Johns Hopkins Gazette: July 21, 1997

The Way I See It:
Changing Nature Of
College Admissions

Robert E. Massa
Special to The Gazette
Not that many years ago, searching for the "right" college was a relatively sane process.

Families got excited as their children neared high school graduation. Seniors sent applications to two or three schools that seemed a good fit. College admissions officers got to know their applicants and advised them well. And as early April approached, excitement grew. Students waited eagerly for the "fat" envelope, signaling acceptance. If the thin envelope of rejection arrived, there was disappointment, but rarely anger. It was part of the process.

As colleges mailed their decision letters, the excitement mounted for them, too. During April, admissions officers wondered if "their kids," those with whom special relationships had developed over the months, would choose to enroll at their school, or choose to learn, sing, play or lead elsewhere.

The price of a four-year college kept pace with growing family incomes. Financial aid was important, but not central to the admissions process. In fact, admissions officers were most concerned about the students themselves and largely unaware of "net tuition" revenues. "Leveraging" was left to Wall Street and "negotiating" to car dealerships.

Did those good old days really exist? Some may say no. But I remember them. And no one can deny that in recent years the admissions process has become more adversarial and less collegial. While this plays out in several ways, none is more disturbing than the change in the nature of the relationship between colleges and families. More and more, I find myself wondering, "Can this relationship be saved?"

There is stress on both sides of the relationship, stress that seems to be born mostly of fear and finances.

Families feel financial pressure. Make no mistake: a private college education is expensive. The cost rises rapidly with investment in a quality faculty, in the state-of-the-art facilities and amenities today's students demand, in library holdings and in technology, to name but a few. The federal government has contributed by shifting its student aid policy away from grants and toward loans, forcing universities to spend more money on grants, which in turn inflates prices.

To maximize their chances of winning both admission and an affordable "net price" (i.e., published tuition price minus aid package), students are now applying to 10 or more colleges, even colleges they might not particularly want to attend.

This approach inflates college applicant pools, making it more difficult for schools to predict how many students they must admit--and at what cost in scarce financial dollars--to wind up with the number of freshmen they want.

That's added stress for the admissions office, which is under increasing pressure to balance the school's budget, part of which is based on tuition. The colleges then feel obligated to resort to businesslike marketing tools and modeling methods to try to predict and influence an unstable market. The admission office as "sales force" emerges. Controlling the spiraling increase in financial aid becomes a major goal. Finding the right students today means not only attracting those who are the best academically and who bring special talents to campus, but also enrolling a critical mass who can pay all or a large part of that sticker price. And the relationship between college and family becomes more strained.

Suspicion grows like a weed in a rose garden. Families think, "We have got to find a way to win this game." Consultants emerge to help families negotiate the process. And the rankings and guidebooks! With one new self-help admissions book appearing every 15 minutes (or so it seems), everyone has access to "insider" information. Parents are told to appeal admissions decisions directly to the top, to engage in hard-ball negotiations with the financial aid office, to persist at all cost.

It is not uncommon now to find highly selective universities actively bidding against one another for the same pool of students, some even offering scholarships to students who have not applied. Some say they will match or beat a "best offer." Such strategies undermine public trust in the long run.

Recently, colleges have been promoting early decision or early action programs to a greater degree than in the past, in part to assure that they meet enrollment goals. Combine this new emphasis with existing applicant anxiety and the assumption that the competition is "easier" during early decision, and the students feel pressured into early applications even if they have not truly made up their minds. Because fewer spaces are left to fill, the regular admissions process becomes even more competitive.

Students are stressed out, families are suspicious, high school counselors and teachers are frustrated and admissions officers are nervous. Colleges are competing fiercely against each other, and sometimes, it seems, they lose sight of what is best for the students they seek to educate.

Anxiety abounds. But does it need to?

I don't think so. But I do think all of us have to step back and consider where we have been and where we are going.

First, colleges need to control the increases in their costs, even if that means sacrificing some existing programs or exciting plans for new ones. Second, we need to tell parents, students and counselors how we make our decisions on admission and financial aid, and we need to be equitable in the process. We must resist the temptation to buy students. We shouldn't behave like Crazy Eddie and beat any offer. That benefits only those who complain, and inequitable discounts for some contribute to higher prices for everyone else.

Third, we need to avoid racheting up applicant anxiety by filling up more than a quarter of our classes under early decision programs. When we do admit a student early, we should do it because our school is that student's clear first choice.

Fourth, colleges should work together to find common solutions to our enrollment concerns. We should not fix prices, of course, as the government alleged in the early part of this decade, but we can hold down the costs by sharing academic programs to avoid costly duplication. And we can resolve to learn from each other in a renewed spirit of collegiality.

Parents and students can help themselves, too. They must understand that colleges admit students and deny them for all sorts of legitimate reasons. They must accept that even great scores and grades will not guarantee admission to every highly selective private college; it never has and it never will.

And families need to decide what a particular college or university is worth to them. That should be one of the first questions parents and students ask themselves, but they rarely do until they are faced with a financial aid package and a looming decision deadline.

Parents and students can also help themselves by asking colleges about their admission and aid practices before an application is ever filed. My experience suggests that when questions are asked directly, they will get direct answers.

Perhaps we cannot simply return to the good old days in college admissions and financial aid; the world has, indeed, changed. But what has not changed is that getting a student into the college of his or her choice is a cooperative venture, with responsibility shared by family and institution. After 23 years, I still think this is an exciting, dynamic process, and one which we must all approach as partners, not adversaries.

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