College admissions news stories are weird

The Washington Post‘s Nick Anderson has a story in today’s paper about the holistic, committee-driven process of college admissions at the University of Maryland-College Park campus, where approximately 30,000 applicants vie for half as many admissions slots. As with most college-admissions news stories, it’s richly-detailed at the micro-level, and absent some important context. We are so familiar with this type of story that we forget how weird it is that every year, a few hundred thousand applicants submit more than a million applications to flagship universities, in a process that tries to separate the pretty-well-qualified applicant from the slightly-less-pretty-well-qualified applicant. We focus on the admissions process and the very specific aspirations of applicants to the University of Maryland, Berkeley, or the University of Michigan, when the most important question for the future of these applicants is not where they start college but whether they finish.

In our forgetting the broader context, we miss the fact that the competitive college admissions process has far higher stakes for the competitive-admissions colleges and universities than for applicants. Yes, an applicant to Harvard, Princeton, or Stanford has a low probability of gaining admissions to any one of those universities, but graduating high school students will be admitted somewhere, while the University of Maryland-College Park and its peers face a prestige game in some high-visibility ranking systems, rankings that reward low acceptance rates. At the same time, the finances of many colleges and universities depend on recruiting enough students whose parents can pay tuition. Yet the process is generally portrayed as high-stakes for the applicants.

In some ways Anderson’s piece is the converse of the “it’s tough applying to college” newspaper feature/series, a standard for papers for years. The New York Times even devoted an entire blog for several years to the topic: The Choice. But the common coverage feels like the educational equivalent of political campaign “horserace” coverage: who’s in and out, the behind-the-scenes gurus (campaign consultants or college-admissions counselors), the emotional highs and lows, and almost nothing substantive about the deeper choices our society makes regarding the importance of education.

Much to his credit, Anderson focuses on the college side of the process. His piece does a little to break out of that “horserace” genre, but not nearly as much as I would like. So, some broader context:

  • The plurality or majority of this year’s high school seniors attending college next fall will be in public two-year colleges or public non-flagship four-year colleges and universities.
  • The single greatest barrier for many current high-school seniors will not be the inability to be admitted into every place you apply but the ability broadly speaking to afford to attend college full-time (and by this I mean the ability to afford tuition, other direct costs of attending, and also the opportunity cost of freeing up enough time to study and pass classes at a full-time pace).
  • The greatest barrier for many other seniors will not be the inability to be admitted into every place you apply but budget cuts that make it harder for a college or university to offer the courses needed for graduation.
  • The greatest barrier for yet other seniors will not be the inability to be admitted into every place you apply but questions about whether they have the skills and background to pass classes the first semester in college.

I last pointed this out in 2011, when I worked at an aspirational regional state university, the University of South Florida. Since Judy Genshaft arrived as president in 2000, the school’s effort has focused on simultaneously trying to serve the state’s students while rising in prestige — and moving from non-competitive to slightly-competitive in the process. In 2014, I moved to Arizona State University. Technically it’s not the state’s flagship; the University of Arizona was called a university before ASU, and the University of Arizona (not ASU) has a medical school. But ASU is larger, has more research activity, and has dramatically improved outcomes for students in the past few decades.

One key characteristic at ASU: our undergraduate admissions office admits everyone we deem qualified. If you graduated from high school with a B average, you’re admitted. If you received an associates degree from a community college, we will figure out how you can get a bachelors degree by transferring to ASU. We’re far from perfect, but we have this issue nailed. When I look at the stories like Nick Anderson’s, I am so glad that no one at ASU is trying to split hairs between a clearly-qualified applicant with a 3.5 GPA and a clearly-qualified applicant with a 3.8 GPA (one of the hypothetical pairs in the Anderson story). We let them both in.

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