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The new math of college admissions
Test scores and selectivity help identify the "best" schools. But such stats are easy to manipulate.
March 29, 2005: 9:34 AM EST
By Sarah Max, CNN/Money senior writer

SALEM, Ore. (CNN/Money) – Here is a pop quiz:

A college is looking to attract the best and brightest by scoring well on various rankings of the "best" schools. Ranking factors include average SAT scores and grade point averages, the percentage of prospective students admitted and the percentage of those students who actually enroll.

To improve its position, the college should:

A) Encourage the brightest students to apply early and give their word that they will enroll if accepted.

B) Admit students with lower test scores via a wait list or deferred enrollment and exclude them from statistics used for rankings.

C) Offer discounted tuition to the smartest students.

At a growing number of schools, say college admissions experts, the answer is all of the above.

Judged by the numbers

"As colleges have become adept at marketing they have transformed themselves from institutions of higher education to branded items," said Peter Van Buskirk, executive director for high school outreach programs for Thomson Peterson's. "Image is everything."

Rankings, such as those published in U.S. News & World Report, are serious business.

"If an institution has an average SAT at one level, heaven forbid if it doesn't get at least that next year or its selectivity goes down," said Van Buskirk.

Average SAT scores, along with average high school GPAs, are measures of the quality of incoming students.

Another factor used in rankings is selectivity, which is the ratio of students who apply to students admitted. Last year, for example, 13,695 students applied to Princeton University but only 1,733 were admitted. The lower the admit rate, the more selective the school.

The ratio of students who are admitted to those who actually enroll is also important. A higher percentage here suggests that the school is a first choice of most applicants. Of the 1,733 students admitted to Princeton, an impressive 1,172 enrolled.

But critics argue that statistics like these are given far too much weight.

"The predictors of a good education are virtually impossible to measure," said Lloyd Thacker, a former college counselor who founded the Education Conservancy and wrote the book "College Unranked" to address what he thinks is the commercialization of education.

"When you measure only the things that can be measured your distorting what is important," he added. "Also, the numbers used are not always accurate. They're fudged."

Test score averages, he said, often don't include athletes or legacy students, who are admitted only because they are related to prominent alumni. Students who are strong candidates but have less-than-perfect test scores are wait listed. They will eventually be accepted but their scores aren't necessarily reported, said Thacker.

Similar strategies are used to make the school appear more selective. Schools market themselves heavily to increase the number of students who apply but admit the same number of students, thereby lowering their "admit rate."

They also encourage students to apply early – in which case students promise to attend the school if admitted – by offering certain scholarships to early applicants. Similarly, they enroll more students by putting them on a wait list if they promise to enroll if accepted.

In all practicality

Schools have a legitimate reason to shift some of their enrollment to early applicants and wait lists, said Steven Graff, director of enrollment information for the College Board, an association composed of more than 4,700 colleges and universities.

"Every institution would like to have more control over what its freshman class looks like," he said, explaining that its not uncommon for top students to send out more than 10 applications to the most competitive schools.

These schools use early enrollment and wait lists to make sure they don't admit too few or too many students.

"It used to be that a school would know who its students would be by May," Graff added. "Now you have a situation where enrollments are still changing over the summer."

Enrollment statistics are useful for administrators, even critics might agree. But what role should they play for a kid choosing a college?

"Students ought to pay attention to test scores because they tell them where they might fit in," said Graff. "If a student is way below the average they will have to do a lot to overcome that."

Still, one shouldn't define a dream school by these statistics alone, said Van Buskirk. It's more important to find a school whether a school is a good fit for a student's personality.

"This is a complex thing," said Thacker.

"Education is about learning, growth and discovery," he said. "How can you know everything about a college before you get there? It's impossible."  Top of page

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