For the first time in my nearly 30 years as a college advisor I’m experiencing a crisis of conscience. The current college admissions landscape is making me question everything.
Before the pandemic I was pretty good at predicting which colleges my students would get into. I had a whiteboard with a list of colleges, and I knew with reasonable accuracy which colleges would be a stretch and which my student would be a lock for. I’m accustomed to my students getting in to their top first, second or third college.
But that all changed with COVID.
As I wrote about in Deferred? Denied? It’s Not Your Student, I Promise, the number of college applications is WAY up. According to data recently released from the Common Application, the total applications submitted through March 1, 2023 was 7,057,980, up 30% from 2020. This is only for the 841 institutions that use the Common App, which is most, but not all colleges in the US.
Seven million applications for 841 institutions. Let that staggering number sink in for a moment, and remember that it is disproportionately distributed, because the majority of these applications go to the top 100 schools. So while the top 100 are swimming in applications, other schools are struggling to meet enrollment goals, some are even closing due to low enrollment.
The Common App data also revealed that “underrepresented minority applicants” increased by 31% over 2019–20 and “first-generation-to-college applicants” increased by 36%. In addition, 49% of students indicated they were eligible for a Common App fee waiver, up from 11% in 2020.
In summary, minorities, first-generation, and students with financial hardship are applying now, more than ever before.
The Elephant in the Room
I am a first-generation, straight Asian woman. My parents emigrated from South Korea in their teens, and I was born and raised in Montreal, Quebec.
While I am glad there is more opportunity for students that represent diverse minorities on so many levels (socioeconomic, gender, race, ethnicity and geography) and are perfectly admissible, my heart goes out to the kids who are just as admissible but offer very little on the diversity scale, many of whom will not receive the opportunity.
In today’s post-pandemic reality, the truth is that if you belong to certain demographics – those that have traditionally been pegged as “high achieving” – and you check all the stereotypically traditional, vanilla boxes, you have far less of a chance of getting admitted to a top college.
For years I have guided my students in being thoughtful, deliberate and intentional in building their college profiles. I’ve been their cheerleader, emphasizing their strengths and told them why they’re strong applicants. I’ve encouraged them to be proud of their amazing achievements. To have this year’s students feel disappointed – having done everything right, and wondering, “for what?” – is disheartening.
How we got Here
As the data reveals, the numbers of applicants is off the charts. Because there was no safe way to administer standardized testing without shutting many students out during COVID-19, most colleges and universities converted to a test-optional application process, meaning students no longer had to submit their ACT or SAT scores. Beyond COVID being a forcing function, the University of California was sued in 2019 over their use of SAT and ACT in admissions, with students claiming they are biased and unconstitutional.
Prior to the pandemic, colleges published the acceptable score range for standardized tests. This made it a self-selecting process; a student with a lower score on a standardized test wouldn’t apply to Yale, for example. But without this requirement, many students took a “why not?” approach, which resulted in a flood of applicants for name-brand schools.
Admissions officers for years had been criticized for not doing enough for low-income, first-generation students of color. And so the pendulum swung. But this year, the Supreme Court will decide on two cases on whether or not it is lawful to use race as a basis for admission, and it’s anyone’s guess as to how that will go.
Another ingredient is the push for diversity, equity and inclusion at the college level. Most universities are nonprofits and often see the world through a philanthropic lens. Their mission is to educate children from all walks of life, because education allows for both individual and collective growth, and this is part of the educational ethos on which higher education has thrived.
There is a practical element at play here, too. With the overwhelming onslaught of applications in these past years, admissions offices have had to hire “readers” to review each applicant. Typically, they are well-trained. But given the deluge of applications they’re seeing, many institutions have hired part-time readers who may be less seasoned, regardless of how well they are trained. They may review an application, relying on a rubric, and as a result, today’s applicants have no assurance that their application is being reviewed by an experienced admissions officer.
So who is receiving acceptances into top colleges? Racial and ethnic minorities that are traditionally under-represented, including “interesting” and under-represented Asian populations (unfortunately this doesn’t include Koreans, Chinese, Indian and Japanese students), international students from countries not well-represented on college campuses, and students who are underrepresented socio-economically and by way of gender identification.
An admissions office’s goal is to create a diverse class of students: a microcosm of the world, helping students benefit from the perspectives of people that don’t look like them, have different experiences and backgrounds and stories who can instill values that benefit all of society into their campus community.
However, it is a problem for many of my clients, whose kids work really hard, and who ( particularly this year) have felt that all of their effort was in vain, as they get ready to make their enrollment deposits by May 1.
How we Fix this
Clearly, there’s something wrong with the system. We all have our own views of what might solve the problem and make this process a little more humane for students in high school, especially with the mental health crisis our young people face today. In the short term, I think the test-optional admissions policy needs to go; either return to requiring standardized testing, like Purdue and MIT are already implementing, or move to test-blind like Cal-Tech, WPI and The University of California. Test-optional is a large part of this problem.
Longer term, because many qualified and capable students are being denied from top schools today, the schools that were traditionally easier to get into will begin graduating stronger students. This should raise their profile, offering potential students an alternate option to the traditional top 100 schools that are getting the most applicants and attention. Some readers may be old enough to remember when Northeastern had an acceptance rate higher than single digits and a much lower tuition cost.
I’ve been reflecting on my crisis of conscience after what was a difficult, albeit successful admissions year overall for my students (no one is without a good home, despite my rumination here). I know it’s important to keep believing in the work I do, and the connections that I make with my students, which are ultimately the most important. But if we are going to make a tangible difference for students and do our part in ensuring that our young students feel empowered and eager to go out into the world, feeling worthy and well-prepared, then this broken system needs to be fixed. I want to be doing more than just saying “with single digit admissions rates, there’s a higher chance you’ll be rejected than accepted, and it has absolutely nothing to do with your admissibility.” That feels like a cop-out, reminiscent of the “It’s not you, it’s me” cliché as a breakup is occurring. I think our young, college-bound youth deserve more than that. We need to do better for them.