Features

September/October 2011 The End of College Admissions As We Know It

Everything you’ve heard about getting in is about to go out the window.

By Kevin Carey

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.

Kevin Carey is the director of the Education Policy program at the New America Foundation.

Comments

  • Susie Watts on August 29, 2011 11:58 PM:

    As a private college counselor, I hope to hear a follow-up on this story about Jameel getting into college and having a successful experience. ConnectEDU sounds like a great place for students to start. My job is to also help students find schools that are a good fit. The more resources students have, the better college decisions they will make and the more higher education will be available to all students, regardless of their income or economic status.

    College Direction
    http://www.collegedirection.org

  • Alan Haas on August 30, 2011 1:23 PM:

    This is a profoundly interesting and important article and must reading for parents, teachers, counselors and college administrators. Bravo!

    Alan Haas, CEP
    Independent Educational Consultant
    EDUCATIONAL FUTURES
    New Canaan, CT.
    educationalfutures.com

  • Morris Pelzel on August 30, 2011 2:53 PM:

    Very interesting, but what if your child's high school is not a client of ConnectEDU? Is there any way for individual students to participate apart from doing so through their high school?

  • DRF on August 30, 2011 3:10 PM:

    "Its hard to choose the right college." Actually, it isn't so hard, principally because, for most prospective college students, there are really lots of "right" colleges. If one is an academically competitive high school student, qualified to gain acceptance to one of the so-called "elite" colleges, one will discover that there a quite a large number of such schools. And, in truth, for the most part, these schools are pretty much all alike. Sure, there are some superficial differences--geographic location, size, public vs. private--but the academics at all of these schools are consistent.

    Most students are content with their experience at their college. Given how arbitrary students are in the selection process, this suggests that, with rare exceptions, students are going to be happy wherever they go (or, conversely, unhappy wherever they go).

  • George Leef on August 31, 2011 3:40 PM:

    This development is indeed interesting, but I am not persuaded that it is necessarily better for students like Jameel to go to "top" universities. The "top" schools do not teach their students calculus or chemistry or anything else better than do most other institutions. Often, the teaching of undergraduates is notably worse, as it is farmed out to grad students and often dominated by what Professor Murray Sperber calls "the faculty/student non-aggression pact." No doubt, many students are poorly matched to the schools at which they enroll, but going to a "better" school isn't always going to be an improvement.

  • Neal Holly on August 31, 2011 3:58 PM:

    I'm sure this sounds ideal for people for people who do not understand the complexity of the college access issue we have in the United States. However, someone has to pay for this service, the school system, the parent, the tax payer... there's a profit to be made indeed.

    If it is matter of finding the "right" college, students and parents can use the College Navigator, a free service through the U.S. Department of Education. While I appreciate Mr. Carey's attention in including Dr. Bowen's research and a brief history of the development of barriers to college access, I would have liked to have seen other examples of efforts to improve college access, beyond connectedu. The Virginia Wizard program is great example of a free service that helps students in Virginia choose academic and technical pathways and fins institutions that meet their needs.

    Barriers to college access begin far before the actual application process. Creating another for-profit screening system and common application for the masses will not help low-income and underrepresented students gain access to better institutions.

    While I agree with the author that new and focused resources will emerge to meet the needs of low-income and underrepresented students, focusing on funneling large populations of students to the most elite institutions in the country is not the only answer.

  • Andrea Poetzsch on September 01, 2011 1:02 PM:

    ConnectEDU is a great resource and a partner network of Zinch. If you haven't heard of Zinch, it's a scholarship search and college interaction site that is free for students. It's the new wave of college admissions and interaction with on-campus college counselors. Think, LinkedIn meets college admissions. Really an incredible tool.

  • Outreach Manager on September 01, 2011 7:34 PM:

    Andrea Poetzsch ... Spoken like a true outreach manager from Zinch ... Keep hawkin!

  • Bill Zyer on September 01, 2011 11:11 PM:

    It's astounding that only now, in 2011, are colleges fully automating their selection and admissions processes. The rest of the world embraced computerization decades ago.

  • Admissions officers become guidance counselors on September 02, 2011 6:02 PM:

    From the article: "If students accept his friend request, Brenzel and his staff can start asking them more questions about their academic aspirations. He can do this long before college applications are due, in the sophomore or junior year. If a student falls short on the SAT, Brenzel can encourage them to take it again. If they're wavering on enrolling in a tough math class in their senior year, he can explain how much colleges like Yale value the inclination to tackle difficult courses."

    Who at the colleges will be filling the role of school counselor for these students? And won't this mitigate (if not completely outweigh) any savings associated with admissions offices using ConnectEDU?

  • Josh K. on September 04, 2011 3:39 PM:

    Michael Bastedo and Oran Jaquette have an article out in the current issue of Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis that convincingly argues that eliminating "undermatching" will not do much good in terms of equalizing access to selective colleges (by the way, they also show that selective colleges have made strides since the 1990s in ameliorating undermatching).

    The problem is a lot more insidious: as selective colleges have come to give more and more weight to tested ability, kids from affluent families have been able to meet the ever-increasing high threshold to be considered entitled to attend a selective college.

    In other words, we need to tackle the arbitrarily high standards of merit used by selective college admissions officers that research shows has been increasing the past few decades. Upper-middle-class kids have been able to keep up with this; disadvantaged kids less so.

    Even granting that ConnectEDU will eliminate undermatching, I seriously doubt we will see a greater representation of disadvantaged students in selective colleges.

  • Steve Price on September 04, 2011 5:04 PM:

    I see at least two problems: the advantage will be to the tech-savvy kids in tech-rich districts, and it looks like another layer of too much information for kids inundated with with the nearly identical blather and glossy images of cute kids shot with stone and brick as fashion props.

    A middle school student starting to put together his college portfolio? Community colleges and state universities, like Northwest Missouri State University in Maryville, are still going to be educating the majority of good students. The admissions process might look like an electronic trading market to admissions officers, but the students are still just human beings in an enormously stressful transition. Unlike a commodities purchase, most don't want to abandon support of family and friends because they got friended by a cool looking school halfway across the country.

  • reidmc on September 05, 2011 6:31 PM:

    Interesting business concept, but the article reads like a press release. And I'm not really tracking what Yale is doing here, as their brand already brings them enough low-income kids, at a variety of GPA/test-score levels, to fill their classes twice-over.

  • Wend93283 on September 07, 2011 1:06 AM:

    Here's an old-style SAT verbal analogy for you to ponder, with correct (???) answer included: Facebook is to Myspace as ConnectEDU is to Naviance/Hobsons. Does Craig Powell want to be the next Mark Zuckerberg, privacy embarrassments, tell-all movies and all? Is it really true that the solution to the problem of inequality of condition and class privilege in our American higher education system can only be provided by education-is-a-business middlemen who own student confidential data to sell at a profit to elite institutions who can then continue business as usual without getting egg on their faces? Will this market-based model fly without legal challenges in the public (or private) education sector? Will this system really result in more students, especially underprivileged students, graduating from college? What are the privacy ramifications of this company owning access to all of this data on students who are have not yet reached the age of majority? (Ditto for Naviance - who is protecting student's privacy who use Naviance?) What are the ramifications of using electronic data to weed out students from the viable applicant pool unbeknownst to students, before students have even had to opportunity to investigate the schools or apply? Sorry, Mary Sue or Johnny, you may think you're a good fit for our institution, but our data tells us otherwise. Like the above poster asked, are the institutions using this system for kids from 7-12 really going to take primary responsibility to reach out and provide academic counseling to all the students who need it - really? Who's going to police the institutions' use of this data, and how much less transparency in the college admissions process will there be when decisions are made based on individual and aggregate data that no one gets to see except the people who pay for the privilege of access to the "product"? Who's to say that institutions that say they are using this product aren't still resorting to their same old methods of privileged access and manipulation of the market in attempts to achieve market dominance? Sorry for the blatant cynicism, but as much as there may be many benefits to such a system, this looks like one more company trying to cash in on the college market gravy train. All the talk of colleges having to explain their admissions policies when this system forces them to just sounds way too good to be true. I don't hear anything here that truly empowers students and families to function any better in an admissions marketplace that is dominated and controlled by the colleges and universities and their partner enrollment management business conglomerates.

  • Kathryn Miller, Miller Educational Consulting, Denver, CO on September 08, 2011 2:44 PM:

    As an independent educational consultant (who does not charge clients tens of thousands for my services!), I thoroughly enjoyed reading this historical perspective on the admissions process. I am fascinated by the evolution of ConnectEDU and see the value of its use to all students, but particularly my pro bono clients. Access to schools that are the best fit, academically, socially and financially, should be available for all students. I will continue to track the progress of ConnectEDU as a great tool to connect promising students with schools that might otherwise be unknown to them or considered out of reach. Thanks for the article!

  • Michael on September 16, 2011 9:31 AM:

    I googled Andrea Poetzsch. She works for Zinch. People looking at these comments must elimnate her attempt to advertise her company rather than commmenting on a thought provoking article.

  • mike on September 29, 2011 5:21 PM:

    I went to a standard middle class high school. My parents never received any degrees and I was raised in a single parent household. Besides the fact that I am a minority. I enrolled myself in a trade school, received an AS degree and started a career that now finds me with an additional AS, a BS and I just completed my Masters in December. I never spoke to any counselors in high school and did very poor on my SATs. Why was I able to pull myself up without all of this help that's required to help a minority succeed?

  • Jim on October 07, 2011 8:32 AM:

    Wow a fourteen year old who forgets his glasses can't find the right college? What a tragedy! Or maybe he can start looking at colleges when he is 15 or 16 and bring his glasses.

  • Ron Mexico on October 11, 2011 12:12 PM:

    Nice meaningless statistic: "MOST will either transfer or drop out."

    Presumably you are including community college students, who, you know, MOSTLY transfer to 4-year institutions before they finish an AA?

    Also: "buy shares of stock, bid on antiques, search for a job, or look for Mr. Right in 2011, you will likely go to a marketplace driven by the electronic exchange of information. There will be quick, flexible transactions, broad access to buyers and sellers, and powerful algorithms that efficiently match supply and demand."

    I don't bid on antiques. But the notion that the stock market is a model of perfectly informed buyers is, well, more than a little laughable. Markets aren't efficient. Try again.

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  • Milan Moravec on October 20, 2011 6:34 PM:

    University of California discrimination against Californians. Chancellor Robert J Birgeneau ($500,000 salary) displaces Californians qualified for public university education at Cal. for a $50,600 payment and a foreign passport. Need for transparency at UC Berkeley has never been so clear.

    UC Berkeley, ranked # 70 Forbes, is not increasing enrollment. Birgeneau accepts $50,600 FOREIGN students at the expense of qualified instate Californians.

    UC Regent Chairwoman Lansing and President Yudof agree to discriminate against Californians for foreigners. Birgeneau, Yudof, Lansing need to answer to Californians.

    Opinions make a difference; email UC Board of Regents marsha.kelman@ucop.edu

  • Tim McD on November 01, 2011 2:32 PM:

    You need to understand that many of those "mismatches" are students who go into state schools BECAUSE they are poor and are smart enough not to take out six figure debt for a degree they can get for $25K from a good state school, and end up with a good local job because the local businesses know what they get with local school graduates, and end up with happy productive lives, getting exactly what they want.

  • J. Knight on November 01, 2011 2:45 PM:

    This all sounds quite interesting. But no one can do anything for free, so one wonders who is picking up the tab for such companies as Zinch and ConnectEDU. If it's not the student, then who? My guess is that the taxpayer is on the hook again.

  • JGreene on November 01, 2011 3:06 PM:

    There should be an automated system for students that will suggest to them the courses they need to take in High School to prepare them for college and to steer them away from enrolling in nonsensical non-academic Studies Courses that will condemn them to non careers with huge debt loads.

    The larger issue for students today is COST. Colleges and Universities are cheating students with their unfortunate "diverse" studies courses which produce "certified numbskulls" after four years.

    Eliminate 1/2 of all College and University Administrators and abolish the diversity programs. Lower tuition and provide a common sense education for $10,000. Yale, Harvard and the "elite" institutions will be fine. Most college students are getting ripped off.

  • Mark in Sandy Eggo on November 01, 2011 4:20 PM:

    J. Knight and others have commented on how they do not know how this system is paid for. There are also comments that are skeptical on whether this helps kids like Jameel, or points to "free" systems from US Dept of Ed and Virginia instead of a "evil" for-profit solution.

    The article described the value proposition! The idea is instead of employing legions of admissions clerks to read all this paper, you have the data that can be processed (by non-humans) at the source - from the High School.

    Yes, there may be golden nuggets that are missed. But for every one that is found by a dedicated Admissions Clerk, how many are missed because it was the end of the day, or the Admissions Clerk that had a student's application package in their in basket basically didn't care.

    Colleges are getting top heavy with administration, often with administrators equal in number to actual teaching/researching professors. Admissions is a big part of that, since they are looked at to solve the diversity objectives at the college. What is the old school way to solve this - hire more Admissions Clerks. My son is a high school junior, and his school uses Naviance. It is too late in his cycle to affect any change to ConnectEDU, but having competitors in any market is a good thing.

  • PacRim Jim on November 01, 2011 5:52 PM:

    That's why the Democrats want to expand the public sector, since government has demonstrated that it will hire practically any idiot.

  • Plutarch on November 01, 2011 5:58 PM:

    Oh, my. Is it possible? Can serial incompetence in cartelized education be rescued by magical algorithms? Perhaps irrational belief in algorithms is all that's left to cling to.

    The behemoths of sports will soon cleave from the NCAA and the vulgar, duplicitious and greedy grip of the university administrations. This cryptic for-profit industry doesn't need the academy to justify it's existence.

    As for the rest of Foucault's Preening America, the entire parlor society of postmodern Academe is at the precipice of going down like the Titantic. Unthinkable, I know. Yet lurking within these grand pretentious parlors of institutional majesty which float in detached grandure upon the deep sea of human reality, many timbers are rotted; the welds, corrupted by rust, hubris and pretensions of every sort.

    These fatally corrupt victorian monoliths are unsustainable. Institutionally, they are artifacts of conceit; the byproduct of decades of behavioralist racketeering. In no small way, they will sink to the bottom of hollow relevance like a stone; hollow hull split wide open by something authentic and solid.

    Onward shall the moribund scows of the victorian creed sail. They birth no talent. They create no cardinal idea.

    Their captive economy of accrediting parasitism is rapidly coming to a close. The fabulisms of their pretensions has simply become too ridiculous; too expensive; too disingenuous for a reasonably competent and intelligent person to endure.


  • J. Knight on November 01, 2011 6:01 PM:

    Look, I was one of the first to say that administrative bloat is one of the primary drivers of higher education costs, and if I thought for one minute that universities would deep-six all the admission clerks in favor of Zinch I would be happy. I'm just saying that the probibility is we will have both, and both at the taxpayer's expense.

    Let me also say that every High School I've ever seen has counselors who should be competant enough to advise students on college choices, or they should be fired. I'm pretty sure that this constant push for students to enter Ivy League and elite colleges is just a waste of time and resources anyway, and is one of the problems driving debt and costs as well.

    My oldest son graduated from high school in the top quarter of his class, made a 27 on his ACT, attended a small public college(6000 students), graduated in 4 years with no debt, and went to work with a starting salary of $70,000 a year. Two years later he makes six figures, owns his vehicle, and has bought a house. It's not nearly as complicated as you folks want to make it. His degree was in Mechanical Engineering, one of the sought after degrees. I would recommend Jameel Reid do the same thing since he has an interest in math. The company my son works for is seeking qualified engineers right now, and since there is not one minority now on staff, he would be assured a job. The company is begging for minority engineers as we speak.

  • Dopey on November 01, 2011 9:41 PM:

    Dude, you spelled "grandeur" incorrectly.

  • allabout on February 27, 2012 5:17 AM:

    thanks for nice information. The problem is a lot more insidious: as selective colleges have come to give more and more weight to tested ability, kids from affluent families have been able to meet the ever-increasing high threshold to be considered entitled to attend a selective college.some information about universities and colleges
    if possible visit http://allaboutedu.com/universities-and-colleges