Everything you’ve heard about getting in is about to go out the window.
The same tools will create a moment of truth for America’s most renowned institutions of higher education. The status quo in admissions has beneficiaries as well as victims—when a qualified poor student misses out on the Ivy League, a more well-off student usually goes in her stead. That’s one reason there are twenty-five upper-income students in elite colleges and universities for every lower-income student. ConnectEDU will allow admissions deans to reach out and find kids like Jameel with an ease and precision far beyond what they can accomplish today. The top schools swear up and down that they would love to admit more disadvantaged students, if only they could get them to apply. As college admissions transitions to an electronic market, we’ll find out if they really mean it.
If they do, slots in the most elite colleges will be even harder to come by than they are today. In a radically more efficient higher education market, only the brightest and most distinctive students will have a chance to attend the best schools. It’s hard enough to get into an Ivy League university when 30,000 people apply for a few thousand spots. Soon, applicants will be effectively competing with every other student in the world. The whole concept of a college “application” will start to fall by the wayside. And as a result, the higher education system will become more like the meritocracy it has long pretended to be.
I t wasn’t so long ago that the very idea of someone like Jameel Reid going to college seemed absurd. At the end of World War II, America’s elite colleges were still enclaves of white male Protestantism where character, athletic ability, and the family name were far more important than academic prowess. The man most responsible for changing this was Harvard University President James Conant, who believed that an ascendant postwar America needed to be led by an intellectual elite, not the inheritors of privilege. To identify those students, he helped broker the creation of the Educational Testing Service, publisher of the SAT. As Nicholas Lemann describes in his definitive history, The Big Test, this paper-and-pencil test of word associations and math problems would become, and remains, the nation’s single most important instrument for sorting and assigning students to different levels of educational opportunity.
Once Harvard made this shift, other elite universities risked becoming backwaters if they didn’t follow suit. Yale, which came to the admissions revolution later than its archrival did, undertook its shake-up in the mid-1960s, when the university hired a twenty-nine-year-old Yale alum named R. Inslee “Inky” Clark as admissions dean. Clark promptly fired his entire staff, staunched the flow of guaranteed prep school admits, and began hunting for bright students in exotic locales like Brooklyn. The university also phased out admissions policies that discriminated against groups like Catholics, minorities, and women. As the number of Yale students from the likes of Andover fell by half, William F. Buckley, a proud product of the old system, complained that “[t]he son of an alumnus, who goes to a private preparatory school, now has less chance of getting in than some boy from P.S. 109 somewhere.”
One of the first students to benefit from the new system was a Kentuckian named Jeff Brenzel. While his parents had never been to college, they valued education and sent him to an all-boys Catholic high school in Louisville. Brenzel’s father was Catholic and had his heart set on sending his valedictorian son to Notre Dame. But the Xaverian Brothers who ran Jeff’s high school wanted the prestige of Ivy-educated graduates, and Jeff believed in the time-honored principle that one’s parents must be wrong. He enrolled at Yale in 1971, one of only two Kentuckians who made the journey to New Haven that year. If he had been born five years earlier, there would have been no place for him, but he wasn’t, so there was. Brenzel went on to spend two years as a Jesuit novice, earn a PhD in philosophy, and work in the business world for two decades before returning to Yale as director of the alumni association. In 2005, the university asked him to take the job that Inky Clark had used to such effect: admissions dean.
The Yale Office of Undergraduate Admissions is located in a converted mansion on the north side of campus. The dean’s office is on the second floor, facing the street, with a couch, a fireplace, and an expanse of white bookshelves that Brenzel has filled with books about higher education. But the heart of the place is a short elevator ride down, in the basement. There, a single room with a low ceiling and cinderblock walls leads to a set of wide double doors in the rear where, until recently, a fleet of U.S. Postal Service trucks would back up and disgorge an absolutely phenomenal amount of paper every year.
The pile would grow with each passing application season. As the number of college students in America and around the world increased exponentially and the value of college degrees rose, a winner-takes-all effect had taken hold. Prestige led to more prestige, wealth to more wealth. The most elite colleges had become globally recognized, immensely valuable brands with multibillion-dollar endowments. The number of applications for the 1,300 annual spots at Yale shot upward, from just over 14,000 in 2001 to nearly 20,000 in 2005. (More than 27,000 applied for the 2011-12 freshman class.) Since Yale itself wasn’t growing nearly as quickly, admission rates dropped, augmenting the aura of exclusivity and prompting even more people to apply. The numbers at other elite schools looked much the same.
This created a huge data-processing challenge. Every application has multiple parts: transcripts, recommendation letters, SAT scores, Advanced Placement scores, high school profiles, personal essays, and more. When Brenzel arrived at Yale, the pieces didn’t all arrive at once. The ETS would mail official SAT scores, guidance counselors would send sealed teacher recommendations and transcripts, and the students would send the applications. Yale had to hire scores of temporary workers to sit at desks in the basement, opening envelopes, sorting through documents, and putting them in files. Then it had to hire a staff of admissions officers who would pull the tens of thousands of files from rolling metal library shelves installed at the other end of the room, read them, and try to identify the chosen few. Even for a university as rich as Yale, it was hard to keep up.
Yet, paradoxically, Brenzel still didn’t have all the information he needed. The college admissions world had changed drastically since the 1960s. Admissions deans at schools like Yale weren’t just expected to enroll the best and brightest. They were charged with “crafting” a perfectly balanced class of students—one that combined various kinds of budding genius with ethnic, racial, regional, and economic diversity, while simultaneously accommodating the diminished but still-powerful imperative to admit legacies and the children of the rich and powerful.
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