Talk with people who work in or around college admissions, and they'll probably tell you the system is broken, or, at the very least, badly in need of repair. The evidence is everywhere, and the greatest effect is on the people who have the biggest stake in it: students applying to college.
The average 17-year-old, at perhaps the worst possible age to be burdened with such a choice, must select from sometimes hundreds of colleges sending polished marketing communications, hinting at a promise of admission, never mentioning the alternative. Occasionally colleges knowingly send materials to students who have almost no chance of being admitted. In what can only be called a disgrace to higher education, the students serve an important role in catering to the sub-industry that creates rewards and incentives for rejecting the largest percentage of applicants.
Students are grist for the mill, and they even cause institutions to redefine what an applicant is: She used to be someone who sat down and filled out a form; now she's often someone who merely clicked on a link in an e-mail. Big numbers, even fake ones, look good. But they also make admissions decisions much harder: How serious is this student?
At the same time, the appetite of colleges for selectivity and prestige spirals out of control, often at the expense of students, but sometimes at the expense of the dignity and honor of institutions themselves. We have all seen, just in the last two years, several instances of colleges and universities that already occupy lofty market positions admitting to reporting "irregularities" in the data they submitted to the ranking industry. Even if you accept that a single person at each college was responsible for those irregularities—and I find that hard to believe—it is usually very easy to see the implicit pressure on admissions officers to cheat. Finally, when a student does decide to seriously apply to a university, the confusion concentrates and intensifies. Early Decision? Early Action? Can she do both? What type of essay prompts does each college require her to respond to? How many supplements? Which financial-aid forms?
Any university receiving federal funds should not be allowed to shroud in secrecy its process for determining who gets admitted.
Talk to high-school counselors and you'll find that even experienced people who have gone through dozens of cycles—unlike the students who do it once and thus feel even more pressure to get it right the first time—are confused, and often yearn for a simple list of deadlines, requirements, and policies. Alas, none seems to exist. Colleges continue to do things in their own way, stubbornly sticking to routine amid a world changing around them.
The problem is that we have tried to adapt a mid-20th-century process to the students of the 21st century. Some colleges seem to purposely make things more difficult, to add to the mystique and prestige of the institution. If you think that's a silly way to do business, you're not alone. Yet tradition holds sway. But it should be incumbent upon 21st-century administrators to improve the process: If we could reinvent the college-admissions process today, what might it look like?
Fortunately, there is ample opportunity to learn from other systems, including those in Britain, and even medical and law schools in the United States. Why not follow those models and create a national clearinghouse for undergraduate admissions?
Students could start their college applications as high-school freshmen, by supplying to a national database simple biographical and parental information that is supplemented each year by the addition of grades, accomplishments, test scores, recommendations, and students' individual interests.
The benefits would start as soon as the college-search does: Assuming parents and students consented, colleges with access to the national database could search for children of alumni; for students interested in specific academic programs; for students interested in public, private, or religiously affiliated colleges; for students with accomplishments in math, science, writing, music, or theater. Each college's search criteria could be publicly disclosed, which would send strong signals to the students about what a college is really looking for. Don't say test scores are not important if you're searching for and admitting only the top 5 percent, for instance.
When choices have been made and it comes time to apply in the senior year, students simply log in and send the whole packet at once to the college(s) they wish to apply to. That's it; the process is simpler for them, and better for the colleges. Whole applications are sent in one keystroke. Then, all transactions, including notification of admission, financial-aid awards, and the student's eventual decision to accept or reject the offer of admission, are handled through this central clearinghouse.
Centralized data mean colleges know more about applicants, including class rank (it exists, even if high schools don't report it), how many colleges the student is applying to, and maybe even order of preference. When it comes time to make a decision, students can make just one deposit.
Ultimately, centralized data and processes also help the students. Deadlines, policies, procedures, profiles, admission statistics, and financial-aid information are all contained in one location. No more going through dozens of Web sites searching for information that may not exist. But the resulting efficiency is far less important than the openness of the process.
Any university receiving federal funds should not be allowed to shroud in secrecy its process for determining who gets admitted. Thus, the real disruption comes from making this information more widely available to all interested parties. It's true, of course, that many factors go into every admission decision and not all are quantifiable; but it's also true that highly selective colleges benefit from the unrealistic dreams of marginal applicants the way lotteries benefit from hopes for instant wealth. Suppose we could grant everyone access to aggregate data that would yield insight into an individual student's real chance of admission. The student would see how many applications were really received, how many were admitted, and what the real average GPA and test scores were. The system reports, not the colleges, so the data are reliable.
Suddenly, a student from Montana applying to an East Coast university might find his chances are better than he might have thought. A first-generation or Latina student, or both, could get a sense of how students like her fare in the process. Parents who worry about paying for two in college with $125,000 in income can see how much aid families like theirs received at each institution and how much of it was merit-based, how much need-based. And policy makers who want to see how much of an edge is given to athletes or the children of alumni can readily find out.
This would require that we all give something up in order to get something back, but ultimately, it would make the process better for the people for whom the process exists: the students. I have a son who is now a senior in high school, and a daughter who is a sophomore, and I have no illusions that any of this thinking will affect either one of them. This is just the start of a discussion that could take years, and there may be better, simpler, and more profound ways to change the college-admissions process yet to be articulated.
But if we all agree that it's time for things to change, it's likely that incremental improvement is not going to solve our problems. We need to fundamentally reinvent the way we do college admissions—and the sooner the better.