very selective. The counselor, hearing from the parents, starts to offer congratulations and is cut off by a bellow: "What happened with Yale?" A few counselors describe colleagues who were forced out, especially at private schools, because their record in college placements was not impressive enough.

As with other institutions—medicine, the media, the law—that have become more marketized in the past decade, this change has brought some improvements. A more open market for college admissions, no matter how fevered, is still fairer than the old system, which petered out in the mid-1960s, whereby Exeter's headmaster could earmark a few dozen of each year's seniors for admission to Harvard. But as in these other increasingly market-minded fields, some of the changes undermine what had been fundamental ideals and values.

Why is the system overloaded? The answer starts with the rising number of high school graduates in the past few years and then takes some surprising turns.

In the early 1980s about three million students finished American high schools each year. Since 2000 the number has been about the same. But during the intervening period the high school population went through a long decline. The classes that finished high school from 1991 to 1996 contained barely 2.5 million students each. So even if nothing else had changed, getting into any given college should be 20 percent harder now than it was a decade ago, because there are that many more contenders.

From the archives:

"The Marketing of the Colleges" (October 1979)
As enrollments dwindle and competition for tuition-paying students intensifies, more and more colleges and universities are resorting to hard-sell strategies which in some cases impinge upon the traditional standards and canons of higher education. By Edward B. Fiske

In fact the increase in difficulty is much greater, and even more so at very selective schools, because so many other factors have changed. Back in the "baby bust" years, when weak colleges worried about simply meeting enrollment targets and strong ones worried about losing the best candidates to rivals, colleges launched creative efforts to drive up demand. They intensified the "junior mailing" program, and high school students whose test scores or other traits made them attractive found their mailboxes full of brochures urging them to think about Vassar or Tulane. (The colleges bought the data from the Educational Testing Service, which had collected demographic information from students who enrolled for tests and later matched it with their test scores.) Mailings now go out to high school sophomores and, according to a recent report prepared by Edward Gillis, the admissions director at the University of Miami, even freshmen. Early-decision programs, which effectively offer an edge to students who promise to enroll, also took off as a recruitment tool. (See "The Early-Decision Racket," September 2001 Atlantic.)

In the 1990s colleges put more time and money into admissions-office "road trips"—tours to high schools in distant parts of the country, so that more California students might try for Duke and more New Yorkers would think of Occidental. Most colleges broadened their applicant pool, and by now as many as fifty have joined the previously small group of colleges that are truly "national," drawing strong applicants from every part of the country. Robert Zemsky, the chair of the Learning Alliance for Higher Education, at the University of Pennsylvania, coined the term "national students" to describe those who compete for places in selective colleges in any part of the country. Compared with local, regional, or in-state students, who apply only within their home area, national students have higher grades and SAT scores, Zemsky found, and better overall records. The more of them who apply to any given college, the stiffer the competition for everyone else. Colleges also became more serious about attracting an international student body. Candidates from, especially, the former Soviet bloc, India, and China have increased both the size and the quality of the applicant pool.

These and other measures were in response to the shortage of students in the early 1990s. But the demand-building measures remained generally in place when U.S. high schools began turning out more graduates. Then two trends intensified the pressure even more.

One was the increased popularity of the Common Application—a form, including a personal essay of 250 to 500 words, that students fill out once and send to multiple colleges. The Common Application was introduced in the 1970s, but only in the past decade or so did a significant number of highly selective colleges, including Yale, Harvard, and Johns Hopkins, decide to accept it (though some required additional information). Before the Common era, applying to a selective college meant filling out a separate form for each, usually writing a separate essay, and sometimes getting a new set of recommendations from teachers and advisers. But with the Common Application it can mean merely paying an additional application fee, often $50 to $90 per college. The convenience of the process has naturally increased the number of schools a typical student will try.

Princeton, Stanford, the University of Chicago, and a few other selective institutions do not accept the Common Application (Chicago pointedly calls its form The Uncommon Application). But even these schools are affected by the second trend: online applications. The Common Application can be filled out and submitted online. Virtually all schools allow students to download and print their own application form rather than asking for it by mail, and many allow students to conduct nearly the whole application process electronically. (High school transcripts and teacher recommendations are usually delivered the old-fashioned way.) Jim Bock, the dean of admissions and financial aid at Swarthmore, says that in the past four years the number of students applying online has risen by more than 500 percent.

Not every admissions dean we spoke with said that the combined effect of these forces was to drive applications up, up, up. At Georgetown and Penn, for example, applications have recently leveled off—albeit at a very high level. (Georgetown received more than 15,000 applications in 2002, for a freshman class of 1,485. That is twice the rate of ten years ago, but only a slight increase over the two previous years. The trend is similar at Penn.) Some single-sex schools have seen only modest increases.

But many admissions deans use terms like "flood" and "torrent" to describe what is happening. Williams College received 5,341 applications last year, for a freshman class of 533; that was 410 more than the previous year. Last year Boston College received 22,400 applications, for a class of 2,250 students; in 1996 it received 16,500. Schools suddenly turn "hot" and see spikes in the application rate. "Hotness" often reflects a belated recognition of a school's improved quality. Duke, Georgetown, and Brown experienced this more than a decade ago, and it is now happening at the University of Southern California, New York University, Tufts, and Washington University in St. Louis, among others. But colleges sometimes go in and out of fashion for reasons that have nothing to do with undergraduate academics. Columbia and Penn have become hot as urban schools have become more popular. Both Georgetown and Duke attracted many more applicants after their teams did well in the NCAA basketball tournament. When Ronald Reagan was shot, in 1981, he was rushed to the George Washington University Hospital emergency room. Applications to George Washington rose noticeably afterward, apparently because of the favorable publicity.

There is no clearinghouse to measure the overall increase in applications. Even if there were, the total would be misleading, because the real problem is the attempt of a minority of students to get into a minority of colleges. "Eighty percent of the [extra] applications are going to twenty percent of the schools" is the way Lee Stetson, the admissions dean at the University of Pennsylvania, which is among the favored 20 percent, puts it. Walt Whitman High School, in Bethesda, Maryland, had 468 seniors in last year's graduating class. Fifty-three of them applied to Northwestern.

One of those fifty-three students applied to twenty-three other colleges. Counselors at upper-end public and private high schools nearly all report an increase in the number of applications each college-bound student submits. At admissions-conscious schools where students in the early 1990s typically applied to five or six colleges, they might now apply to eight, ten, or twelve. In more relaxed settings the average has risen from three or four to six or eight. Counselors consider twenty outrageous—but some say they have seen that and more. "Students have the idea that if they throw more darts at the board, their chances go up," says Carl Ahlgren, the director of college counseling at the Gilman School, a private boys' school in Baltimore. Ahlgren says that in his experience exactly the opposite is true: the more careful and deliberate students are about choosing where to apply, the more likely they are to get in. At his previous school, University Liggett, in Grosse Pointe Woods, Michigan, Ahlgren ran a small study correlating the number of applications a student filed with overall admission success. The students with the highest rate of admission turned out to be those who applied to three or fewer schools; those with the lowest applied to eleven or more. The likely reason, Ahlgren said, is that the decision to fill out "that twelfth or fifteenth application" often "goes hand in hand with a quality of indifference, almost cynicism, about the applications"—and colleges notice.

The pressure this situation creates for students is well known—even if, in the view of some officials, its damaging effects are still not fully appreciated. For instance, Robin Mamlet, the dean of admissions and financial aid at Stanford, says she is "deeply concerned about the level of stress on young people as a serious national health issue." Less well known are the corresponding effects on those receiving the new flow of applications: the college admissions staffs. Compared with their situation even five years ago, admissions officers have more work to do, often less time to do it, and—surprisingly—less data to rely on in making their decisions.

The traditional bases for admissions decisions at highly selective colleges are high school academic performance, SAT scores, recommendations, and then everything else, including students' essays. High school grades are still the most important factor, but top-end schools are rapidly abandoning official class ranking in their calculations. The complaint about ranking is that it exaggerates small differences among students, poisons the high school atmosphere, and implicitly penalizes students for being in excellent schools, with many strong colleagues, rather than in mediocre ones. (At the most selective colleges admissions officers are familiar with the high schools that have historically sent them strong applicants, and they know how to interpret a course list, even without a class rank.) All that is true; still, the elimination of ranking leaves colleges with one less piece of information.

SATs are simultaneously all-important and decreasingly important as distinguishing tools. The great "recentering" of SAT scores in the mid-1990s was designed to adjust the scoring curve to reflect the broadened share of American students taking the SAT, which had at first been given mainly to elite students. The recentering raised average scores significantly, especially on the verbal portion of the test. "Before, there were very few seven hundred-plus verbal scores," says Charles Deacon, the dean of admissions at Georgetown. "Afterwards there was a dramatic surge upward, and many more people saw themselves as competitive candidates for the top schools." Marlyn McGrath-Lewis, the admissions director at Harvard College, says that "the double 800"—a perfect score—"is not that great a distinction anymore." In each of the past few years Harvard has received more than 500 applications with double-800 scores, and has accepted just under half of them.

Colleges also have a harder time relying on recommendations from teachers and counselors, who are under increasing pressure to turn out more recommendations for more students. An admissions dean at one college reported getting identical recommendations from the same harried teachers for different students in the same high school class. Colleges don't always know whether to trust the students' own essays, because they are so easily polished by advisers or coaches, to say nothing of being simply copied in the first place. A Web search for "admissions essays" quickly illustrates the opportunity for students and the problem for colleges. Scores of companies will edit, revise, critique, or outright produce a student essay. "All of us worry about the degree to which an application has been scrubbed in the independent schools and the affluent publics," says Tom Parker, the dean of admissions and financial aid at Amherst. John Latting, the admissions director at Johns Hopkins, who previously worked at Caltech, says of applications that clearly seem to have been polished, "There is a growing sense of unease: Where does this come from? Whose voice is this?"

As the volume of applications has risen, the size of admissions staffs has increased modestly if at all. One admissions officer says his office is handling 75 percent more applications than it did ten years ago, with roughly the same number of staff members. Others report a variety of coping mechanisms: bringing in part-time volunteer "readers" from the faculty; practicing a more ruthless form of triage, in order to concentrate on applicants with a serious shot at getting in; reading more quickly; simply spending more hours on the job. Karen Cottrell, the dean of admissions at William and Mary, says that her staff has met the challenge by working "until two in the morning seven days a week" during the months of December, January, and February.

The colleges do their best, and under the circumstances they make wise decisions. But because those circumstances have become so odd (so many students to reject, so few quantifiable differences among applicants), the process has become fundamentally less predictable than it was in the recent past. One could make a good case for admitting the students in, say, Yale's freshman class of 1,300, but one could make just about as good a case for an entirely different set of students. "You feel things slipping between your fingers," John Latting says. "If it feels like a lottery that we're running, that's not very satisfying. We want to make good decisions based on sound evidence, but the nature of the evidence seems to be changing." He means the decreasing usefulness of SATs, class rank, essays, and recommendations. Commenting on the same changes, Daniel Saracino, the dean of admissions at Notre Dame, says simply, "With highly selective institutions there is no way to predict with confidence whether a student will get in."

Thus the chaos that many of our interviewees emphasize. It has short-term perverse effects, mainly in motivating students, since they're less certain of getting into any schools, to apply to even more, thereby worsening the problem for everyone. It is also connected to the No. 1 lament of high school counselors and college admissions officers: the neurotic intrusiveness of parents. "Pushy parents come with the territory," says a veteran counselor at an elite private school. But the clear message from the admissions establishment to parents is, Please back off.

"While the parents are anxious to help, we want them to understand that the process belongs to the student," says Nanette Tarbouni, the admissions director at the newly hot Washington University. "I'll get a call from a parent saying, 'I'm working on my daughter's application ...'" Robin Mamlet, the dean of admissions and financial aid at Stanford, says, "Noisy parents and students have always been there, but they are especially active this year." Saracino says, "Parents will call up and say, 'We're applying ...' I'd like them to repeat after me: 'We are not applying; my child is applying.'"

The uncertainty of today's admissions climate is connected to the other big theme that ran through our interviews: the increasing marketization of the process. Some aspects of this effect have been widely publicized—for instance, the rise of costly admissions counselors, especially in New York, who charge tens of thousands of dollars to advise students on where and how to apply. The most notorious of these is Katherine Cohen, of IvyWise, in Manhattan, who was profiled at length in New York magazine. She offers a "platinum package" for students that lasts two years and costs $32,995. Colleges themselves have turned to enrollment-management firms for advice on how to attract the students they want. The best known of these is called Noel-Levitz. Its Web site is almost beyond parody, with consultant-speak applied to the business of recruiting, admitting, and retaining students. For instance, the company's consultants can provide "Institutional Image and Competitive Positioning Analysis™"—a "complete enrollment research package [that] offers comprehensive decision data for image enhancement and strategic market positioning." The site continues, "The analysis prepares your institution to compete effectively in its marketplace and to distinguish itself from institutions vying for the same student populations."

But some other aspects of the marketization of admissions have received less public notice than our interviewees think they deserve. These are the related phenomena of waiting-list management, "expressed interest" measures, and "merit aid."

The problem all these tools are designed to solve is a college's surprising lack of control over the makeup of its entering class. To students, a college seems to be in complete control. But once the acceptance letters go out, the balance of power changes. The same uncertainty that plagues students affects colleges when it comes to "yield." Even the most selective colleges know that at most just over half of those they admit will end up enrolling. A college that has learned to expect a 50 percent yield therefore sends out 2,000 acceptances to muster a freshman class of 1,000. But the college can't know exactly how many will accept. Worse, it can't know which ones. In putting together its admittee list it took great pains to strike a balance—men and women, athletes and musicians, black and white, rich and poor. But the vagaries of yield mean that it can end up with a class quite different from what it had in mind. Nearly all the black students might accept—or nearly none. It might have three first-trombone players for the band—and no chemistry students. It might find that a large number of students who need financial aid have accepted—and only a few who can pay their own way.

Thus the colleges look for buffers and safeguards to give them some control. The waiting list is a crucial tool. Students and parents may think of the waiting list as something like a queue in a bakery, or the standby list for an airline flight—that is, a predictable system for determining who comes ahead of whom. The reality of waiting lists is different. The main surprise is that they are huge. Very selective colleges may put hundreds of applicants on the list and ultimately admit only ten or twenty. Harvard is a dramatic case: in recent years it has put significantly more people on its waiting list than it has accepted in its springtime admissions cycle. Harvard typically accepts about 1,000 applicants in the fall under its nonbinding "early-action" program, and another 1,000 in the spring in the "regular" cycle. According to informed accounts, in the spring Harvard also places as many as 1,500 students on the waiting list, of whom it ultimately admits very few—typically a handful, and in some years none. Marlyn McGrath-Lewis, the Harvard undergraduate-admissions drector, declined comment on such reports, but she said that the list contains "several hundred" members. Williams is more representative of elite schools. Last spring it sent acceptance letters to 936 students, on top of the 193 it had accepted under its binding early-decision plan, and it put 700 to 800 more on the waiting list.

Why so many? There are some incidental reasons. Waiting lists can be a way to soften the blow for the children of alumni or for members of other important constituencies, rather than rejecting them outright. At some schools the lists, strangely, have also become a repository for some of the most highly qualified applicants. These colleges know that they are being used as safety schools by students who really want to get into more prestigious and selective institutions. Some safety schools welcome the role, for the occasional extra-strong student it brings them. Many others resent being taken for granted—and react by putting "overqualified" applicants on the waiting list rather than, as they see it, "wasting an admit" on them.

But the main reason for long waiting lists is enrollment management. To return to Williams: about half of the people it placed on its waiting list in early April did not send back the required confirmation that they wanted to stay on the list. Either they had decided to accept a spot elsewhere or they had lost interest in Williams. By early May, as students sent in their enrollment deposits, Williams was beginning to get an idea of how many of those admitted—and which ones—would be attending, and therefore what holes in the class it still had to fill. The number it admits from the list varies, but last year it was thirty-seven. These were not necessarily the ones who'd originally come closest to admission but those whose traits and skills best balanced the class. This is the main reason for such long waiting lists—to have access to what the dean of another school calls "critical mass," in a variety of categories, to add whatever element a class seems to lack. Men, surprisingly, are a new category: gender ratios at liberal-arts colleges across the country are tipping in favor of women, and some schools have reportedly begun practicing a stealth form of affirmative action that favors male applicants. Like all colleges, Williams then had to allow for "summer melt"—the students who have accepted, enrolled, and paid their deposits, but for a variety of reasons withdraw during the summer; the school took a few more from the list to compensate.

To further reduce uncertainty, many colleges have begun examining students' "expressed interest" and in effect adding a new category of financial aid, called "merit aid." Each is a deceptively bland-sounding practice that has become surprisingly controversial among admissions professionals.

Colleges that reward expressed interest are really doing nothing more than giving an edge to applicants who demonstrate that they are very interested in attending. In practice this means keeping track of the seriousness of a student's application. Some of the indicators—and the fact that colleges track them—would be obvious to an applicant poring over the fine print of admissions brochures, and some might not. Did she show up when college representatives visited her high school? Did she and her parents come visit the college and pick up material in the admissions office? Has she corresponded with the office? As best the college can guess, is she applying for real? And skipping ahead—if she applied and made it only to the waiting list, is she still serious about the school? If invited, will she accept?

This sounds perfectly commonsensical. But such measures could lead to a new kind of bias. The main professional group involved in college admissions, the National Association for College Admission Counseling, or NACAC, has begun studying the effects of such expressed-interest measures. NACAC's concern is that students who already have plenty on their side—those who are most sophisticated, best coached, and generally richest—will only gain a further advantage. Joyce Smith, the executive director of NACAC, has said that the more schools reward expressed interest, the more they penalize those who are unaware of this new twist. That, she says, includes students whose parents didn't go to college, immigrants, members of racial minorities, international students, and graduates of large public schools with small counseling staffs. Students who can't afford to travel for college visits are also at a disadvantage. Such discrimination is obviously not the colleges' intention; but a tool to reduce uncertainty and make admissions more businesslike could have that effect. The NACAC study is due out this winter.

Schools' growing focus on merit aid has provoked similar concerns. Since the expansion of college enrollment after World War II, colleges have generally proclaimed their belief in need-blind admissions—that is, they say that family wealth should not be a factor in judging students' applications. The corollary has been need-based aid—offering loans, grants, and scholarships to ensure that anyone the college admits can afford to attend.

By most estimates, fewer than ten schools are rich enough to apply both parts of the formula completely. Carleton College attracted widespread notice several years ago when it announced that it would no longer be fully need-blind in its admissions. Carleton had developed a reputation as the school for poor but very bright applicants, and it was getting more scholarship students than it could support. Many other private colleges are putting such a change into effect without announcing it. With donations down, endowments shrunken, government grants being cut, and more students requesting aid, they are protecting themselves by limiting their potential obligations to such students.

Merit aid—scholarship offers to students with strong high school records, even if they don't demonstrate financial need—seems like a logical solution. The idea that non-need scholarships can attract exceptional students is not new: it was behind the National Merit Scholarship program. The University of Virginia holds competitions for its Jefferson Scholars program, which covers all costs of attending the university. The Robertson Scholars program does something similar for students at Duke and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, as does the Flinn Foundation for students at Arizona's public universities.

What is different now is the routine use of smaller merit offers to attract students—and, surprisingly, to conserve a college's resources. How? An annual grant of, say, $5,000, offered in the financial-aid package that comes with spring admissions letters, might be enough to draw in a student whose family can cover the rest of the bill. That place might otherwise have been filled by someone whose request for need-based aid would have been much greater. "I call this kind of assistance 'non-need-based' aid, rather than 'merit' aid," says John Mahoney, the director of undergraduate admissions at Boston College. "Not all the students getting it are at the very top of the talent pool. They're solid students—and the college figures that by offering them a modest amount of aid, it can affect their enrollment decision."

The changed, more businesslike landscape means advantages for well-informed, connected students, and disadvantages for everyone else. The people we interviewed took seriously the role of American colleges as engines of fairness and mobility, and said this swing away from need-based aid should be watched closely—and, when possible, reversed.

Above all, the counselors and admissions officers who match students with colleges emphasized how many opportunities the current system provides—and repeated their hope that even amid the potential distractions and anxieties of this year's (temporary, they hope) chaos, students and their families will remain both calm and confident about ending up at the right school.