College Admissions Hell
After a brutal week for college applicants, admissions officers dish about the tough decisions, the role money played—and the nasty calls they’re getting from parents.
“The [parent] calls this week seem worse than in the past,” says one admissions officer at a top-tier Midwestern university. “I can’t tell you how many lives I’ve been told I ruined. One dad called me Satan—and his daughter got waitlisted! Another mother offered to volunteer in our office for a full year if we reconsidered her daughter’s rejection letter. Another threatened to slash my tires!” ( Jump to the next page for more quotes and stories from admissions officers)
And so it went in the frenzied college admissions season that ended this week.
There’s no doubt that the recession and a record number of applicants were the biggest factors in the remarkable uncertainty that defined this year’s application process. At the most selective schools, admission rates plunged to their lowest points ever—particularly at Ivies like Harvard (7%), Princeton (10%), and Columbia (9%). Private colleges, on the other hand, worried about students’ ability to pay high tuitions, let in more applicants. At the University of Chicago, the admit rate dropped to 27% this year. The biggest winners were state universities—such as Virginia, Georgia and California—which had the pick of the litter amid a flood of applications.
“For the first time in my career, I feel like admissions became fundraising this year. Our dean consulted development all day long. It’s appalling. There were students who got in when they shouldn’t have.”
With even families making up to $300,000 applying for aid this year, students’ final decisions will come down to money. The federal government is trying to help: On April 2, the Education Department issued a public letter to financial-aid officers, asking for colleges and universities for extra generosity in determining grant and loan packages to assist struggling families. “Simply stated, most [families] do not know about their right to request that you adjust one or more components that determine their eligibility for financial aid,” wrote Daniel Madzelan, acting secretary for postsecondary education. “I ask you reach out to your students, particularly those who seem to have hit a rough patch, to make sure that they know there may be ways that you can help.”
How things will shake out remains to be seen. May 1—the day colleges require a deposit for enrollment—will bring some clarity, but most admissions officers predict the game will go on through Independence Day. Nonetheless, The Daily Beast decided to catch up with the experts—admissions officers, guidance counselors and college consultants—to see what most surprised them this spring and what to expect in the weeks ahead.
On dealing with nosy parents “We always have parents who open the decision letters while their child is still at school. They call and ask, ‘What am I going to tell him when he gets home? He’ll be just devastated.’ We always reply, ‘Well, you might want to start by explaining why you’re opening his mail.’”— Nancy McDuff, admissions director at the University of Georgia
Easy come, easy go “I love the parents who call and tell me how much I am going to regret rejecting their child…Unless their kid turns out to be Bill Gates, I won’t likely even remember his name next month.”— Ivy League admissions officer
Managing expectations “With few exceptions, admit rates were generally lower across the board but that was to be expected given the overall size of the national applicant pool. We're waiting to see financial-aid offers, but if the early responses our students have seen are any indication, it is clear most schools have fulfilled their commitment to providing financial access.
“Specifically, [Vanderbilt] and UVA were really tough this year, but those of us paying attention shouldn't have been caught too off guard. University of Chicago was way up for a second straight year—their selectivity appears to have caught up to their academic reputation and those students who considered it an Ivy backup are going to be in for a shock. ”— Gavin Bradley, college counselor at Atlanta’s Pace Academy and former admissions officer at Columbia University.
Money matters “Students who can pay their own way are increasingly advantaged in this system. The proper process would consist of need-blind admissions on the basis of qualifications. And some of our finest institutions are trying to do that, though there aren’t a lot of institutions that can afford to. It’s not an evil thing, it’s just you have to survive to do the good you intend. Some of those need-blind schools will have to change their policies at a time like this—you can’t lose money on every deal and make it on volume. More-affluent applicants win out.”— Barmak Nassirian, associate executive director of the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers.
Beggars can’t be choosers “It’s been like when your daughter brings home a fiancé you can’t stand—you have to accept it, but you don’t have to like it. Before our endowment was decimated, we could be more selective when it came to finding full-paying kids. Now, it’s got to be on our minds. I remember one student with pretty good grades and test scores, but his essays showed no enthusiasm. I didn’t even want to meet this kid. But he didn’t apply for financial aid, so we ended up accepting him.”— Admissions officer at a small liberal-arts college in the Northwest
Here’s to hoping things get better “Just as elite-college decision letters started to hit the streets and airwaves last month, the plunging stock market made a modest rebound. Moms and Dads who'd worried all winter that a dwindling college fund might not cover more than public-university tuition are suddenly wondering if their luck is changing. So they may allow Junior to say yes to a pricey private school while they keep their fingers crossed that the Dow won't be in single digits come September.”— College Confidential counselor Sally Rubenstone, a former admissions officer at Smith College
Tough choices “The good news is a lot of my clients have gotten good aid packages, a lot of generous scholarships that won’t have to be repaid. Tulane, for instance, gave one client a four-year scholarship worth $96,000. But deciding where to go will be tougher, though. Take the University of Hartford. Maybe not the best brand-name, but its honors program would be perfect for some kids. And it’s affordable and has given good aid. Do I tell my clients that they should hold out for Haverford, Wesleyan or even Yale? Maybe not this year.”— Stephen Friedfeld, private college-admissions consultant in Princeton, New Jersey, and former admissions officer at Cornell
But money isn’t everything for all of us “I might work with a slightly atypical group of clients, but they really haven’t been panicked about cost. Because top schools offer so much financial aid, they figure that the better the school they get into, the more aid they will qualify for and that’s a pretty good way to think about it as these schools offer financial aid to 50% or more of the student body.”— Michele Hernandez, former admissions officer at Dartmouth College and author of A is Admissions: The Insider's Guide to Getting into the Ivy League and Other Top Colleges
Admissions officers disenchanted “For the first time in my career, I feel like admissions became fundraising this year. Our dean consulted development all day long. It’s appalling. There were students who got in when they shouldn’t have. I told my wife I am considering retirement.”— A Boston college-admissions officer
Being strategic “Our applications were up about 5%. But students must apply directly to one of a number of undergraduate colleges. It was the technical schools that saw the increase—engineering, computer science, and information systems. Fine arts was down, liberal arts was down, business was down. That’s tied to the economy. When the economy is not good, students tend to migrate to the areas, such as technology or computer science, where it is perceived graduates still could get a good job.
“This was the first cycle since the death of [Carnegie Mellon] professor Randy Pausch, who became so well known for his Last Lecture, from pancreatic cancer. There were a huge number of kids who read the book or had seen the video and wrote about it in their admissions letters. We don’t know what kind of impact he actually had in our increase and it’s probably a blip, but what a wonderful legacy.”— Michael Steidel, director of admissions at Carnegie Mellon
Reneging on early decisions “We’re trying not to advertise it, but our biggest shock this week is how many of our early-decision students have walked away for better scholarships. Like a lot of schools, we let in more early-decision applicants than usual to keep down our financial-aid commitments. For those admitted, it’s supposed to be binding. But what are we supposed to say this year? ‘Sorry, you must come even if it’s going to bankrupt your folks.’ Yeah, right.”— Pennsylvania private college admissions director
As one liberal-arts college-admissions officer recently put it, “We had more students than ever to choose from this year, but the economy means we also have no clue as to which ones are going to show up come fall. I pray about it every day.”
Kathleen Kingsbury is a writer based in New York. She's a contributor to Time magazine, where she has covered business, health, and education since 2005.