The college admission process wasn’t nearly as anxiety-producing thirty years ago. Parents who haven’t been through it yet have heard horror stories from friends and relatives, but they don’t understand why things are so different now.
For one thing, more students are applying to college. Thirty years ago, half of high school graduates applied to college, but today more than two-thirds submit applications. Back then, those who did apply usually stayed closer to home, often only applying to public universities in their state. Today’s students apply more widely.
They also end up with more debt. The continuing increases in applications at expensive schools suggest that despite– or perhaps because of– an uncertain economy, families still see a college degree (especially from a brand name school) as important for their children and worth the financial sacrifice.
What has not really changed is the number of available seats. Most colleges have not increased their capacity dramatically. When you have more students applying for roughly the same number of spaces, fewer students will be admitted. Labor costs have gone up in higher education, just as in other industries. But in manufacturing, productivity can also increase with technological advances. It is more difficult to increase efficiency on campus without losing the personal attention that students and parents expect in college.
The application process has become easier in some ways and more difficult in others. The Common Application means students no longer have to prepare a separate application for each college. The convenience of the Common Application and the anxiety about getting into a good school motivate students to apply to more colleges. In 1990, only 16 percent of students applied to six or more colleges; that percentage doubled 30 years later. Many students now apply to 10 or 15 schools, driven by fear of rejection. Test-optional policies have led to students applying to schools they would have considered unreachable before, increasing application numbers further.
The anxiety that students feel is mirrored in colleges, where admission officers are under pressure to keep increasing their application numbers. Colleges compete with rival schools to look more selective and desirable, and to get high rankings– a priority for families obsessed with “best” schools.
Thirty years ago, students were often competing in a smaller applicant pool, with other students from similar backgrounds. Today, admission officers have expanded their recruiting efforts, both across the country and internationally. The surplus of applicants with near perfect grades and high test scores makes admission to highly selective colleges unpredictable, as admission officers choose one high-achieving student while turning down another as they attempt to craft the ideal freshman class.
What has not really changed is the number of available seats. Most colleges have not increased their capacity dramatically. When you have more students applying for roughly the same number of spaces, fewer students will be admitted.
To make the process less stressful, focus on the programs and characteristics that are most important to you in a college, and then find schools of varying selectivity that offer what you want.
Editor’s Note: This post was originally published by The College Advisor, prepared for our clients and their families.