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‘Application Inflation’ Has Many Causes—and Consequences

After taking over as Yale University’s dean of undergraduate admissions five years ago, Jeffrey Brenzel studied a lot of institutional data. He learned that Yale, which enrolls 1,300 freshmen annually, was sending about 120,000 viewbooks each year to high-school students who had inquired about the university, or whose names the admissions office had purchased from testing companies and other sources.

Yale’s enrollment statistics revealed that many students who received those glossy brochures stood little chance of admission, however. Mr. Brenzel worried that the university was creating unrealistic expectations among students who might then overlook more realistic college options—and shell out pointless application fees.

This concern led Mr. Brenzel to reduce the number of viewbooks his office mails by a third, to 80,000 per year. His staff has also intensified its outreach to high-achieving low-income and first-generation high-school students, employing Yale students to contact them and visit their high schools. Over the past four years, the number of students receiving Pell Grants who enroll at Yale has increased by 33 percent.

Mr. Brenzel describes these changes as an attempt to strike a balance. “Our first priority is to send a clear message far and wide that we are open to students of great promise from every conceivable background,” he says. “At the same time, we want to do responsible and ethical recruiting.”

Such is the dilemma of the modern admission office in an era of ever-increasing selectivity. As described in a recent article (“Application Inflation”), which appeared in The Chronicle and The New York Times, the dramatic rise in applications at many selective colleges is both a cause and a symptom of increasing uncertainty for students and enrollment officials alike. What explains this trend? And what are the long-term implications for the admissions realm?

The answers are complex—and somewhat cloudy. Today the National Association for College Admission Counseling published a new report, “Putting the College Admission ‘Arms Race’ in Context,” which describes how application increases affect the policies and practices of colleges, as well as the behavior of applicants. Although the report is longer on questions than definitive answers, it attributes much of the rise to what one might call natural causes—circumstances beyond the control of colleges.

The report suggests that the long-term rise in the number of high-school graduates pursuing higher education—particularly Hispanic students whose parents did not attend college—explains much of the recent increases at two-year colleges and less-selective four-year institutions. Meanwhile, a rising number of students applying to multiple institutions explains the increases at more-selective colleges and universities, the report says.

At the same time, admissions offices have helped create the application monster with their recruiting and marketing practices, and many colleges have made applying to college quick and easy—not to mention free—in hopes of attracting more students. On most campuses, the relentless search for more and better applicants (encompassing the nation, if not the globe) serves altruistic goals as well as competitive ones.

As the report notes, however, rising waves of applications have resulted in lower “yield” rates (the percentage of admitted applicants who enroll) at many four-year institutions. The authors suggest that as yield rates decline, colleges will spend more and more money on recruitment. According to NACAC data, colleges and universities spent $524 to recruit each applicant for the enrollment cycle ending in fall 2009; $843 to recruit each admitted applicant; and $2,553 to recruit each enrolled student (when admission staff salaries and benefits were included in the office budget).

“While more applications and fewer acceptances may help establish positions in the U.S. News & World Report’s annual rankings of best colleges, these trends may indicate inefficiencies and excess expenditures in college admission,” the report says. “In tough economic times, it is reasonable to question this use of scarce resources when we should be improving the quality of educational experiences and increasing graduation rates.”

One complication in this discussion: The meaning of application increases varies among colleges depending on their respective levels of wealth, selectivity, and popularity among consumers. Such factors may determine whether pumping up applications is a reasonable strategy. “On the one hand, if you genuinely need more applicants to fill seats, it seems like a logical and appropriate response,” says David A. Hawkins, NACAC’s director of public policy and research. “However, if you only accept 20 percent of students, what are you saying if you invite more people to apply so you can still only accept 20 percent of applicants?”

Although the report leaves open the question of how much of the application surge is due to demographic changes and how much is due to recruitment, the findings offer evidence that both factors play a role. Nonetheless, the authors conclude that highly selective colleges find themselves “in a bind.” As admission rates at such institutions decline, applicants do more to make themselves competitive candidates; they also apply to more super-selective colleges, leading to more selectivity. “It is hard to see what these selective institutions might do to ameliorate this situation,” the report concludes. “Short of adopting a lottery system for admission, these pressures seem unlikely to abate.”

Over the last decade, applications to Brown University have increased by 80 percent, rising to more than 30,000 for this fall’s freshman class, up from about 16,000 in 2001. James S. Miller, Brown’s dean of admission, says the bulk of that increase has come from first-generation and minority applicants, students interested in the physical sciences, and applicants from other nations. In recent years, Brown’s admissions office has recruited more extensively at high schools that serve low-income students, expanded its travel overseas, and sent more-targeted mailings to specific subgroups of prospective applicants.

“There’s a yin and a yang to these increases,” Mr. Miller says. “We recruit these students and other highly selective colleges recruit these students, and if collectively we’ve raised aspirations, then that’s a good thing for the country. The downside is the stress and the incredible disappointment. There are wonderful kids who aren’t getting in who would have gotten in five to seven years ago.”

By expanding their recruitment far and wide over the last decade, selective colleges are doing the very thing that many constituents, including legislators and high-school counselors, have long criticized them for not doing: casting wider nets to reach a broad array of students. Now, admissions outcomes have become trickier to predict, which is especially jarring to some counselors at private high schools who long enjoyed the comfort of knowing that their best students would receive acceptances from the most-selective colleges.

“As students apply to more places, it’s harder for colleges to know what’s a real application and what’s not, and so it’s harder to counsel kids reasonably,” says James W. Jump, academic dean and director of guidance at St. Christopher’s School, in Richmond, Va., and former president of NACAC. “I worry about the pressures on colleges, and with the need to increase applications, I worry about how much counseling is going on. How often do they tell students, ‘This is not a good place for you?’”

Mr. Miller has heard similar concerns from high-school counselors who say colleges do too much to encourage applicants. He has asked them to imagine that they are admissions officers visiting in a faraway city, talking to a roomful of strangers who express interest in their colleges. “If you’re standing there in front of hundreds of people, it would be really hard to say, ‘Most of you aren’t going to get in,’” he says. “We don’t have a sense of exactly who’s going to be applying. I’ve said to counselors, ‘Who shouldn’t we recruit? Tell me who we shouldn’t go after.”

Ali White sees two sides to the recruitment coin. Ms. White, a college advisor in Stanstead, Quebec, works with many applicants who apply to selective U.S. institutions. She believes the “search letters” that high-profile colleges send to prospective applicants can instill confidence in teenagers who doubt that they have something to offer such institutions. Or they can motivate students who doubt that they can afford a college with a $50,000 price tag, she says.

Nevertheless, Ms. White describes how letters from big-name institutions can also prompt students to limit themselves. “There can be unintended consequences,” she says. “The letters can divert the college search instead of broadening it.” For one thing, some students interpret the letter as an offer, or at least a strong indication that they will be admitted. She’s seen valedictorians writing their application essays at the last minute because they think they have been assured of an acceptance.

Sometimes, Ms. White is surprised to hear that particular students have received unsolicited mailings from the most-selective colleges. Recently, she worked with a minority student who got a search letter from an Ivy League college despite his low test scores and lack of extracurricular activities. The student and his parents were thrilled by the letter—so thrilled that they lost interest in discussing other colleges. In the end, the Ivy League college did not offer him a spot.

“When top colleges write to you out of the blue, you stand a little taller, and that’s a good reaction,” Ms. White says. “But it charts a course that’s different from what would have naturally come along. It can make it harder for counselors to say, ‘There’s this very nice college in Ohio you should consider.’”

Jeff Pilchiek, director of guidance and career counseling at Westlake High School, in Austin, sees other downsides to the trend of increasing selectivity. As more students have filed more applications, he says, they’ve become less concerned with finding the best fit, or the differences among institutions. He estimates that seniors in the top-10 percent of his class all are applying to the same handful of selective colleges.

“Twenty years ago, kids could delineate between colleges, but today’s kids see them as all the same,” Mr. Pilchiek says. “And we’re rolling out cookie-cutter kids. If I look at them on paper, they all look the same, too.”

Such observations complicate the notion that filing more applications leads students to explore more options and find the best match. Donald R. Hossler, executive director of the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center and lead author of the NACAC report, has found little empirical evidence to support this idea. Moreover, he predicts that at many colleges, particularly moderately selective private institutions, today’s application volumes and ever-improving class profiles aren’t sustainable. For one thing, much of the projected growth in high-school graduates will be among lower-income and first-generation Hispanic students.

“These students tend not do as well on tests, they tend not to apply to as many schools, and they tend not go far away from home,” says Mr. Hossler, who’s also a professor of educational leadership and policy studies at Indiana University.

That means that after a prolonged application boom, many institutions will have to recalibrate the metrics they use to evaluate their progress, such as application totals and the average standardized test scores of incoming classes. That shift won’t be an easy one. After all, today’s governing boards typically have a corporate mentality: to compete against rivals and to outpace last year’s performance.

“If you don’t have a president and a board telling you to drive up applications, it’s understood that your goal is to drive up applications,” Mr. Hossler says. “It makes people feel good to say this is the best class ever, the tallest class ever, whatever it is.”

Yet application totals—and admission rates—have little meaning on their own. For instance, they do not tell an observer anything about the top quartile of the applicant pool, from which the most-selective colleges draw the students. At a given college, an application tally might reflect only how easy it is to apply. And the very definition of an application varies from college to college; some institutions “count” incomplete applications in the totals they publicize in press releases, which further clouds the meaning of such numbers.

In a world where money is tighter, Mr. Hossler believes it’s reasonable to question whether the drive for more applicants is good for the public. “Colleges and universities don’t exist to have the greatest enrollment-management systems,” he says. “They exist to educate students. And every dollar counts.”

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