Perhaps more so now than in the past 30 years I have been in education, there are myths abounding about college admissions that are not only misleading, they are simply wrong.
1) Admission into college, particularly the most selective, is capricious and random.
Actually, college admission is more systematic than it has ever been. For one, it is much easier to predict inadmissibility than ever before. When the most selective colleges are routinely admitting fewer than 10%, and recently, under 6% of the applicants who apply, there are few outside of the “hooked” students (under-represented students, legacies and athletes) who are admitted who are not in the top 2 or 3 of their graduating class and under 2250 on the SAT’s or 35 on the ACT. And those students have to in some way have distinguished themselves. Unfortunately for those applying, what determines admission is not random, it is just unknown to those who apply. The unknown is the “shopping list”, the institutional priorities that determine who gets admitted and who does not. Some shopping lists are known and public. When the President of Vanderbilt was quoted in a 2002 Wall Street Journal article that “we are targeting Jewish students,” it was a clear statement of something that was on this university’s shopping list. Most of the time, it is less clear or direct. It was not hard to surmise that Columbia, after almost setting an NCAA record for consecutive losses in football, probably had a strong quarterback high on its shopping list. Sometimes colleges want to bolster their strengths, like women in the sciences at some all-women’s colleges, whereas others want to address their needs, like classics majors at Johns Hopkins. The point is that college admissions is systematic and nuanced, and can more often be inferred than known or predicted.
2) Admission to a prestigious college is an important credential that will virtually guarantee career success. College Admissions has become the Cargo Cult of the modern age. The most selective colleges can nearly guarantee success of their students because they have the freedom to exclude students who present any risk. They choose an incredibly homogeneous student body that has endured a virtual academic boot camp to meet the minimum standards for admissions. In their seminal paper a decade ago, Krueger and Dale found that students, who were accepted into the most selective colleges and chose not to go, were as successful at those who chose to go to the more selective colleges. In a follow up study a couple of years ago, they found that those even those students who applied to the most selective colleges, whether admitted or not, were also as successful at those who attended the most selective colleges. The conclusion of both studies is that it is the qualities of the students, not the colleges, which determined success. Yes, all other things being equal, a student entering the investment banking industry right out of undergraduate school may have a leg up coming from an Ivy League college. But in most other circumstances, whether applying to graduate school or entering the work force in most other fields, it is much easier to distinguish oneself by presenting Ivy League credentials from a less prestigious school. My son, a Presidential Scholar at Rutgers University, won a both a prestigious Critical Language Learning Fellowship and a Fulbright Scholarship to study and work in Turkey, being selected over many of his peers who attended more prestigious colleges. The other students had many fewer opportunities to distinguish themselves among such a large group of high achieving students that they virtually cancelled each other out in the competition.
3) Selectivity is an indication of quality
I read a comment on the NY Times college admission blog The Choice that said ” It is one thing for De Beers to artificially inflate the price of diamonds by constraining supply. It is quite another thing for the Ivy League, et al., to do the same.” Wearing and owning diamonds is about prestige. No one would say possessing and wearing diamonds is anything other than a display of wealth, prestige and standing. It all gets mixed up with college admissions, because there is a confusion of selectivity with the quality of education. If anyone really believes that because a college becomes more selective it becomes better, they do not have a firm grasp of reality. It is a sign of it being more desirable and nothing more. It is about power, not education. No one is forcing people to go to one of these ridiculously competitive colleges, and, in reality, most provide an education where graduate students and professor research trumps undergraduate student engagement and learning. But we can’t stop people from wanting diamonds and Ivy, but we can make choices for ourselves that there is really no virtue in either.
4) It is harder than ever to get into college.
A 2009 article in the Journal of Economic Perspectives (http://pubs.aeaweb.org/doi/pdfplus/10.1257/jep.23.4.95) found that only 10% of colleges are more selective than they were in 1962 and the vast majority of colleges are substantially less selective.
5) Costs have risen dramatically at the more selective colleges.
In the article referenced above, it was shown that subsidies for those at the most selective colleges have increased 8-fold since the early 1960’s and the average tuition paid, in real dollars, has declined by over 25% in the past 45 years. The category where costs have risen the greatest is public colleges, though the average cost of tuition and fees at public colleges ($8655) and community college ($3131) remains affordable and can be covered in full by the maximum 2013-14 Pell Grant ($5635) and subsidized (3.4% interest rate) Stafford Loan ($3500 for freshman).