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Why the Insanity of College Admissions Will Change

By       Message Patrick Mattimore     Permalink
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    My college alma mater, Dartmouth College, announced recently that the College had received a record number of applications for spots in the freshmen class. The admissions’ department has also projected that Dartmouth would accept the lowest percentage of students in the College’s history, about 11-12% of applicants.

    Sometime this coming fall, I expect to receive a letter from Dartmouth informing me that this year’s class of freshmen is the best-prepared, most diverse, smartest, highest potential group of students to ever enroll at Dartmouth, thereby knocking my class, which was also all the “bests”, from 40th to 41st place on that esteemed list. Coincidentally, I will also receive a solicitation to donate to the alumni fund, presumably to help push my class into 42nd place.   

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    Yale, Harvard, Princeton, and Stanford already accept less than 10% of applicants annually, and Yale recently publicized the fact that the College had accepted a record low number of early admissions’ applicants which will help keep their overall acceptance rate below 10%.  I’m pretty sure Dartmouth’s goal is to break into that 90% rejection club too.

    The irony is that these same admissions’ departments regularly broadcast the fact that nearly all their applicants are capable of doing the work that would be expected of them at the respective colleges. Stories are legion of students with perfect SAT scores and 4.0 high school grade point averages being turned down at these elite schools. Everyone seems to agree that competitive admissions have become too competitive but, like a high stakes game of chicken, no one seems willing to step back from the edge.

    Two years ago, during my last full year teaching high school, my seniors exacted some revenge by compiling some of the most obsequious, self-serving rejection letters that colleges sent out and combining extracts from those letters. Several large daily newspapers published our story along with several students’ editorial suggestions.   

    Various people have suggested solutions to tamp back the competitive college admissions game, perhaps the most radical of which is the idea proposed by Barry Schwartz at Swarthmore. Schwartz has recommended that competitive colleges establish minimum acceptance standards and then take all the student applicants that meet the criteria and put them into a lottery.

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    The real answer, though, will come not from making the system one of chance, or dictating solutions, but from the market itself. Much as the housing bubble burst after years of increasing demand and prices, demand for the name colleges will begin to recede in the next few years for several reasons.

    First, the population of college-age students is expected to decline. That fact alone will produce a lesser demand for spots in colleges.

    Second, the financial crisis will cause a greater demand among students for financial aid. While many of the better endowed colleges can now promise to provide 100% of demonstrated need for admitted students, those generous pledges may not last. In any event, the colleges may tighten definitions of demonstrated need.

    Third, markets reveal frauds. Or rather, commodities that are overpriced, deflate. At some point, the perception that only a narrow band of elite schools are acceptable and that those elite schools are better than many other colleges will fade.  The public will likely realize that the letter on someone’s college sweatshirt has a lot less to do with the quality of that person’s education than what the person wearing the sweatshirt makes of her opportunities, no matter where she goes. Unfortunately, that realization will come a little late for the Class of 2013.

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Freelance journalist; fellow, Institute for Analytic Journalism.

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