• September 1, 2015

Application Inflation

Bigger numbers mean better students, colleges say. But when is enough enough?

Application Inflation 1

Allen Brisson-Smith, The New York Times

Shaun Stewart, a high-school senior whose test scores aren't as high as the freshman averages at many colleges that have sent him brochures: "They want you so they can reject you."

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close Application Inflation 1

Allen Brisson-Smith, The New York Times

Shaun Stewart, a high-school senior whose test scores aren't as high as the freshman averages at many colleges that have sent him brochures: "They want you so they can reject you."

The numbers keep rising, the superlatives keep glowing. Each year, selective colleges tout their application totals, along with the virtues of their applicants.

For this fall's freshman class, the statistics reached remarkable levels. Stanford received a record 32,022 applications from students it called "simply amazing," and accepted 7 percent of them. Brown saw an unprecedented 30,135 applicants, who left the admissions staff "deeply impressed and at times awed." Nine percent were admitted.

This article is the first of a collaboration between The Chronicle of Higher Education and The New York Times. Eric Hoover is a senior writer for The Chronicle covering college admissions.

Read More From Eric Hoover: Head Count, the Admissions Blog

The biggest boast came from the University of California at Los Angeles. In a news release, UCLA said its accepted students had "demonstrated excellence in all aspects of their lives." Citing its record 57,670 applications, the university proclaimed itself "the most popular campus in the nation."

Such announcements tell a story in which colleges get better—and students get more amazing—every year. In reality, the narrative is far more complex, and the implications far less sunny for students as well as colleges caught up in the cruel cycle of selectivity.

To some degree, the increases are inevitable: The college-bound population has grown, and so, too, has the number of applications students file, thanks in part to online technology. But wherever it is raining applications, colleges have helped open the clouds—by recruiting widely and aggressively to increase their pool of applicants.

Admissions officers are chasing not so much a more perfect student as a more perfect class. In a given year, this elusive ideal might require more violinists, goalies, aspiring engineers, or students who can pay the full cost of attendance. Colleges everywhere want more minority students, more out-of-state students, and more students from overseas. The pursuit reveals the duality of the modern college. It's a place that serves the public interest, and a business with a bottom line. Although the tension between mission and marketing has long defined admissions, many believe the balance has tilted too far toward marketing. Many colleges have made applying as simple as updating a Facebook page. Some deans and guidance counselors complain that it's too easy. They question the ethics of intense recruitment by colleges that reject the overwhelming majority of applicants.

"It's like needing a new stereo and buying the whole Radio Shack," says Mark Speyer, director of college counseling at the Columbia Grammar and Preparatory School in New York. "With these bigger pools, colleges are getting a lot of students who have no chance."

Fred Hargadon, former dean of admissions at Prince­ton and Stanford, doubts that more and more applicants make for a stronger class. "I couldn't pick a better class out of 30,000 applicants than out of 15,000," he says. "I'd just end up rejecting multiples of the same kid."

The tide shows no signs of ebbing. This year Duke, the University of Chicago, and Tulane—the last juggling 43,816 submissions—surpassed their previous application records by double-digit percentages. Applications are, of course, a proxy for popularity and a metric of merit. Such is the allure of exclusivity—and the appeal of simplicity. Measuring quality is difficult; measuring quantity is as easy as counting. The more apps a college receives, and rejects, the more impressive it seems.

Today's application inflation is a cause and symptom of the uncertainty in admissions. As application totals soar, colleges struggle to predict yield—the number of admitted students who actually attend—leading to longer wait lists and other competitive enrollment tactics. Students hedge against the plummeting admissions rates by flooding the system with even more applications.

Sarah Markhovsky sees the uncertainty in the students she counsels at Severn School, in Maryland. "They'll say, 'Oh, my gosh, I should apply to a million schools—if I shoot lots of arrows, maybe I'll hit something,'" she says. "This translates into hype that's not useful. It feels like the kids are commodities."

That's how Shaun Stewart felt when he started receiving brochures from colleges. "They want you so they can reject you," says Mr. Stewart, a senior in Burnsville, Minn., who has a 3.5 grade-point average and scored a 27 (out of 36) on the ACT. Those numbers are well below the freshman averages at some of the big-name colleges that sent him applications along with brochures.

"Colleges are there to educate you, but they make it all about who's the best college," he says. "They make it too stressful. Then we make it too stressful on ourselves." He is considering liberal-arts colleges like Carleton and Gustavus Adolphus, which he says have shown a more personal touch in recruiting.

The scale of rejection worries Karl M. Furstenberg, dean of admissions and financial aid at Dartmouth College from 1992 to 2007. "When people keep hearing that they're not good enough, this has an undermining psychological effect," he says.

Over the last 15 years, Mr. Furstenberg says, growing applicant pools reflected an earnest push for greater diversity among the wealthiest institutions. Yet he believes many have reached a point of diminishing returns.

"It's a classic arms race—escalation for not a whole lot of gain," he says. "I don't think these larger applicant pools are materially improving the quality of their classes. Now what's driving it is the institutional self-interest factor, where bigger pools mean you're more popular, you're better."

NEVER has the University of Chicago been more popular. It received a record 19,347 applications for this fall—a 43-percent increase over last year—for a freshman class of about 1,400 students. Those numbers would have been noteworthy anywhere, but here they were startling. Chicago had been a holdout, attracting fewer applicants than other intellectual powerhouses. What changed—and why—reveals the dynamics of admissions in the 21st century.

The University of Chicago was founded in the South Side's Hyde Park neighborhood in 1890, but its Gothic buildings look centuries older. Its "Common Core" curriculum steeps undergraduates in the liberal arts. Many deep thinkers—Saul Bellow, Milton Friedman, Carl Sagan—have come here to ponder big questions. Even the wide-eyed gargoyles here seem struck by inspiration.

For years, Chicago's admissions office emphasized the university's distinctiveness, sending offbeat mailings, like a postcard ringed with a coffee stain. Its application has long included imaginative essay prompts, like "If you could balance on a tightrope, over what landscape would you walk? (No net)." This became known as the "Uncommon Application," in contrast to the Common Application, the standardized form that allows students to apply to any of hundreds of participating colleges.

That some students wouldn't like Chicago's quirky questions was the point. "If understood properly, no given college will appeal to everyone—that wouldn't be possible," says Theodore A. O'Neill, the university's dean of college admissions from 1989 to 2009. "It's important to signal something true and meaningful about yourself. The more signals, the more honest you're being, and doing that does limit the applications."

Mr. O'Neill was not opposed to attracting more applicants. Over time, the admissions staff had expanded outreach and increased diversity. Yet some of Chicago's leaders concluded that the admissions office had trapped the university in a niche. It had long been dogged by a stereotype as a place for nerds and social misfits who shun sunlight and conversation. T-shirts created by students lovingly mock the university (the most famous is "Where Fun Comes to Die"). In recent years, the university has built new residential complexes and expanded its study-abroad programs, career-counseling services, and recreational offerings.

"It's not that we weren't getting students of quality that we wanted, because we were—they were terrific," says John W. Boyer, dean of the college since 1992. "But we still had the feeling that, as much progress as we were making, there were still a lot of people out there who had these older images of the place. We were not using our admissions office to the maximum degree to say what the college was to the American people."

Conventional wisdom holds that colleges seek more applicants to improve their rankings, but this is a narrow view of the issue. In fact, a college's admission rate accounts for just 1.5 percent of its score in U.S. News & World Report's annual ratings. Still, rising selectivity can please alumni, aid fund raising, and help attract top professors.

Bond-rating agencies also study application totals. Roger Goodman, vice president and senior credit officer at Moody's Investment Services, says applications are one measure of demand, an indicator of market position and financial health, which affect the cost of borrowing. "If an institution is not growing and improving selectivity, that would probably be more of a concern than it would have been a decade ago," Mr. Goodman says. "Even at a place that's highly selective, there can be very good reasons to expand its applicant base, as long it's coming from wanting to attract a diverse class."

In 2006, under a new president, Robert J. Zimmer, Chicago announced that it would join the Common Application, which many admissions deans say attracts more applicants, especially low-income and minority students. Although the university vowed to retain its essays in a required supplement, the demise of the "Uncommon Application" sparked a student protest.

Mr. Zimmer, who attended Stuyvesant High School in Manhattan, told officials he wanted more applicants, especially top students from the New York area. The university commissioned market research to meet that goal.

Last year Mr. O'Neill, one of the profession's most respected members, stepped down (he's now a lecturer at the university). In his place, Chicago hired James G. Nondorf as vice president and dean of college admissions and financial aid.

Colleagues describe Mr. Nondorf as a "super marketer," a man who gets results. At Yale, he helped diversify the applicant pool and pioneered the university's use of a "likely letter," sent to top applicants before official acceptances. In three years as the top enrollment official at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, he oversaw a doubling of applications, which brought record numbers of women.

At Chicago, Mr. Nondorf's first priority was to create a recruitment booklet that contained many photographs of students engaged in group activities, including music, dance, tennis, and football. Later Chicago sent tailored letters to students who had expressed an interest in the arts or in medicine. Admissions officers talked up pre-professional opportunities and career preparation. Visiting families received special rates from the Hilton, where a letter from Mr. Nondorf and a pouch of chocolates awaited them. Over the last year, Chicago's admissions representatives visited about twice as many high schools as they had the previous year. Mr. Nondorf sent three to California instead of one, and for the first time, the university received more applications from the Golden State than from Illinois.

Chicago officials have cited many reasons for this year's application explosion, including the popularity of President Obama, who taught at the university. But some credit should go to Royall & Company, a direct-marketing firm the university hired last spring to help conduct an expansive recruitment campaign. This included a series of short e-mails sent in rapid succession; some students received nearly 20 in all. This year Royall's clients averaged a 7-percent increase in applicants.

In a policy sea change, Chicago also encouraged students to apply through its nonbinding early-admission program. It worked: This year, the university received a record 5,873 early applications, up from 3,774 last year.

Chicago assigns a "fit" rating to each applicant, based on holistic measures like intellectual curiosity or evidence that a student applied, say, a favorite subject to his own life. This year it admitted more top students with high ratings than in the past, according to Mr. Nondorf. "The number of applications reflects something, but they're not necessarily what we're after," he says. "Crafting a better educational experience through a better class is the goal."

Still, at an admissions conference in Rhode Island this May, Mr. Nondorf described the pressure on deans. "Don't kid yourselves, the presidents and trustees want you to have more applications," he said. "If you don't think that's the case, I don't know what schools you're working at, but it's true."

Mr. Boyer has compared Chicago's application total to that of Columbia University, which also has a strong liberal-arts curriculum. "I believe we are a better university than they are, so I think we should have more applications than they do," he told the student newspaper last winter. The remark was a "friendly, competitive gesture," Mr. Boyer says today: "I don't think Chicago should stand behind New York on this one. We deserve the same number of applications, if not more."

Such talk worries Andre Phillips, who left Chicago last year after two decades as associate director of admissions. "By changing the admissions culture, Chicago has gone in for the quick fix," he says. "My concern is that the institution is marketing itself as something it isn't."

COLLEGES operate in a realm of perceptions influenced by numbers, yet admission rates can be a statistical mirage. As Caroline M. Hoxby noted in a 2009 paper published by the National Bureau of Economic Research, admission rates are unreliable because they fall even when students apply who don't have a shot.

Moreover, while declining rates suggest that students are getting better, the most competitive applicants couldn't get more amazing if they levitated. The number of such all-stars isn't multiplying, either. They are jumping into more applicant pools, which Ms. Hoxby, a Stanford economist, describes as the nationwide "re-sorting" of students who are increasingly likely to attend a college far from home.

So it behooves colleges to cast wide nets. Most colleges start by buying the names of students whose standardized-test scores and self-reported grade-point averages fall within a particular range. In the early 1990s, the College Board sold 35 million names a year; now it sells 80 million to approximately 1,200 colleges, at 32 cents a name. More colleges are buying names of sophomores to jump-start interest.

Over time, the shape of the application has changed. Dozens of institutions send "fast track" applications, with students' names and other information filled in—and no fee. Tulane mails its "VIP Application" to 130,000 students annually. In an e-mail to the campus this year, its president, Scott S. Cowen, described Tulane's nearly 44,000 applications as "the largest of all private universities in the country."

Earl Retif, Tulane's vice president for enrollment management, credits aggressive recruitment and a new community-service emphasis for helping the university attract more applicants after Hurricane Katrina.

"We don't need 44,000 applications—it just means more people to choose from," says Mr. Retif. "Some people see it as a sign of our popularity. I keep saying it's a double-edged sword." For one, most of the winning applicants did not come. Only about 16 percent of the 10,000 students Tulane admitted ended up enrolling. And the volume of applications has taxed the admissions office, which processed a million pieces of paper this year. Counselors must review 1,200 to 1,500 applications per cycle, compared with 700 to 800 a few years ago. And it's hard telling so many students no, Mr. Retif says: "Some people say, 'Hey, you invited me.'"

This year Duke faced similar challenges, with more than 26,000 applications and an evaluation process meant to handle half that number. Christoph Guttentag, dean of undergraduate admissions, says the deluge left his staff with too little time to trim its wait list, which included nearly 3,400 students, roughly twice the size of its freshman class.

Mr. Guttentag believes that application increases have downsides—like heightened anxiety—for everyone involved, but he doesn't anticipate much change. "The pressure for more applications isn't offset by an equal pressure for less," he says, "and no college wants to consciously put itself in a weaker competitive position."

Some deans say they have all the applicants they need.

Among them is Charles A. Deacon, dean of undergraduate admissions at Georgetown University, which reviewed 18,000 applications this year. Sitting behind a long wooden table, with admissions reports fanned out in front of him, Mr. Deacon explains why he refuses to adopt the Common Application. The ease of the form, he says, would bring Georgetown thousands more applicants. Yet he fears that adding the application would weaken Georgetown's admissions process, in which nearly all applicants are interviewed. "We believe this is a personal relationship between a student and a college," Mr. Deacon says. "With our own application, we know people are applying who want to apply."

Georgetown buys names of students with PSAT scores equivalent to 1270 on the SAT critical reading and math sections, and grade-point averages of A-minus or better. There are only so many students with these attributes to go around—about 44,000 a year, out of 1.5 million test takers. Georgetown lowers that threshold to search for another 5,000 or so underrepresented minority students.

This year, Georgetown enrolled a record 142 black students, selected from a pool of 1,400. Mr. Deacon doubts he could have chosen a more accomplished group from a pool of 2,800. "The question is, what's a good enough class?" he says. "We're not going to say, 'Come one, come all' just to find that one gem of a student and devastate the dreams of all the rest."

William R. Fitzsimmons, Harvard's dean of admissions, describes his university's recruitment as "aggressive"—and crucial. "Nobody wants to go back to the bad old days, when getting into America's top colleges was like knowing a secret handshake," Mr. Fitzsimmons says. "If we started cutting back, applications would go down from the students who need real outreach."

Harvard enlists students to call and e-mail thousands of prospective minority applicants with high test scores. Lucerito Ortiz, who graduated last spring, grew up in Los Angeles, the daughter of two immigrants. Although she earned good grades in high school, she did not think about Harvard. "People like me didn't go to places like that," she recalls.

Her thinking changed when Harvard sent her a search letter. After enrolling at the university, Ms. Ortiz helped the admissions office contact students from backgrounds like hers. She says she always explained the long odds of getting in (Harvard's admission rate was just under 7 percent this year). "In a way, it's sad, but I don't feel bad about it," says Ms. Ortiz, now an admissions officer at Harvard. "I don't feel guilty for giving students the chance to have their lives changed."

A Harvard admissions representative contacted Sally Nuamah during her junior year of high school in Chicago. Ms. Nuamah had good grades but an ACT score she describes as low. Her parents, who came from Ghana, had little money. When she welcomed the admissions rep into her living room one day, she was nervous. "I was like, Oh, goodness, I don't want to disappoint anyone," she says.

Ensuing conversations brought mixed emotions. "I felt that I was pushed and given motivation," she says, "but on the other hand, I wondered if what they were telling me was feasible." She knew her scores were below the average for Harvard students. Nonetheless, she applied. Months later, a rejection letter came.

Ms. Nuamah, now a senior at George Washington University, believes such outreach can help low-income students who lack confidence, but she sees a potential downside. "Many of those students are so conditioned to disappointment," she says. "If colleges are targeting hundreds of students somewhere and not one is accepted, they may need to re-evaluate their efforts. Some people might say, 'Those colleges come here and do that to us, and nobody ever ends up going.'"

A HALF-CENTURY ago, B. Alden Thresher wrote a prescient book called College Admissions and the Public Interest.Thresher, a former director of admissions at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, described colleges' justifications for increasing selectivity as "rationalizations for a kind of insensate avarice: we want the best and only the best, we are never satisfied." But he saw something noble, too, in the relentless search: "It is also deeply connected with the highest virtues of academic man—the impulse toward perfection."

The quest for the perfect freshman class involves irony: The push for more inclusiveness inevitably leads to more exclusivity. Andrew Delbanco, professor of humanities at Columbia and author of a forthcoming book about higher education, has pondered the meaning of declining admissions rates. He describes his students as smart, engaged, and imaginative, but not necessarily more so than they were 10 years ago, when Columbia had far fewer applicants.

Ever-increasing selectivity, Mr. Delbanco says, has shaped the way some students think about education. "If you succeed in getting into a selective college, it would take a pretty extraordinary person not to think you've already done something pretty terrific," he says. "One of the hazards of this arms race is that it can inculcate a feeling of self-satisfaction on the part of the student, as well as the institution."

William M. Shain, an educational consultant, believes that bigger applicant pools can bring better students—up to a point. "You'll always get a class where things that can be measured, like testing, go up," he says. "But you won't necessarily get a class that thinks better or enhances the classroom."

Moreover, Mr. Shain, a former admissions dean at three private colleges, doubts the benefits of recruiting by colleges that accept fewer than 20 percent of applicants, since so many seats go to "hooked" students. Take Mr. Shain's alma mater, Princeton, where this year's freshman class is 37 percent minority students, 17 percent athletes, 13 percent legacies, and 11 percent international students. "Among very, very good schools, a huge percentage of the class is not in play on academic grounds," he says. "How much can you improve the class when you're only working with half or less?"

Susan Tree, director of college counseling at the Westtown School, a college-prep academy in Pennsylvania, attends about 100 college presentations a year. She's often struck by the cookie-cutter nature of recruitment pitches. "It seems colleges have lost the sense of presenting places so that some kids are turned on and others are turned off," she says. She believes the University of Chicago had something that many colleges desired—an identity: "The risk they run is that they're joining the ranks of generic, highly selective colleges."

But selectivity speaks. Maya Lozinski, a freshman at Chicago, grew up in Menlo Park, Calif. She had never heard of the university until it sent her a postcard.

Ultimately, Chicago became her first choice. She says the university is becoming "normal," more career oriented. She liked the maroon scarf it sent her. She also liked the university's declining admissions rate. In 2004, Chicago accepted 40 percent of its applicants, compared with 18 percent this year.

"I wouldn't have applied a few years ago—I would have felt overqualified," says Ms. Lozinski, who had an A average in high school and scored a 2370 (out of 2400) on the SAT. "A college's admission rate says something about the quality of students who go there and the prestige of it."

Perhaps the University of Chicago will end up trading one kind of exclusivity for another. Marshall Knudson says that some students on the campus fret that the university will lose its niche as it attracts more applicants, while other students see the declining admission rate as adding value to their degrees.

Mr. Knudson, who graduated from Chicago last spring, chose the university for its "feverish intellectual vapors." As a freshman, he protested the adoption of the Common Application, fearing it would diminish the culture of the university.

Looking back, Mr. Knudson is skeptical of such "utopian visions." He doubts that any university could deliver an experience that matches the story it tells the world beyond its gates. "People like to promote a vision of what makes them unique, but it's just wishful thinking," he says. "It was a great education—I'm glad I went there. But I don't think it ever lived up to its ideal. And maybe that's the value of an education. It helps you realize the limits of an ideal."


1. 11147066 - November 05, 2010 at 08:24 am

This was an excellent article by Eric Hoover, exposing in a clear and factual way how "highly selective" institutions manage to be that way. The bright young man in the photo certainly understood the entire point of massive recruitment: schools need to solicit underqualified applicants in order to reject them and hence lower their admission rate. One should not forget that almost all these students are paying the high application fee although their candidacies probably get a brief look and are tossed in the first round. There is certainly a detrimental effect on all applicants of this overloading. Most colleges are laying off admissions officers. Few are hiring more. They are forced to deal with a huge swell in applicant numbers but have no more staff members to carefully evaluate them. Every applicant is shortchanged.
As for Dean Fitzsimmons and other university admissions officers, the alternative to equitable and transparent admissions procedures is not the bad old days of a "handshake" required to be admitted. The thousands of students who receive "informational" packets from Harvard and other schools suggesting they apply are not only from under represented groups who legitimately deserve a chance at an "elite" education. Every middle class kid in the country scoring above a certain level on the PSAT, supplied by your friends at the College Board, receives such a misleading letter. Colleges should be totally honest about these practices and not hide behind the screen of promoting the public welfare.

2. dvacchi - November 05, 2010 at 09:33 am

So what's the solution? Limit applications to 3 per student? That won't work well... Prevent marketing? Try to convince Duke and the others of that... Even better, try to convince "the most popular university in the nation - UCLA" - what a joke.
As much as we want to talk about accessibility, we're making it worse. This is a trend of exclusivity and selection that started well before Reagan. We all want to hide our heads and claim we don't like the meritocracy of higher education. Brief recap: it has always been a meritocracy! There are simply more people trying to access college than 100 years ago.
There are better solutions, but until we let go of the idea that "everyone can go to college", or worse, "everyone should go to college" this problem will not be solved and offering solutions if pointless.

3. hariseldon - November 05, 2010 at 09:59 am

I think that we adults should be ashamed of ourselves for creating this monster. So many academics get all self-righteous about the role that Wall Street had in creating the current recession. Nevertheless, having worked on sub-prime mortgage backed derivatives earlier in this decade, and now parenting two high school juniors, I see similar collusions of special interests and self-serving misrepresentation. Few people in finance have gone to jail because of the mortgage melt-down because the problem was less the outright criminality of a few people than a lowering of ethical standards throughout the industry. Similarly, parents, high schools, university admissions offices, and, of course, the popular press each have their own reasons for not doing right by our kids: parents and high schools want bragging rights, university admissions offices want, in addition, to be a revenue center, and the press wants to sell copy. The only people losing out here are the kids. When are we going to tell them that becoming a professor at even an apparently mediocre university is vastly more selective than becoming a student at a top one, so there are LOTS of schools with good professors? And more importantly, when are we going to finally admit that it matters far more what you do with the education that you have than where you got the education from?

4. johnd1 - November 05, 2010 at 10:23 am

I hope there will be a follow up on this story. The dirty fact that we are missing here is the money and how much the schools generate knowingly from students who do not stand a chance...

5. 12052592 - November 05, 2010 at 10:26 am

I agree with "hariseldon." However, wanting to attend a big name school is about personal marketing. Employers will give a selective school graduate a second look or move their application along into the interview pile. Plus, graduates of snobby schools are usually invested to keep their brand name up and have a more active network of nepotistic graduates. And in this economy, that's an advantage anybody would not pass.

6. academic2000 - November 05, 2010 at 10:32 am

I am glad to finally see this issue addressed publicly.

7. sharonmurphy - November 05, 2010 at 10:56 am

And "higher education" claims to be preparing tomorrows leaders? For what? For dishonest practices that help them get ahead in life? For careers in fakery, half-truths, getting what you want in whatever way works? The hidden curriculum of "I'll get mine and to hell with truth or the other guy" may be denied or ignored - but students are not as dumb as we think. They learn what they experience.

8. mspeyer - November 05, 2010 at 11:07 am

I have come to despair about colleges doing anything about this problem, but I believe articles like this one will produce more and more knowledgeable consumers: "They want you so they can reject you." Right on, Shaun! The more applicants understand these shabby practices, the less colleges will be tempted to use them. Bravo, Eric, for a great article.

9. farm_boy - November 05, 2010 at 11:30 am

Sharonmurphy states it well. Not only are universities businesses, they are more dishonest than your average business. I wish I had known this when I was young, so I wouldn't have wasted so many years in academia.

10. mmccarthy - November 05, 2010 at 11:51 am

The rise of private "corporation" universties like U of Phoenix shows that the idea that everyone can go to college has taken hold. Will they now market to the those rejected by the elite colleges? What slippery slope are we heading down now?

11. farmboy1 - November 05, 2010 at 11:52 am

OK -- enough of the elite school responses and stories from the Chroinicle. I have been at this job as a dean or vice president for almost 3 decades, and never once had a desire to serve an elite university or college. None of you has put in the kind of workday, week, month or year that 95% of the rest of us does. We actually promote and recruit a set of values that offers students high quality academic experiences without the elitist atrtitude -- or the price tag. Yes, we have to go and recruit them, rather than spend our time pushing piles of applicants away.

More students go to the non-Ivies than to your schools, and frankly you do not have a "lock" on what academic and co-curricular programs and services guarantee an individual student a better life, more wealth, opportunity or any other tool or resource for life's journey. It's about the fit, and you have fooled AMerican students into thinking your brand is infallible and unquestionable.

So, I'm pleased to have my 2,000 applications per year, and proud to accept 70% of them, and even happier 30-35% of them acually enroll each year. I work with a humble attitude and gratitude for the students we get to know personally. Once American gets over it's "Ivy lust" and understands the other public and private colleges in the United States can be a perfect fit for appropriate reasons, you may not have to worry so much about turning away twice as many students as this year.

The sooner we as higher education preofessionals open our policy doors and honestly tell students and families exactly what we require to accept them, and exactly what the net cost will be for all four years without having to put them through 3 financial aid applications for one school (CSS Profile users beware: families have begun to discover you use the form to decide acceptance in part by who can pay, while you brag about bebng more accessible and waiving loans for middle-incme families...), the better the relationship will become.

I left a US News top-tier school because I wanted to work for a college that actually sought out students whp were not all 4.0 GPA students. We spend our endowment on students with need, not setting aside loans for middle class students just because they were declining early decision offers.

Come spend a year in my chair Harvard, Princeton, Yale, etc. You'll understand what it is like to work at defining and modeling the value of your school, building personal relationships with a smaller applicant pool who you actually get to meet -- and remember -- and remind yourself why you really work in this field.

12. lotsoquestions - November 05, 2010 at 11:52 am

So according to this data, 78 percent of all the places in the freshman class at Princeton have already been allocated -- so the number of seats which are actually open to "regular" applicants are only 22 percent of the total of 1300 seats. In other words, there are 32,000 people applying for approximately 280 places? That's ludicrous! I did the math and it appears that your chances of actually getting one of those places is approximately .008 percent. Given those odds, it does seem like stealing to be taking the admissions fee from the 31,800 or so people who won't be getting in.

13. ddittwald - November 05, 2010 at 12:03 pm

Occasionally, I work with underprivilged Appalachian youth. The goal of the program I teach at, is to prepare promising high-school students for University education. A lot of these students don't even consider college as a plausible option for themselves, nor do they have the administrative skills to know where and how to apply. Of course, funding is a huge barrier as well. Some are more successful than others. Some get accepted and flourish. Some, drop out for financial, academic or personal reasons. But many don't even make it through the admissions process.

Having worked with some of the promising students, knowing how hard it is to re-condition them from perpetual low self-confidence and sense of self-disappointment to the idea of hope and achievement, I find the college marketing strategies cruel and self-centered. Even if the students work hard at their grades, recieve a letter of invitation and muster enough courage to apply, their self-confidence is bound to get shattered with continuous rejections. If this is a pattern that continues across higher-education institutions, it is bound to create a frustrated, disappointed and angry populace wary of anything related to education.

I am very well aware that it is a very competitive job-market out there, and competition starts as early as education, but I can't help thinking that marketing strategies used by colleges are very self-serving. It is one thing to encourage quality candidates, but it is another to use, what I would call, deceptive tacticts of inviting potential candidates in order to reject them.

Let's not just think of the colleges, but also of the students. After all, aren't they the generations of the future?

14. walshd14 - November 05, 2010 at 12:10 pm

I have to give Shaun Stewart credit for seeing through the crap. When I was applying to schools a little over three years ago, I felt confident that I'd be accepted to the top-tier universities because they'd been sending me reams of recruitment material. I received a 34 on the ACT and top marks on the SAT subject tests, but my extracurriculars were abysmal and my unweighted GPA was around 3.5.

I didn't realize that I had about a snowball's chance in hell of admission to highly selective schools when I applied, but it sure as hell hit me when the rejection letters started to roll in. It got to the point where I had to struggle to get into my state university's honor college! Even now, after all the great things I've done since, the rejection still stings.

15. alleyoxenfree - November 05, 2010 at 01:57 pm

Then there's the money spent on extra admissions staff to process all these applications and recruit students who don't have a chance, plus the money spent on all the computer systems and the direct mail campaigns. A follow-up article on the costs would certainly be welcome, because the money certainly isn't going into creating tenure-track faculty lines and faculty salaries in many fields are abysmal. Students literally are paying just to get a stamp in their passport, to learn a secret handshake - but not necessarily to get an education, as colleges cut the core of what they are supposed to do. Great dining halls, though!

16. danlundquist - November 05, 2010 at 03:12 pm

BRAVO FARMBOY (comment 11).

While there's much sensationalism around the most selective of the selective, the "other 99%" do their yeoman's job well and without fanfare... and with good results ("good" defined as providing the educational experience their students seek).

17. nuclear_engineer - November 05, 2010 at 03:15 pm

Increasing costs in terms of high student debt loads and parents' diminished retirements are clearly coming to the fore as a primary factor in who can/will attend the most highly selective universities. Those institutions with large enough endowments can of course "buy" whatever freshman class they like. But this is small (and maybe diminishing) number of schools.

One cannot look either to Uncle Sam to keep bumping up student loans and grants. The D's have pretty much shot their last shell and the R's plus their Tea Party 'body guards" are in no mood to keep expanding student financial aid.

So where will the money come from for most students - whatever their gilt-edge qualifications - who don't get a free ride?

18. wrsir - November 05, 2010 at 03:25 pm

lotsoquestions - The categories in the profile of Princeton's freshman class are not mutually exclusive. It is, for example, possible for a student to be both a minority and an athlete. The same student might also have a gender, maybe even a home state...

19. labjack - November 05, 2010 at 03:55 pm

Wouldn't it be great if schools sent out honest rejection letters to the kids who apply.
Dear John,
You are not wanted here. You lack many of the traits that make a successful candidate. Your skin is the wrong color. We get plenty of your type, and don't really need any more. Your failure to develop your athletic ability to the division 1A level prevents us from helping you develop your intelectual abilities further. Neither of your parents have donated a ton of cash to us, nor is it likely they will ever have the means to do so. Your family is not powerful politcally, nor particularly famous. Your family is not so rich that you would be a source of jobs for other students. Although you likely think of yourself as middle class, you are,in fact, lower middle class for our institution, and would be a drain on our student assistance funds.
Personally I would like to thank you for applying. Having so many applicants has allowed me to increase my staff, hire my wife's no good brother, and justify a big raise to the president. It also lets the economic development arm of my admissions office, my wife's no good brother again, accept (we don't like the term shake down) large donations from the parents of less qualified applicants. With the ridiculously large number of qualified applicant's that need to be jumped to get accepted we can expect much greater donor generosity.

Have a great day!

On a side note:
Can schools really have need blind acceptance policies if they have quotas for legacies (likely legacies who have donor parents make the cut), endowment hopefuls (not up on the correct term for the filthy rich), or politician's kids?

20. bradweiner - November 05, 2010 at 04:43 pm

I think there is a legitimate solution in taking the onus for applying out of student's hands.

Instead, a non-profit (College Board, Common App) or a for profit (Google comes to mind) could invite every single student to fill out a single application and submit a single transcript to a single place. Then colleges could log in and download as many or as few "applicants" as they wanted.

This would not only reduce the absurd amount of paperwork flowing into the bloated admissions cycle (I've worked in college admissions for years) but it would save countless hours of admissions reading. Finally, it would eliminate the "selectivity" conversation once and for all. Every college would essentially have access to every applicant every year. Instead of students getting volumes of marketing encouraging applications, the emphasis could be placed on yield, where it rightly belongs.

One can even imagine a system in which universities could preview applications freely but would have to pay a small fee for the contact information. This would reverse the financial incentive from getting as many applicants as possible to selecting as carefully as possible. Schools would have to tailor their buys based on developing a genuine institutional fit rather than casting a wide net and hoping for the best.

Granted, it would rely more on testing and GPA, but every admissions office filters using numeric metrics regardless of how "holistic" they claim their processes may be.

It would likely "undershoot" for a subset of "diamonds in the rough" who have overcome long odds or achieved something far greater than the average student. Still that number must be smaller than the number of students who engage in the annual "apply to deny" ritual. Conversely, it could allow for top students to explore more options in depth rather than buying the idea that selectivity equates to quality. Schools that seek diversity, creativity, service-orientation, or whatever else would have to go out and find it and then invest resources in getting those talented students to enroll.

Pie in the sky to be sure, but then again, we used to buy encyclopedias...

21. lalady - November 06, 2010 at 03:44 am

As someone who is in the trenches, so to speak, most of the students I serve as a private college admissions counselor are so anxiety ridden over the application process that it saddens me. A few nights ago, my high school sophomore son was fretting about the possibility of receiving a "C" in the only AP class I would let him take this year.
"Well, he said, "If I get a "C" I won't get into College X."
"So?" I said.
"But I need to go to College X so my future resume will look good. I don't want to just get by in life."
Keep in mind that my son is 16 years old and I can't believe he is worrying about the idea that if he doesn't go to College X his life will be ruined.
As a parent and a counselor, I'm not exactly sure who to blame for this culture of college admissions anxiety, but hopefully for those involved in the creation of this mess, perhaps you can trade missing a few nights sleep worrying about your "numbers" and instead, worry about the kids.

22. walrus2010 - November 06, 2010 at 10:13 am

I can't believe the number of responses blaming the universities for this without any recognition of the fact that many faculty members abhor these practices. When the University of Chicago, for example, was debating whether or not to begin openly competing for more students rather than stick with its identity, there were many faculty that revolted and said better to go bankrupt as the University of Chicago than survive as just another elite university exactly like any other elite university.

Remember- the drivers behind this push are in the administration who overwhelmingly and uncritically embrace a market=oriented mentality-- and are hired by boards of trustees or whomever for that very reason.

What is in evidence here is the continuing pressure for universities to compete, which means that they must turn their oranges to apples in order for a population impatient with actually doing research and finding the best fit for their prospective student. Again, the University of Chicago used to pride itself on the fact that it had a higher acceptance rate because the pool that it drew from was a self-selected group. That is, students applied there because they had some idea that it was known as a school for nerds and geeks and the otherwise intellectually-stimulated. Keep in mind that the University of Chicago once had a national championship football team, was an original member of the Big 10, and that the first EVER Heisman trophy winner was a University of Chicago player. But President Hutchins famously terminated the football program in part because it began to overshadow the university's mission as an institution devoted to research and the life of the mind in general. This at a time when other schools intensified the use of football teams to increase recognition and to milk funds from boosters. But the U of C decided it didn't want students who would be attracted by that sort of thing, so those who applied were those who would rather be quietly studying in the library on a Saturday morning than screaming in a football stadium. As a consequence the University of Chicago accepted higher numbers of this pool that had already eliminated scores of bad fits long before the application process even started. Let's see how long it will be before there's a serious movement to restore the football team there-- at least one strong enough to compete with the Ivies.

It seems to me that farmboy1 and his fans are only proving the point of this essay. First, let's dispense with the patent falseness of his warrant. Most, if not all, of the "95%" of the colleges and universities he refers to are also devoting increasing sums of money to advertising campaigns to increase the number of student applications (and decrease acceptance rates). Many of them are even sinking enormous resources into starting football teams. Look at Georgia State University, for example. What used to be a commuter college in downtown Atlanta (and, as a former student, I can say it was quite good) just started a football team this year-- and it will play last year's national champion University of Alabama in a couple of weeks. But what's worse is that these schools are doing it at a time when many of them, none of which have anything like the resources that the elite universities have, rely on increasing numbers of adjunct and non-tenured faculty to teach more classes for much less, and when there is increasing pressure on those teachers to prove to a skeptical and sometimes hostile legislature, public, and even administration that they are indeed producing the quality education self-congratulatory admissions counselors like farmboy1 wants everyone to believe they are.

By commenting on this article in the way he has, farmboy1 implicitly reinforces the sense of competition the article seeks to offer for critique, while at the same time exposing strange need to justify himself using a profoundly romanticized vision of life on the other side of the academic tracks.

23. carleton1in - November 06, 2010 at 11:58 am

From my blog, The Observatory: http://pressroom.earlham.edu/category/blogs/the-observatory. Doug Bennett, Earlham College

I suppose [this piece] is worth reading, but I also want to offer reasons for averting your gaze. It's all true, but you know what? This phenomenon embraces just a few dozen of the 1400+ colleges and universities in the United States. It has nothing (or very little) to do with most institutions of higher education. It would be very wrong (this is one reason to avert your gaze) to think this is somehow representative of or revealing of what's happening in higher education.

Take Earlham: we're a successful, reasonably well-known, effective, distinctive institution of higher education; but we admit about 70% of the students who apply to us, and about 30% of the students we admit accept our offer of admission. We'd like to have more applicants because it would allow us to better shape and balance our entering class, and thus our educational community. Thus, we engage in marketing, but our reality is light years away from what Hoover is describing.

But wait you might (and should) be thinking. The students Hoover is discussing are "the best and the brightest," the ones with the highest SAT scores, high school grades, and youthful accomplishments. Shouldn't we especially pay attention to what is happening to them? Yes, and no.

The more we pay attention to the mad, over-the-top marketing and admissions selectivity of the few dozen most prestigious institutions of higher education, the more we further feed and fuel this frenzy. I'm troubled that Hoover doesn't even make a mention aside that he is talking about something that happens at only the most prestigious places. He does note that this hyper-selectivity creates anxiety among the high school students ("the best and the brightest") who apply to these few dozen colleges. But we'd help unwind this frenzy by NOT talking about it. Thaty's another reason to avert our gaze.

Critical point: there is no evidence, zero, zip, zilch, that these few dozen highly prestigious (highly desired) institutions provide a better environment for learning than several hundred other colleges and universities. There is no reason, none, to think that prestigious means "better" in any meaningful sense of the word. If we really care about education, we'll keep our focus on those institutions (all of them) that can demonstrate excellence as environments for learning, and not over-focus on a few dozen that have achieved special, undeserved cachet. (Did I say achieved? I don't really mean that.)

So here is my final reason for urging that you avert your gaze: if we care about education, we care about providing a quality education for everyone, not just for the best and the brightest. The more we wind up the frenzy around admission to the few prestigious institutions, the more we take our focus away from helping every young man and woman find a college or university that will provide an effective setting for his or her learning.

Let's focus on that.

24. dpbell - November 06, 2010 at 02:36 pm

Mr. Hoover should be commended for his thoughtful and informative piece, and for stimulating the discussion that has subsequently ensued. However, not once but twice in the article, he presents data that potentially misleads the less than careful reader. Case #1: Hoover writes, "The University of Chicago...received...19,347 applications...for a freshman class of about 1400 students." Case #2: Hoover writes, "This year Georgetown enrolled a record 142 black students, selected from a pool of 1400."

While we must assume that these are accurate numbers, any statement that includes number of applications and number of enrollees, WITHOUT ALSO INCLUDING THE MORE IMPORTANT NUMBER OF ADMITTEES, is virtually meaningless, and potentially misleading. To use the Chicago numbers as an example, the university may have accepted 19000 students or alternatively, it may have accepted 1500 students - these reflect strikingly different selectivity circumstances -- but either scenario is possible from the numbers presented in the statement above. It goes without saying that the truth is undoubtedly somewhere in between, but the point remains: in order to responsibly report admission data, all three figures - applications, admittees, and enrollees - should be included.

On a separate point, the issue that deserves far greater scrutiny is the one mentioned in the discussion of Princeton (it could have been other comparable institutions as well) of what the author calls "hooked" students - athletes, legacies, etc., that is, students who further diminish the acceptance chances of the remaining students in the pool. Colleges with single digit acceptance rates, daunting as that already is, are actually accepting the remaining students at a far lower rate. Factor in early admission/early decision, and the numbers get even lower. In the interests of drilling more deeply into the truth, I would like to see more written about this phenomenon.

25. plurp - November 08, 2010 at 02:28 am

According to this article, Ms. Ortiz is continuing the job she had while she was a student at Harvard. I can't help but wonder if she would have even been able to get a job somewhere else. When she talks about "chance to have their lives changed," I wonder if she genuinely believes it...considering that her Harvard classmates probably went on to super impressive careers while she never even left the campus.

Success isn't solely about college, it's also about family financial resources and a support network. Shame on established and renowned institutions of higher education for using minorities to boost their "street cred" while pumping underprivileged students full of false hopes. Ms. Ortiz may feel that her life is changed, but I'm sure many minority students would rather NOT go to Harvard just to become a college admissions officer.

26. humandignity - November 08, 2010 at 09:46 am

One more answer to the question posed in the two-part article "Why do they hate us."

27. dave_ofthe_coonties - November 08, 2010 at 10:27 am

dbell's comment on "hooked" students gets into a very old issue. Back in the late 1960s, admission to an Ivy or potted ivy liberal arts college looked pretty easy--there might be 3 to 5 applicants for every slot. Thanks to being in a small high school on a military base (everyone went to state schools), I thought excellent SATs and grades would make applying to such places worthwhile.

Since then, research using admissions databases (notably a series of books from Princeton University Press) has shown the extraordinary importance of athletics in private-school admissions, along with legacies. Affirmative action seems to have been largely insignificant. Lately, it's turned out that the late William Buckley set off a mania for admitting legacies at Yale during the late 1960s, which must have resulted in many wasted applications.

I would guess that back then, exclusive colleges were picking most of their kids from known sources, with a sprinkling of interesting students from the general public added in. Those applicants probably were never told that they faced long odds. (I was a legacy at a less-selective Ivy and wasn't overwhelmed with the school or the method of selecting students, so went to a state university).

Today's overwhelming numbers of applicants might perhaps help undermine the old exclusivity, but I wonder about the effects on students. Why would anyone want to be among 40,000 applicants for maybe a thousand slots, unless they're on a coach's recruit list or have generous alumni for parents?

Could admissions offices offer "early rejection" to help applicants concentrate on real prospects? Some admissions offices seem to already send "likely to accept" messages, so "unlikely" or "moderately likely" would seem workable.

28. plbogen - November 08, 2010 at 10:32 am

I can't tell you how many times I've heard someone tell me I had no chance for a potential employer, graduate program, fellowship, or faculty posting simply because of my alma mater. I hate that I regret going where I went to school soley because the name wasn't good enough.

Microsoft once flew me up to Seattle for a series of internship interviews. I was left waiting for a couple of hours at HR as they forgot about me. People were late to our interviews and left early. It was like they had already decided no. Why? MIT had flown in 30 kids to interview for the same set of internships I was competing for.

29. rclaycom - November 08, 2010 at 11:07 am

If the primary effect of application inflation is to get students to apply that aren't competitive then the message that this article sends seems valid. But if the primary effect is to get competitive students to apply to more schools than they otherwise would, then schools will have to accept a larger fraction of their applicants. This is because the students will be rejecting more schools. When I started reading the article that's what I thought it would be about, but unless I hurried through it too fast, there was nothing there about that.

30. raymond_j_ritchie - November 08, 2010 at 07:23 pm

Telling everyone about how many applicants you reject is just a way of showing off how important a university thinks it is. OK - there is no world shortage of organisations that think too much of themselves.
A measure of sanity results from the cost in time and labour to process all the applications putting a restraint on accepting too many applications.
An application fee removes the financial restraint on encouraging trivial applications just to buck up the numbers. University ranking schemes encourage universities to appear to have a high rejection rate.
In my own opinion if the success rate gets too low (say below 10%) the process becomes a lottery and should be treated as such.

31. ksledge - November 09, 2010 at 07:28 am

"lotsoquestions - The categories in the profile of Princeton's freshman class are not mutually exclusive. It is, for example, possible for a student to be both a minority and an athlete. The same student might also have a gender, maybe even a home state..."

Agreed, and I found it troubling the way that was written in the article. The article made it sound like minorities and international students are inherently underqualified academically compared to everyone else, when I expect that most would have been accepted anyway had their background been removed from the application. The same probably applies to numerous athletes and legacies as well.

32. muntzp - November 09, 2010 at 06:48 pm

While visiting another campus last week, I met a girl who said she had applied to 29 colleges. She had no idea which schools she had applied to or what they were like. She simply had received pre-populated, no fee required, no essay required VIP applications, or snap apps, and figured she might as well submit them. They were nothing more than an inquiry card (at most) in terms of how she regarded their value. She told me that she gets calls from these colleges asking, "So you're thinking about coming here" and she responds, "I don't know anything about your school."

33. gplm2000 - November 15, 2010 at 04:56 pm

"Georgetown lowers that threshold to search for another 5,000 or so underrepresented minority students." In reality this is why there are more applications. Colleges seek something called diversity at any cost, either integrity or reputation. Some do not even require testing, money or hard courses.

Of course businesses, educate "graduates" anyway. How can you run a business with people who cannot write or think?

34. davesaba - November 19, 2010 at 11:21 am

This is big business! Conservative calculation of around $475 million dollars - including the $25 million that College Board is making off selling names.

With the economy hitting schools so hard, I don't think they will give up those kind of dollars any time soon.

Let's see - most kids are basically lazy so if you make it harder to apply, the number of apps will go down.


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