The Agony of College Admissions The slings and arrows of marketing are confusing the admissions process. Who's getting hurt? Students.
By Eric Schurenberg Reporter associate: Jan Alexander

(MONEY Magazine) – ; In a better world, we would not put our children through this. Every high school senior would know precisely what he or she wanted out of higher education; college admissions directors would honestly and openly identify the kind of students who would flourish on their campuses; parents would seek not the most prestigious school but the one that best serves their child's needs. And no one would ever suppose the process of getting into college to be anything other than reasonable and fair. But as any student who has recently applied to a selective college can tell you, the world we have made for them does not work that way. Instead, the process of turning high school graduates into college freshmen has become increasingly confusing, frustrating, depressing and even demeaning. For too many 17-year-olds and their parents, it has become the family's first bitter taste of defeat and cynicism. The unavoidable fact is that our national system of college admissions is failing on almost every important level. To be specific: -- It is needlessly stressful. Far too much attention is focused on the hundred-plus most prestigious colleges. The other 3,000 or so are mindlessly written off as slow tracks to nowhere. As a result, students are convinced that the only colleges worth applying to are those that are most likely to reject them. ''What I see is a lot of kids being set up for failure,'' says Jim Antonio, a former high school teacher, now admissions director of St. Mary's College in Maryland. -- It is capricious. Admissions officers at selective colleges like to say that choosing freshmen is an art, not a science. But even the professionals admit that communicating the rationales for the fine distinctions made among hundreds of similar candidates is often impossible. ''While one answer used to hold for all the Ivies,'' says Anne Ferguson, director of college counseling at Hathaway Brown School in Cleveland, ''now a student gets a mixed response: one acceptance, one waiting list and several rejections. The message is that if I apply to all eight Ivies my chances of getting into at least one are better.'' -- It is expensive. Even when a student applies to only five or six colleges, as most guidance counselors suggest, the cost in application fees alone can easily top $250 to $300. Add in the travel costs to visit colleges, plus the fees of SAT prep courses and private guidance counseling -- both of which some families see as providing an increasingly necessary edge in competitive admissions -- and you could easily spend several thousand dollars simply trying to get into college. (See the box on page 144.) -- It is inefficient. The most damning indictment is that, for all the pain that applicants and their families undergo, the system does not do the job it is meant for: matching graduating high school seniors with colleges where they will flourish. If this year's freshmen follow their predecessors' pattern, nearly half will drop out before graduating. ''That sounds like evidence that a lot of mismatching is going on,'' says Chester Finn, director of the Educational Excellence Network, sponsored by Vanderbilt University. The charts at left tend to support that contention. Adds Hilary Carlson, college counselor at the Kent Denver School in Denver and the mother of a college applicant this year: ''If we really care about 16- to 18-year-olds, we would find another way to do this.'' The problems begin at home with achievement-oriented parents who are themselves members of the first generation to be widely college educated. They see a prestigious school's acceptance letter as a personal vindication, an A+ on the final exam of parenthood. They are abetted by SAT coaches and private guidance ''consultants'' who prey on the insecurities of college-bound seniors and their families, and by publications such as Barron's Guide to the Most Prestigious Colleges, Fiske's Guide to Colleges, and the U.S. News & World Report ''America's Best Colleges'' issue, which lend a specious quantification to the proposition that there are ''best'' ones. The result is that students are egged on to what for most will be a losing battle. Though educators like to place themselves above this vulgar fray, far from assuaging students' and parents' fears, colleges actually exacerbate them. The all-powerful but inscrutable admissions committees, with their arcane and shifting selection criteria -- how many violin virtuosi, budding Bonapartes and Montana ranchers is Harvard looking for this year? -- contribute hugely to the feeling of futility. Even worse, most admissions departments spend the bulk of their energies not in trying to identify students who could benefit from studying there but rather in deploying commercial marketing techniques to lure new applicants. ''Far too many colleges measure their success by the number of applications they receive,'' says S. Frederick Starr, president of Oberlin College. ''It's like the stock price to a corporation.'' Ehe result: ''The colleges lead , students on, making them think they'll be accepted,'' says Jim McClure, director of guidance at T.C. Williams High School in Alexandria, Va. ''Then in April they start boasting to their alumni about how many kids they turned down.'' Indeed, a war for bragging rights has broken out among colleges generally, not just among the selective ones. The proximate cause: a shrinking pool of high school graduates -- the baby bust of the 1970s will not work its way through the college years until 1992. With applications down as much as 20% this year, the most favored schools fear that their high rates of selectivity are endangered, and the lesser lights of academe fear extinction. (Last year 11 colleges closed.) All are aware that tuition shock has made it harder to justify charging up to $15,000 a year. The result? All colleges are selling themselves more aggressively to more students than ever before. Marketing budgets increased 64% between 1980 and 1986; the typical institution now spends an average of about $1,700 to bring in each new student. Academics hire marketing consultants, consort with public relations advisers and grill prospective students in focus groups; colleges no longer change their curriculums, they ''reposition'' themselves; admissions offices don't just admit freshmen, they ''manage enrollment.'' Certainly anyone who remembers applying to college during the sellers' market of the 1960s and 1970s can hardly help but be amazed by the aggressiveness of today's recruitment campaigns, with their massive direct-mail assaults, flashy brochures and personal sells from admissions officers and alumni. To be sure, not all teens go through an especially anguished admissions process. Slightly more than 115,000 students do attend the 120 most selective schools. The rest of the 1.2 million college-bound high school seniors end up at less competitive institutions, which they often chose more on the basis of proximity than prestige. Of last year's entering freshmen, for example, nearly half applied to only one or two colleges. Yet the stoking of demand by colleges, counselors and parents has inevitably intensified the frenzy of the many to join the few. Applications to institutions in the Consortium for Financing Higher Education -- a group of 32 highly selective colleges and universities, including all the Ivies and Stanford -- have increased 29% since 1983. Not surprisingly, acceptances at COFHE colleges have taken a corresponding dip, from 47% five years ago to 40% last year.

The way into the selective schools threads through an obstacle course of standardized aptitude tests, achievement exams, personal essays and interviews. Theoretically, the ordeal allows the colleges to uncover the one student out of every five or six (at the most selective colleges) who deserves admission. Yet merit, like beauty, is very much in the eye of the beholder. The preliminary judgment about a candidate's merit is likely to be the work of one or more associate admissions officers, typically recent college graduates making $16,000 to $20,000, who can afford to devote no more than 10 to 15 minutes to each file. Such persons, as well as the senior admissions director who may rule on an applicant if the associates disagree, are no more free of biases than anyone else. And often candidates are so closely matched there is little to go on but biases. ''Of 11 candidates I see, eight are interchangeable,'' says Brad Quin, director of admissions at Lafayette College in Easton, Pa. For the majority of applicants who are neither outstanding scholars nor clearly unqualified academically, the decision to accept or deny is little more than a hunch about who is a ''good kid.'' Besides, merit is not the only -- or even the most important -- criterion admissions officers have to consider. ''The admissions office exists to serve the institution, not the student applicant,'' says James Wickenden, former dean of admissions at Princeton and author of the story that begins on page 153. At most colleges, for example, the children of alumni are not held to the same strict admissions standards as other applicants. At Duke, for instance, 40% of alumni children are admitted, compared with just over 20% for applicants as a whole. ''Our survival as an institution depends on having support from alumni,'' explains director of undergraduate admissions Richard Steele, ''so according advantages to alumni kids is just a given.'' Other groups of students such as athletes, musicians, and minorities also get favored treatment. Each favored admission pushes an otherwise more deserving candidate into the discard file. The admissions officers' advice: don't take it personally. Says Ed Wall, former admissions director at Amherst: ''It's not fair, but that's the way the game is played.'' Admissions officers say there is little parents can do to nudge the odds in their child's favor other than to encourage them to do their homework and to develop interests outside school. But even that tiny flicker has grown into a < bonfire of parents' vanities, fanned by eager entrepreneurs. Items: -- At $500 to $650, SAT coaching sessions have become an unquestioned rite of passage for many teens. ''If you're not enrolled in a prep course, it's almost as if you're not doing everything you could,'' says Kim Buell, college counselor at Lake Ridge Academy in North Ridgeville, Ohio. These six- to 11- week courses, designed to hone the student's test-taking skills, promise to raise customers' SAT scores by 100 to 150 points. A Federal Trade Commission study in the late 1970s found that the courses actually increased scores by an average of 50 points. Some students do better than that, but 50 points has only a negligible impact on an applicant's chances. -- At fees of $400 for a once-over to $9,000 for two years of hand-holding, the independent college consultant will happily help (MONEY, June 1988). Often former college admissions officers or high school guidance counselors, the consultants can step in to provide personal attention on choosing a college and polishing an application, which overloaded high school counselors often cannot. But while they can improve an applicant's decision-making, they cannot ''get'' a student into college. Says Daniel Murray, former director of admissions at Boston University: ''No recommendation from an independent -- who was paid for the service -- was ever read with the same credibility as one that came from school counselors who had known the applicant for years.'' -- At varying costs in time and integrity, canny high school students consider packaging themselves for their admissions file as much a part of the process as taking the SAT. For example, about the time he started looking into college last year as a junior at Newton South High School in Newton, Mass., Ben Wohlauer joined the French club, started writing for the school paper and landed a summer job in Congressman Barney Frank's office. He made sure to secure a laudatory letter from Frank's district office supervisor, on Frank's official stationery. ''I wouldn't say I did all that only to look good on my application,'' he explains, ''but college does give you a motive to look harder for things to do.'' Part of the art of packaging is knowing which extracurriculars impress admissions officers most. Currently, broadening but one-shot experiences such as European jaunts and Outward Bound (the adventure camp for teens) are out, while ''follow-through'' -- that is, perseverance in some activity -- and demonstrated social conscience are both in. Accordingly, Jayme Stewart, director of college guidance at York Preparatory School in New York City, encourages parents to have their children ''pick up a skill'' in eighth grade -- oboe would be outstanding -- that they can stick with. She tells her prep school students to do charitable volunteer work. ''Even if you really are lazy and self-centered,'' she says, ''you want to make it look like you're not.'' Students, of course, are not the only ones doing a sales job. By the time they send in their applications, most of them have been blitzed by college pitchmanship for at least several months: at local fairs where colleges display their wares, by omnipresent recruiters (see below for the scene at Ohio's Shaker Heights High School), in carefully orchestrated telephone appeals from college alumni, current students and, increasingly, from telemarketing firms on hire to colleges. ''It's a sales call, lots of times made by people not associated with the school at all,'' says Charles Shields, college counselor at Homewood-Flossmoor High School in the Chicago suburb of Flossmoor. The heart of college marketing is junk mail. To attract a freshman class of 500, a college might send out 22,000 brochures to a list of student names collected from the standardized testing services such as the College Board and the American College Testing Service. Practically any C student can expect at least 50 pieces of collegiate junk to show up in his mailbox beginning in the spring of his junior year. A top student, an athlete or a member of an ethnic minority may get 500. Recalls Leyza Florin, who is both salutatorian of her senior class at Coral Gables High School in Florida and a Cuban-American: ''I had pounds of college mail from everywhere you could imagine. The other day I threw out a whole Hefty bag of the stuff.'' A student who responds to a direct-mail brochure is sent the college's annual viewbook, the lavish 16- to 56-page publication meant to describe the school and inspire prospects to submit an application. (Cost of a typical production run of 100,000 books: $200,000.) Oldsters who remember when this task was served by a stodgy black-and-white academic catalogue will marvel at the glossy paper and four-color professional photos. ''Kids these days expect color,'' says M. Fredric Volkmann, associate vice chancellor of Washington University in St. Louis. ''If you send a black-and-white viewbook, they'll think 'This college sure doesn't value its education much.' '' Some viewbooks offer a good deal of useful information -- Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine and Pomona College in Claremont, Calif., for example, both include a thorough profile of their freshman class, against which high schoolers can match their own credentials. But most booklets are careful to respect the attention span of the video generation. ''You want them to be mostly pictures,'' says Thomas Williams, president of Ingersoll Williams & Associates, a Denver consulting firm specializing in college marketing. ''To be successful, a viewbook shouldn't have too much content.'' Even a booklet geared to the video generation is a dull substitute for the real thing, so most colleges are quick to brandish a five- to 15-minute recruiting video to lend to student prospects either directly or through their high school counselors' office. Drake University's MTV-quality effort -- made at a reported cost of $80,000 -- is one of the slickest of the genre. In quick, dramatic shots over a reggae sound track, the video depicts students at the Des Moines university playing sports, flirting, staging pie-eating contests, tapping away at classroom computers and visiting an off-campus disco. Throughout, almost no one does anything so unphotogenic as crack a book. The hype is heightened by the regular publication of lists purporting to rank colleges. Although educators privately denounce them, few can afford to ignore even the flimsiest rating system that includes them. More worrisome, critics charge that the rankings inevitably lead to overemphasis on quantitative measurements of a college's standing, such as average SAT scores, on the part of both the applicants and the admissions office. Defenders of college marketing point out that by reaching beyond their traditional stable of feeder schools, colleges made all students aware of the choices open to them. ''The bright student in Salt Lake City now knows he can go to Harvard if he wants to,'' says Richard Moll, former admissions director at Vassar and UC Santa Cruz.

True, but as the schools themselves are painfully aware, 17-year-olds are prone to choose or reject a college on the most trivial grounds. At Clark University in Worcester, Mass., for example, the admissions department found that high schoolers who visited the campus on sunny days were at least twice as likely to apply than those who came when it was gloomy. Most of a college's marketing campaign -- the viewbooks, the videos, the recruiting junkets -- simply provides more trivialities to choose from. It is not so much that colleges seduce kids into picking the wrong colleges, but rather that they encourage them to make the choice for the wrong reasons. For parents, there is a particularly galling aspect of the marketing campaign: they have to pay for it. Over the course of your children's education you will pay for the viewbooks, videos, college fairs and recruiting junkets needed to bring in their freshmen class, as well as the tens of thousands of direct-mail pieces that end up in other children's wastebaskets. But the real cost of the marketing war is more subtle, and potentially much steeper. After all, colleges don't compete just on the flashiness of their viewbooks or college fair booths. Dorms, fancy lab equipment, fitness facilities, groundskeeping, subsidized rock concerts are all part of the battle to stay attractive to the widest possible number of 17-year-olds. And no college dares to stop escalating the competition. If Princeton installs a new Olympic swimming pool, how long can Cornell get by with its dank 1953 facility? ''The arms race is a good analogy,'' says Richard Pierson, dean of admissions at Clark. ''You have to have all these amenities, though a lot of the cost has nothing to do with the educational enterprise.'' Kalamazoo College president David Breneman estimates that this spiral adds two percentage points to the inflation in college prices. What is probably the saddest irony in the whole mess, though, is that education has its own Gresham's law: as marketing drives up the price of higher education, it tends to drive down its quality. Good marketing and good teaching are incompatible: the one requires that you find out what the customer wants and provide it, the other that you demand things of the student that he may prefer not to do. ''The more the college thinks of its students as customers, the more it will be tempted simply to give them what they want,'' says Williams College economics professor Michael MacPherson. The danger is that in battling with each other to give students what they want, the colleges are losing sight of their more important task: to give students what they need.

CHART: NOT AVAILABLE CREDIT: Source: American Council on Education CAPTION: Applicants try more and more colleges . . . . . . but fewer attend their first choice. Last year 22% of college freshmen reported that they had applied to five or more colleges, more than double the 1975 rate of 10%. But the number attending the college of their first choice was down 10 points, from 78% to 68%.