Zhu Zhu Pets and their nefarious influence on college admissions

Since the general public really doesn’t understand the admissions process, and since it’s a topic that stirs a frenzy of anxiety, it shouldn’t surprise me that the popular media (i.e. the outlet for all the news that’s fit for bottom feeding) tend to feed a broad range of misconceptions. Chief among these is the annual (actually it’s becoming more like weekly) series of articles saying that admissions is MUCH more competitive this year, will be even more competitive next year, and that the year after that you will need to either own a magic lamp or perform ritual sacrifice to stand a CHANCE of getting into the school of your choice. Cue dramatic music and scenes of devastated students sobbing over their deny letters.

I’ve so come to expect these doom and gloom articles that I was shocked (SHOCKED!) to find a few reports this year that the admissions process may NOT actually be more competitive. Of course, the articles were pretty short and still tended to start with implications that the competition could still be increasing. Take the one below from Inside Higher Education, for instance:

“Applications Increase/Hype Season in Full Swing
Applications are up! It’s that time of year; the press is full of reports about colleges — mostly the elites but others too — reporting surges in applications, and there is detailed analysis of the relative size of the increases at Princeton vs. Harvard and so forth. A few words of caution: Most of the colleges capturing headlines were very difficult to get into last year, and the year before, and the year before that too, so the shift is less dramatic than it might seem. At the many colleges a notch or three below in competitiveness, college presidents will freely admit when not being quoted by name that they have more applications because lots of families are shopping for the best aid packages possible, and that applying doesn’t necessarily mean serious interest. At many of these colleges, in fact, the number of applicants admitted may actually go up in anticipation of lower yields (the percentage of admitted students who actually enroll).”

It all depends, I suppose, on what you consider “competition”. Yes, there are far more students applying to college, and each student on average completes more applications. There are, however more spaces in college than ever before. The standards at the most competitive institutions haven’t really changed all that much – it’s still REALLY hard to get admitted. There are also lots of ups and downs – individual schools that for whatever reason get hot, or not. (Shameless plug – yes, Mason is in that “hot” list so yes we are more competitive – but don’t hate just because we’re popular!). Many schools, for instance, found that the shift in the economy left them scrambling to admit students – in fact some schools that were our direct competitors for students just a few years ago were offering scholarships last admission season to students we denied!

What does that mean for you? As usual, the admission process remains terribly opaque. As in the article above, presidents and deans only admit to lower competition or that students might be less interested when they are off the record since we all realize that you want a school more if everybody else wants it too. It’s that kind of mentality that leads parents to search frantically for fake hamsters that, as far as I can tell, cost far more but do even less than real hamsters…but they must be good if EVERYBODY WANTS THEM. Be seeing you.


A belated 2009 Year in Review

A belated Happy New Year, or, for those of you who are high school seniors, happy nearing final application deadlines and waiting for colleges to send you their decisions!

As we close out 2009 and head into a bright and shiny new decade, there’s a veritable avalanche of best events, songs, movies, and Michael Jackson tributes of the year. Not wanting to be left out, and based on exacting and exhaustive study and research conducted largely this morning in my recliner, in no particular order here are my favorite admission stories of the year:

1. Score choice – The CollegeBoard reintroduced “score choice” to their system, meaning that test takers and decide which test scores to send out to colleges and universities. This caused great anxiety, although the ACT has had this policy in place for some time. Mostly it caused mayhem and confusion since most students either a) had no idea it was going on or b) if they did, were freaking out over which scores to pick. Add to the mix that many colleges and universities required that you send ALL scores and ignore score choice, and you have a great atmosphere – if you like chaos. This largely fell on overworked high school counselors trying to explain conflicting and often poorly explained policies to very anxious students and parents. For all this fun, the data continues to indicate that score choice has no impact on admission – that schools will continue to use your best scores no matter how many they receive, so the chaos has virtually no purpose at all!

2. Illinois sells admissions – at least, that’s what the headlines indicated. The reality is that some legislators and administrators in Illinois clearly felt, from the tone of their emails, that admission decisions should overlook standards if there was potential to gain money, either from donors or state legislators. On the other hand, the idea that donors or legislators DON’T have ANY influence on the admission process is just silly. The reality is that admissions officers will usually only admit applicants that have qualifications indicating they can likely succeed at our institutions, but at competitive institutions we receive far more qualified applicants than we have admission slots, and institutional self interest does become a factor. How big a factor donor potential (or past giving) or legislative influence…or singing, dancing, or basketball talent…should have in the process is a source of ongoing discussion. From the articles, however, you would think that Illinois invented this idea. And not a single article referenced the college movie classic, “Back to School” with Rodney Dangerfield.

3. Admissions Uncertainty!!! In other news, the media found out – much to their shock and dismay – that admission is unpredictable. They were so blown away by this insight that they continually blamed it on the economy, as if this was some kind of new occurrence. They interviewed students who didn’t know where they would get in and admissions directors agonizing over not knowing who would enroll…which, for some reason they failed to mention this, would have likely been the same responses they would have gotten BEFORE the economic downturn.

4. Colleges offering late discounts – Although the economy didn’t create as much uncertainty as the media hype suggests, many colleges noticed that students were considering less expensive options. Several of the REALLY expensive schools took aggressive steps to respond. My guess is that the discussion among leaders at these expensive schools was something like, “Hey! If we just sit back and let students start picking less expensive schools, the public might realize that there is no rational justification for our incredibly inflated prices, so we’d better get busy and make any offers necessary to hold onto our market position – now pass the caviar and prep my limo.” Or something like that. In any event, many institutions made offers WAY after student commitment deadlines in May, calling students with messages like, “We suddenly realized that we’d really like you to enroll so even though we only offered you two dollars in financial aid before now we can offer you twenty five thousand dollars if you’ll just dump that other school and come here.” Strangely, these offers actually worked pretty well – watch for new stories in 2010 about students who took these offers and now, in their sophomore year, find their financial aid packages back at two dollars.

5. Loss of Jack Blackburn – Jack was a great mentor to hundreds of admissions professionals and among the best minds in the field. As I wrote then, if heaven is well managed, they will move quickly to put Jack in charge of their admission process.

6. Common app gets less and less common – The common application was joined by a few competitors, while the participating schools added even more supplemental forms, individualizing an application meant to be common. Will one size ever really fit all?

7. In one of the great acts of hypocrisy of the year, an article was published attacking colleges and universities that added score optional admission policies as doing so (gasp) in their own self interest. Of course, the author failed to mention that his company was being paid to do a huge contract for “a major testing company.” Seems like a guy who would be great in the Illinois legislature.

8. Headlines were made that you could predict how much you would make partially based on what school you attend, although if you bother to read the articles, like this one http://online.wsj.com/article_email/SB10001424052748703438404574597952027438622-lMyQjAxMDA5MDEwODExNDgyWj.html they actually say that which college you attend still doesn’t have much, if any, influence on future income – it’s all about your talent and your achievements (and if they studied this as well, how much money your family already has).

9. Privacy was a hot topic again on many fronts. Gossip sites about colleges came and went. High schools gained access to posting a lot more information about who admitted students with what scores and grades through their data systems, creating horrifically misleading information for future applicants since the scores and grades weren’t linked and had no context. Students continued to “friend” admissions officers than post wildly inappropriate content to their Facebook pages, leading some admissions officers to the shocking conclusion that some high school students may, at times, break rules. Some admissions officers claimed to be conducting exhaustive searches of Facebook for negative content on applicants, leading them to be awarded the “creepy adults” of the year award. Better yet, a couple of stories surfaced on applicants and their parents posting false and misleading information about OTHER applicants, believing that they would increase their chances for admission if they could stick it to other students. Isn’t technology wonderful?

10. At the very end of the year a story popped up indicating that women are WAY smarted than men. It didn’t say EXACTLY that, but it did say that there are a far more women than men in higher education, and that this is a source of great anxiety for schools where they are desperately lacking men. A number of colleges boldly spoke up and announced that they were advantaging men over women in their admissions process to counteract this inequity. This led to a civil rights investigation, and I suspect to a new industry. I’m expecting that it won’t be long before I get a message asking, “Is your college having trouble finding a man? We can help…”.

On to 2010, where I’m sure we’ll find new and even more misleading stories for my rants! Be seeing you.