Admissions & Student Aid

Application Inflation

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

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."
November 05, 2010

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."