Friday, December 7, 2012

Goldilocks and the College Admissions Process


Last week I talked with the Director of Admissions at a public university in Virginia.  He called about another matter, but at the end of the conversation mentioned that his institution has 2000 more Early Action applications than a year ago. The Early Action numbers are half of what he had projected the total application numbers to be, and he wondered what is going on.  Are kids applying to more places, and if so, thoughtfully or indiscriminately?  Do I have any thoughts?

Do I have thoughts?  That question brings to mind an episode from my favorite childhood cartoon show, The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle.  I am enough of a Rocky and Bullwinkle fan that when the NACAC Conference was in Los Angeles in 1992 I spent an afternoon in search of the Dudley Do-Right Emporium, a store that sold Bullwinkle memorabilia owned by the widow of Jay Ward, the creator of the show.  The search was unforgettable but unfulfilling.  The cab driver had a picture of the Ayatollah Khomeini prominently displayed on the dashboard and he dropped us off in a seedy part of West Hollywood.  We found the store, open but deserted, making my companion, already paranoid from the cab ride and the neighborhood, convinced there was a salesperson dead in the back room.  We grabbed the first cab and returned to the hotel. 

In the episode from the show Boris Badenov, the inept villainous foe of Rocky and Bullwinkle, is asked by his female companion Natasha, “Boris, you have plan?”  He responds, “I always have plan.  They never work, but I always have one.”

Similar to Boris, I always have thought. They don’t always make sense, but I always have one.  My answer to the Director of Admissions was that I am not seeing any evidence among my students that they are applying to more schools, but I see forces at play that may bring about that result.  There are certainly a few students who try to collect college acceptances as if they were youth soccer trophies.  I have also known a couple of students who went on a Common Application “bender” and couldn’t remember the next morning all the places they had applied with a simple click.  But I’m guessing the increased number of Early Action applications at that university is a by-product of several current admissions practices.

First and foremost is the acceleration of the admissions process, the most significant change I have seen over the course of my career.  25 years ago I was a young college counselor and my first child was due right around February 1.  I spent the weekend before writing college recommendations, because February 1 was a big deadline and my last group of seniors were submitting their first applications.  Now I expect all applications to have been submitted by that point.  The period between Thanksgiving and Christmas used to be the most stressful time of the year in my office due to the immense wave of applications that had to be processed for January 1.  It’s still stressful, but the tsunami of applications happens much earlier in the fall. 

What has changed is not an increase in the number of traditional Early Decision and Early Action applications, but an increase in the number of public universities that now have a variety of Early Action and “priority” deadlines or “final” deadlines as early as December 1. Those earlier deadlines are too often accompanied by mixed messages that play on the anxieties of students and parents, and I suspect that the increase in Early Action applications at the institution above is a consequence of mixed messages sent by different institutions. 

Just the other day I attended a counselor lunch sponsored by a different Virginia public university.  At both that lunch and at a program for students and parents the same evening the university President announced that the institution would enroll next fall’s entire freshman class composed of only Early Decision and Early Action applicants.  That announcement raised eyebrows among the assembled counselors, given that the Early Action deadline had already passed, and the Admissions staff immediately went into spin control, announcing that the Early Action deadline had been extended due to Hurricane Sandy.  Most of us assumed that the real culprit was Tropical Storm [President’s name deleted].

Left unanswered were some broader questions.  If that is to be the university’s admissions policy, why not tell prospective students up front?  Why have regular admission at all if you have no intention of admitting students who apply regular, or why not rename “Early Action” as “regular admission” to reflect the reality of the policy?  Better still, why not become a rolling admission school and cut off admission once the class is full?  I suspect the answer is that rolling admission doesn’t sound prestigious enough.

Setting earlier and earlier deadlines probably serves colleges well.  It allows them more time to read and process applications in a time when increased application numbers are not accompanied by increases in staff.  It also reflects the reality that today colleges have to recruit students for yield not just to apply.  The earlier a student is in the applicant pool, the more time the college has to entice the student to enroll.

I don’t think it serves students nearly as well.  The acceleration of the application process forces students to make decisions before many are developmentally ready, and encourages quantity of applications at the expense of quality of application.  It also lessens the value and importance of the senior year as a time of intellectual and personal growth.

Applying to college should require investment of time, reflection, and careful thought, and the application process should measure readiness for college.   The college search and application processes should be Goldilocks processes, neither too hard nor too easy.  They also shouldn’t take place too early or too fast.

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