As longtime college counselors, my partner and I are pretty good at figuring out who will get into certain schools, especially when it comes to the highly competitive universities that only let in a sliver of their applicants. Given our experience, we were certain that one of our students aimed too high with her application to Penn, a school that usually only lets in about 8.4% of those who apply. While she had strong test scores, her uneven grades and minimal extracurriculars would likely hold her back. Or so we thought. Back in August, her credentials seemed to be an insurmountable obstacle to her Ivy League ambitions. By October, the time to apply for Early Decision (ED), we had a very different, and now positive outlook for her getting into her first choice. What changed?
Schools in a Bind
Two factors have put pressure on schools to accept more students than they normally would. The first began before the pandemic. With the Trump Administration making it both harder to come to the US and less enticing for students to be here, foreign applications had already declined. According to the Institute for International Education (IEE), enrollments of new, international students declined by 43%. For schools, this decrease is a significant financial issue. Students from abroad often pay the full cost of tuition, which helps balance out the various scholarships and other deductions offered to Americans. This loss is not just felt by schools. A study by the NAFSA estimated plunging foreign enrollment cost the US economy $1.8 billion.
The second and most obvious factor is the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. According to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, freshmen enrollment at US colleges for 2020 was down 13% from the prior year. It’s easy to see why. High school seniors spent last spring begrudgingly taking classes via Zoom, and they and their parents were worried about what a college education would look like in the fall. What made it worse was that hardly any schools were offering a discount despite the massive change to academic and social life on campus. In short, matriculating this fall with all of the uncertainties, fears, and constraints caused by the virus made college far less appealing.
Standardized Testing Takes a Hit
Besides making prospective student’s hesitant to commit, the virus has had another major impact on the admissions process. Normally in the summer and fall, high school seniors and recent graduates would be busy preparing for and stressing out about taking their final standardized tests (the SATs or ACT). In the past, even when schools said that these tests were optional, competitive applicants often submitted results as they considered strong scores an advantage—a way to separate themselves from the pack. However, due to the pandemic, for the first time, nearly all colleges said they would be test-optional.
For many years, colleges have complained that the College Board, which creates and provides the SAT, has too much power. Critics have argued that the non-profit has turned testing into a lucrative business, collecting over $1.1 billion dollars annually in revenue from hefty fees. Detractors say the test plays too great a role in college admissions, where scores are often the second most important factor in gaining admission for students. Now, with tests truly optional, would critics finally see an improved situation for applicants?
In the short term, schools and students may both obtain an advantage from this change. Finally, poor testers or those without tutoring won’t be critiqued for less than stellar SAT or ACT scores. Instead, they may gain more consideration for their efforts throughout high school. The ominous counterpoint to this benefit is that without standardized tests, many fear that affluent students will see greater benefits because colleges will be forced to rely on picking from high schools they know well and have a proven track record of producing qualified applicants. Instead of evening the playing field, the test optional path may tilt it more as admissions officers may be less likely to take students from unknown high schools, negatively affecting lower income students from lesser known institutions.
Early Decision is Less Important
I began this article by discussing one of our students who applied Early Decision. Normally, ED is something we recommend when a student is a great candidate for a school and wants just a little bit of an edge. Since ED acceptances are binding, colleges like taking a certain number of these applicants because they will have a better understanding of their incoming classes. Unfortunately, the downside of ED for many families is that the process doesn’t let the student weigh financial incentives from competing schools.
In normal times, students of families that couldn’t afford to pay the full cost of a higher education—and that’s a large portion of students—would have to apply Regular Decision. Besides the added stress of not knowing about any acceptances until perhaps as late as the spring, these applicants were disadvantaged compared to those applying ED. Now, in COVID times, with schools impacted by the decline in students, admissions officers are feeling pressure to accept more students to make up for the shortfall in tuition dollars, whether they were Early or Regular Decision applicants (this trend is also helping those considering a transfer).
Just as with the test optional situation, the improved odds for regular decision isn’t necessarily good for all. With revenue a driving factor, schools are likely to be forced to look for more students that can pay their way. They won’t admit that, but it’s a reality. As a result, the wealthy are likely to see the most benefit.
Despite the Upheaval, the Same Long-term Questions Remain
Next year, we can assume the vaccine’s distribution will help return the college experience to normal, inspiring more students to apply and attend. Also, the incoming Biden-Harris administration will be welcoming to foreign students, likely increasing enrollment further. As for whether standardized testing will fade in importance or regain its stature, that is a big question. The College Board will certainly want to resuscitate its cash cow, but schools and students might just move on from it.
So what does it all mean? Are we entering a new era of college admissions complete with significantly revised rules? It’s too soon to tell. The two most pressing issues remain unsolved: how to fairly judge applicants regardless of financial means, and how to make an education affordable.
The photo my student posted on her finsta following the disclosure of the biggest college admissions scandal in history caught my eye. She had superimposed her smiling face atop a picture of an ivy league squash player. It was a crudely Photoshopped image, and that was the point. The caption read: “Harvard Class of 2024!”
I was glad this young woman could laugh about the scam that continues to capture national attention and fuel daily headlines. Everywhere I go, even if people don’t know I’m a college counselor, this scandal is a hot topic of conversation. Moms, Dads, high school students, and kids attending college all have something to say about it. Most people are seething and eager to see justice done. It’s not fair. It’s immoral. It’s not how it should be.
Needless to say, I agree that all of the individuals involved should be punished for cheating the system (and, apparently on their taxes). Many normal families do need help navigating the increasingly complex and anxiety-producing college testing, selection and application process, but Rick Singer, the person behind the scheme, chose to break the law to get his students into particular schools. There’s no grey area in this case. No one thinks the man is being unfairly treated. The outrage and ridicule is real and deserved.
The Scandal Highlights a Real Challenge
While much of the attention has been focused on the two actresses charged with various crimes, the case is important on many other levels. More than anything, it has affirmed all of our fears about college admission. With acceptance rates in the low single digits, it’s become so tough to get into top schools that some of the richest risk breaking laws to secure a spot for their kids at elite universities. And, as most articles highlight, the problem will only grow. Each year, more American students apply to the same schools. In addition, a larger number of foreign students are also applying, further ratcheting up the competition.
Why not just go to any old school? Why obsess about schools atop the US News & World Report college rankings? Many parents believe that attending an elite university is paramount, and often their children have adopted that worldview. Besides getting to know professors who can open doors to well-paid and illustrious careers, these institutions offer students the chance to meet hard-charging classmates. Together, this will help people build important network connections as they enter the workforce.
While everyone thinks of Harvard and Stanford-level schools as elite, it’s interesting to note that many institutions Singer targeted were not in the Ivy League or at that level, such as UT-Austin and Wake Forest. While both are great universities, acceptance had generally been considered easier to obtain. However, these schools have also gotten much tougher to get into for even high-performing students. For instance, the University of Wisconsin-Madison has received over 51% more applications during the past five years, while NYU has been flooded with 47% more in that same period, according to USA Today. Scarcity is a fact at many colleges, and everyone knows it. That reality leads to parents making terrible decisions, such as paying Singer to cheat the system for their children.
The Real Issue: The Harvard Case
Despite this, the Singer scandal is not what parents should be worried about the most. His outrageous behavior highlights an existing and growing problem. There is, however, another legal case that has the potential to have a massive, long-term impact on college admissions. Right now, Harvard is in the middle of a lawsuit about its admissions practices. The case, which many think the university is likely to lose, alleges that Harvard discriminates against Asian Americans. Supposedly the university has quotas for various groups. Why? The goal it to achieve “racial balancing.” Instead of letting in as many Asian Americans as are qualified, the school accepts other black and Latino applicants with lower numbers in order to promote diversity.
Many believe that affirmative action is actually a huge positive for higher education because students benefit from diversity on campuses. In such an environment, the idea is that classroom discussions are far more vibrant and that there are more dynamic opportunities to learn as students from various backgrounds express varied points of view. At CK4U, we happen to think that schools with only the “smartest” students would be limiting.
Even if you are not a fan of affirmative action in principle, recognize that without some form of it, we’d have even fewer boys at almost every type of school but the engineering power houses. According to the U.S. Department of Education, total undergraduate enrollment in the U.S. in 2017 was 56.3% girls. That is a noticeable increase from 45.6% females at American colleges in 1970, and this trend is predicted to rise. College admissions, based off of testing and grades, is essentially built for girls. I often say, “smart girls are a dime a dozen.” That’s not meant to denigrate high-performing young women, it’s just a fact. A high school female with excellent grades and awesome SAT or ACT scores is just one among hundreds or thousands applying to any given school. As a result, elite colleges like Vanderbilt have to accept fewer girls who apply than boys in an effort to keep the gender ratio close (currently, it’s at 51% female). In 2017, even Brigham Young University admitted that it has given preference to male applicants. If colleges had to accept only those with the best numbers, boys as well as many other groups would be severely impacted.
As a college counselor for over 12 years, I, just like you, find the Singer story riveting. Yet, as we devour the next article that bashes the wealthy or pokes fun at misguided Hollywood parenting, remember not to forget the real issue: the overturning of college admissions that the Harvard’s case poses. A ruling against the university could not only negatively alter the atmosphere on campuses across the country, it would also likely raise the anxiety of parents and prospective college students even more. If that happens, the Singer scandal might just be the first of many of its kind.
We just wanted to take a moment to address the elephant in the room – the massive cheating scandal wrought by college counselor Rick Singer that has captured national attention and ensnared 50 people. We wanted to clarify what our goals are and the services we provide to assist our clients – which are all completely legal! We are saddened that another college counselor has broken the law so recklessly and damaged our profession.
Our goal is to help our students find colleges that offer the best fit for them both academically and socially. We assist our students in navigating the college process, and believe it can be an exciting time of exploration as they seek to find schools where they will thrive. We also work to reduce the stress associated with this period in their lives so that our students can relax and think clearly about their goals and aspirations. We want to help them feel empowered and in charge as they think about their future.
For most kids, college applications mark the first time that they are asked to write about themselves in a personal statement. We know from admissions officers that nearly half of these essays are not read beyond the first paragraph. We endeavor to teach our students to write powerfully and to share compelling stories to keep readers interested. This is a learning process that can take some time, but we try to pose questions rather than re-writing so that each student can express themselves and truly put on the page what he or she wants to share.
Getting into college is way too stressful today, and anxiety is gripping many kids, so we work to alleviate that pressure. We want this to be an exciting period of discovery that can ignite creativity. We also try to lead our students to realize that there are many great college choices and not to fall in love with only one university. We also believe that our students should understand the competitive landscape and have a strategy which includes applying to a balanced list of colleges.
We look forward to helping each child accomplish their objectives and supporting families through the tumultuous time of applying to college. We would never cheat, lie or falsify an application. This would be illegal and damaging because it sends a clear message that we do not believe in our clients. Instead, we want to help our students to feel confident in themselves so that they can be happy and successful. We look forward to the journey!
Esther and Norma