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College Applications: More Isn’t Better–Part II

Thursday, November 11th, 2010

The Chronicle of Higher Education recently started collaborating with The New York Times, and the result is in-depth, high-quality reporting on issues of interest to the academic community. In the first article stemming from the team effort, Chronicle reporter Eric Hoover tackled the topic of application inflation. In his comprehensive and thorough overview of the reasons behind the spike in college applications nationwide, Hoover acknowledges that some increase in applications was inevitable as the number of college-bound students has grown. However, he also points to aggressive marketing and recruiting on the part of universities as a contributing factor.

“Admissions officers are chasing not so much a more perfect student as a more perfect class,” Hoover writes. “In a given year, this elusive ideal might require more violinists, goalies, aspiring engineers, or students who can pay the full cost of attendance. Colleges everywhere want more minority students, more out-of-state students, and more students from overseas.

“The pursuit reveals the duality of the modern college. It’s a place that serves the public interest, and a business with a bottom line. Although the tension between mission and marketing has long defined admissions, many believe the balance has tilted too far toward marketing. “

The article also includes interviews with some of the key players in the admissions world. Here’s an overview of what they had to say on the topic of application inflation:

 “It’s a classic arms race—escalation for not a whole lot of gain. I don’t think these larger applicant pools are materially improving the quality of their classes. Now what’s driving it is the institutional self-interest factor, where bigger pools mean you’re more popular, you’re better.”

Karl M. Furstenberg, former dean of admissions and financial aid, Dartmouth College

“Don’t kid yourselves, the presidents and trustees want you to have more applications. If you don’t think that’s the case, I don’t know what schools you’re working at, but it’s true.”

James G. Nondorf, dean of college admissions and financial aid, University of Chicago

“The pressure for more applications isn’t offset by an equal pressure for less, and no college wants to consciously put itself in a weaker competitive position.”

Christoph Guttentag, dean of undergraduate admissions, Duke

 “Nobody wants to go back to the bad old days, when getting into America’s top colleges was like knowing a secret handshake. If we started cutting back, applications would go down from the students who need real outreach.”

William R. Fitzsimmons, dean of admissions, Harvard