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Applying to college has never been easier—or more stressful. BC’s director of admission explains why
A radical change occurred in college admission in the late 1990s, the impact of which is still being felt. It marked what the writer Malcolm Gladwell might call a tipping point, as the accrual of changes elsewhere in society, and adjustments by college administrators, yielded unexpected consequences.
The seeds were demographic: In the early 1990s, after bottoming out, the population of 18-year-olds began a slow, steady rise. (To illustrate how precipitously the number of young high school graduates had previously plummeted, applications to Boston College dropped 29 percent in a mere six years, from 16,163 in 1985, to 11,516 in 1991.)
The annual crop of high school graduates is now expected to continue growing for another three years, topping out at 3.2 million. That figure seems high now, but in fact it simply marks the age group’s return to its 1979 level. And yet no one would liken that earlier, relatively tranquil era in admission history to the current environment, with its professional coaching and high anxiety and torrent of applications to schools of varying selectivity. During the 1990s, forces besides demography were clearly at play.
To begin with, it was during that decade that selective colleges began operating their early decision plans (in which acceptance is binding) and early action plans (in which acceptance is not binding) to serve their own best interests, not necessarily those of high school students. Rather than adhering to a uniform ethical standard—that of applying a tougher measure to early candidates—they started encouraging recruited athletes, legacies, and non-financial-aid applicants to apply early. In that way, they could reduce their acceptance rates and at the same time ensure higher yields from the students they admitted—enhancing their rankings in US News & World Report. The recent bold gambit by Yale, Stanford, and Harvard to adopt single-choice early action programs (whereby students may apply early to one school only, but acceptance is nonbinding) can be viewed as an inevitable corrective to the madness—the glut of early applicants—fostered by colleges in the 1990s.
Two other changes during that decade contributed to the tipping point: Increasingly, high school graduates decided to go to college; and applying to college became easier. College participation rates rose for several reasons—including early intervention programs that lifted high school graduation rates, better counseling within high schools, declines in blue-collar jobs, and growth in the economy’s knowledge-based sectors. Applying to college got easier for two reasons—the Internet and the Common Application.
The Common Application was developed in 1975 by 15 private colleges in conjunction with the National Association of Secondary School Principals. In its first full year of operation, 83 schools participated. By 1990 the number had grown to 122. Since then, membership has more than doubled, to 275, including many prestigious institutions.
Boston College adopted the Common Application in 1998, and applications increased the following year by 21 percent, to 19,746. The quality and diversity of our applicants also increased, and the yield on admitted students declined just 2 percentage points. Life as we knew it in the Boston College admission office, and in other highly selective admission offices across the country, was suddenly more frenetic. Since 1999, applications have increased another 21 percent, and the upward trend seems likely to continue.
Surveying the college admission landscape today, i wonder, are we better or worse off than we were 10 years ago? I think the answer is both. We are clearly better off in that the Internet has broadened high school students’ field of vision and led them to explore a wider array of schools. As for the Common Application, the upward trajectory of the youth population would have dictated that colleges become more selective in any case, and that students would be applying to more colleges as a consequence. So, the fact that Boston College and many other colleges have opted to make the process more accessible and simpler should be judged as well intentioned and right. To not have done so, I’m convinced, would have reduced options and opportunities for students.
The University of Chicago and some other schools, however, have clung to the model of a unique application, and they would beg to differ. They maintain that they are preserving integrity in college admission by holding down the volume of applications and requiring students to make well-considered decisions about the colleges to which they will apply. Chicago’s admission dean, Ted O’Neill, says a good college admission process “is not like computer dating—it’s like love letters.” He says online applications eliminate individuality and produce “generic” and “utterly boring” essays. O’Neill’s comments, delivered at last year’s annual meeting of the College Board and reported by Inside Higher Ed, have drawn a mixed response from admission officers and high school guidance counselors. O’Neill also posits that the trends toward uniformity and centralization embodied in electronic admission could some day lead to a national clearinghouse through which students are assigned their college placement. Maybe so, but in light of the population and technology trends of the 1990s, my sense is that the transformation thus far has been inevitable.
Now for the downside. Put bluntly, the college admission process is today more unpredictable, more intimidating, more costly, and more time-consuming than ever before. For an essay in the New York Review of Books, the political scientist Andrew Hacker studied admission data for the entering freshman class of 2004 at a dozen of the most highly selective colleges and universities in the country (Harvard, Princeton, Yale, Columbia, Stanford, Brown, MIT, Amherst, Dartmouth, Penn, Williams, Duke). “Collectively,” he writes, “admission officers at these schools considered 171,824 applications and turned down 145,962 for an overall acceptance rate of about 15 percent.” But contained in those totals, says Hacker, was a high degree of “redundancy,” as individual students applied to many of the schools, perhaps even to all of them. Today, it seems that the most highly selective colleges are virtually unattainable, that the next tier is brutally competitive, and so on, down the line. This trickling down of selectivity makes high school counselors increasingly reluctant to suggest sure bets to students. I submit that history will judge this as the time when the notion of the safety school disappeared.
The college admission process today seems stuck in a cycle from which it cannot be extricated. More students are applying to more colleges, which results in greater selectivity, which forces students to apply to more colleges, which causes more selectivity. Is the system destined for some kind of cataclysmic change in the years ahead—another tipping point? If so, what will survive, and how will we operate differently? I certainly don’t have all the answers, but I know what some of the stress points are and the direction I would like to see the college admission process take.
Let’s start with a key ingredient, this so-called millennial generation of students born since 1977, already different from those who came before. Stefanie Olsen, writing for CNET News.com in 2005, describes them well: “Children who were born when Netscape Communications went public are now 10 years old and have been raised on a steady diet of digital technologies that have fundamentally shaped their notions of literacy, intelligence, [and] friendship. . . . Their everyday lives are often characterized by immediate communication, via instant messenger, cellular conversations, or text messaging. No member of this generation, it can be assumed, would ever wait on a street corner for a late friend.”
Richard T. Sweeney, university librarian at the New Jersey Institute of Technology, in an interview with the Chronicle of Higher Education, says of the millennials, some of whom are now in college, “They want to learn, but they want to learn only what they have to learn, and they want to learn it in a style that is best for them.” This may account for a recent report in the Boston Globe that Amazon.com now allows customers to buy books one page at a time, that the physicist Stephen Hawking has published a condensed version of his landmark book A Brief History of Time entitled A Briefer History of Time, and that a British publisher has released The 100-Minute Bible, which reduces the Good Book to a 64-page paperback.
Before I turn to the impact of these trends on college admission, consider the impact they’re already having on higher education. In an interview with the Chronicle, Patrick Thaddeus Jackson, an assistant professor of international relations at American University, says, “The ‘sage on the stage’ is dying, if not dead already. Faculty members are no longer privileged sources of knowledge, so our job should be to get people to think critically and independently about things.” Thus, Jackson counts himself a proponent of podcasting; he records his lectures for online downloading to digital audio players, and encourages his students to listen to them before coming to class. Jackson says, “Think about how much classroom time you would save if you didn’t have to lecture anymore. You free up all this interactive personal space between you and your students. It changes the classroom experience.” Steve DiFilipo, chief technology officer at Gloucester County College in New Jersey, goes a step further in another Chronicle article: “Forget ipods. Ipods are history. . . . From an academic point of view, the mobile phone will be the next killer device.”
As educators, we have an obligation to be open to the opportunities and benefits that technology offers, but we must also think critically about how the goals of education may be in tension with the means technology affords. The same tensions exist in the marketing of higher education. We need to avoid latching on to the latest technological craze just because it appeals to the next generation and we think we can make our admission operation look trendy. The goal should not be to give the next generation what it wants; it should be to market higher education in an accurate and honest way and then to deliver an educational experience that will prepare students for a complex world.
My concern is that the new technologies that so appeal to young people serve to saturate them with information. While they don’t seem overwhelmed by this, and, in fact, have become the consummate multitaskers, they are conditioned to move quickly through material that should be deliberately absorbed. We must be high-minded and thoughtful in the ways that we promote our institutions. We should strive not so much to dazzle with technology as to stimulate students to think about the intellectual and social opportunities we can offer them. Then, perhaps, we can achieve a tipping point that restores reason and sanity to a college admission process that seems out of control.
John L. Mahoney ’79, MAT’85, is the director of undergraduate admission at Boston College. His essay is drawn from a talk delivered to his staff at their annual retreat in January.