Getting in: highs and lows of the college process

As is always the case in June, seniors are preparing to move to the next phase in their lives and the rest of the school is looking on with anticipation and a hint of fear. Soon, all of us will stand ready to leave the building, to go to a college, to a job, or out into the world.

For many, this move involves college, and more specifically the college admissions process. Is there a pattern to the madness?  

Myra Ross has been the college advisor at ARHS for the past 11 years, and has been guiding students through the college process in some capacity for the past 18 years. During this time, Ms. Ross has helped countless students navigate the admissions process.

The situation today is far different from that faced by parents, relatives, and teachers. Ms. Ross points to a rise in the competitive nature of admissions and to the difficulty of paying for college after acceptance as the culprits.

“It’s become very unaffordable for kids to go to college,” said Ms. Ross. “The competition for the schools that have money to give out has become so intense that it causes a lot of problems for kids with anxiety [and] with depression.”

Enrollment in colleges has increased over the past several decades; however, as growth in the number of domestic students has slowed, colleges have been forced to compensate. “To make up for the declining national enrollment they’ve gone after wealthy international students,” said Ms. Ross.

International students do not have access to the same financial aid as U.S. citizens, and this enables colleges giving aid to high performing students from low income families to continue making money by enrolling greater numbers of full-pay foreign students.

“It’s just gotten much harder unless you’re a top top performer or unless you are able to pay,” said Ms. Ross. Middle income students are often unable to get adequate aid at all but the most selective and wealthy colleges and must rely increasingly on large-scale loans.

Another group that faces major challenges is middle and low income students from international backgrounds who have been residing within the U.S. “In many cases they are not eligible for financial aid,” said Ms. Ross. These students, too “American” for colleges searching for “international perspectives,” are faced with an uphill financial battle.

One of the biggest causes and results of more competitive college admissions is a change in expectations. Students think they need to do more to get in, and as a result this becomes increasingly true (at least in the highest ranked colleges).

According to a 2009 working paper from the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER), the percentage of students who take AP tests has risen from around five percent (in New England and less elsewhere) in the 1970’s to around 38 percent in the 2000s. This number continues to rise, and the formerly dramatic differences between regions have shrunk to where most of the country is on an equal footing.

Similarly, the report shows the percentage of students spending time doing volunteer work has risen continuously during that time period, which the authors attribute to pressure from the changing admissions climate.

As students work to achieve more during high school, they also increasingly have the means and ability to apply to a larger number of schools. The percentage of students applying to more than seven schools has also steadily risen, as the rise of digital technology and the prevalence of the common application has allowed students to both research and apply to colleges with ease.

As with volunteer work and advanced classes, students’ belief that more applications will give them the advantage has ended up raising expectations for all those applying to selective four year institutions. Due to the pressure caused by the flood of applications from students applying to numerous schools, the odds of getting into a specific school have decreased, and more and more students are forced to send more applications.

Lastly, a separate paper from the NBER showed a vast growth in both the number of early application programs and in the number of early applicants across the country. With more students sending information to schools that they are not as invested in, selective colleges have increasingly favored those who apply early decision and show strong specific interest over those in the general application pool.

Thinking about the college process can be stressful. Frances Duncan, who graduated last year and is now attending Smith College, gave this advice. “Have more fun with the process,” said Duncan. “There is so much stress around the whole thing and I think a lot of that is unnecessary, not because it’s not important and challenging but because I don’t think stress is very productive.”

While this may seem difficult, there are steps that can be taken. An important one is talking to Ms. Ross and to other adults. “If you’re not sure of something, ask, and don’t be afraid because you feel like you should have done it already — you’re not the only one,” said Duncan.