The more things change…

During this application cycle, we heard how colleges’ application numbers were going up as much as 20%, some, like Swarthmore’s, were up 28% and RPI’s were up 50%. As usual, the big players in the admission sweepstakes were rejecting as much as 92% of their applications, and as usual headlines blared the “fact” that as so-called “first tier” schools were getting harder and harder to get into, the so-called “second tier” schools were experiencing their own increases in rejection rates, making life tough all around. Stories about students who once might have gotten into, say, Tufts, or Dickinson and were rejected instead made the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times. And so the coming generation of applicants and their parents is trembling in its boots contemplating the chances for hitting the college admission lottery.

The funny thing about all that is it’s been the same story for nearly ten years. As I was cleaning out my desk in preparation for some office moves right before the end of school, I found two articles I’d saved, one from the WSJ in 2001 and one from the Times in 1999 with nearly identical stories: Formerly accessible schools are becoming inaccessible!!! Schools that used to be “safeties” are so no longer!!! For their readers, the world seemed to be coming to an end. No longer were the pearly gates of the “first tier” open wide and no longer were the faux-pearly gates of the “second tier” schools as welcoming. Where shall we go? What shall we do?

And yet the apocalypse hasn’t come, at least not in the way we might have thought. Students do get into colleges and they more often than not go on to do well and lead interesting and useful lives. The real story is that the push to get into a certain small slice of school has become more fraught with anxiety because of the ridiculously hard to kill and clearly false assumption among certain classes that ONLY the “top” schools will provide the kind of life and status to which they’d like their offspring to become accustomed. In my experience, students who plan well get into college and usually into good ones. They may not be the “top tier,” (although because I work with a very specialized population they often are), but they are appropriate to the student and his or her interests.

Often, my parents will say that they want their children to go to “top tier” schools as much for the “contacts” or to be with other “smart” students as for the supposed education they may get (that doesn’t always come up…) I’ve begun to suggest that, since these schools reject over 90% of their applicants, and since they say they could fill their freshman classes several times over with smart students, these students must be going somewhere else, in which case, the student in question will likely bump into them at one point or another. It’s a fact that the schools over which the papers panic for their readers make up less than a fraction of one percent of the colleges and universities in this country and turn out a similar small number of students. They just happen to take up 85% of the media real estate.

So we can take a breather over the summer and contemplate in relative ease the amazing variety of educational experiences out there for the taking. Over 90% of colleges in the United States still take over 50% of their applicants, and many non-“top tier” schools provide exceptional experiences for their students. All is not lost, although the panic goes on. It doesn’t have to be that way, but perhaps for some it’s needed to make the prize worth the candle.


About Will Dix

I am currently writing a book about college admission. I'm interested in the intersection of the college process and American culture. I attended Amherst College in the 1970s, taught high school English and theater at The Hill School in the '80s, returned to Amherst in the '90s as an admission dean, and began the '00s as a college counselor at the University of Chicago Laboratory School. I then joined Chicago Scholars as Program Director. Currently, I blog about college admission for I also help community organizations serving low income students understand the college admission process so more students can consider gaining access to higher education. I have a few private college counseling clients that I take by referral only. The views expressed in this blog are mine alone.
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