A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away high school seniors applied in the Fall to a half dozen colleges based on very good (but not perfect) GPAs and SAT scores. With the arrival of Spring, they anxiously waited to receive not just one but several acceptance letters to colleges — and here’s the kicker — they were colleges that middle class parents could actually afford!
Today’s college admissions process has become like a high-stakes, high-pressure lottery game — made even worse when parents (unaffectionately known as “tiger parents”) push their children to attend traditional prestigious schools soon after they are out of diapers. This puts an entirely new spin on T. S. Eliot’s Wasteland: April is the cruelest month — but not because of the lilacs breeding out of dead land, but rather what is lurking in the mailbox or email inbox. In most cases it will be a heartbreaking rejection letter from a college. Call it Teenage Wasteland. Frank Bruni, author of Where You Go is Not Who’ll You Be: An Antidote to the College Admissions Mania (2015), notes that since 1984 the amount of applications at the top elite schools have more than doubled (thanks to the Common Application that makes it easier for students to cast a wider net — sometimes up to 20 colleges); however the class size at those schools has remained the same. For example, in 1984 Harvard received 13,614 applications for 1,599 spots — an acceptance rate of 11.7%. In 2012, Harvard received 34,303 for 1,653 spots — an acceptance rate of only 4.8%. This same trend can be found at Yale, University of Virgina, Boston University, and Tulane.
But when you look at the acceptance numbers more closely, it gets even more discouraging. In 2011, Michael Hurwitz at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education examined more than 130,000 students who had applied to one or more of thirty elite colleges (2006-07 academic year). His analysis showed that students who had similar qualifications (GPA, SAT scores, etc.), legacies (the child of a parent or relative who attended the school) had a 23.3% better chance of acceptance compared to nonlegacies. If the applicant was a primary legacy (either or both parents attended the college), the chance of acceptance jumped to 45.1%!
Daniel Golden, author of The Price of Admission: How America’s Ruling Class Buys Its Way into Elite Colleges–and Who Gets Left Outside the Gates, also closely examined acceptance rates at top-rated schools. He noted that at elite colleges the following groups receive preferential treatment: minorities (10-15%), recruited athletes (10-25%), legacies (10-25%), children of wealthy parents who might become very generous donors, children of politicians and celebrities (1-2%), and children of faculty (1-3%). So if you happen to be a recruited minority athlete whose wealthy celebrity parents attended the college (and they even taught a class there) — then you pretty much have a 99.9% chance of getting in (the .1% exists in case you do something really stupid and get arrested during the summer).
The bottom line is that the odds are stacked against students getting into the most highly ranked schools. Bruni adds: “[If] your a parent who’s pushing your kid toward one of the most prized schools in the country and you think you are doing him or her a favor — you’re not. You’re in all probability setting up your child for heartbreak, and you’re imparting a questionable set of values.” And there’s the rub: “imparting a questionable set of values” — because parents are equating success with graduation from prestigious schools; and research and reality prove otherwise.
Is there an antidote to the college admissions mania? Bruni argues that parents and students need to explore other great educational opportunities and stop fetishizing elite universities: “Parents and students look for some imagined jackpot, and in their tunnel vision they’re not seeing any number of out-of-the-way opportunities and magical possibilities for four stimulating years that none of us ever get back… Despite all the challenges facing higher education in America [high costs, astronomical student debt, erratic standards]… our universities remain on the cutting edge of research and attract talent from around the globe. We have a plenitude and variety of settings for learning that are unrivaled… The process of applying to college should and could be about ecstatically rummaging through those possibilities and feeling energized, even elated, by them.” Class dismissed.
For further reading: Where You Go is Not Who’ll You Be: An Antidote to the College Admissions Mania by Frank Bruni (2015)
The Price of Admission: How America’s Ruling Class Buys Its Way into Elite Colleges–and Who Gets Left Outside the Gates by Daniel Golden (2007)