11/17/2010 05:09 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Twisting in the Wind: College and University Admissions - Part I

As the November winds start blowing and the chill enters the air, hundreds of thousands of the nation's students are filling out applications for college and university admissions that will need to be filed within a few weeks. The annual school rankings published by the cottage industry of assessors are out and students and parents are fretting over what is possible and what their college advisors insist is a "stretch." There is much to know about the admissions process, yet most of it remains mysterious to students and parents. In this series of postings I hope to shed a bit of light on this subject.

The American path to college admissions is vastly different from the ones found in European and Asian societies. In most other nations, there is almost total reliance on standardized national examinations - and the anxiety goes way up as students prepare for these exams that will largely determine their future. Since students apply to specialized programs, such as law, once they are admitted to a university there are few ways of changing their focus of interest if they decide that they want to study, for example, physics. Switching "majors" in mid-stream is near impossible. Admissions officers don't care much about the "whole person" or whether you were the lead trombone player in your high school band, or an all-league tight end or an agile 275 lbs pulling guard on your football team, or the star in The Vagina Monologues, the oft produced play in high schools these days. You are what you test. That is why the junior year in China, for example, is called the "black year," as students prepare to see if they represent part of the one percent or so who will be offered positions in universities and colleges based on their scores on national examinations. In Europe, the structure of the academic system has not caught up with the policy of admitting all students who pass the national examination. Consequently, we see 200,000 students at the University of Rome and almost as many in the University of Paris. Few of these students ever see the inside of a classroom or actually talk with a professor, but they are eligible for national health insurance. They read published notes of formal lectures; they take exams at the end of their first year. In sum, most other nations have a very different set of criteria for determining qualifications for college and university admissions - and behind all of that is a different idea about the mission of higher learning. We see in these international variations in admissions practices different views, as well, about what constitutes meritocracy.

The American system stands in sharp contrast to that way of doing things. Here too there are noteworthy variations. First, most colleges and universities are in "need" of students. They are not highly selective. They are willing to accept students with rather limited academic achievement and with few outward signs of great academic potential. If they graduate from a state high school with a certain academic average or rank in class they are entitled to attend college - whether at a community college or a state college or top tier university in the state system. At its best, it provides an important avenue for upward mobility and skill acquisition needed for the job market of today. This is not a bad thing, but it differs appreciably from what goes on at perhaps 150 or so private and public colleges and universities in the United States that are highly selective - they have their choice of students from a huge pool of applicants. The numbers are staggering. In 2010, for example, Harvard received about 30,500 applicants of which they admitted 6.9% - not good odds even for the highly qualified and self-selected group who actually apply to that great university. The numbers and ratios of admissions, typically referred to as "selectivity," at the other Ivy League schools are similar. Yale, Princeton, and Columbia accept about 8 percent of their applicants. In short, getting in is a crapshoot. The same kinds of numbers obtain at places like Williams, Amherst, and Swarthmore - admissions rates of about 15%, slightly higher than the Ivy League, because these colleges more often lose to the Ivy League schools when both schools accept the same person. There is little doubt that perhaps more than 5,000 of the 26,000 students who apply to Columbia each year could do very well at the University and contribute greatly to it. But there are only 1,000 or so positions available so many extraordinary students are turned down. And the odds of being admitted are going down. Reports in The New York Times suggest that the applicant numbers for 2011 are up by double digits at many of these schools (although we are witnessing individual students applying to many schools, given the uncertainty of being admitted to their top choices) and notably among the great public institutions, such as UCLA (about 58,000 applicants this year). Note that despite sharply rising costs at these elite schools of higher learning, the demand in the marketplace for slots in those top schools is actually rising.

At these highly selective colleges, the goal is to "shape a class." Undergraduate admissions decisions rest in the hands of a staff of well-trained and highly motivated young people - the dreaded admissions officers.1 Faculty members rarely have any input into these decisions. In fact, at most elite colleges and universities, the faculty have almost nothing to say about admissions policies or what criteria should be emphasized in admitting students. Even at the Ivy schools there is almost never a discussion with the faculty about how the admissions office defines a "success" or "failure" in a past admissions decision. Despite their considerable talents, most admissions officers are arguable not as talented or as interesting as thousands of students who are applying to these schools - many of whom will be rejected. The smartest, most imaginative, and creative administrators ought to be located in the office of admissions. They rarely are despite the admissions office's dedication and remarkable determination to admit "the most qualified" students. That's unfortunate because shaping an undergraduate student body is one of the most critical tasks of a university.

To shape a class admissions officers have to establish guidelines and categories that need to be followed through the process. There is a superabundance of applicants who are extraordinary by almost any numerical indicator: GPA, SAT, Achievement Examinations. But as much as applicants would like to think that there is some in "the sight of God" rank order of quality of applicants from, say 1 to 30,000 at Columbia, there is not. So what is done? Broad diversity parameters are set, including race, ethnicity, gender, geographic region of the nation and the world. It is not simply by chance that the proportion of students in each of these categories rarely varies much from year to year. These may not be quotas, but they certainly represent goals or targets. Beyond demographic and geographic criteria, there are also athletic teams that have to be filled out with about 20 percent of all admitted students; alumni children that need a break; and talented students in a variety of disciplines that need to be recruited. For colleges and universities that don't have deep financial aid pockets, ability to afford the education may also be a parameter that is mixed in with the quality of the student's record. Contrary to the opinion of some secondary school guidance counselors, these colleges are looking for a well-rounded class, as much as for well-rounded individuals. And yet the nation's elite colleges betray their ability to make difficult decisions and rarely take the kind of chances some of us would like to see them take. They are too often guided by what the final result will look like in numerical terms compared with their competition - and how that might play out in U.S. News & World Report rankings.

An informal pact has developed between college counselors at secondary schools and the admissions people at the select colleges. The college counselors want a good track record of getting their kids into the schools they apply to and the colleges want to get the counselors to send them their "best" students, which is generally defined as those with the best academic record and Board scores. If you are not a kid who has gone down the straight and narrow path for his or her entire high school career, doing exceptionally well in everything, and racking up impressive numbers in advanced placement courses, you are rarely advised to apply to one of these highly selective colleges - unless you fall into some category (like a star athlete) where it is well-known that lower standards are applied in terms of formal testing and other academic credentials. Within the group of outrageously high achievers, whose SATs and GPAs are already off-the-chart, youngsters are pushed by their parents and secondary school teachers to "differentiate" themselves from the thousands of others by "doing something" special in "extra-curricular" activities. But, the brilliant poet to be or distinguished novelist, or political cartoonist of the future, who just did not give a damn about chemistry in his sophomore year and received an embarrassing C for the course, is told that he or she doesn't have a prayer of getting into one of the selective schools. The kid who starts out as a street artist, but who will eventually do extraordinary work as a performance artist, is pushed away from the selective schools. There is an appreciation for diverse talents, but only if it comes hand-in-hand with great Board scores and a uniformly high GPA. But that is not the way the world works. If Columbia can produce a poet of Allen Ginsburg's quality, who cares if he was lousy in mathematics? And if they can produce a physicist as brilliant as the eventual Nobelist, Julian Schwinger, who cares if he had no interest in high school European history?

The result of the superabundance of high achieving secondary school youngsters is that many of the top schools in the nation have taken the "quirkiness" out of the student body - and the rebelliousness of intellect, style, and thought, that is often ultimately critical to doing something of importance other than law or medicine. The result is both good and bad for the higher educational system. It turns out that some of the most talented quirky kids go to other places and thrive there - and have wonderfully productive careers after college pursuing their interests. It is unfortunate, however, that the criteria used for admissions by the most selective schools classify the exceptionally talented but "one-sided" youngster as "not eligible" for admission. And that's a shame and not functional for our society.

In Part II of this posting, I'll propose for your consideration an alternative method of admitting students for highly selective colleges and universities.

1In contrast, the faculty is deeply involved with decisions of what students to admit to Ph.D. programs. Admissions officers, not faculty members, are largely responsible for admissions decisions to professional schools - with medicine being an important exception.