College admissions has become increasingly competitive -- and stressful. Colleges love the current system -- they earn millions each year in application fees (each application costs $50-$100 to submit, and many students submit 7-8 college applications). Some colleges have recently banded together to try to make the process less stressful by spreading out the workload over the years instead of concentrating it. The Harvard Graduate School of Education's new report on kinder college admissions, Frank Bruni's best-seller book, and our efforts at Synocate are just the start to reforming college admissions.
In reality, the institutional forces behind admissions need to collaborate in a grassroots way with high schools to become more transparent in the process. Practically this means making the admissions process a blind matching process to help reveal student and college preferences. In this article, we will outline how exactly this matching process could work, and is one such idea on the actual matching process.
Economics of College Admissions
Colleges are paid an application fee for each application they receive, although many give fee waivers. With hundreds of thousands of applications, these fees can add up. Moreover, the increased perceived difficulty usually adds to the school's prestige, which in turn results in more applications. More applications also means schools can choose more selectively who to accept, and tailor the class to their exact requirements.
Colleges like the current situation for all of the economic and social reasons described above. Efforts coming directly from Harvard to change the criteria to measure students is a step in the right direction, but a step on a long path. After changing criteria, schools either should become more transparent in the admissions process or allow students to have a more significant voice in the admissions process. The Coalition for Access, Affordability and Success is a group of 80 colleges that decided to take this exact action by creating a workspace where students can upload their progress over time. This might backfire and result in students trying to tailor themselves more and more at an earlier age, but the attempt is genuine.
Another step is to aggregate useful content on a series of properties. College Confidential has created a great resource, although sometimes with incorrect information, on the process. We have started to do this with our YouTube clips and blog resources.
The next step is to change the institutional process of applying. Here is one new idea that helps to reveal student and college preference.
The Double-Blind Matching Process
Colleges would use their own internal algorithms to rank students (much like students are ranked internationally at much larger systems). Many colleges already do this to a certain extent -- quickly grading students across a series of 5-10 variables like academics, extracurricular activities, and maturity. At many colleges, there is a formalized process for this and a more qualitative roundtable for discussion for the more competitive applicants. If colleges could take this a step further and rank students in their order of preference that would allow this matching process.
Students would also rate colleges concretely based on their preferences. Students already do this in their minds and often by declaring early action or early decision in an application. They could mark their preferences in the Common Application itself. We would probably need an application system that allows all universities, including state school systems, to participate so every institution could be ranked by the student in their list.
In this model, the length of the list does not matter but rather the mutual ranking. Both parties, students and colleges, would not know about the others' ranking. This way, they could feel safe about their ranking.
A matching process would start with college preferences and go down the list of applicants. Let's say an institution ranked Applicant A as #1. The system would search for Applicant A and see what they ranked the college. If they ranked the college #1 as well, the application would deserve a read and evaluation. Let's say they did not rank it as #1. The system would then go to the college's #2 preference and see where the student marked the college. If the student marked the college as #1 or #2, it would deserve a read. If they marked it as lower than #2, it would be read later.
In this way, colleges could quickly filter the growing number of applicants based on mutual interest but not discard the millions of students that probably rank colleges higher than colleges rank them. Demonstrated interest is one metric that many universities closely track and that could also factor into the institution's rank. Students would be empowered to know that their ranking directly impacts the way their applications were read. This system probably favors colleges over applicants, but is another step in the right direction focused on the process instead of a specific side.
The Future of College Admissions
Colleges have become asymptotically more difficult to get accepted to given the exponential increase in applicants (due to the Internet, international growth, and fee waiver growth). Institutional support of a new process is one way to make it less stressful, but universities have no economic incentive to do this. Focusing on the student experience of applying might actually incentivize students to prepare their applications and their high school even more. Focusing on the actual matching process and not the evaluation might be another option. We have suggested a double-blind system that may work well, but more ideas are needed.