Three Radical Proposals for a Broken College Admissions Process

The author of the book that lifted the veil on elite education, Getting In, offers fixes for an arbitrary and random system

Web_Education_Fred Harper 2
Illustration by Fred Harper.

The going rate in New York for a private admissions counselor is $25,000, with some, who boast staffs comprised exclusively of Ivy League admission office alumni, commanding upward of $40,000 for a year of admission guidance. While most private counselors have the decency to say at the outset that they cannot guarantee admission anywhere, there is almost always an inferred assumption that all those “relationships” must be able to accomplish something.

In fact, spending $25,000 for a private college admission counselor won’t guarantee that a high-achieving kid will get into an Ivy. It won’t even secure a place on the waitlist, not without a mid-seven-figure contribution to the school’s development fund. The same is true for most other “top” schools, though the cost to endow the chair or get the name plaque on the library’s basement reading room might be a little lower.

I have never worked in an admission office, but that didn’t keep me from co-authoring the most successful book ever written on the subject. I confess that I have accepted exorbitant fees for helping families navigate the college selection and admissions process. But I’m now convinced that all the attention being devoted to getting into the “best” college has so skewed our perceptions and the debate, that we have lost sight of much bigger issues afflicting higher education.

Every selective college should allocate 1 percent of its entering class admission slots to a lottery.

March Madness shouldn’t just refer to the NCAA basketball tournament. It is just as appropriate a moniker for the college admissions frenzy and for much of what ails higher education. Colleges sent out their remaining acceptance and rejection notices—typically emails followed by those fat and skinny envelopes—topping off the process that began with early decision notices in the fall. And in April, culminating on May 1 when kids must decide where they will enroll in the fall, the power actually shifts to the family. Colleges woo admitted students with special Facebook pages limited to just the Class of 2019, and invitations to campus.

Colleges really do want kids to enroll. That’s because the higher the percentage of kids who say yes to a school, the higher the “yield,” the percentage of admitted students who actually choose to matriculate at a school. And both selectivity and yield indirectly affect the all-important U.S. News ranking.  Selectivity is factored into the formula directly, and both selectivity and yield influence two of U.S. News’ most important weighting elements: subjective assessments by college administrators and high school guidance counselors, which together account for 22.5% of the total ranking formula.  Ask admission deans and guidance counselors–as I have for years–what goes into their subjective assessments, and you hear the same words over and over again: selectivity and yield.  It is a perfect–and perfectly sick – circle: colleges are good because they are selective. And they are selective because they are good. The U.S. News rankings feed–and feed off of–this vicious circle.

Two recent events triggered the end of my relative silence on admission issues. (Though I have been obsessively verbose on the obscene increases in college tuition.) The first is the publication of Frank Bruni’s new book, Where You Go is Not Who’ll You Be. It is a thoughtful series of profiles of successful people who didn’t get into their first-choice school, or even into a “name” college. Mr. Bruni’s book is intended to reduce the anxiety of both out-of-control madness to get into a “highly selective” college and assuage the disappointment of those who don’t make it, and that is admirable. And yet, I don’t believe it will change the system one iota.

College admission has become a very profitable business. John Katzman is the founder and former president of The Princeton Review, the online education company 2U, and is currently the CEO (and founder) of a new online education site called Noodle. “The college admissions process is expensive, stressful and unsuccessful,” Mr. Katzman told the Observer. “Only about 30 percent of students graduate in six years from the school at which they start. Moreover, no one takes the blame for that, or is committed to improving things, it’s just people looking to pull a few more dollars from the process.”

That partly explains the inexplicable and unconscionable rise in the cost of college: a 1,220 percent increase since 1978, four times the increase in the Consumer Price Index. College has been positioned as a must-have product. And schools that are more expensive, and more selective, must be worth the price.

The second event that ended my silence was an invitation to be interviewed for a feature film about the SAT exam. The writer-producer-director was a former finance guy whose above-average daughter, I inferred, did poorly on the SAT. That apparently dashed her hopes of attending the college of her dreams. In response, Dad dedicated the last year to learning—and exposing—everything that is wrong with the dreaded exam. He also put up the more than $1 million production cost to make his point.

harvardHe is probably right in most of his criticisms; and he may even add something new to what Nicholas Lemann revealed in The Big Test. Yes, the SAT was supposed to measure IQ; and doesn’t do that; what it tests it tests poorly and insufficiently takes into consideration the life experiences of poorer students; and it can be gamed by intensive test preparation, which puts poor students at a significant disadvantage. Those criticisms are probably all true—at least to some extent. But while the SAT is undoubtedly flawed, it is also pretty fair.

That is why most “top” schools heavily rely on it and are going to continue to rely on it. Not exclusively, but heavily. Mike Muska is my co-author on Getting In: The Zinch Guide to College Admissions & Financial Aid in the Digital Age. Mr. Muska was a top admissions person and athletic coach at Brown, Oberlin, Northwestern and Auburn before becoming the head of college counseling at Brooklyn’s Poly Prep. During the documentary taping, Mr. Muska told two stories that underscored the continuing importance of the SAT. The first involved a non-Ivy top-20 university. (I hate giving credence to U.S. News, but until something smarter and better promoted comes along, they remain the 800-pound gorilla.) The admissions dean at this school told Mr. Muska that kids weren’t even being considered without scores of 700. (The unspoken corollary is that a different cut-off would apply to minority applicants.)

The second story involved the Academic Index (AI), which Mr. Muska helped to create. The AI was invented about 25 years ago by the Ivy League to ensure that recruited athletes weren’t dumb as dirt. A formula was established that was comprised of two-thirds SAT scores and one-third high school GPA. No recruited athlete in an Ivy League school could have an AI that was more than one standard deviation lower than the AI for the non-athlete student body at that school. The AI is still in use today and it is heavily weighted toward the SAT.

When the filmmaker mentioned that more and more good schools are becoming “test-optional”—that is, students don’t have to submit SAT or ACT scores to be admitted—Mr. Muska pointed out what seemed to elude the filmmaker. Test-optional not only helps students who are poor test-takers, it helps the college in three important ways. First, it helps the school identify attractive kids who would ordinarily get weeded out. Second, it helps increase the size of the applicant pool, while the number of freshman slots remains the same. More kids applying means more kids get rejected, thereby increasing the college’s perceived selectivity. And third, the applicants who do submit SAT scores to the test-optional college are typically those who have done well on the exam; thereby raising the accepted students’ average score and enhancing the college’s ranking.

Perhaps the best indicator that the SAT isn’t going anywhere is the fact that more and more inner-city high schools are devoting funds—or raising monies from the PTA—to bring test-prep tutoring to all their students. Savvy school administrators are recognizing that if they want their lower-income kids to make it into better colleges, the kids have to do better on the SAT. It is hard for colleges to judge what an “A” means at the thousands of different schools represented in the applicant pool, particularly with rampant grade inflation. But an 1800 on the SAT means the same thing whether the applicant is in New York City or Brasov, Transylvania. Scott Farber, the CEO of A-List education, a successful test-prep company, told the Observer that 90 percent of his business now comes from institutional payers. “The test makers can talk about how the ACT or the SAT is an ‘equalizer,’ ” said Mr. Farber, “but until high schools embrace the responsibility to prepare students for the exams, ‘equality of opportunity’ is an aspiration rather than a reality.”

A second confession is in order: I am probably partly responsible for the craziness in college admission. When the first edition of Getting In came out in 1983, it attracted enormous publicity and became a national bestseller. That’s because we explained what really went on inside the admission committee, and how you could improve your chances of acceptance. We introduced the concepts of “packaging” and “positioning” and “the hook” to the lexicon. We explained that good colleges are not looking for the well-rounded kid, but the well-rounded class; and that extraneous recommendations from “important” people often triggered a saying around the admission table: “The thicker the folder the thicker the kid.”

So what should we do about this madness? I asked John Katzman, Scott Farber and Mike Muska for one change they’d advocate to make the system either more fair or less stressful.

Too many students choose colleges based on criteria and assumptions that are simply wrong. And that can be really expensive.

Mr. Katzman’s suggestion is not surprising coming from a guy who revolutionized test-prep and online education: “We should replace the SAT and ACT with something much more like the AP tests; let students decide where they’re most passionate, and encourage them to excel there. Let’s trust that college admissions offices can handle multiple scores that use the same curve, and don’t need to measure everyone by their mastery of middle school math and English.”

Scott Farber focused on the need to give low-income kids adequate counseling about college choices, the admissions process and financial aid. “Applying to college is about more than test scores. How are students supposed to navigate the process of making one of the most important decisions of their lives without real and knowledgeable help? Nationwide we have one counselor for every 450 kids, and with those numbers we can’t possibly provide the informed advice during the admissions process our students deserve.”

At Mike Muska’s Poly Prep, the ratio of college counselors to seniors is 1 to 30. At New York City’s prestigious Stuyvesant High School, the ratio is 1 to 325; and the average amount of one-on-one time spent with a high school senior is 30 minutes—for the entire year.

Mr. Muska’s suggestion surprised me. He wants the College Board to continue including an essay question on the SAT, but not to grade it, and to make the ungraded essay a mandatory submission to colleges. “The current writing portion of the SAT can be, and is often gamed by well-tutored students. Similarly, the application essay is so often ‘proofed,’ polished and positioned by parents or private counselors that the kid’s personality is lost in the process. An unvarnished writing sample written under uniform time constraints would give admissions officers way more insight into the student. Yes, it is more work for the admissions officer, but I believe everyone would benefit from it.”

My own suggestion? I want to create an online tool to help kids figure out what colleges might be a better fit for the student. Too many students choose colleges based on criteria and assumptions that are simply wrong. And that can be really expensive. It costs over $60,000 a year for many private colleges, and $40,000 at good state universities. Plus it is taking six years on average to graduate. So making smarter choices about where to attend—what is really a good fit—has economic and psychological benefits.

The problem is that most high school kids have very limited experience and a narrow frame of reference. Asking them what they want in a college is asking the wrong question. How can we ask a high school student who has never been in a classroom with more than 35 students how she feels about large lecture classes? Or Greek life? Or what major they want to pursue? (Seventy percent of college students change their major after declaring one; almost 50 percent change their majors twice.)

Any of these proposed reforms could make the admissions process a little less stressful, and perhaps even a bit fairer. Yet I’m not hopeful. Despite Frank Bruni’s sane advice to be less concerned about getting into the best “name” school possible, I don’t see many parents, kids, or high school administrators opting out of the selective college game. And since they won’t, I’ll propose one change that could put the whole system into perspective: every selective college should allocate 1 percent of its entering class admission slots to a lottery: 39 kids at Vanderbilt, 27 at Brown, and so on. A random selection process for a tiny percentage of the class. The personality of the place probably wouldn’t change. But it would underscore the randomness of the whole process and give kids one little, extra bit of hope. And hope is a good thing.

Steve Cohen is an attorney at KDLM, and the co-author of Getting In.

This article has been corrected to reflect that U.S. News and World Report no longer uses yield—the percentage of admitted students who actually choose to matriculate at a school—in its Best Colleges methodology, as Mr. Cohen had written.

Three Radical Proposals for a Broken College Admissions Process