The World According to Harp
The Admission Problem
I can’t say I was surprised by the recent news that Harvard and Princeton plan to drop early decision and early action, respectively, beginning with next year’s applicants – there had been talk of it for several years. One of the disadvantages to such programs is that they discriminate against lower-income applicants who need or would prefer to compare financial aid packages before committing to attend a school. This reasoning is perfectly legitimate. But when the announcement was first made, the emphasis was put on the fact that eliminating early action/decision programs would lessen anxiety associated with the application process. This makes no sense to me. Going into the admissions process, most students – I was one of them – doubt that they will be good enough to get into the colleges they want to attend, or worse, be good enough to get in anywhere. For these students, to receive an acceptance letter in Dec. is the greatest and most stress-relieving thing that could happen all year. What good does it do to carry that stress, and the question of “will I?” or “won’t I?”, with them until March? Even students who do not get accepted during the early phase are helped, because they are alerted to the fact that they may need to put in additional applications before the customary Jan. or Feb. 1 deadlines. Princeton and Harvard may be alone in their decision, but if other colleges follow suit they will drastically change the admissions landscape.
In the larger scheme of things, though, it is not when you find out that is the barometer of anxiety. More stressful for applicants is the fact that colleges have become increasingly more and more selective and more difficult to get in to. Don’t get me wrong – I think the fact that the quality of students at colleges is a great thing which can only improve the experience for the entire student body at those colleges and universities. The progression seems to be that schools that were once considered second or third tier in comparison to Ivy League schools are moving up in the ranks, while schools once considered safeties or ones that the average student with good grades could get into have now become out of reach for those students.
What is happening as a result is that colleges are creating an interesting – and dangerous – high school culture. It is a culture in which students are involved in activities and classes from dawn until dusk and are increasingly getting fewer and fewer hours of sleep each night. Students are attempting to create a stellar “resume” to present to colleges. It used to be called credentialing, but now it is more than that. No longer can you simply be a member attending meetings; instead, you have to be the president of the community service group and have played piano from the age of four. This same problem of over-involvement often carries over to college, but addressing the problem at its roots may help quash the trend. Unfortunately, some parents have begun to take this too seriously as well, essentially “breeding” their children in order to get them the best education possible, often times to their children’s detriment in the long run. I don’t know how to fix this problem exactly. It will not be an easy one to fix, especially not quickly.
Identifying the problem is the first step. As President Durden alluded to in his convocation address, the admissions process in this country is one that needs to be rethought, and it is my hope that sooner rather than later changes will be made so that it will be one that keeps in mind how it is affecting the lives of applicants who then become students.
Side-by-side with the stress of being “good enough” to get into college is the stress of how to pay for it. The cost of college is a stress-inducing factor that deserves as much attention as early application and unreasonable application qualifications. Many families need financial aid to help cover the costs of college, even though a large segment of those families does not normally qualify for need-based aid. As colleges begin to consider abandoning merit aid because it is more often used as a marketing tool than to reward students for the strong academic performance that is basically required to get into a prestigious school, these families are left with fewer and fewer options as to how to pay for school. College tuition now increases at an average rate of eight percent a year in this country, which represents nearly twice the rate of general inflation, according to finaid.org. This means that tuition doubles every nine years. Scary, isn’t it? Along with those thoughts about what we seniors will be doing after we graduates comes thoughts about family somewhere down the road. Most of us hope our children will attend college just as we have. Yet, if that hope comes true, it will cost nearly $500,000 to send our children to college in twenty-some years. Am I the only one who thinks this is just a bit ridiculous? If something does not change soon, I will need to start saving now so that my kids can go to college.
I appreciate that colleges are beginning to take steps to even the playing field for applicants. I hope that they will continue to re-examine the admissions culture as it exists today, taking into account its ultra-competitive nature and the astronomical cost of attending school. If colleges want to make real change, it is going to take more than simply eliminating early admissions.