The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Let’s end the craziness of college admissions

Georgetown University, shown in a file photo from August 2012. (Photo by Jeffrey MacMillan)

College decisions have started to roll in for high-school seniors who applied early, and for those students who want to go to one of the three dozen or so most-selective colleges in the country, the news is usually not good.

As The Washington Post’s Nick Anderson is tracking on Grade Point, the admissions statistics so far for the Class of 2021 are more eye-popping than they were last year or the year before. It’s the same story all over again, as the acceptance rates get ever smaller and colleges proclaim the virtues of their applicants with ever more superlatives.

Georgetown University saw its application pool for early action, in which admitted students are allowed to weigh offers until the spring, increase by 11 percent. The result? Its acceptance rate for early action was the lowest ever, at just less than 12 percent. MIT accepted just 8 percent of the 8,394 who applied early action. At the Georgia Institute of Technology, more than 15,000 seniors applied early action, with just about 1 in 5 out-of-state students admitted. The average accepted student had a 33 on the ACT (out of a possible 36), 1468 on the SAT (out of a possible 1600), took 11 college-level courses, and had an A average.

Although the most selective colleges and universities in the U.S. enroll fewer than 6 percent of American undergraduates, you might conclude from the angst around admissions every year that very few students are accepted into college in the United States. Not so. There are thousands of colleges in the U.S., and the vast majority of them accept far more applicants than they reject. Half of American colleges have become less selective over the past 50 years.

What U.S. higher education can learn from Canada: Bigger schools can be the best

But don’t tell that to some students and parents today who have turned college admissions into a game, where getting to Go seems to be ultimate goal rather than the education or degree itself.

Two years ago, Frank Bruni, the New York Times columnist, wrote a must-read book for high school students and parents, Where You Go Is Not Who You’ll Be. In the book, he discusses how so much of the admissions process at top colleges is an illusion, luring students to apply even if it might not be a great fit for them. And he has plenty of examples and stories of Americans of all ages and from all walks of life who have found success without degrees from brand-name universities.

It’s a tough sell to some parents. I know from my own experience in giving talks about my book, There Is Life After College, when I try to explain that what students do while in college matters more than where they go. And while parents (and it’s always the parents) often shake their head in agreement during the talk, afterwards they often approach me to ask me for any tips about getting their children into Harvard, Stanford, Yale, or fill in the name of another selective college.

Recently, I asked Bruni if he’s noticed any changes in the students and parents he’s talked to about his book. “I’ve seen a trend toward less pushback from parents in the audience and more receptiveness,” he said. “I find it inevitable, because the wages of this pressure and status consciousness are so obvious, as is the futility of pinning your dreams and your self-esteem on schools with acceptance rates below 10 percent. At a certain point, you’re just being a masochist, and people only have so much masochism in them.”

‘People analytics’ are helping employers make savvier hires

The worry of parents about college admissions too often results in them pushing their kids to do more and do better, and later on contributes in part to higher levels of anxiety now found in college students, no matter where they end up going. Last week, while visiting Penn State, I noticed the top story in the student newspaper was about how students may soon vote to pay a “mental health fee” to reduce long waitlists at the university’s counseling center.

Penn State is not alone with facing long wait times. Nearly one in six college students has been diagnosed with or treated for anxiety within the past year, according to the annual national survey by the American College Health Association. Depression is also on the rise.

The ambition to get into the best colleges is driven in part by parents’ concern over job prospects after graduation. But in interviewing employers of all sizes in recent years, I found them increasingly less interested in where someone went to college, and more concerned about the hands-on learning experiences applicants get, including internships, undergraduate research, and other outside-the-classroom endeavors. And as more employers use their own data on the performance of their best employees to find out why they are thriving in the job, some are discovering that a worker’s alma mater or degree has little do with success on the job.

Of course, there are exceptions. Some employers, mostly the big Wall Street banks, consulting firms, and law firms still tend to favor applicants from elite colleges and universities. But for the most part, it’s not the education that is better at these selective colleges; it’s the network of students that undergraduates connect to, through the parents of classmates, alumni, and eventually when students themselves become alumni. While that network might be smaller, it exists in some way at any decent college.

The students who succeed after college I have found are those who are always learning outside the classroom as undergraduates, in everyday circumstances, whether in clubs, sports, activities, in residence halls or in part-time jobs. It’s that lifelong curiosity that leads us to appreciate education whenever it happens and wherever, even when it doesn’t come on the campus of an elite university.