The Answer to the College Admissions Problem - How to Fix College Admissions from the Bottom Up

You can't open the newspaper without reading about top college admissions: the debates rage over how to fix a process that is neither transparent nor fair. Twitter was abuzz the moment the superintendent of schools for West Windsor and Plainsboro District announced that he would in effect dumb down the curriculum, reduce the number of AP's, introduce no homework days and reduce midterms and finals, all to take away the stress of applying to college. There was an immediate uprising of parents aghast at the idea of taking away their children's right to upward mobility through achievement.

Meanwhile, last fall, a group of 80 colleges (dubbed the "Coalition for Access, Affordability, and Success") banded together in a misguided effort to reduce stress by creating a new college application portal. In order to be fairer to students with an economic disadvantage, they thought it would be a good idea to use a technology platform to allow students to start their college portfolios as early as 9th grade. How the Ivies and top colleges thought that starting even earlier to track student achievement would be fair to low income and minority students and reduce stress is far from clear. Matt Feeny in his sharp piece in a recent New Yorker article (The Poisonous Reach of the College-Admissions Process) likens the college admissions process to Kafka, "as desperate kids and parents scrambled about like Joseph K., hoping to survive the process that they woke to find themselves enmeshed in one fine morning, all to prevent a dire verdict from an unseen bureaucrat." Truer words were never spoken.

Add to the tumult the recently released Harvard School of Education's report "Turning the Tide: Inspiring Concern for Others and the Common Good through College Admissions" that lays out "concrete recommendations to reshape the college admissions process and promote greater ethical engagement among aspiring students, reduce excessive achievement pressure, and level the playing field for economically disadvantaged students." It is difficult to wade through the mediating language of this report and grasp at what it is trying to do.

When I worked in the Dartmouth College admissions office back in the late 1990's, there was an almost identical movement to encourage students to be productive members of society. This was a nationwide reaction to a much older report that pointed to the selfish nature of high achieving students. In response, college admissions officers started to value community service and, in response, high schools reacted by putting in community service requirements. The net effect was that every aspiring Ivy student put in a zillion hours of dutiful but often ill-appointed community service to fill requirements. You find the repercussions of this in the excessive high school community service requirements of 20, 50 or even 100 hours for their students. How to distinguish between the true altruists and the ones plugging away at random stints for the badge on their resumés?

No concrete recommendations to encourage community service or attempts to deemphasize grades, AP classes and high scores will fix the problem of college admissions. All these well intentioned efforts manage to completely miss the root cause of anxiety in college admissions: the paucity of seats relative to the number of aspiring applicants. Why do Stanford and Harvard admit only 5% of the students who apply, Columbia and Yale 6%, Princeton 7%, Brown 8%? First because they are all relatively small schools with 1000 students give or take in the freshman class. Yet for the class of 2019, the number of applicants was staggering: 37,305 to Harvard, 42,487 to Stanford, 41,907 to Cornell, 37,267 to Penn, 30,237 to Yale. Supply exceeds demand.

What all these gauzily aspirational reports about working less and achieving more fail to address is that the process itself is inherently inefficient. It makes no sense to have a Common Application which makes it a matter of clicking a button to send your application to 25 colleges. Also, with a mixture of early action (non-binding) and early decision, a student who is admitted "single choice early action" to Yale can still apply to 25 schools in the regular round, in effect taking up valuable spots. Rather than trying to change the nature of the applicant pool, why not radically redesign the process to avoid the redundancy problem of a top student getting into 20 colleges while another may get shut out from all colleges. Here are some ideas that the Coalition might want to adopt to face the real problems of admissions rather than creating anxiety through an application that starts the clock in 9th grade or a report that tries to tell students they don't have to work hard in school or get grades as long as they show heartfelt community service. Starting with these three radical ideas, you'd find a system where top colleges would receive a few hundred to a few thousand applications rather than 30-40,000. Even better, it would bring back childhood for applicants and allow them time to focus on academic areas of deep interest rather than catering to what they think college admissions officers want to see.

1. Use the technology of electronic applications to create a Match system similar to medical school admissions. We have the technology to pass information along electronically so why not take advantage? A student could for example list in order of preference/selectivity, 10-20 colleges (in groups of selectivity). Then the application could be sent to school #1. If say Yale said "no," Yale would forward the application to the #2 school, #3, etc... until the student was accepted. Rather than receiving 40,000 applicants, top colleges would end up with a figure much more manageable and students would have to carefully consider their choices and fit/match.

2. Eliminate the non-binding early action option from admissions. Instead, all selective colleges could offer a binding early decision with FULL consideration for financial aid so low income students aren't afraid to apply and they could also limit the percentage of spots reserved for ED candidates. The reason ED has such a bad rap is that many colleges have upped the percentage of ED acceptances to 50% of the class. U Penn fills 50% of its spots through early decision creating a bottleneck for regular round applicants. Dartmouth used to fill a third of the class through early decision, but now fills almost 50% as do many other top colleges. Rather than throw the baby out with the bathwater, colleges should use ED in an intelligent way to force the really super star students to pick their actual top choice school. Really want to attend Princeton? Apply binding early decision and then you are done. What happens with the current system is that super star students who are deferred from Harvard or Yale end up applying to 25+ schools in regular creating layers of inefficiencies.

3. Want to be fair to minority and low income students? Take a bold step - eliminate the SAT and the ACT and instead use subject tests and AP/IB tests. Countless studies have shown the SAT (originally developed as an IQ test) and ACT scores correlate to income/socioeconomic levels. If I could quantify the number of hours (and dollars - ask any NYC parent - not unusual to spend $20-$30,000 on test prep) my students spend on SAT and ACT prep, it would number 50+. If colleges want kids to work on projects that interest them or to do heartfelt community service, eliminate the SAT/ACT all together. Of course, The College Board is big business as we can see by their March roll out of a "new" SAT which seems to be ever so close to the ACT competes for market share. What would the college marketers do without buying PSAT results and assaulting your student with hundreds of pounds of marketing materials in the mail? My daughter received a pound of mail a day from the moment colleges got her PSAT scores. Forget political correctness and admit that a three-hour test is cruel and unusual punishment. And let's be honest, top colleges like these tests as it gives them a quick way to sort through 40,000 applicants. A Chinese applicant with a 690 critical reading? Too low - onto the next. An easy excuse to eliminate many overrepresented groups like Asians and Indians. Subject tests at least are only one hour long, match up with curriculum and give colleges a sense of the strength of an A in biology at school X versus an A in biology at school Y. They reflect knowledge in particular subjects and there are more than 30 to choose from. Likewise, AP classes show ability in college level work. Ask any student or parent who would love to reclaim time their child has spent in SAT or ACT prep to do something meaningful.

College admissions should not be a source of stress beginning in 9th grade, nor should it be a data mining endeavor preying on students' every move from test scores to Naviance data submitted via the Common Application. Revamp the fundamentals and allow students to deepen their love of learning and high schools to get back to their work of educating students, not gaming admissions.