The college admission process wasn’t nearly as anxiety-producing thirty years ago. Parents who haven’t been through it yet have heard horror stories from friends and relatives, but they don’t understand why things are so different now.
Today, more students apply to college. Thirty years ago, half of high school graduates applied to college, but now over two thirds submit applications. Back then, those that did apply usually stayed closer to home, often only applying to public universities in their state. Today’s students apply more widely.
They also end up with more debt. The continuing increases in applications at expensive schools, even those that do not promise to meet full financial need, suggest that despite or perhaps because of an uncertain economy, families still see a college degree, especially from a brand name school, as important for their children’s future and worth the financial sacrifice.
Parents are often shocked at how much more expensive college is today. College costs have outpaced inflation. The new, well-equipped science centers you see on so many campuses are expensive. Labor costs have gone up in higher education, just as in other industries. But in manufacturing, productivity can also increase with technological advances. It is more difficult to increase efficiency on campus without losing the personal attention that students and parents expect in college.
The application process has become easier in some ways, more difficult in others. Thirty years ago, students had to type and mail each application. Today, applications are done online. The Common Application means students no longer have to prepare a separate application for each college. The convenience of the Common Application and the anxiety about getting into a good school motivate students to apply to more colleges. In 1989, only 16 percent of students applied to six or more colleges. By 2009, 33 percent applied to at least six colleges. Many students now apply to 10 or 15 schools, driven by the fear that they will be rejected by most schools.
The anxiety that students feel is mirrored in colleges, where admissions officers are under more pressure to keep increasing
their application numbers. Colleges compete with rival schools to look more selective and desirable, and to get high rankings, which have become a priority for families obsessed with “best” schools. Colleges engage in aggressive marketing techniques, as families see when the dazzling viewbooks start arriving.
Thirty years ago, students were usually competing in a smaller applicant pool, with other students from similar backgrounds. Today, admissions officers have expanded their recruiting efforts, both across the country and internationally. The deluge of
applicants with near perfect grades and high test scores makes admission to highly selective colleges more unpredictable. Admissions officers choose one high achieving student while turning down another as they attempt to craft the ideal freshman class.
What has not changed dramatically is the number of available seats; most colleges have not increased capacity. When you have more students applying for roughly the same number of spaces, fewer students will be admitted.
College admission may be more competitive and anxiety-producing today, but students can choose to make this process less stressful. Focus on the programs and characteristics that are most important to you in a college, and then find schools of varying selectivity that offer what you want.