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Hey, High School Senior: Dartmouth Wants YOU!

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"Jeffrey, you deserve a one-of-a-kind college experience."

"Jeffrey, what will you do after Dartmouth?"

"Jeffrey, simple acts can have extraordinary results."

For six weeks starting in the middle of August, the office of admissions at Dartmouth College sent email messages like this to my son Jeff, a soon-to-be high school senior, inviting him to join the college mailing list and sign up for a campus tour. Amidst photos of smiling, multi-colored Dartmouth students -- some of them peering through microscopes, others clutching hands in a bonding ritual, still more cheering madly at a football game -- the messages spelled out what made this Ivy League college so special. Dartmouth is ranked number one in undergraduate teaching. Student groups receive a million dollars in funding. If you join one of these groups, you just might meet a Pulitzer Prize winner visiting campus, or find yourself gardening at Dartmouth's organic farm. "We'll give you the tools to make a difference and do the extraordinary, in whatever field you choose," a mid-September email promised.

"Mom, I can't get into Dartmouth," my son said. And he's right. Jeff is a white kid living in a well-off New Jersey suburb. He's not a jock, has no family legacy at Dartmouth, has never visited the school, and has combined SAT/GPA scores that fall comfortably outside the college's lofty admissions standards. Of the thousands who apply, only a rarified few are accepted. In 2013, 39 percent of Dartmouth's freshman students were ranked first in their senior class, and the mean SAT score for the incoming class was 2219 out of a possible 2400. Just two of the 14 kids who applied to Dartmouth from Jeff's high school last year were accepted. So why is Dartmouth beckoning him with bi-weekly emails and come-hither glossy fliers?

When I called the office of admissions at Dartmouth to ask, the friendly young woman on the other end of the phone quickly offered to remove Jeff's name from their mailing lists. She explained that he was probably receiving information because he'd checked a box on a standardized test that invited colleges to send materials. Did everyone who checked that box automatically get recruiting materials from Dartmouth? "I'm not entirely sure," she said. Another admissions officer who spoke to me explained that Dartmouth's pitches were designed to make sure they got the most talented applicant pool. Was there some kind of baseline criteria, some minimum SAT or PSAT score that Dartmouth used to determine who they'd go after? "We don't share that information," she said, directing me to the public affairs desk.

But first I decided to check with a colleague I'll call Adam, a college counsellor at a prestigious private high school. He had a less benevolent explanation for Dartmouth's recruiting drive. Last year, Dartmouth was the only Ivy to have a higher acceptance rate in 2013 over the previous year; it took about 10 percent of its 22,416 applicants, compared to 9.43 percent in 2012. In short, Dartmouth was the lone Ivy to be ever-so-slightly less selective last year than the year before, having received fewer applications. "Once I saw that, I guaranteed that Dartmouth would triple its marketing and recruiting budget," Adam said.

Why does that tiny shift in selectivity matter so much, particularly given the flood of applications elite colleges like Dartmouth receive -- roughly double the number of applications it took in just 10 years ago? As with most of the nonsense that drives college admissions, it all goes back to the U.S. News and World Report rankings. "Colleges are looking for applicants because it helps their U.S. News numbers," Marilee Jones, the former Dean of Admissions at MIT, told me.

A college's overall rank is determined by 16 measures, and three of them are closely linked to admissions: SAT/ACT scores of admitted students; their standing in high school -- ideally in the top 10 percent of their grade -- and the college's acceptance rate. Colleges want those kids with the highest standardized test scores and lowest class rank to enroll, but they need lots of applicants to get their acceptance rate down. A low acceptance rate, which equates with selectivity, means many more kids applied than were accepted. "Every college is working that U.S. News algorithm, to use that algorithm it its advantage," Jones said. One way to work the algorithm is to pay incoming freshmen $500 to retake the SAT, which Baylor University did in 2008, or to lie about the SAT scores of an incoming class, which Claremont McKenna College admitted to doing a year ago. Another slightly less amoral approach is to entice more students, even those with no shot of getting in -- like my son -- to apply.

An official from Dartmouth's office public affairs, Justin Anderson, disputed the idea that U.S. News or any other ranking system drives admissions decisions there. "I acknowledge that they matter, and we're aware of them," he told me in a phone interview, "but running departments based on them would be fool-hardy." What Dartmouth wants is the best, most interesting students to apply and then enroll. "We have a huge amount invested in getting the best possible class we can," he said.

Did Dartmouth ever consider the effect on the kids, those on the receiving end of all the enticements, who have no chance of getting in? Anderson paused. "We're not interested in creating false expectations. That's not what we're trying to do," he said. Dartmouth sees no benefit in enticing the unqualified masses to apply just for the sake of it. "There's so little to be gained by getting more to apply," he said.

No one gains less than the desperate high school seniors seduced by false flattery. "As a teenager, how do you not apply?" Adam, the college counselor, said. "Then, how do you not feel rejected, then crushed, a couple of months later? And it's not based on anything substantial. It's like the prom queen trying to get 10 dates to the prom," he said. "It would be one thing if they interviewed the kids, or really took the time to get to know them. But with the volume they're creating, they don't even have the time to interview the applicants. What they can do is go to their Board and their alums and say 'our applicant numbers were up,'" he added. "This whole business ends up wasting people's time."

Dartmouth finally laid off the recruiting when Jeff failed to show a speck of interest. But for weeks now, since the second and third round of SAT scores have filtered in, our actual and virtual mailboxes have been jammed with enticements from all kinds of colleges. The University of Chicago mailed a clever postcard with irreverent quotes and edgy graphics. Princeton took a more sober approach, alerting Jeff that he should expect a letter "offering you a guide to the opportunities available at Princeton University, along with information regarding our extensive financial aid resources." The University of Miami sent Jeff tiny, retractable ear buds with the Miami logo, inviting him to apply. "I needed ear phones!" Jeff said. It's good to know that at least one admissions office puts the kids first.