As you can imagine, parents are always asking me questions about the college admissions process and my service options; yet, there is one question that I am asked more than any other – by far. Today I share it with you and why I respond to it the way that I do.
It’s been an incredibly wet spring here in Michigan, so bad that I’ve had three students ask me about colleges that offer dual degrees in shipbuilding and animal husbandry. To make matters worse, the cloudy atmosphere outside seems to have influenced what’s going on inside the world of college admissions, at least as far as media coverage is concerned.
For reasons that are hard to explain, the usual torrent of Colleges See Record Application Year stories has been replaced by an addiction to three story lines that have held the public’s attention longer than fidget spinners. What’s especially puzzling about the focus on these trio of topics is that, at least in the quietude of their offices behind closed doors, most admissions personnel and college counselors respond to them by asking, “What’s the big deal?”
While articles abound offering insights on what these Big Three could mean to the future of college counseling, it might be important to understand how long these issues have already been with us, before we offer any conjecture on what should be influencing the field come this fall.
Story Line 1: Rich People Use Their Money to Get Special Treatment
When it comes to themes the media jumps on, what more could you ask for than a story that involves money, movies stars, and college admissions? This could explain the lingering fascination with the Varsity Blues/Aunt Becky story, but the real issue behind the story isn’t really news at all. From opening night tickets on Broadway to neighborhoods with the best schools to the best time and tables at Michelin restaurants, the wealthy and famous are always using their leverage and reputation to get advantages the rest of us simply can’t access.
This has been just as true in college admissions for years, and that’s not even close to being the secret the media is suggesting it is. When explaining how his alma mater builds an admissions class, an alumnus admissions representative unabashedly told me about twenty percent of the seats at his school automatically goes to children of alumni, “children of US Senators, and (people like) Tom Hanks’s son (NOTE—no, this is not the college attended by any of Tom Hanks’s sons). We do this, because we can.” Having recently paid many times more than the face value for Hamilton tickets, the effect of the wealthy on limited resources isn’t lost on me, and any college that has more applicants than seats is a limited resource.
Story Line 2: Colleges Think About Where Their Applicants Come From
The fallout of the Aunt Becky story had mercifully faded from the public’s radar right around the time College Board announced it has been developing an additional measure for colleges to use that aims to provide context about applicants’ backgrounds. Labelled as an “adversity index”, the score uses public data based on things like zip codes and crime rates to offer insights into where students were raised, and where they went to high school.
Once again, the response of most veteran admission officers to this news was “been there, done that, and have the spreadsheets to prove it.” College admissions officers have used socioeconomic factors for years when dealing with the tricky issue of evaluating applicants across different schools, including intangible factors that defy measurement. Since this has long been part of the art of college admissions, the notion that this is a new addition to the soup of decision making is specious. Adopting the College Board scale may lead to some changes in admissions decisions, but that’s more of a rearrangement of data than incorporation of new data. Not much to see here.
Story Line 3: Students Who Do Dumb Things Can Get Kicked Out of College
The only real question raised by Harvard’s removal of Kyle Kashov from next year’s freshman class for racist remarks on social media is how much the media would have covered this story if a) Kyle wasn’t a survivor of the Parkland shooting, or b) if this action had been taken by Southeast Michigan Tech rather than Harvard.
The admissions offer of every college—that’s every college—reminds the student that the offer is tentative, and can be revoked for any number of reasons. If your last semester as a high school senior shows your A-B average is now in the D-F range, we’ll wish you well. If it turns out you didn’t really write those admissions essays and we find out two years after you’ve been with us as a student, you’ll finish college somewhere else. If you make public remarks questioning the right of some of your fellow students to simply exist, that just won’t sit well with us. This really, really, isn’t news.
Real Issues for Next Fall
My hope is that the two months of sunshine will melt away America’s fascination over the last three months with admissions stories obsessed with the obvious, and we can move on to tackle issues that can move our profession, and our society, forward. Do highly selective colleges really spend less time recruiting urban and rural schools, simply because they’re harder to get to? Since there is no such thing as “free” college, what can really be done to get more students into and through college without a mountain of debt? How in the world does any student qualify for full cost of attendance aid and still have to choose between buying books and eating? These may not make for the most tranquil topics to consider whiling away a summer’s day in a hammock, but they remind us our work has ample purpose beyond board reports, yield ratios, and social media hits.
The world of college admissions ended 2018 with a rash of articles focused on student stress and the college application process. The themes were familiar—the pressure of applying is great, the expectations are high, the effect of rejection is too extreme—but this recent spate of articles differed in the sheer number of them. In a year when even the federal government felt compelled to examine the role of mental health in student safety, it seems the world of college admissions may be willing to rethink some of its most cherished beliefs, all in the interest of supporting the sanity and healthy growth of the students.
If that’s really the case, I’d like to suggest a pretty easy jumping off point for change—end the January 1 college application deadline. I’m not exactly new to the world of college admissions, and this deadline has never made sense to me. High school counseling offices aren’t open on January 1, so we can’t send any documents to support applications. Even worse, high school counseling offices aren’t open from December 24 through at least the first of the year, so we can’t offer students any meaningful help with essays, activity lists, or other application logistics during crunch time. That may matter little to applicants whose parents started an Ivy League college, but to the students we say we’d like to create more opportunities for, this last-minute help is a big deal.
This deadline also gives counselors the annual moral dilemma of offering to check email during the holidays, or coming in and holding application workshops on their days off, but that puts their mental health at risk—and if you think that has nothing to do with the well being of students, you clearly haven’t seen a high school counselor working on their last nerve.
What’s even more mystifying is that college admissions offices themselves aren’t open on January 1. Stories float up here and there about a handful of admissions offices requiring their junior staffers to come in for a few hours to take phone calls, but by and large, students waiting until the last minute to apply are left to their own resources. If it’s really so important to have applications in by January 1, why aren’t any of the applications that meet the deadline touched in any way until at least January 2?
This is where the old school, nudge-nudge-winkery of college admissions comes into play. The only response I’ve ever received from colleges that could be considered a defense of the January 1 deadline is a logistical one: the reason we ask for the materials by January 1 is so we know we’ll have them when we really need them, which is more along the lines of January 10.
This argument made tremendous sense in the days when college applications were mailed (even though the US Post Office is closed January 1), but the digital age assures us that anything needed at the end of the day on January 10 can be sent an hour before the end of the day on January 10, and get there.
The only argument left for this “send it before we really need it” strategy is the vagaries of a 17 year-old’s understanding of deadlines—colleges argue they are doing students a favor telling them they need applications before they really do. But if high school seniors don’t know it’s OK to be late—and what high school counselor in their right mind wants to ever send that message to a student—this “favor” becomes a major source of stress, where students sacrifice the last long December holiday of their youth to meeting a deadline that doesn’t really exist. Wouldn’t their stress level be better served gathered ‘round the big screen, imbibing in the traditional family ritual of watching that penultimate holiday classic, Die Hard?
It’s easy enough for a high school counselor to point out all the things colleges can do to support the mental health of applicants, and there’s plenty we high school folks should be doing as well. Still, when I think about the low-hanging fruit that can dramatically change the tone of the college application process, the January 1 deadline is the first, but not only, thing that comes to mind. It’s worth a review.
It didn’t take long to realize that the College Admissions Cycle of 2018 was an utter failure. No sooner was the last article published on Waitlists That Run to The Moon and Back, but Bloomberg thought they’d try and cheer everyone up by telling us that the birthrate in the US is declining at an alarming rate. Their conclusion? Fewer teens means fewer students applying to college— all colleges– making the process that much less stressful for everyone.
It may have been another long admissions season, but it didn’t take the Twitterverse long at all to respond with a collective, “What?” Several respondents pointed out that a vast majority of colleges have had empty seats on the first day of fall classes for years—according to James Murphy of Princeton Review, that number is about 78% of all colleges.
The next round of rebuttal came in the form of witty repartee, including remarks like “Well, Harvard should just become an open admissions institution,” and, “What will those poor admissions officers at Penn do with all their free time?” Bloomberg may be able to count babies, but their abacus counting the ever-rising number of Ivy League applications is apparently in the shop.
The Bloomberg piece may have come as comic relief to admissions officers who had a busy April, but it also points to a reality that has long plagued the college application process. Using national newspaper coverage of college admissions as their North Star, nearly a full generation of college applicants have had to deal with the “high stress of applying to college.” What was once viewed as a fairly simple process that took less than an hour is now viewed as a gut-wrenching, life-altering experience that makes waterboarding seem like a date with your rubber ducky. The hyperbole about the stress of applying to college is so bad, I have actually had to guide students through stress management strategies because they finished applying to college and never once felt worried about it. It was the lack of stress that was stressing them out.
The attention-grabbing headlines equating the odds of admission to college with getting hit by lightning overlook the realities school counselors know. A vast number of students will apply to four colleges or fewer, all of them within 150 miles of home. Most of those colleges will admit 75% or more of their applicants, and—to Mr. Murphy’s point—most will still have seats open in classes on the first day of the fall term. For these students, the greatest stress is how they will pay for this opportunity, but that has nothing to do with birthrate, and much to do with the times we live in.
None of that will make the front page of a single national newspaper, since it isn’t exciting or controversial. Neither will the damage that’s done by the national media’s obsession with a handful of colleges with single digit admit rates. There’s a little bit of stress involved in any college application, just like there’s a little stress involved in driving a car on the freeway; it helps you pay attention. Suggesting that a life-altering amount of stress is involved in applying to college if you’re doing it right places a burden on our children, and keeps first generation students from applying in the first place. They deserve a better, and more accurate, picture of the process.
Each year, I somehow hope this will be the time Southwest Michigan College’s need for more students will find its way to my newsfeed, and change the way America sees college. Perhaps an admissions officer from Brown will write an op-ed about this in the coming years, making it interesting enough to make coast-to-coast headlines.
After all, they’re going to have all that free time on their hands.
He was on his way home from just having dropped all his classes at the local community college. Having graduated from high school sixteen months ago, every one of his postsecondary plans had failed to come to fruition, and the drive home from campus gave him time to ponder what would come next.
As it turns out, he didn’t have to ponder long. He came across a home construction site on the route home, and had always had an interest working with his hands. He swung his car up to the site, got out, and asked the first hard-hatted worker just what it might take to get a job like this. The worker turned out to be the contractor, who said that anyone who had the guts to pull up and ask was worth taking a chance on. Find yourself a good pair of boots, he was told, and come back tomorrow.
That was the beginning of a postsecondary plan that stuck. At age nineteen, he took on a job that paid $42,000, less than the median household income for his state, but far more than he would have earned working at the local sandwich shop. His brief stint at community college left him little debt to be concerned with, and while his short-term plans doubtlessly included continued residency with his parents, it wouldn’t be long before he could afford an apartment of his own—and after that, his own home.
This is a remarkable story for several reasons, but what’s most noteworthy is the response this story receives from the school counselors and college admissions officers who hear it. To nearly a person, they are convinced this young man has thrown away his future. Citing countless personal and professional histories, they speak with clear certainty that he will regret his choice by the time he’s twenty-eight, only to find himself saddled with a mortgage or the well-being of a young family, unable to go back to college on a full-time basis, and therefore destined to be trapped in a job that appeared to pay well in his youth, but will limit his opportunities later in life.
This story comes to mind as we are weeks away from headlines that decry a different kind of postsecondary story: the headlines of another round of record applicants to a handful of the most selective colleges in America, where statistics suggest admission is less likely than being struck by lightning. Every seat in these colleges will be filled this fall by a promising, eager student, but the headlines turn their attention to the vast majority of exceptionally bright students who also had the potential to do great things at these colleges—except the college ran out of room before they ran out of quality applicants.
The way most stories tell it, these hapless applicants are victims of the postsecondary wheel of fortune, destined to try and make do at a college that likely is still highly regarded, but not quite as highly regarded, forced to devote part of their lives to perpetually looking back, and wondering what would have been if they had been one of the fortunate few whose cell phone had played the school’s fight song when they opened their emailed admissions decision.
Much has been written about the need for reform in America’s higher education system, and while there is ample agreement that the current system has need of correction, there is no clear consensus what that correction should look like. Not surprisingly, testing companies insist the answer is more testing at an earlier age, while advocates of test-less admissions policies are convinced their approach is the only one that will open the gates of higher learning to a wider audience. Others advocate for stackable college credentials that measure a semester’s worth of work as the only way to make college affordable, while developmental purists fret this approach would reduce the developmental benefits young people receive in the delayed gratification that is part of the four-year college experience.
These arguments make for interesting intellectual exercises, but they do little to help the students who had to “settle” for studying at the honors college of a four-year public university, or the students whose knowledge of geometry put college out of reach, but made them experts at framing walls and cutting pipe. Our current system of higher education has many challenges, but the biggest one lies in changing the perception that there can only be a handful of winners once high school is over. Different talents and different needs require different plans, and honoring those differences doesn’t require us to sacrifice the quality of the unum, simply because we honor the talents of the pluribus.
Our country is supposed to be a tent of opportunity. Let’s advance that idea by seeing all our high school graduates as residents of the big top.
For years, the eight institutions that make up the Ivy League have loudly touted how they review undergraduate applications in a need-blind manner, which gives many families the impression that a family’s financial circumstances will play no role in its student’s chances of admission into one of these very selective institutions.
Yet, the Ivies have need-blind policies that are not so black and white. In fact, if families read the fine print, they will find that many members of the Ivy League engage in a hybrid of review policies depending on students’ citizenship or U.S. residency status. Five out of the eight members of the Ivy League review first-year applicants in either a need-blind manner or need-aware manner depending on an applicant’s citizenship or U.S. residency status. The other three are need-blind for each and every first-year applicant.
Below, Admissions Intel provides a breakdown of the distinct review policies for the eight members of the Ivy League.
University of Pennsylvania
Penn offers probably the most interesting need-blind review policy. An applicant to Penn will be reviewed in a need-blind manner if the student is a citizen or legal permanent resident of the U.S., Canada, or Mexico. Why Canadians or Mexicans are reviewed on a need-blind basis is not explained, though of course these countries share borders with the U.S. Canadian and Mexican taxpayers certainly don’t fund the millions of dollars worth of research that Penn engages in each year; American taxpayers do. Students living in the U.S. illegally (if they are honest about their status and not from Mexico or Canada) are reviewed in a need-aware manner. As are students from all other countries so far unmentioned. One could make the argument that Russia (close to Alaska) and the Bahamas (close to Florida) have reason to complain to Penn that Canada and Mexico get special treatment but they don’t.
Cornell is one of four Ivy League colleges that actively reward illegality with its need-blind admissions policies. Cornell is need-blind for all U.S. citizens and permanent residents and for those with DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) status. That last group includes many teenage children of parents who entered the U.S. illegally when their children were younger. While the children are also officially illegal residents of the U.S. the Obama administration created DACA to “bring out of the shadows” individuals brought to the U.S. illegally by their older family members. All other international applicants to Cornell are reviewed on a need-aware basis.
Brown takes Cornell’s policy one step further by reviewing not only all U.S. citizens, permanent residents, and DACA recipients in need-blind manner; Brown also reviews all undocumented students in a need-blind manner. This raises the question, why would a student who wants to go to Brown but who doesn’t have the financial means just cross into the U.S. illegally through the Canadian or Mexican border before applying to Brown? Brown’s admissions committee rewards law-abiding international students with the gift of being reviewed in a need-aware manner.
Columbia University & Dartmouth College
Both Dartmouth and Columbia are need-blind for U.S. citizens, undocumented students, and eligible non-citizens residing in the U.S. This latter group includes:
-U.S. nationals (includes natives of American Samoa or Swains Island).
-U.S. permanent resident with a Form I-551, I-151, or I-551C (Permanent Resident Card, Resident Alien Card, or Alien Registration Receipt Card), also known as a “green card.”
-Individuals who have an Arrival-Departure Record (I-94) from U.S. Citizen and Immigration Services (USCIS) showing:
>“Conditional Entrant” (valid only if issued before April 1, 1980), or
>“Parolee” (you must be paroled for at least one year, and you must be able to provide evidence from the USCIS that you are in the United States for other than a temporary purpose with the intention of becoming a U.S. citizen or permanent resident).
-Individuals who hold a T nonimmigrant status (“T-visa”) (for victims of human trafficking) or your parent holds a T-1 nonimmigrant status. Your college or career school’s financial aid office will ask to see your visa and/or certification letter from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
-Individuals who are a “battered immigrant-qualified alien” who is a victim of abuse by your citizen or permanent resident spouse, or you are the child of a person designated as such under the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA).
-An individual who is a citizen of the Federated States of Micronesia, the Republic of the Marshall Islands, or the Republic of Palau. If this is the case, you may be eligible for only certain types of federal student aid:
>Citizens of the Republic of Palau are eligible for Federal Pell Grants, Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grants, and Federal Work-Study.
>Citizens of the Federal States of Micronesia and the Republic of the Marshall Islands are eligible for Federal Pell Grants only.
-To qualify for federal student aid, certain eligible noncitizens must be able to provide evidence from the USCIS that they are in the United States for other than a temporary purpose with the intention of becoming a U.S. citizen or permanent resident.
-Certain Native American students born in Canada with a status under the Jay Treaty of 1789 may also be eligible for federal student aid.
All other applicants to Columbia and Dartmouth are reviewed in a need-aware manner.
Harvard, Princeton, & Yale
This Holy Trinity is need-blind for everyone! That’s right, Harvard, Princeton, and Yale don’t care if you are Brazilian, Burmese, Byelorussian, or Baltimorean. You’re all going to be reviewed on a need-blind basis. Congrats for keeping it consistent Big Three.
Important Final Note
The above discussion only applies to how these eight schools determine whom to review on a need-blind or need-aware basis. Once a student is accepted, the Ivies make every effort to meet 100% of demonstrated need. The trick, of course, is getting in first, thus the discussion above.
In a sign of Yale’s total descent into pointless politically correct virtue-signaling, the formerly revered institution of higher learning has announced that in 2018 and moving forward it will only use gender-neural terms to describe completely harmless words such as upperclassmen and freshmen, which will now be referred to as upper-level students and first-year students. The Ivy League school follows brethren Columbia, Dartmouth, and Cornell in leaping head first into abyss of trying to please the unpleasable.
Read more in The Daily Mail
Yale University is experimenting with the role digital media can play in college admissions. Using technology advanced last year by the Coalition for Access, Affordability, and Success, Yale’s admissions readers in some cases became admissions viewers and experienced what will likely become a third dimension in college admissions—the creative use of media to present the case for admission to a highly selective institution.
Staying on the cutting edge of technology is challenging in any field, but changes in college admissions since the introduction of the electronic application are almost beyond description. Stacks of manila folders tucked into walls of file cabinets have been replaced by application “platforms” configured to align with enrollment management software, which oversees a process that is increasingly data-dependent and data-driven.
And the work has become less cyclical and more continuous as applicants have the luxury of starting applications earlier by entering information that “rolls over” from one year to the next. Marketing begins with the administration of the first PSAT, with even the earliest scores sold to colleges anxious to get their names before potential applicants. There’s hardly a moment to reflect on successes and failures before it’s time to gear up for the next group of recruits turned applicants.
But as almost anyone involved in college admissions would agree, something isn’t quite right with this picture—the entire college admissions process is due for a major overhaul. And a handful of deans and enrollment management experts are ready to try.
“Technology has transformed how we process applications and how we read applications, but not how we create content for these applications,” commented Jeremiah Quinlan, Yale’s dean of undergraduate admission.
Like many others charged with overseeing admissions, Quinlan felt the time had come for Yale to experiment with application content that responded to the pervasiveness and availability of digital media. While the Common Application set the standard, others saw a market ripe for innovation.
“I really felt we needed to make a change. We were looking at more and more essays that felt like they had been written by 47-year olds and not 17-year olds,” said Quinlan. “We thought we needed more material—different material—in the review process.”
Enter the Coalition application. Born out of concern that reliance on a single electronic application was a risky proposition and developed with a view toward attracting a wider, underserved audience, the Coalition application as built by CollegeNet looked for ways to integrate creativity and give colleges the kind of basic flexibility they wanted in an application platform.
“After the fall of 2013, we needed to bring more options into the application space,” Quinlan explained. “We thought giving students a choice of applications would be better for colleges and better for applicants.”
One of over 90 colleges that originally joined the Coalition and 47 that actually launched applications for 2016-17, Yale viewed this as an opportunity to design a substantially different set of application specifications from those contained in the Common Application.
Students applying to Yale could choose to write two additional 200-word essays (beyond the personal statement and other short-answer questions) for the Common Application or they could choose to write one 250-word essay and provide an upload related to that essay on the Coalition application.
While many Coalition members chose to simply replicate requirements laid out on the Common Application, Quinlan decided to offer alternate but not totally different requirements on Yale’s Coalition application. He kept the prompts the same for both applications, but used the Coalition application’s functionality to support links to digital media.
“It was critical to our review process that we not give preference to one application type over another. Our results from the first year bear this out; the rate of admission for students who submitted the Common Application and for students who submitted the Coalition Application were nearly identical.”
Nevertheless, the results were exciting. While only about one percent or 300 of Yale’s applicants used the Coalition application, the advantage of providing students with a choice of how to present themselves was clear. In some cases, the online media helped “separate” a student or verified some element of the application that didn’t come through strongly enough in a recommendation or through a student’s writing.
“We found certain situations, for example, where a video component made a difference—showed examples of kinds of characteristics we’re looking for.”
To illustrate his point, Quinlan talks about an application Yale received from Justin Aubin, an Eagle Scout who lives and attends high school in the southwest suburbs of Chicago. Justin’s recommendations were excellent, and he was an outstanding student. But Yale has lots of those applicants.
What made Justin stand apart was a video his older brother filmed to document the construction of Justin’s Eagle project. In this distinctly amateurish record of decisions made as the work progressed, the Yale admissions office could easily see how Justin managed and supervised younger scouts and how he exhibited compassionate leadership, which inspired respect from the group as a whole.
The additional essay Justin provided put the video in context. But most importantly, he presented information that highlighted and underscored character traits Yale values and wants to bring to campus in the classes they admit. Other information on the application suggested this was possibly the case, but the video nailed it.
Justin Aubin was eventually admitted and will be attending Yale in the fall as a member of the class of 2021. And Quinlan credits Justin’s creative use of digital media—submitting the video—as making the difference
In all fairness, Yale isn’t the first institution to allow videos and other digital media to be submitted as part of an application for admission. Goucher College in Maryland and George Mason University in Virginia and others have video options available through institutional applications.
And it’s not all that unusual for colleges to offer several different application formats with differing requirements. In fact, smaller colleges make clear that their institutional applications are often more popular than the standardized Common Application.
In addition, last year’s applicants could use ZeeMee, an online resume promoted in questions on the Common Application, or SlideRoom—a Common App partner—to provide more visual support for their talents and interests.
But the difference for colleges using the Coalition application was that they could design their own questions and media integration. They didn’t have to rely on a third-party website that might encourage more “freeform” or off-message responses.
Yale’s new application was no more difficult for staff to review than the two-essay Common App version and could be scripted to allow for comparable responses across applicants using either platform. Linking the digital media to an essay prompt was key to the success of the experiment.
“Staff enjoyed doing something else. It was a way to experiment with new ways of interpreting new kinds of application content.”
Quinlan has a great deal of respect for the Common Application and has no interest in changing that relationship, which has worked very well for Yale. But he does want to offer students a choice of application platforms.
“We want the two applications to be different so students can be thoughtful about which they use and what they decide to present to us.”
While he expects to “tweak” the essay prompts offered in the Yale supplement, Quinlan will continue to provide the digital media option in the Coalition application. “We will maintain the two applications for next year with the same set-up.”
And students will be free to choose the application platform that best presents their credentials and makes their case for admission to Yale University.
For the record, the Coalition application will make available new functionality on June 15. And for the coming year, the roster of institutional members will grow to 135. After July 1, colleges can open individual applications according to their own timelines.
An Ivy League college is pretty much always going to be a reach on a student’s college list. Yet, there is one scenario when an Ivy League college can actually be considered a target (somewhere between a reach and a safety).
It is exceedingly rare for an Ivy League college or university to be considered a safety on a student’s college list, but it does happen on rare occasions. Don’t hold your breath that you’ll find yourself in one of these two scenarios, but if you do, consider yourself lucky.
Scenario 1 when an Ivy League college COULD be a safety:
Scenario 2 when an Ivy League college COULD be a safety: