Monday, November 17, 2014

H.S. Seniors Err By Over-Applying to Selective Colleges

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Me, as a high school senior: I didn't know at this time (March, 1964) that Pace had sent in my transcripts 2 weeks past the MIT deadline.

According to a recent NY Times piece, thousands of high school seniors across the land are going batshit nuts applying to 25 to 40 "select" colleges and universities each - somehow believing this scattershot approach will give them a better chance of getting into Bennington, Harvard or Dartmouth. It won't. But try telling them and their overweening, Type -A personality parents!

This compares to 50 years ago when the typical academic stream student applied to maybe 5 or 6 schools in toto. I applied to 5, received scholarship offers from three and accepted one. (One, for MIT, went unanswered and I later learned the Pace High admissions office had sent my transcripts in 2 weeks too late. I take it philosophically, and as wifey has wryly observed, had that not occurred I'd likely never have gone into Peace Corps, or met her and we'd never have married.)

Back then, bear in mind, the population pressure was much lower, there were roughly half the people now on Earth and the U.S. population was barely 185 m compared to over 315 m today. This meant there were naturally fewer applications going out and hence higher acceptance rates to the elite schools. Perhaps twice the rates seen today.

Today all that's changed. Every manjack now wants the best, best, best and won't settle for State U.  despite the fact that state universities are vastly less costly (think less student debt on leaving). The fact is, it makes very little difference which university you attend (assuming it isn’t a ‘for profit’ or online version). It is more the cachet and reputation of the specific department.  From the May 2011 issue of MONEY magazine: "Don't assume an Ivy League education is better than one from a public or state university."

MONEY found that  'bang for the buck' included college graduation rates and post-college success rates - which compared favorably to - or exceeded  - what one obtained from the hallowed Ivies. Alas, this has still not trickled down into the mainstream media where we still find "Best Colleges" lists spread around with the Ivy Leagues on top - then all the rest. So no wonder students and their parents are neurotically driven to believe the Ivies are the  only route to success. But it is absurd to believe hyper-application enhances chances of acceptance.

If the students themselves had the most remote inkling of probability they'd understand they are uniformly decreasing their odds.  Michael Carter of St. Stephen’s & St. Agnes School in Alexandria, Virginia, has correctly observed it's "not like the lottery". Ab initio in a lottery, every person who buys a ticket has an equal chance of winning. Never mind it's minuscule, the probability is equal per person. One can enhance the probability minutely by purchasing more tickets- say 150 as opposed to one- though the chances of winning are still relatively small.

By contrast, more applications sent out to colleges does not enhance the chance of "winning" and you can only send ONE application per select school. Thus, if tens of thousands of selective school wannabes flood the elite colleges (the same ones all their selective peers wish to attend) it does not bode well for any of them - and indeed, the acceptance rates have to plummet since they are a function of the number of students applying.

Consider: if 400 of 10,000 applicants are accepted each year by Elite U. and in the next year the applicants double to 20,000, then if the college doesn't change its intake numbers the acceptance rate must plummet, in this case, from 4 percent to 2 percent.

Maybe it's a case of adolescent brains not being fully developed. According to Lisa Sohmer, Director of college counseling at the Garden School in Jackson Heights, Queens, NY:

"The funny thing about 17-year-olds is when you tell them that only 10 percent of students are accepted to school X, they never make the connection — even the math ones — that 90 percent are denied.”

Maybe it's because they are eternal optimists!
Sohmer, quoted in the Times piece, said she had found that when students file 20 or more applications, “they’ve loaded on lots of ultracompetitive schools, so their list becomes disproportionately top-heavy. Or they throw in lots of schools at the end where they’re overqualified.”

A far better way to increase one’s chances, she asserts, is to come up with a manageable but carefully selected list of schools and get serious about them. That means actually going to visit them and inquire more fully about the programs in which one is interested.
Look at it also from the perspective of the elites' admissions offices. Thus dealing with students who have applied to 25 other colleges (apart from 'Elite U.')  can make it hard for admissions officers to manage their "yield" — the percentage of accepted students who actually enroll. That can hurt the college’s position in prestigious national rankings, since enrolled students are what count..
No surprise then many colleges have begun emphasizing “demonstrated interest”,  small but often telling indicators of how badly students really want to attend. In the words of Patrick O’Connor, associate dean of college counseling at the Cranbrook Kingswood Upper School in Bloomfield Hills, MI:
If they’re within a reasonable distance of the campus, did they visit? Did they attend a college night and fill out a card? Have they contacted a rep to ask some legitimate questions?”
Nine will get you ten that most of those doing the scatter shot approach for select universities haven't done any of these things.

Marie Bigham, director of college counseling at the Greenhill School in Addison, Texas, said, “You can’t be a competitive, strong applicant without demonstrating interest, and you can’t do that at 25 schools.”

Indeed. So why try to make believe you have that interest when your actions disclose you don't?

Last but not least, one of the sorriest stories I ever beheld concerned a young woman that finally got into the school of her choice (Tulane) but reaped little reward. This appeared about four years ago in the UTNE Reader. She had a spectacular four years and even graduated magna cum laude. And what was her story at the end? Over $100k in debt and yes, she was working as a barista.
Maybe students (and their parents) need to spend less time wasting money on application fees (up to $80 each) , gripped by "success panic" and more conscious time following the MONEY magazine advice. They may not get into Elite U., but they won't find themselves working as baristas with hundred thousand dollar debts either.
In a future blog post, I will deal with the need for the U.S. to get over its college obsession and to start looking at training more students (many more) in the vocational - technical arenas like Germany does. As reported in the Denver Post Saturday, Colorado now needs 47 percent more  workers to fill "middle skill" jobs: RNs, airplane mechanics, auto mechanics, electricians, plumbers etc.
A terrific aspect of the German "master craftsman" model is that once one gets through the program required - including taking a number of examinations- he receives the equivalent recognition (including a certificate) of a Bachelors' degree. This is achieved with no additional cost.
Something we all need to think about to reduce the spiraling student debt that has now exceeded $1 trillion.

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