Why Has College Admissions Become So Competitive? : It Used to be Simple...But Not Anymore (page 2)

By — John Wiley & Sons, Inc.
Updated on Jul 20, 2010

Social Changes

But the problem is not just demographics. Application numbers have grown much faster than the age cohort. Important social changes have taken place as well. Not only are more students graduating from high school each year, proportionally more of them want to go to college. A college education is increasingly seen as key to economic success in our society, just as a high school diploma was once the minimum requirement. Studies confirm the value of a college diploma in terms of lifelong earnings, and many desirable careers require education beyond the bachelor’s degree. As a result, more students are seeking to attend four-year colleges, including students from underrepresented minority groups whose college participation rate used to be low.

At the same time, colleges themselves have increased their efforts to attract large, diverse pools of applicants. Many have mounted aggressive programs to spread the word about their offerings nationally and internationally. Through colorful “viewbooks” mailed directly to students, visits to high schools by admissions officers, college nights at local hotels, and information booths at college fairs, colleges reach out to prospective freshmen with unprecedented energy and at great expense.

Started in earnest in the 1980s when the number of college-age students dropped temporarily, these marketing efforts have continued and expanded even as the number of students applying has soared. Sophisticated marketing techniques are used not only by colleges that anticipate problems filling their freshman class but also by colleges with an overabundance of qualified applicants. Colleges want to attract academically qualified, talented, and diverse groups of applicants from which to select their freshman class, and they often go to great lengths to do it. And it works! One result of all these efforts is that more and more college-bound students have become aware of, and are willing to seriously consider, colleges in parts of the country far from their homes.

The Role of the Internet

The Internet also now plays a major role in how students approach college admissions. Although printed material and in-person presentations are still important ways for students to learn about different colleges, the Web is the top source of information for students who have grown up online. Students can visit campuses through sophisticated online tours and webcams and can get many of their questions answered by “frequently asked question” (FAQ) lists posted on the Web, or by tracking college-sponsored blogs. Colleges have invested heavily in technology to help showcase themselves.

Finally, the Internet has made it easier than ever to apply to college. Students no longer have to send for application forms, wait for them to arrive in the mail, and then fill them out by hand. Forms can be downloaded from almost all college sites or, better yet, completed and submitted directly online, saving some of the time and effort, and even postage, that a traditional paper application requires. Some schools—St. Olaf College and Lewis and Clark College are examples—even waive their application fee (most fees are in the $45–$75 range) for those who submit their forms over the Internet. Simplifying things even more, more than 350 colleges now accept the Common Application, a standardized form that can be filled out once (often along with a school-specific supplement) and submitted electronically or by mail to as many participating colleges as a student wishes. With admission harder to predict, students are now submitting more applications than ever. Sending eight to ten applications is now the norm at many private schools and high-performing public high schools—twelve to fifteen or more applications are not uncommon. The Common Application system, coupled with technology in general, has made it easier for students to apply to an ever-larger number of colleges.

"As word spreads about the competition for college admission, students respond by applying to even more colleges to increase their chances of acceptance. In so doing, they end up unwittingly contributing to the very problem they are trying to solve for themselves. "  High school counselor concerned about the trend of students applying to more and more schools

All these factors taken together—growth in the population of eighteen-year-olds, greater interest in college, sophisticated marketing efforts, and ease of access to information and the ability to apply made possible by the Internet—help explain why it is harder to get into college now than ever before.

But this is not the whole answer so where does the Real Crunch lie.Where the Real Crunch Lies.Most people are surprised to learn that with relatively few exceptions, four-year colleges in the United States still accept most of their applicants. In fact, each year many fully accredited four-year colleges have vacancies well into the summer for the freshman class that begins in the fall. Despite all the social and demographic changes, ample spots for prospective freshmen still remain in four-year colleges. How can this fact be reconciled with the newspaper headlines (not to mention firsthand reports from students and parents) reporting a crisis in college admissions?

The real crunch in admissions—the crunch that drives the newspaper headlines and the anxiety that afflicts many families at college application time—is limited to about one hundred colleges that attract applicants from all over the country and the world and that are the most selective in their admissions process. Bill Mayher, a private college counselor and author of The College Admissions Mystique, summarizes the problem succinctly: “It’s hard for kids to get into colleges because they only want to get into colleges that are hard to get into.”

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