The rejected now walk among us. Many colleges released final admissions decisions over the last few days. Once again, the most selective institutions report record highs in number of applicants and record lows in those accepted.
The ivory tower’s entry narrows against a backdrop of declining faith in college degrees. More than half of Americans think earning a four-year degree is a bad bet, according to a recent Wall Street Journal/NORC poll. More irony: People ages 18-34, and those with college degrees, are the most skeptical.
Like everything else, higher education divides America deeply. The problem is not a lack of seats; nearly 4,000 institutions in the US grant associate’s, bachelor’s, or graduate degrees. Rather, it’s that too many applicants seek undergraduate admission to the same 150-200 elite names, creating a shortage that doesn’t need to exist.
“Everyone wants a piece of the same pie, and the pie is the same size, and the slices are smaller,” says Tamar Adegbile, a former college-admissions officer and director of student wellbeing and college counseling at Avenues, a private school with campuses around the world. “If people fixate on the same 25 [schools], that will not end well.”
And so Type-A parents helping children navigate college admissions must learn anew what we think we know (blunt talk: what worked for you will not work today) and change our approach to both the process and our parenting. For families who want entry to elite schools yet also care about equity in education, it means looking deeply at our choices and language, making space for others, and fighting for access on behalf of more than just our own kids. Getting this balance right has implications far beyond education, extending into the workplaces these college graduates will enter and affecting the skills, gumption, and flexibility they will need to thrive there.
The acceptance landscape
The obsession with an “elite” education has changed the very definition of an elite university. Northeastern University received a record 96,327 applications this year, up 50% from four years ago. The incoming class only has room for 2,600 students on the flagship campus in Boston, with a few hundred accepted to satellite campuses. The overall acceptance rate is less than 6%, a record low, says Northeastern Chancellor Ken Henderson. That puts the schools admit rate below or on par with those of Brown, Cornell, and Dartmouth in the Ivy League.
The numbers accepted are higher than those who actually enroll, and anxious families crunch odds among early decision (two cycles of it), early action, regular decision, and those accepted off waitlists. This constant calculus marks another shift in modern college admissions: It’s a year-round affair. “What we saw this year is that schools tried to spread out the workload,” says Jeffrey Selingo, author of the must-read Who Gets In and Why: A Year Inside College Admissions. “A lot of colleges leaned into the early action and publicized it a lot more. Everybody applied earlier and earlier.”
The result, though, was a slew of deferrals, meaning an applicant is not quite rejected but pushed for review into the general pool.
“Really talented students all are applying to the same schools,” says Selingo. “And they’re not getting in because there are thousands of applicants just like them.”
This “abundance of riches” for the colleges, he says, means they hesitated to outright deny students because they might still need someone from Kansas, or a trombone player, or a designer to fill the architecture program. But they don’t know if someone better might come along.
Really, what does it take to get into a selective school these days?
I asked Northeastern’s Henderson, who cites “fit” and uses a phrase I hear a lot these days from colleges: “holistic admissions.” Universities want well-rounded students, sure, but they are essentially curating a well-rounded class and campus and experience; think of each student making up a part of a greater whole. “We're also looking for students who can make the most of what the university offers,” Henderson says, adding that a global perspective and interest in research are also criteria.
Renowned for its co-op program, Northeastern requires undergraduates to work for six months in areas related to their academics or intended career. Indeed, families increasingly include co-op or real-world work experience as a criteria when forming college lists. The more-than-century-old co-op program has roots in the idea of “earn-to-learn,” meaning students used the job placements to pay for college. Some 71% of applicants to the incoming Northeastern class are nonwhite, and the co-op helps allay concerns over the college’s return on investment. Thus, there’s no false choice, especially for people of color or first-generation college goers, between work or study.
Nothing is like what it used to be.
A student’s name appears on the application, but parents play an outsized role in the decision-making. As higher-education costs soar, more than three-quarters of parents pay at least a portion of their child’s tuition, according to research from Sallie Mae.
Further, the nature of competition means that parents and counselors must serve as both cheerleaders and voices of reason. All. Year. Long. It means being enthusiastic about the safety school, and ensuring it induces as much excitement as the dream or “reach” schools. It means assuring children (yes, they are still children) a college’s rejection is not an indictment of them or their achievements, that their record of grades, tests, clubs is indeed something to be proud of. Even a word like “rejected” or “rejection,” which I’ve used liberally in this column, is questionable when families discuss their options. And remember to stop and remind them (and yourselves) what all this is for: to continue learning.
“Everybody is scrambling to the top,” says Sam Adewumi, president and founder of CAS Prep, which tutors kids for competitive exams to get into New York City’s top high schools, which in turn is supposed to help get them into the country’s top colleges, “but what does that really mean?”
It’s not going to get easier.
Among the reasons more people are applying to these particular colleges: the implementation of the Common Application, which started off as a booklet with a dozen or so institutions nearly 50 years ago and today is accepted digitally by more than 1,000 institutions around the world. That growth further hastened in the pandemic by a number of universities going “test optional,” meaning applicants didn’t need to submit an SAT or ACT score for consideration.
If you thought these recent pandemic or post-pandemic years were a fluke, think again. Most college experts think admissions will remain as or more competitive in the near term. Graduating class size will peak with the high school class of 2025 before declining until 2030, when it starts to even out.
But these demographics are not what’s fueling the admissions frenzy on their own, reminds Selingo. “You’re essentially going to have fewer people applying to college,” he says. “But they are still all applying to the same set of schools.”
How to center equity
A looming threat to the composition of college campuses will be the US Supreme Court decision on affirmative action, expected in June. In some ways, though, universities have already been prepping and future-proofing their ability to assemble diverse classes. Applications, for example, often ask students to share aspects of their identity. And keeping standardized tests optional can help ensure that candidates are evaluated on the entirety of their package without being screened out by low scores.
Critics of the policy, though, say elite colleges might want to specify they mean “test-preferred” versus “test-optional;” indeed, this unspoken preference may be the only way to explain why average standardized scores have fallen across the country, but are on the rise at elite colleges, another growing divide between on-the-ground reality and those in the scarcity bubble.
It is this scarcity we should fight. Selingo notes that one way to ease the admissions crunch is to add more seats, which unfortunately has not gained much momentum among the colleges themselves. Another is to change our behaviors to share opportunity and focus on the collective, where possible. Are you paying for a tutor to proof your child’s college essays or advocating that the guidance office hosts sessions for the entire school? As an employer, are you only offering internships to the teenage children of your friends, or are you contacting a local organization to see if they have diverse candidates?
I belong to many Facebook groups devoted to raising children and getting them into the right camps, daycares, activities, schools, and, eventually, college. In post after post, parents greet news of a student’s acceptance with a demand to know their stats. Given what we know about how colleges make decisions, this type of sizing up seems an unnecessary and tortuous exercise. Rattling off scores or GPAs won’t answer the stuff of admissions: whether a teen plays the trombone or collects Korean War memorabilia, researches the sound of woodpeckers or designs sustainable ways to wash denim.
The coming affirmative-action decision is a test of our ability to embrace such diversity in all its forms. My next column focuses on Lee Bollinger as he exits his role as president of Columbia University. Notably at the center of two high court affirmative action decisions, Bollinger’s swan song is a book making the constitutional case for affirmative action. I preview a part of our conversation here because something he said in our interview resounds profoundly: “Americans must share. And by that, I mean increasing access. The time has come to evolve from the zero-sum-game mindset that has defined the college-admissions process… We must make room in the classroom and at the conference table for nontraditional voices, for people who have historically been denied access.”
Interestingly, when I ask college-admissions folks or parents themselves how they reconcile the desire for admission to a brand-name university with equity for others, I am greeted with silence. And yet countless times, and increasingly it seems, I hear from friends after a college tour, disappointed, saying their child will not be happy there because it’s too white, too rich, too elite. Besides the values mismatch, even they seem to have realized that such environments hardly prepare you for the real world.