Our Broken College Admission Process and Five Ways to Fix It

Crabby thinks it’s time to overhaul the college admission system…

The complaints are as consistent as they are constant: The college admission process is too stressful, too complicated, too tipped in favor of the privileged, too subject to manipulation, too test-obsessed. Colleges worry about “ghost applicants,” manufactured essays, and how to be fair to everyone; applicant numbers grow even as the number of places stay the same, helping underserved students stretches the budgets of all but the wealthiest institutions. Applicants wonder if they should “show interest” by making multiple trips to campus, sending cookies, or calling to “check in” with their favorite admission officer. Ranking systems are reviled and obsessed over, marketing overwhelms concern for students’ well-being and the goal of “fit.”

Panicked parents and students see the supposed path to success as a narrower and narrower door to squeeze through, with no one seeming to get through undamaged. As much as we complaUnknownin and fret, there seem to be few ideas for addressing these systemic problems. They’re just one of those things students have to go through, like puberty or acne.

But perhaps it’s time to consider some radical changes in the way college admission is conducted in the United States. Looking at it systemically, rather than as an amalgam of individual actions taken by loosely-connected entities, I think it’s possible to reimagine at least some of the process’s elements to address the things we complain about most.

I plan to advocate these proposals in more detail in my forthcoming book about the admission process (late 2015). In the meantime, I offer several here as ways to combat some of the more serious issues tangling up the college admission process.

1. Problem: More and more students seem to be applying to more and more colleges, or at least certain colleges (although several reports dispute this, colleges continually trumpet their “largest ever” application numbers). It’s become harder and harder for colleges to know who’s a serious candidate and who’s just tossing a hat into the ring. Additional “Why do you love us?” essays only complicate the issue and encourage phony professions of eternal devotion. Every college, in defiance of the “Common” part of the CA, also wants its own special elements, adding a Rube Goldberg touch to the whole enterprise.                                                    Solution: Abolish the Common Application and the Universal Application. Make it harder for applicants t6a0120a85dcdae970b0128776fae11970c-pio apply by insisting they fill out a separate application for each college. The more separate applications students must complete, the more carefully they’ll consider each application. Colleges could feel more confident in the applications they receive. The CA is no longer really “common” anyway. Although over 500 colleges subscribe, they are as different as Amherst and the University of Michigan, and each one (with some exceptions) insists on adding its own wheels to the bike until it’s unmanageable.  [I have nothing against the CA, by the way. It’s been a very useful part of the process over the years. The “common” part simply doesn’t apply any more.] Alternatively, the Common Application could break itself into units for small and large institutions (like with like) and insist that members not add any bells, whistles or wheels to the existing form.

2. Problem: Multiple desperate retakes of the SAT or ACT mostly do little to change applicants’ positions. While “superscoring” and some remarkable improvements may help some applicants, they are of little use to those who can’t afford the time or money to subject themselves to this humiliation over and over again and simply add to the coffers of the test-producing companies. Since colleges consistently report that GPA is the most important element of an application, focus should be on that, not on test scores. That means concentrating on substantive classwork and not on test prep.                       Solution: Restrict SAT/ACT testing to one time only. No retakes, no Frankenstein’s monster scores, no money pit of fees, just one and done. Yes, it’s more pressure in the short run, but once it’s images-1
taken it’s over, and everyone can move on. Since the tests are meant only to suggest how a student will perform in freshman year, since they are supposedly ancillary, not central, to the educational process, and since they are calibrated to produce a mean score no matter how many times they’re taken, just a one-time administration should do it. Poor results on a one-time administration should lead to more effort in the classroom to make up for them, and as more colleges move to test-optional admission, one test should be all that’s needed.

3. Problem: The college admission essay is subject to every kind of manipulation by persons NOT the applicant. From well-meaning and benign reviews by teachers and school counselors to more, um, “hands-on” $30,000 “consultants” and essay-writing firms, the application essay has become all but meaningless as either a clear insight into the applicant or a look at his or her writing capability. Many students seem not to have had much instruction is essay writing, given my experience trying to cram a year’s worth of essay instruction into a few sessions for seniors. The vacuous essay “prompts” are an insult to intelligence, designed to be so bland and all-encompassing they practically beg for tortured responses guaranteed to drive readers to drink. By the way, I don’t blame applicants for their responses; they’re doing their best to spin gold from straw.   college_essay_clip_image001Solution: Create a national essay exam for students applying to institutions that require essays. Similar to the SAT/ACT administration, students would have a four-hour time period to write an essay based on a randomly assigned topic not revealed until the moment they sit down. They might be asked to respond to a short literary passage or article about a current issue, or to offer a supported opinion about a given topic that has some kind of social or cultural edge. The emphasis would be on a student’s genuine response in that moment, a glimpse into his or her ability to engage with the topic, even one that may be unfamiliar. Results would be forwarded directly to the colleges and universities students list. This arrangement would compel schools and students to be much more conscientious in their teaching of reading and writing as well as in the development of “critical thinking,” the catchphrase of the day. Because this is a much more complex effort than the SAT/ACT exam, students could take it twice, but no more.

4. Problem: Ever more aggressive marketing to students by colleges who may or may not have any real interest in enrolling them; continual reaching for “better” students;” marketing in general that creates a “student as consumer” mentality.        images-3                                                                                                          Solution: Studies have shown that even with the growth of creative marketing most students still end up attending a college within a 250-mile radius from their homes. The competition among colleges to be “nationally ranked” has done little except drain their coffers and create the attitude that the constituents they were formerly serving are no longer good enough. The truly national colleges and universities (you know who they are) will remain so for the foreseeable future. College-marketing-plan1Excellent regional institutions should focus on serving their regions and their students superbly rather than chasing after goals that will always be just out of their reach. Use funds to support closer ties to high schools and community organizations in your regions to find talent; fund students not just from urban but also from rural areas who may not otherwise have the opportunity to attend college. Give your faculty members every reason to stay with you instead of seeing you as a way station to a “national” university. For many, that means letting them teach and giving them the means to do great work right there.

5. Problem: Although colleges and universities have numerous membership organizations and associations to which they and their staff members belong, there does not seem to be a true sense of their being part of a system that affects American education as a whole. Institutions act in their own interests and are often afraid to make any radical moves, even if they are entirely defensible, lest their “competitors” don’t follow. images-4In the ongoing debates over NCLB, Race to the Top, charter schools, and increasing access to college for non-privileged students I’ve seen little but reports and pledges by individual colleges to do more on their own campuses to alleviate these national issues, but atomized actions will have no systemic effects. Even when these organizations (such as the National Association for College Admission Counseling [NACAC]) have strongly worded Statements of Principles and Good Practice, the heftier members often feel free to ignore or creatively dispense with guidelines that don’t suit them and there’s little the organization can do. A greater sense of obligation to the commonalities rather than the particularities of the collegiate system might help create a stronger overall system.images-7                                                                                                      Solution: Institutions of higher education need to adopt a more systemic approach to address the issues that affect the students they will eventually enroll. Rather than letting government bureaucrats establish educational guidelines, colleges and universities should more forcefully outline the issues and present solutions. They should “reach across the aisle” to help each other maximize their ability to absorb every capable student who aspires to attend college. They should cut through the underbrush of requirements to establish clearer academic expectations for applicants and offer to help high schools, in particular, aim toward them. If test scores are truly secondary to GPAs in the admission process, colleges should help schools resist the impulse to spend more time on test prep than academically valuable courses. This can only be accomplished if EVERY higher education institution makes this position clear, not just a few. And then it must be honored in the decision making process. And if they REALLY hate college rankings, then all colleges should take a stand against them, not just the hardy few.

To address the problems that cause so much angst we must address them wholly, not piecemeal. As beneficiaries and caretakers of American youth as it progresses to full citizenship, careers, and independent fulfilling lives, it is the duty of higher education institutions to work together and with their secondary school counterparts to create a more productive and positive college admission system.

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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 Forbes.com. 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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2 Responses to Our Broken College Admission Process and Five Ways to Fix It

  1. Lori McGlone says:

    This is music to my ears! In many ways, you describe precisely the college admissions process many of us remember, and mourn. This proposal is not so much revolutionary as it is a return to a time when applying to college was an event, not a part-time job. We talk a lot about helping our kids “reclaim childhood”–thank you for describing precisely how we can help teenagers (and their parents!) do the same. Looking forward to reading your book!

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  2. Even though this could severely compromise my career as a college essay coach, I totally agree and as Lori said, this is what I remember, one test, apply to 3 schools max and fill each application out separately. The “Common” Ap is no longer useful when there are so many supplementary questions that become essays. Also, what happened to teaching reading and writing? I am coaching students from elite private schools that are barely literate. Bravo for this!

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