Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Is admissions an arms race?

And if so, are we "disarming" this year?

Princeton has decided to follow Harvard and get rid of early admissions, a practice that they believe disadvantages low-income students, who, when they are bound to a particular college, cannot compare financial aid decisions between colleges. The funny thing is, though, that Harvard does not practice early decision. Harvard is single-choice early action, which is non-binding.

The only conclusion I can draw is that they are not making this change as Harvard and Princeton, but as "Harvard" and as "Princeton," in hopes that other universities will follow suit. The University of Delaware actually declared that it would abandon early admission last May, but it did not get nearly the press coverage that Harvard and Princeton are getting. It also took a conference in June among presidents of highly selective universities to seriously call early admissions into question.

However, there is a general tone of anxiety in college admissions right now that is leading many universities to want to call even more practices into question, such as the pervasiveness of merit scholarships or tuition discounting, or the very value of hyper-selective admissions. The New York Times article on Princeton's decision brings some of these issues to light. Why do we need to apply to colleges that we probably won't get into? Why do schools feel the need to give huge sums of money to students who are perfectly capable of paying themselves, to the detriment of low-income students? Both students and colleges feel intense pressure, the students to get into top colleges, and the colleges to attract those top students.

I think that an even more dramatic and beneficial move than nixing early admission would be if all colleges were required to give out financial aid money to needy students only.

But there is also a tendency in the media to overemphasize the amount of pressure and prep in the college admissions process. Less than one half of one percent of all students are probably getting professional coaching outside of their appointed college counselor. The media is also slow to see the benefits of a private counselor. In most of the country, there is only one college counselor for 500 students. In California, my territory, there is one college counselor for every 1000 students. Some counseling services are extremely affordable, and can be very helpful for students whose parents didn't go to college, or who are the first in their generation to navigate this new system.

What are your thoughts on the current state of college admissions?