Wednesday, April 02, 2008

College admissions numbers

It's that time of year when good students at (mostly) elite high schools with aspirations to attend elite colleges anxiously await the decisions of their admission committee overlords. Colleges are reporting record low admissions rates this year--Columbia admitted just 8.7 percent of applicants. The articles speculate, but they don't really tease out why the rates are so low (nor do they question if it's a good thing that some schools take such pride in their exclusivity). Rates can fall simply if students apply to more schools, which we know is happening--many apply to 10-20 today, when fewer than 5 was normal quite recently.  If you and nine friends each apply to different Pac-10 schools, none applying where anyone else applied, and all get admitted, the acceptance rate everywhere is 1. But if you all apply to all 10 schools, the acceptance rate is 1/10 even though everyone will likely get admitted somewhere. Multiply this scenario by thousands of applications, focus on individual colleges' rates, and suddenly the process appears more competitive because in a narrow sense, it is. The admissions game as a whole, meanwhile, isn't much more cutthroat, it's just more uncertain.
 There's no particular reason why so many students should be applying to so many schools, other than that schools solicit applications for the sole purpose of rejecting applicants to lower their admissions rates, which improves their scores in the rankings and makes them appear ultra-exclusive. These patterns signal to future students: send out still more applications in order to get in somewhere, anywhere. And on, and on with no real end in sight. I think we'd be better off collectively if the schools focused less on becoming institutions of sorting, signaling, and branding,  and more on education--if top schools sought to scale up their programs by expanding enrollments using their immense--tax-exempt, I might add--endowments.