Getting into a top school is a stressful, unpredictable process. Here are 10 ways to make it fairer and more transparent.
By Melissa Korn, Originally written for the Wall Street Journal
For students applying to the top echelon of American colleges—and for parents, guidance counselors and university administrators—the admissions process can be stressful, unpredictable, inequitable and seemingly irrational. Jockeying for limited spots has become fiercer as acceptance rates at selective schools plunge. These institutions represent a tiny slice of America’s higher education system—just 55 schools had admit rates of 20% or below in 2017, according to data from the U.S. Department of Education—but they each receive, on average, about 25,000 applications. The race to get into them has generated armies of test-prep tutors and college counselors, as well as panic attacks by striving teens and overbearing parents.
The fury created by high-stakes college admissions boiled over earlier this year, when federal prosecutors unveiled charges against 52 people in connection with a sprawling cheating scheme. Anger abounded about the wealthy parents and corrupt coaches, but it went beyond that. “The outrage,” U.S. District Judge Indira Talwani said, when she sentenced actress Felicity Huffman in September for conspiracy to commit fraud, “is a system that is already so distorted by money and privilege in the first place.”
Reforming the system goes beyond closing the loopholes exposed by the Varsity Blues case, in which parents paid to have their teens’ test scores boosted or athletic credentials faked. We asked college admissions officers, high school and private counselors, parents, students and others for ways to make the system fairer, more transparent and less painful for everyone involved. Here are 10 of their ideas—some easy to implement, others just meant to start a conversation—to reform the status quo.
1. Get rid of rankings. Rankings fuel a vanity race for admission to the No. 1 school—currently either Princeton, according to U.S. News & World Report, or Harvard, according to The Wall Street Journal. Attending a top school provides an ego boost for families, while colleges enjoy the prestige and increased applications that come with a spot on the leaderboard. But in the process, “the understanding of the schools gets reduced to someone else’s algorithm of what’s important,” says E. Whitney Soule, dean of admissions and financial aid at Bowdoin College in Maine.
And those algorithms are often easily manipulated. Schools can defer admission for weaker applicants until after the reporting deadlines for ranking data. And almost every year another school is outed for falsifying information about alumni donation rates or the incoming class’s test scores.
According to Akil Bello, the founder of test-prep company Bell Curves and an admissions consultant for colleges and nonprofits, students looking for more personally applicable measures of return on investment and signs of how well schools support students like them would be better off using the social mobility scores compiled by Harvard University economist Raj Chetty, which look at how successfully schools vault low-income students into the middle or upper class, or the government’s College Scorecard, which details graduation rates, loan burdens and post graduation earnings for specific academic programs.
2. Limit the number of colleges to which students may apply. Thanks in part to the ease of applying online—especially through the Common Application, which allows applicants to use one basic form for hundreds of colleges—36% of students submitted seven or more applications in 2017, up from 10% in 1995. “The number of clicks you can make on the Common App causes congestion in the system,” says Alvin Roth, a Nobel Prize-winning Stanford University economist who helped to design the system that matches new doctors with residency programs.
Schools pursue aggressive outreach, urging even fairly unqualified applicants to apply, then boast every spring about how many they rejected, as if exclusivity is proof of quality. Ballooning application numbers, combined with stagnant class sizes, cause acceptance rates to slide even lower into the single digits at places like Columbia and Pomona. As a result, high-school seniors apply to more schools just in case, and the vicious cycle continues—creating havoc for schools that can’t predict their yields. The overall yield rate for new freshmen at U.S. colleges fell to 34% in 2017 from 48% in 2007.
“I try to stress the fact that students are only going to one college,” says Nicholas Soodik, associate director of college counseling at the Pingree School in Hamilton, Mass. “These aren’t tickets in a raffle,” where getting more increases your chances of winning.
Almost nobody needs to submit 20 applications; a reasonable limit would be as low as a half dozen, assuming that students receive meaningful counseling. High schools could enforce the cap by only agreeing to submit a certain number of official transcripts to colleges. The College Board and ACT could also limit distribution of SAT and ACT results, but they have little incentive to do so, since they make money from sending scores.
3. End preferential treatment for legacy applicants. Last year, a federal trial in Boston centered on whether Harvard discriminated against Asian-American applicants. (The judge ruled that it didn’t; the case has been appealed.) The lawsuit unearthed reams of data on how Harvard gives preference to the offspring of alums and donors: Children of Harvard College graduates got in at nearly six times the rate of those who weren’t legacies. Many college administrators argue that preferential admissions for legacies helps with fundraising and keeps alumni engaged. But it also limits colleges’ efforts to increase racial and socioeconomic diversity, since earlier generations of students tended to be wealthier and whiter.
And colleges might be mistaken in thinking donations would plummet if they stopped dangling preferential treatment for alumni children. There is limited research on the topic, but a 2010 study published by the Century Foundation found no statistically significant evidence of a causal relationship between legacy admission policies and giving and no short-term drop in gifts when schools eliminated legacy preferences.
4. Stop giving athletes a leg up. Colleges make several arguments for giving a preference in admissions to athletes, who are praised for their time management, leadership and teamwork skills. But colleges don’t give any formalized bump to class presidents or teens who worked two jobs through high school. Some colleges benefit financially from recruiting athletes in high-profile, moneymaking sports like basketball and football. Yet at many schools, even soccer players and fencers are given a special edge in admissions.
The problem is that athletic recruitment disproportionately benefits wealthy students, since the elite club programs, camps and showcases that get teens in front of collegiate coaches can easily cost thousands of dollars. Then there’s race: In certain sports cultivated at elite colleges, such as skiing, lacrosse and field hockey, more than 80% of student athletes are white.
5. Rethink recommendation letters. Admissions officers say that recommendation letters from teachers and school counselors help them to evaluate what kind of classmate and community member an applicant would be. Harvard looks for recommendation letters that describe students with phrases like “the best ever” or “one of the best in years,” the school disclosed in its admissions trial last year.
But at many high schools, counselors supervise so many students that they can’t write meaningfully about each one. Schools should allow recommendations from others who know an applicant well and can go beyond rote letters, such as chaplains, job supervisors and classmates, says Elizabeth Heaton, vice president at Bright Horizons College Coach. And recommenders ought to be encouraged to describe students with bulleted lists of attributes rather than flowery but meaningless letters that admissions officers are too busy to read.
6. Blow up the essay. Many students’ personal statements are polished by an English teacher, a private counselor or a family member who went to college. Applicants who don’t get such assistance can suffer by comparison. Brennan Barnard, director of college counseling at the Derryfield School in New Hampshire, suggests that schools avoid this problem by giving applicants one hour to answer a randomly generated essay prompt. Of course, some students would still benefit from advance coaching and practice, and the process would be stressful. But it would result in a sample of the student’s authentic voice, and essay-writing would no longer cloud the fall of senior year with rough drafts and edits.
7. Get rid of the SAT and ACT. More than 1,000 colleges and universities, including the University of Chicago and Colorado College, are now test-optional, while the University of California system is weighing dropping the requirement. Standardized-test performance is no better a predictor of college success than high school GPA, say some admissions officers. Research shows that scores are closely aligned with wealth and race, and reflect how well students prepared for a particular type of test rather than how much potential they have. And affluent test-takers are increasingly gaming accommodation policies to get extra time on their exams, further corrupting the system.
The tests certainly still have their defenders, who argue that those with high scores tend to do well in college and beyond, and that schools using test scores in admissions end up with enrollments that reflect their applicant pools—in other words, they don’t weed out minorities just because of SAT or ACT performance.
Critics say that requiring standardized tests can scare off qualified minority candidates from even applying. “If it’s not a great predictor and potentially acting as a barrier for students who are at or above peers but bad testers, what message are we sending?” asks Andrew Palumbo, dean of admissions and financial aid at Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Massachusetts. Worcester has been test-optional since 2007, and as an institution with a science and math focus, has done plenty to analyze the impact. Roughly 85% of applicants still submit their scores. But those who don’t submit their scores get in at about the same rate and tend to be more diverse. The two groups also have nearly identical retention and graduation rates.
8. Eliminate early decision. Binding early decision, which requires applicants to commit to attending a school if they’re admitted, can pay off for students. At the University of Pennsylvania, 18% of early-decision applicants were admitted for this fall’s freshman class, compared with 5.7% for the regular pool. Locking in about half the class quickly, as Dartmouth College does, has its appeal for colleges too: It removes the question mark over which admitted students will actually enroll, as well as boosting the school’s yield, a metric used for bragging rights.
But early decision disproportionately benefits students who don’t need to compare financial aid offers from various colleges and who have received good college counseling from their schools or private coaches. To get rid of the system, a large number of schools would need to drop early decision simultaneously, at a time when the Justice Department is already eyeing admissions offices warily, alleging antitrust violations. Harvard and Princeton tried in 2006, citing the policy as a barrier for low-income and minority applicants. But when other schools didn’t follow suit, they reintroduced slightly more flexible versions to avoid missing out on top talent.
9. Use a lottery system. At last year’s trial, Harvard said that it could fill its 2,000-person freshman class almost twice over with students who had perfect math SAT scores. Clearly, even after taking grades, essays and test scores into account, choosing among qualified applicants involves a degree of arbitrariness. Schools could acknowledge this fact by assigning acceptance and rejection letters to qualified students by lottery, eliminating the agonizing hours of horse-trading that admissions officers currently devote to choosing between similar applicants.
Even more radical, schools could try some version of the algorithm used to determine matches for medical residency programs, which involves programs and medical students ranking one another and then being paired up by a computer system. This would be a heavy lift, however, as colleges would need to coordinate their procedures to rank candidates, run the computer program and inform all parties about the outcomes.
10. Overhaul the tuition model. Almost nobody pays sticker price for a college education these days. “A full-pay student is like a leprechaun on a unicorn,” says Ken Anselment, dean of admissions and financial aid at Lawrence University in Appleton, Wis. Overall, private colleges earn just over half the price they claim to charge. The rest is rebated to students, sometimes as need-based aid. But ostensibly merit-based aid, which can go to candidates who are only slightly above average, often just makes it more appealing for their families to cover the other 80% of the bill. Such awards are also used to lure students from other, even more prestigious institutions.
So why bother posting those high prices if all they do is scare off talented, lower-income prospects? Change the published rates to better match actual charges, and reallocate merit awards to those who really need the money. Schools could also be transparent and break out net costs for tuition, room, board and other incidentals for four full years. That way families would know the total cost of a degree in advance.