Were I a high school senior now applying to college today, I’d be very worried about what it would take in the era of COVID-19 to catch the eye of an admissions director. I know I would not feel confident about my chances for success. There's a good chance that if I applied today to the college from which I graduated years ago, I would not get in. The odds against being admitted to a selective college have gone through the roof in recent years. In 1990 Johns Hopkins accepted 53 percent of its applicants, Washington University in St. Louis 62 percent, Yale 19.7 percent. Now the figures are 11 percent, 14 percent, and 6.3 percent.
The result, as Jeffrey Selingo writes in his new book, Who Gets in and Why: A Year Inside College Admissions, is a problem for thousands of high school students and their parents. When I got into college a long time ago, I thought I had done so on merit. If I got rejected from the same college today, I would, I am sure, blame myself. If only I had gotten a higher score on my SATs, if only I had been a better math student, I would have told myself.
Such thinking keeps record numbers of high school seniors trying to get into the nation’s elite colleges. For Selingo, who spent the 2018-19 academic year embedded in the admissions offices of Davidson College, Emory University, and the University of Washington, the result is that all too many students end up playing a sucker’s game. They are like gamblers who think they can beat the house at a Las Vegas casino. High school seniors and their parents are under an illusion, Selingo argues. They forget that when it comes to admissions, “College is not about you, the prospective student or parent of a student, it’s about the college.”
Colleges spend an estimated $10 billion annually on recruiting students, and they expect the recruitment process to work in their favor. Colleges’ goals for admission change on a year-to-year basis—frequently without regard for the needs of prospective students. One year a college may need a pitcher for its baseball team. Another year it may be short on minority recruits. In still another year it may need to balance its gender ratio. The applicant never knows.
Being the perfect student is often not enough. For admission to the 1,700 spots it had to offer for its class of 2019, Harvard had 8,200 applicants with perfect grade-point averages in high school, 3,500 with perfect SAT math scores, and 2,700 with perfect verbal scores.
At the colleges with the deepest pockets, financial need may not be a factor in admissions, but in colleges that are need-aware as opposed to need-blind, it’s a different story. A college with $60,000 left to spend on financial aid may, as Selingo notes, decide that instead of spending all that money on a single, highly needy student, it would be better off awarding $15,000 apiece to four less needy students. As one admissions director told Selingo, “We have to craft a class with talent and diversity, but I also need to deliver a solvent one.”
Even the richest colleges are not above thinking about whether students and their families can help with the bottom line. In his 2006 book, The Price of Admission, Dan Golden, a senior editor at ProPublica, tells the story of how the father of Jared Kushner, President Donald Trump’s son-in-law, pledged $2.5 million to Harvard before Jared’s acceptance as a student.
Despite these obstacles, students and their families have not stopped trying to get into elite colleges. Instead, they have doubled down. In 1975, 60 percent of students applied to just one or two colleges. Now one in three students applies to seven or more colleges, and both the College Board and colleges themselves thrive on this application frenzy.
The College Board, which administers the SAT test, sells the names of students who did well on their test to colleges, and the colleges in turn send out mail to these students. The benefit for a college is that the more students it can reject, the more selective—and thereby the more prestigious— it appears when it comes to its ratings.
What’s the way out of this madness? Selingo offers a number of practical suggestions. He calls on elite colleges to increase their size, and he advocates more government subsidies for poor students. Above all, Selingo wants students and their parents to realize there is no such a thing as a “dream college” or the “perfect fit.” There are, he believes, numerous accessible colleges that are passed over. The average four-year college in the United States accepts 6 in ten applicants. Only 46 out of nearly 1,400 four-year colleges accept fewer than 20 percent of their applicants, Selingo points out.
Whether ambitious high school students and their parents are willing to accept such commonsense advice is another matter. The high school students I know are hypercompetitive when it comes to choosing between an elite school and a less prestigious, safe school. For them and their families, an elite college is, as Selingo argues, looked on as an insurance policy for the future. The highly publicized conviction of television star Lori Laughlin and her wealthy husband in a fraud scheme designed to get their daughters into the University of Southern California shows how deep the obsession with admission to the “right” college goes.
In the meantime, looming over the college admission scene for the immediate future is the impact of COVID-19. Before the pandemic struck, a number of state schools and small private colleges were in financial trouble. For years states with budget problems have been cutting back on their support for higher education, and small private colleges without large endowments are now reaching a limit on what they can charge. COVID-19 has increased these tensions, making it harder for low-income and first-generation students to find a place in higher education.
For these students, the most hopeful sign for the near future is in the de-emphasis on standardized testing that has arisen with the arrival of COVID-19. More and more colleges, including Harvard and Cornell, are making SAT and ACT tests, which so often reflect a student’s family income rather than ability, optional for next year in response to the disruptions in schooling going on. The consequence for disadvantaged students is that for the moment they face one less hurdle in the admission process and the possibility that standardized tests will become permanently optional in the future. The bad news is that with so many students deferring college admission this year in the hope that next year will mark a return to normal, the high school class of 2021 may find itself faced with fewer openings as it seeks to become the college class of 2025.