Contents | November 2003

More on politics and society from The Atlantic Monthly.

More on education from The Atlantic Monthly.

From Atlantic Unbound:

Flashbacks: "The Old College Try" (October 8, 2003)
Who gets in, and why? Atlantic articles from 1892 to the present consider the art, the science, and the gamesmanship of college admissions.

Flashbacks: "'The Early-Decision Racket' Redux" (November 20, 2002)
A look at the effect of a recent article by James Fallows on the world of college admissions.

The Atlantic Monthly | November 2003
Our First Annual College-Admissions Survey

"Calm Down!" the deans and counselors say. Herewith an exploration of the American college-admissions system

ere is the problem with the college-admissions system. It is a vast and intricate bureaucracy designed to do one thing, and it does that very well; but it is under intense social and economic pressure to do something different—something more or less directly at odds with its supposed goal. The resulting tensions affect everyone involved: The high school guidance counselors who try to steer students toward the right school. The college admissions officers who sort through ever mounting piles of applications to choose an entering class. The college administrators who wonder how many of those accepted will enroll—and how many of them will need financial aid. The parents who contemplate what will be (after housing) the second largest financial outlay of their lives. And, of course, the students themselves.

What the admissions system is really designed for is the subtle, subjective work of matching millions of students with thousands of schools. Romantic images are often used to describe this process—finding a date, choosing a spouse—and the comparisons do apply. In higher education, as in dating or marriage, individual tastes and needs differ. There are widely agreed-upon ideas of more and less attractive partners, but there is no single "best" or "right" choice. If one matchup doesn't work, many others are available.

There are plenty of fish in the sea. American colleges are unbelievably varied. There are thousands of institutions of post-high school instruction in the United States: more than 2,300 four-year colleges, more than 1,800 two-year colleges, and an unknown but large number of trade schools, technical institutes, art or music centers, and other specialized schools. There are night schools for people with jobs; online or written correspondence courses for people in remote locations; universities in big cities and on secluded campuses in Oregon and Maine. There are technical institutes—for music, nursing, forestry, aviation—and colleges that emphasize the classics. The American higher-education establishment includes the Air Force Academy and Juilliard, Bob Jones University and Caltech.

The people who make the educational matchmaking system go—the high school counselors and college admissions officers —are surprisingly idealistic about trying to find in this dizzying range the right school for each student. They are modestly paid; they complain frequently about pressure from anxious parents; they compete fiercely in the admissions derby. But they believe in what they are doing. When they talk about serving a student's best interests, they sound less jaded than politicians do when talking about serving the public interest—or lawyers do about serving justice, or journalists do about serving the truth.

Then we have the reality that none of these counselors and officers like but all of them recognize: admissions is a battlefield in a brutal competition for prestige. Everyone in America's college-aspirant class understands how this works. "Going Ivy" is a win. Being stuck at a safety school is a loss. The real admissions system is creative in finding room for everyone. The trophy admissions system is a you-versus-me competition for a limited number of spaces at a handful of schools. The real system emphasizes how many places a student might be happy. The trophy system emphasizes how few. The real system puts its greatest stress on what a student will do after he or she starts college. The trophy system cares only where he or she gets in.

Status competition is natural to people, and exclusive affiliations have always been valued for their sheer exclusivity. Otherwise there would be no such concept as the A-list. The mystery in college admissions is how one factor in choosing a desirable college—the appeal of selective schools simply because they are hard to get into—became the factor for an influential minority of ambitious Americans.

The purpose of this special section, which will be an annual fall feature, is to examine the admissions system as it is meant to work—and to explore the realities of its current operation and their implications for students, parents, and the colleges themselves. Our goal is to give high school students and their families a practical sense of what to expect from the process, to help them find the best match of student and college. As part of that continuing process we will canvass high schools and colleges for advance signs of changes in admissions.

For the inauguration of this special feature Atlantic reporters interviewed many dozens of admissions directors and high school counselors, asking which trends they thought would most affect students in the coming year. One result of that reporting is "The New College Chaos" (below), by James Fallows, which describes what students should know about the new level of unpredictability and commercialism in the admissions system, and how counselors believe students can cope with it.

This issue also addresses a basic question in admissions: how parents and students should think about "desirable" schools, and whether current systems of ranking and rating schools identify the right traits. In "What Makes a College Good?," Nicholas Confessore discusses a new assessment system designed (imagine!) to measure how well students learn to read, write, and think once they are in college. To demonstrate the strengths and limitations of rating systems The Atlantic conceived a rating system of its own (see "The Selectivity Illusion," by Don Peck).

In "The Bias Question," Jay Mathews reports on charges of ethnic bias in the SAT by a former ETS employee.

Finally, in "The Late-Decision Program," V. V. Ganeshananthan reveals a little-known but important safety net in the admissions process whereby thousands of students get a second chance at finding the right school.

Writing about the stresses and uncertainties in the admissions process carries a risk. The counselors and admissions officers we interviewed said time and again that their collective message to America's parents is "Calm down!" A realistic portrayal of the admissions system might not have that effect initially. But the more clearly students and their parents understand how many choices they have, and how hard the real system will try to find the right match for them, the more confident they should be. In that spirit we offer our first College-Admissions Survey.


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
by James Fallows

The Late-Decision Program
Most people have heard of early-decision programs. But there's also a little-known safety net at the other end of the process, to catch those who don't get in anywhere
by V. V. Ganeshananthan

What Makes a College Good?
A new survey seeks to get beyond the well-publicized—and much criticized—college rankings and measure schools by how good a job they do of actually educating their students
by Nicholas Confessore

The Selectivity Illusion
Look at the data closely, and the neat hierarchy of selectivity begins to fall apart
by Don Peck

The Bias Question
In a surprising challenge to the SAT's reputation as an unbiased measure of student learning, one researcher has argued that blacks do better than matched-ability whites on the harder questions of the SAT—something he believes their scores should reflect
by Jay Mathews

What do you think? Discuss this article in Post & Riposte.

Copyright © 2003 by The Atlantic Monthly Group. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; November 2003; The Atlantic College Admissions Survey; Volume 292, No. 4; 104-106.