12/14/2012 11:56 am ET Updated Feb 13, 2013

The College Search Process Revs Up to a Fever Pitch

This is the time of the year when highly selective institutions of higher education start releasing results of their Early Decision Admission applications, often to a certain media frenzy.

What will get far less attention is an annual report on the state of college admission prepared by the National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC). I and other directors of admission, each year, complete an exhaustive survey of our practices, observations and experiences of the admission process. NACAC then compiles the survey, adds additional data from other sources, and produces this report.

As a person who often makes presentations to parents of high school juniors about the college admission process, I turn to this report to provide an outside, validated confirmation of my own observations and experiences with the admission process that I have accumulated over the past 35 or so years. Because the media focuses so much attention on the highly selective institutions-- the likes of Harvard, Stanford, and Princeton, which generally admit fewer than 10 out of 100 applicants -- the entire admission process is seen as an impossible needle to thread.

And, to make matters worse, the institutions that are not among the highly selective elites spend considerable energy and resources trying to drum up applications in order to improve their standing in the "rankings" or to "fill the class" or both. So, we have succeeded in creating an aura around the selectivity of the admission process which is accurate for only a small percentage of institutions.

Many excellent colleges are not amongst the elite who accept only 10 percent of applicants.

A great majority of colleges admit at least 70 percent of students who apply, although the average rate has declined. According to the NACAC report, "Acceptance rates for four-year institutions declined slightly during the past decade from a national average of 69.6 percent in 2002 to 63.8 percent in 2012. The decline in acceptance rates was most pronounced at the most highly selective colleges, as those institutions receive a disproportionately large share of the applications nationally compared to the share of students they enroll."

Aside from the highly selective colleges, other less selective schools are engaged in an expensive effort to increase applications year over year. Through the use of all kinds of marketing tactics, we have managed to increase the number of college applications per student as well as the number of applications to colleges overall. Most colleges report annual increases in their numbers; those that do not see grave peril in their future. This means considerably less certainty about the genuine interest of applicants, more reliance on waiting lists, and less predictability about enrollment numbers. It also means incredible growth in the enrollment industry, little known to those outside of enrollment.

The enrollment industry has created confusion.

The variety of technical, consulting, campus-tour fixing, marketing, statistical modeling, and enrollment-enhancing products available to institutions is mind boggling. Those attending the annual NACAC meeting are met with an overwhelming and eye-popping array of vendors of every stripe -- all hawking products to help solve the enrollment issues at any given institution. Most of the products are very costly, and while some have proven to be successful, it is hard to argue that their cost enhances the educational missions of most universities.

To the students and parents involved in the college admission process, most of these products have only served to create confusion. Although we are encouraged to think of the current crop of high school students as technically savvy, digital natives and social media mavens, they are still impressionable adolescents. They often do not have the sophistication to understand that, though a university barrages you with highly personalized e-mails and text messages extolling your talents and urges a quick application, they might not actually accept you. It is confusing.

What to do?

Become an educated and skeptical consumer. Understand the context and goal of the "information" coming your way. The enrollment industry is not going away. Admission offices will continue to be tasked with filling their classes with enough bright, motivated young men and women to help keep the institution vibrant and relevant and at a tuition rate the school can afford. Admission offices will also continue to be staffed by professionals who want to make a difference in the lives of students, while also fulfilling their institutional priorities.

Applicants and their families will be best served if they look beyond the elite 10 percent of institutions in this country to the diversity of opportunities for post-secondary education available to students. Students will also be well-served to understand their own academic profile and how they might compare to the profile an institution presents. Making the most of high school opportunities and understanding one's own personal capabilities will help contextualize the whole process. Gaining admission is just the first step in the process. Successfully graduating should be the goal after four (or maybe five) fulfilling years.