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Hiding Ivy League Acceptance Rates Won’t Make Applying Less Stressful

It’s tough to get in.
It’s tough to get in. (Photographer: Bloomberg)

There’s a scene in the 1987 film “Baby Boom” where a distraught mother sits on a bench in Central Park being consoled by her friends upon learning that her child wasn’t admitted to New York’s prestigious Dalton School. “Her resume was perfect,” she sobs, looking down at her toddler.  “Her references were impeccable.”

That bit of dialogue came to mind when I heard about how three of the Ivies, during the April 1 flurry of admission decisions, decided to keep quiet about what percentage of applicants got in. The schools in question are Cornell, Princeton and the University of Pennsylvania. Their notion seems to be that if the data become harder to find, student anxiety will be lower.

This idea is not only, as we say around campus, under-theorized. I suspect it’s also perfectly, wonderfully, exactly wrong.

Here’s the Wall Street Journal: “[S]ome admissions officers say, drawing so much attention to how few candidates made the cut is doing more harm than good, ratcheting up panic among high-school students and their parents and perpetuating a myth that it is nearly impossible to get into a good college.”

This tortuous argument isn’t easy to follow. Does anyone seriously believe that students panic because of what they learn about admission chances after the decision is announced? They panic because they have plenty of data available in advance to tell them which schools are the most selective. And the colleges aren’t about to hide the information; they’re just not sending out a press release. The Education Department and the Common Data Set will still receive — and publish — acceptance rate data, just a little later in the year.

Meanwhile, other sources of admission data abound, from high school guidance counselors to private college admission services and various well-publicized rankings. And let’s not forget the perceived rates of admission or rejection among one’s friends.

It’s true that these are lagging indicators. Apart from the real-time experience of friends, these measures provide information about what’s happened in past years, not what’s happening this year. But those lagging indicators are themselves the source of the panic! It’s bizarre to suggest that anxiety will be lower if the schools don’t disclose until later how many applicants were admitted this year. The anxiety arises while young people and their parents wait for the school’s decision.

Consider Stanford University, my alma mater, which adopted the same policy in 2018. No public announcement is made of the current year’s admission rate. But so what? Applicants worry about last year’s admission rate. A quick glance at the annual U.S. News and World Report rankings pegs this figure at 5%. It’s those odds of nineteen-to-one against admission that create the anxiety.

That the challenge of admission to highly selective schools leads to anxiety has long been understood. The problem is not unique to the U.S.  It’s worldwide. A 2015 study of high school seniors in Taiwan found high levels of fatigue and depression among students who were trying to gain admission to selective colleges. Levels fell enormously when students got in.

All of which is to say — as much other literature confirms — that the stress isn’t created by what data highly selective colleges announce when the admission process is complete. It stems from the long series of narrow, treacherous, anxiety-inducing gateways young people have spent years struggling through by the time they get around to applying in the first place. Listen again to the desperate mother in “Baby Boom”: 

“Without the right preschool, she can’t get the right kindergarten. Without the right kindergarten, I can forget any hope of an Ivy League college!”

Yes, the fears are exaggerated for comic effect, but all parents who hope their children will attend highly selective colleges get the point. And although there’s no way to tell what influence the film had, less than a year and a half after its release, Dalton’s board voted to phase out its highly selective preschool, on the reasonable ground that children that young shouldn’t be involved in a “rat race.”

But the kindergarten rat race was apparently OK, and so many other narrow gates remain along the path that a 2018 report from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation warned of the toxic effects on mental health of adolescents educated in “an environment characterized by extreme pressure to succeed or to outdo everyone else.” Does anybody seriously believe this harm will be mitigated if a few colleges remain mum for a few extra months about exactly how selective they are?

I’m all for colleges taking measures to reduce anxiety among high schoolers. The most obvious way to accomplish this end would be to admit a higher proportion of applicants. That would be hard to implement — looser admission standards would lead to more applicants — so they’d have to work actively to publicize not the beauty of their campuses or the excellence of their faculties, but the grimness and grind of undergraduate life.

Nobody’s about to do that.

So instead, as many observers — including me — have suggested, they could pool all applicants meeting a minimum qualification standard and choose whom to admit by lottery.

Alas, nobody’s about to do that either.

So maybe the Ivies and their cousins should strive instead to be as transparent as possible. This would mean confessing that deep down, they would rather remain: Selective. Exclusive. Elite.

Those aren’t today’s buzzwords, but everything about the admissions process suggests that they’re the truth.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Stephen L. Carter is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is a professor of law at Yale University and was a clerk to U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall. His novels include “The Emperor of Ocean Park,” and his latest nonfiction book is “Invisible: The Forgotten Story of the Black Woman Lawyer Who Took Down America’s Most Powerful Mobster.”

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