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.