The Absurdity of College Admissions

The Absurdity of College Admissions

The Absurdity of College Admissions

How did getting into an elite school become a frenzied, soul-deadening process?


Andrey_Popov / pixelsnap / Jorge Salcedo / Shutterstock / The Atlantic

  • MAR 28, 2016

This is the first story in a three-part series looking at elite-college admissions.

Right about now, anxious high-school seniors around the globe are obsessively checking their mailboxes, awaiting decision letters from the U.S.’s elite colleges. For all but a tiny handful of the hundreds of thousands of teenagers who applied—pouring countless hours into agonizing over forms, editing personal essays, sitting through standardized tests, and nervously monitoring their GPA—those letters won’t bear good news.

Acceptance rates at highly selective colleges have plummeted in recent years. Exclusivity has always been baked into their brand: Only about 3 percent of 18-year-olds in the U.S. go to schools that admit fewer than half their applicants, making the “college-admissions mania,” as The Atlantic’s Derek Thompson once put it, “a crisis for the 3 percent.” Still, it’s a mania to which more and more teensare subjecting themselves, pressuring applicants to pad their resumés and tout superficial experiences and hobbies, convincing them that attending a prestigious school is paramount. And critics say that mania has even spread into and shaped American culture, often distorting kids’ (and parents’) values, perpetuating economic inequality, and perverting the role of higher education in society as a whole.

The mania has even spread into and shaped American culture, often distorting kids’ values, perpetuating economic inequality, and perverting the role of higher education in society as a whole.

The absurdity of it all has become hard to ignore, and there’s growing consensus that the culture of college admissions is seriously in need of reform. “What had once been a fairly brief and straightforward process, in which the children of the middle and upper classes found a suitable college, filled out an application, got in, and then went happily away ... has evolved into a multiyear rite of passage, often beginning before puberty,” wrote the journalist Andrew Ferguson in his 2011 book Crazy U: One Dad’s Crash Course in Getting His Kid Into College. The filmmaker and education advocate Vicki Abeles in her book called the process “the college admissions race.” The Harvard Law professor Lani Guinier hasdescribed it as a “lottery” that’s “stacked in favor of the Adonises of our world, the children of the wealthy.” (And in preserving legacy preferences and espousing a complex application system, as Guinier and others point out, it still has the vestiges of the system developed in the early 20th century at Harvard and other Ivies in an attempt to reduce the number of Jews on campus.)

Things have gotten so bad that a slew of educators and administrators recently pledged to “rethink” the admissions process at selective colleges on the grounds that it is so competitive—and so obsessed with enrolling near-perfect, well-rounded students—that it tempts teens into a dark, dangerous spiral that sucks the learning out of education and favors those with means. As The New York Times’s columnist Frank Bruni bluntly put it, “many kids admitted into top schools are emotional wrecks or slavish adherents to soulless scripts that forbid the exploration of genuine passions.” The new campaign to rethink admissions is largely based on a survey of 10,000 middle- and high-school students in 2014 by the Harvard Graduate School of Education’s Making Caring Common Project, which found that only 22 percent of respondents identified caring for others as their top priority; the rest prioritized their own achievement (48 percent) or happiness (30 percent). According to those spearheading the reform campaign, the modern-day admissions process is in part why today’s teens are so self-absorbed.

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The new admissions-reform campaign is called “Turning the Tide,” and it currently has the backing of nearly 100 admissions professionals and other higher-education officials. Enshrined in a recent report by Harvard’s Making Caring Common project, it highlights the “emotional toll” caused by the “pervasive pressure” on students to outshine their peers. “This [admissions] process, instead of being a wonderful exploration of the future and something that's exciting and dynamic and happy, is a burden, a thing to be feared, a thing to be endured,” said Rod Skinner, the director of college counseling at Milton Academy, an elite New England prep school, who was closely involved in the report.

“Instead of being a wonderful exploration of the future and something that’s exciting and dynamic and happy, it’s a burden, a thing to be feared, a thing to be endured.”

As Silicon Valley’s suicide clusters suggest, it’s a burden that at its worst can have fatal consequences. And it may be undermining society as a whole, privileging those with means at the expense of those on the lower rungs of the socioeconomic ladder and tempting students into a competitive hysteria that can dilute their sense of compassion. High-school students “often perceive colleges as simply valuing their achievements, not their responsibility for others and their communities,” the report says.

Admissions offices, the report concludes, should be encouraging young people “to become more generous and humane in ways that benefit not only society but students themselves.” It recommends that colleges limit the number of extracurriculars students can list on their applications, de-emphasize standardized-test scores, and discourage high-schoolers from enrolling in more than a handful of Advanced Placement courses. This would help ensure a level playing field for disadvantaged students, who typically have limited access to extracurriculars, test prep, and AP offerings.

This isn’t the first time administrators and educators have banded together in an effort to reform admissions. In 2011, The Education Conservancy, a group whose mission is to help “students, colleges, and high schools overcome commercial interference in college admissions,” partnered with the University of Southern California to host a workshop aimed at exploring selective-college-admissions reform. As with the Turning the Tide campaign, the gathering, which drew nearly 200 higher-education officials, focused on the ways in which admissions-driven competition was undermining education. A report on the workshop lamented that enrollment professionals have failed to stem that trajectory.

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So, what caused all this admissions mania to become the new normal? Interestingly, much of it traces back to greater inclusion in higher education.

In the late 1800s, elite colleges were generally limited to students who attended prestigious private schools and passed college-specific Latin and Greek entrance exams. These institutions adopted formal application processes in the early 20th century once they began opening their doors to public-school students; the influx of students into higher education forced selective colleges to come up with a means of filtering out underqualified students. Hence, the launch of the SAT, the nation’s first standardized college-entrance exam, in 1926.

Today, educators tend to criticize colleges’ emphasis on standardized-test scores as inconsistent with their mission of expanding access to education. But back then, the novel reliance on test scores to determine admission had the opposite effect, making higher education something anyone—not just white, Christian men from affluent families—could pursue. Indeed, once elite colleges shifted toward test-based admissions, the number of Jews on campus skyrocketed, tripling to about 21 percent of the freshman class between 1900 and 1922.

This trend is key to understanding why the modern-day admissions system at selective colleges is the way it is. Administrators weren’t pleased with the swelling Jewish population on campus, with some proposing quotas on how many Jews could enroll. Ivy League leaders like then-Harvard president A. Lawrence Lowelljustified their proposals as a safeguard against anti-Semitism, with Lowell also reportedly warning that the influx of Jews would discourage Protestants from attending Harvard. As Malcolm Gladwell wrote in his widely read 2005 New Yorker essay “Getting In,” “that meritocratic spirit soon led to a crisis.”

As it turns out, this “crisis” is what spawned the modern-day elite-college admissions system—its emphasis on “well-rounded” students who are as strong in character as they are academically competent. While Harvard’s Committee on Admissions eventually rejected Lowell’s plan to preserve the school’s public image, it came up with a sly way to effectively reduce the number of Jews on campus: revising the admissions standards to require personal essays, an interview, and even a photo on top of test scores (and to give admissions preference to the children of alumni). “It is neither feasible nor desirable to raise the standards of the College so high that none but brilliant scholars can enter,” the committee stated. “The standards ought never to be so high for serious and ambitious students of average intelligence.”

The Jewish-student population subsequently returned to previous levels—and legacy admissions policies have remained ever since. A 2011 study out of Harvard looked at the impact of family connections on admission at 30 highly selective colleges and found that a legacy applicant had a 23 percent higher chance of being admitted than a non-legacy applicant with the same qualifications. In particular, a student whose parent attended the school as an undergraduate—a “primary legacy”—had a 45 percent higher chance of getting in.

It wasn’t until several decades later, though, that the frenzied modern-day admissions process fully emerged. This was an era ushered in by the GI Bill and the Higher Education Act, an influx of thousands of students who never before would’ve considered attending college. It was also an era marked by billions of dollars of cuts in federal higher-education funding, namely in the 1980s under former President Ronald Reagan.

The confluence of these two factors meant that colleges and universities could—and had to—be more strategic in their admissions. They gained a better sense of what kinds of students they needed to enroll to balance their budgets and maintain their academic profile. They started hiring people tasked specifically with traveling around the country (and, eventually, the world) to recruit students. They partnered with consulting firms to assess voids in their existing student populations and come up with recommendations on how to fill those gaps. (If a school didn’t enroll enough Hispanic students one year, a consultant might encourage that school to ramp up Hispanic-student enrollment efforts the following year, for example).

One consequence of all of this strategizing, according to the Education Conservancy founder and executive director Lloyd Thacker, was that higher education became highly commercialized. It generated what Thacker describes as a “marketplace” comprised of a patchwork of rankers and consultants and test-prep companies and how-to-beat-the-system guidebooks. These industries that have placed an even greater premium on admissions selectivity and institutional prestige and have thus contributed to the admissions mania.

This commercialization has also contributed to the admissions mania by prescribing the criteria needed to get into a selective college, many of which are ultimately inconsistent with the mission of a given institution. Today’s college-admissions culture “is distorting students’ relationships with learning and with each other in very problematic ways,” Thacker said. “College admissions wasn’t designed to send signals about what’s important—to impact what goes on in high school. But it’s become that, and it’s become that without a conscience.”