College Application Hysteria — For the Lucky Ones

The Chronicle of Higher Education recently published a fascinating article on “Application Inflation.” Applications at selective colleges and universities are increasing rapidly, much faster than demographic growth can explain. This year Duke, the University of Chicago, and Tulane, each surpassed their record application totals by 10% or more. UCLA received 57,670 applications, and thereby earned the right to call themselves “the most popular campus in the nation.”

Elite colleges are pulling out all the stops to get the most applications. They’re accepting the one-size-fits-all Common Application and carrying out sophisticated marketing campaigns. It’s a popularity contest that does students no good, and it adds more anxiety to an already anxiety-filled process. Instead of being a thoughtful about finding the best college for them, students are compelled to apply to 15, 20, or even more colleges because other students are doing the same. This popularity contest doesn’t even help the students who survive the process as they don’t get more interesting classmates once they arrive on campus. Fred Hargadon, the former dean of admissions at Princeton and Stanford says, “I couldn’t pick a better class out of 30,000 applicants than out of 15,000. I’d just end up rejecting multiples of the same kid.”

Relatively speaking, those students who get to feel the anxiety of applying to elite colleges are actually the lucky ones. The Chronicle article does not talk about the many academically qualified students who don’t apply to college because they don’t know how.

Researchers estimate that each year approximately 300,000 low-income students who are academically qualified for college do not even submit one college application. This is a tragic loss of talent, and potential.

There are numerous reasons why these students don’t apply. Many of them have no one among their families or friends who’ve gone to college; they’ve got no social capital. The notion of college is intimidating, especially the price tag. Since there’s no family history of writing essays, acquiring teacher recommendations and filling out the FAFSA, it’s easy for students to miss these tasks and thereby miss their chance at college.

Unfortunately, these students who aren’t getting help at home aren’t getting help in school either. While the National Association of College Admissions Counselors recommends a ratio of 100 students per counselor, the average student to counselor ratio in United States public high schools is 478:1. Compounding the problem, these counselors spend an average of only 39% of their time actually helping students apply to college. The rest is spent on administrative tasks.

Fortunately, there are many organizations – some new and some old – working to keep these 300,000 students and others from falling through the cracks. College Summit is a national organization that recruits volunteers to help students apply to college, and they also help public school districts build college-counseling capacity. Other firms are using technology to democratize the path to college. Zinch and WiseChoice are two examples.

We’ve written about how technology is changing the nature of college. How will it change the nature of the how students access college? Will it help keep students on their way to college from slipping through the cracks?

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