IN THE LAST few weeks, the anxiety of high school seniors awaiting news of their college fates seems to have spilled over into the general population. It's easy to see why. UCLA received more than 50,000 applications, more than any other university in the country, and accepted just 11,837 of them. Harvard turned down 91% of about 23,000 hopefuls, 1,100 of whom had perfect SAT math scores. Acceptance rates for Stanford, Yale and Columbia were 10.3%, 9.6%, and 8.9%, respectively. That means thousands of valedictorians and people with grade-point averages of 4.0 or higher were passed over in favor of whatever form of superhuman DNA now constitutes a worthy Ivy Leaguer.
Of course, as admissions officers are quick to point out, you can be an infinitely worthy candidate and still get a no. In a Los Angeles Times Op-Ed article March 30, Stanford's Richard Shaw, dean of admission and financial aid, wrote of the "many exceptional youths who did not get offered one of the 1,650 slots in the class of 2011," and he characterized the selection process as "as much an art as it is a science" (in other words, not quantifiable in terms of grades or test scores). But an April 1 story in the New York Times, about a handful of stratospherically high-achieving female students in affluent Newton, Mass., suggested that in many academically rigorous high schools, "exceptional" is now the norm.
You don't have to be a high school student or the parent of one to feel your blood pressure rise over this. We can all sense that the bar is constantly being raised on a lot of things that used to seem like reasonable goals — homeownership, affordable child care, the ability to retire. To read the college acceptance stats is to harbor the retroactive self-doubt that comes from suspecting that you'd be rejected from your alma mater if you applied today, and to wonder whether the whole notion of "college prep" is a fool's errand.
What's the point of forking over private school tuition or the astronomical taxes and housing prices in towns that have exceptional public schools when the level of competition within those schools creates zombified students and all but cancels out any one student's ability to win the prize?
I called Jeff Brenzel, dean of undergraduate admissions at Yale, and asked him that very question. He admitted that there is fierce competition within certain high schools but emphasized that if you're in a position to even apply to longshot institutions, you're ahead of the game. The glut of applications to a tiny fraction of colleges, he said, is the result of an artificial hierarchy created by the college-ranking system, most notably U.S. News & World Report's annual "best colleges" report.
"Before the rankings systems, [the process] was much more regionalized," Brenzel said. Now because of the rankings, " you have kids from Texas trying to get into a school in Maine. You have perfectly wonderful students, but they're all trying to get into the same handful of schools."
Believe it or not, the National Assn. for College Admission Counseling's most recent Annual State of College Admission Report shows that the median acceptance rate for four-year colleges, private and public, is about 70%. Do less flashy schools provide a faulty education? Do they lack high-quality professors? Judging from the brilliant academics I know who would be grateful to get a job anywhere, I doubt it.
So why are we so fixated on the places that don't seem to want us? Lloyd Thacker, executive director of Education Conservancy, a Portland, Ore.-based nonprofit organization dedicated to improving the college admission process, points out that the ranking system came about in the early 1980s, when enrollment was down, federal aid had diminished and colleges were looking to market themselves.
The best form of advertising, he suggested, was to increase applications so they could say no to more people — and hence seem more exclusive. And boy, did we buy into it, not just with money (many of these schools now cost about $45,000 a year, by the way) but with our entire sense of self-worth.
"Why should we judge a college's quality by how many kids they can say no to?" Thacker asked.
That's a good question. But we've been fed the gospel of the ranking system for nearly 25 years, and redefining "a good college" will be a lot like cult deprogramming. Until then, opening those notification letters will probably remain a defining educational experience. It's when we're likely to learn that we don't want to belong to any club that would have us as a member. And that's a lesson that sticks for life.