What Colleges Could Do About College Admission, Part 3

Most of the changes being advocated regarding college admission focus on students, families, schools, and organizations changing their ways. “Relax!” say colleges. “Do your best and don’t worry about the results.” Students are enjoined to be “nicer” and more sincere in their approach to other, their activities, and their communities. Impossible and contradictory advice gets spilled everywhere: “Be yourself! Be authentic! Stop using outsiders to plan your lives and massage your applications. We want you to present your best self. You don’t have to be perfect! We want curious, energetic students, not robots!” The exhortations go on and on. 

Despite this concern, what hasn’t changed are the rewards for inauthentic and stressful behaviors, especially among so-called elite colleges and universities. Institutions still prize numbers over “kindness” or “authenticity,” glitter over rough diamonds. Students who perhaps have sacrificed some grades for genuine community service, even if they’re capable of doing good work in college, are not likely to be admitted, despite having energy and curiosity.

Institutions outside of the “elite” are, thankfully, much more willing to enroll the kinds of students reports extol, partly out of necessity, but also because they are more modest in their ambitions. They exist to teach and also know that most students will simply go on to decent careers the better for having been to college.

“Elite” institutions can’t afford to lose their aura of exceptionality, and therefore take far fewer chances on those they accept. It’s important to them that everyone believe he or she can become a captain of industry or a brilliant surgeon if they attend, even though that’s more the exception than the rule. But beyond that small circle, institutions (except perhaps those whose status envy compels them to trying breaking into the club by, say, joining a coalition of elite institutions) are freer to see the wider sphere of student achievement and potential.

The idea that any student willing to work hard, study, and be involved in campus activities could and should be admitted to college has been overrun by the institutions’ compulsion to be number one, to be “nationally ranked,” or to simply be “better” than others. Colleges want to become universities so they add a graduate program or two (like a local airport becoming “international” by adding a weekly flight to Ottawa). Colleges want to improve their numbers so they award extravagant merit scholarships to overachievers who don’t really need the money.

Left out are those students who have done honest work without gimmicks. That includes most underserved students who may be plenty smart but who should have received more help and attention as they are going through school in the first place. Ideally, they would have had great teachers and inspirational activities; instead, poorer schools imitate the behaviors of wealthy schools while ignoring the substance and context of their own communities. They create a shell of achievement while ignoring the importance of creating and nurturing an inner life of intellectual and emotional curiosity so important to ongoing learning and development.

Anxiety mental health symbol isolated on white. Mental disorder icon design

Everyone suffers to some extent in this scenario. Students are driven to achieve more and more while learning and enjoying life less and less; schools feel compelled to ratchet up their academic offerings even if they’re not really prepared to do so; teachers are pressured to make sure students are prepared for testing that means nothing and destroys any possibility of joyful learning; parents feel they have no choice but to play along.

In a nutshell, the burden of re-humanizing the college admission process rests on colleges and universities, not those aspiring to get into them. Studies and reports lamenting stress, overachievement, and inauthenticity in students shift the blame to those least able to make necessary changes. Institutions that don’t recognize this situation are complicit in its existence. Here are my final suggestions for how change might happen.

  • Reconsider admission criteria in order to admit a broader sample of those who desire to be educated with those who have simply worked to be admitted.
    • Why: To create a livelier mix of students in each class; to emphasize the mission of educating students instead of collecting them; to break out of the straitjacket of rewarding only past accomplishments rather than taking a chance on potential; to be more discerning of students outside of the mainstream who might be original thinkers and achievers; to reward those who have genuinely taken good chances in their lives; to take the pressure off students who feel they must overachieve to gain admission; to lessen the chances of “burnout” as early as freshman year.
    • Why Not: Too risky of the school’s reputation; easier to recognize already certified “winners” than to bet on uncertain potential; faculty expect graduate student acolytes, not run of the mill students; harder to recognize “potential;” don’t have to; trustee expectations too daunting;
  • Take a good hard look at how the emphasis on “achievement” (by which I mean “overachievement”) has distorted the high school curriculum and the behavior of schools and students, then work with schools to change it.
    • Why: High schools try harder to get students into college than they do to educate them; students resist trying new things for fear of failing; students are pushed too hard by schools and parents; students end up enrolled in courses they may not be ready for in order to “stand out”; students arrive at college critically unprepared for college work because of overload; increasing disconnect between what high schools do and what colleges expect; more and more resources devoted to “support” rather than ongoing development; increasing mental and physical health issues as a result of pressures to succeed.
    • Why Not: Don’t have to; far too complicated an issue; difficult for colleges to act together to establish more humane standards; current system seems to work well enough despite complaints; easier to put responsibility on high schools and students.
  • Re-examine institution’s own commitment to education, community, and the life of the mind in relation to how you present yourself to potential students, how you work with high schools, and how you spend your money.
    • Why: Revitalizing the idea of education for long-term personal development as well as career success makes it more intrinsically valuable; emphasizing that learning can be difficult and even upsetting can prepare students better for the world; helping high schools by working more closely with them could raise educational standards; providing a three-dimensional instead of a one-dimensional education enables students to be more fully involved in life; it can enable and justify admitting a wider range of students, all of whom have the same commitment if not necessarily the same background.
    • Why Not: Too much time and money spent emphasizing the fun of college; “learning” is a tough sell; customers, er, students, are attracted to new dorms, athletic facilities, computerized classrooms, and other splashy big ticket items, they don’t want boring human interactions; we don’t have the resources to do anything but take what we need from what’s being produced; we’re in the entertainment business now.

Colleges and universities need to take responsibility for the world they’ve created. Although I’m writing this series in a blog about college admission, it’s really up to the institutions as a whole to take a critical look at themselves. Admission officers, contrary to popular belief, do not make admission policy; they carry it out. Therefore, it’s the duty of presidents, provosts, chancellors, and trustees to do the work that needs to be done.

The worlds of college and high school, as well as of privileged and non-privileged students, have become seriously misaligned. Aligning them properly so everyone has a decent chance at success must begin with those in power recognizing their responsibility, their duty, and their ability to change the dynamic. It will require an effort similar to turning a battleship, but I believe it can be done. I hope for all of our sakes that it will be.


About Will Dix

I am currently writing a book about college admission. I'm interested in the intersection of the college process and American culture. I attended Amherst College in the 1970s, taught high school English and theater at The Hill School in the '80s, returned to Amherst in the '90s as an admission dean, and began the '00s as a college counselor at the University of Chicago Laboratory School. I then joined Chicago Scholars as Program Director. Currently, I blog about college admission for Forbes.com. I also help community organizations serving low income students understand the college admission process so more students can consider gaining access to higher education. I have a few private college counseling clients that I take by referral only. The views expressed in this blog are mine alone.
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7 Responses to What Colleges Could Do About College Admission, Part 3

  1. Matt Collins says:

    In the long run, could the solution here include encouraging a significant number of students to stop chasing the top 50 institutions, schools that have become brands for all the reasons this series mentions, and instead go where their desire for education and work ethic will be rewarded? My father was one of many attorneys who participated in law school recruiting for his company. He routinely returned from campus visits to schools I didn’t know existed with the realization that great students were everywhere. A smart student who is committed to work hard can find success on so many more campuses today than 30 years ago. In addition to the solutions you propose, having more students abandon the allure of the top 50 in favor of schools that offer a better fit also might change the way those top 50 behave.


    • Will Dix says:

      In fact, I’d say most counselors and even college admission people not from “those” schools have been doing just that for quite a while now. But as long as the “brands” speak so strongly it’s unlikely that just encouraging kids (and parents) not to chase the top 50 will succeed. The desire for education, I believe, ranks well below the desire for status that brand name schools can confer. Even very bright students will turn down Amherst for Harvard (not a great example but I saw it personally and I know you’ll get it) “because it’s Harvard,” not because of any perceived intellectual superiority. And I know students who have done that and come to regret their decision. The other notion is about “connections” that you’re supposed to make in college, with the higher status ones connecting you to higher status people. But that’s illusory as well: Mention Amherst in Chicago and people think you’re talking about Elmhurst, and anyway U of I is the place to go.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Janet Carson says:

    Here’s my radical suggestion - US News and all other rankings should award the same amount of “points” for selectivity to all schools who accept less than 20% of their applicants. No more prizes for having the lowest selectivity. In fact, they could even penalize schools with an acceptance rate below 20%, on the grounds that these institutions are not clearly communicating to prospective students and their high schools who they are really accepting.


    • Will Dix says:

      Hi Janet- Thanks for your comment. I’d go even further and suggest that, if we must have rankings, the “selectivity” element be eliminated. Since it measures “input” not “output” it says nothing about the quality of the institution’s “value added” proposition. (Sorry for the business jargon but it seems to fit here.) Being able to accept and enroll a tiny fraction of applicants is unrelated to the quality of education students get once they’re in class.


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