How the invisible enemy will wreck college admissions and reset it (for the better)
The week before Thanksgiving 2019, I was presenting to a group of parents of college-bound high schoolers who were extremely nervous about the whole “college admissions game.” Game? What game?
They were particularly concerned about their child going to a school that “must be ranked high, otherwise he/she would end up with no job.” But they understood, those schools as “impossible to get into.” Major of study or careers is “secondary as long as my son/daughter gets in one of those schools.” Career and major are secondary to the college of choice? If we are worried about jobs at the end of this, why are they secondary? How could that be?
Then came one mom who was frazzled about her son receiving “a personal invitation to apply to a ‘super selective’ college.” How is that possible? Her son, after all, was “just a middle of the road, 2.7 GPA, 24 ACT, barely making through regular classes.” Was that a mistake?
Shortly after, a dad asked about additional options for footing the $60K/year bill for his daughter’s upcoming first year in college. $60K/year… That’s a brand new BMW or a decent country cabin to have vacations… Every year for four years.
After having to calm the nerves of over 50 parents with facts and data with some real-life examples from our students, it occurred to me: The college admissions bubble – which we knew had long existed – has blown so big that it creates questions, anxiety, and panic.
These were the Pre-COVID19 days for higher education and college admissions — otherwise known as the “dark ages of higher education.” Those of us who have worked in or around college admissions for years would attest that this “bubble” would burst somehow, some time. We just didn’t think it would be burst by something that’s only visible via a super sensitive microscope.
And yes, you heard that right. PRE-COVID19 days were indeed the dark ages (but only for parents and students — not for “prestigious” colleges, that is) for college admissions as parents and students were forced to live by the rules set by the “top 200, most prestigious” colleges that you’d find in any and every rank published in print or online. And the other 3,800+ colleges… They “aspired” to be breaking in that 200 somehow and in some way by playing the game by those rules. This was the “college admissions game” I mentioned earlier.
Rules of the College Admissions Game in Pre-COVID19
- Colleges sought to make it in the
national rankings so they looked and felt more selective.
- This was not entirely on the colleges. This was more on our society’s rules and expectations. In their college search, parents and/or students either self-guided or misguided by someone to look through rankings first. As we have been living in the “click and become popular” society for over 15 years now, these rankings also became extra popular, and this popularity often meant legitimacy. Most colleges in return made this game rule #1 as their top marketing priority.
and students believed attending a highly selective college automatically led to
future success, no matter the career path or major.
- This was perhaps what ticked me off the most about the pre-COVID19 college admissions game. Just because the college is more selective in admissions, it was perceived as if the graduates from this college will have better success, more pay, and better future than someone who goes to a “non-ranked” college — no matter the major and career path. This was wrong on so many occasions and instances in gross levels.
order to boost selectivity even more, most (if not all) of these top 200
prestigious colleges often sent invitations to those applicants whom they knew
“wouldn’t have a chance” in getting in their college to apply.
- Higher application numbers = lower admit rates = higher selectivity = higher rank. Math makes perfect sense. But at what cost? Heartbroken mom who sort of knew there must be a mistake in such an invitation but there’s that tiny little hope that it could be true. How about the heartbroken son who legitimately thought he had a shot? Not cool.
and rising cost of college didn’t seem to matter too much for the “most
- Some of the most selective colleges in the U.S. top $70K/year + tuition with relatively generous needs-based aid available to those who wouldn’t normally be able to afford such education. Thanks to the billions (yes, BILLIONS with a B) of endowment these colleges have at their disposals, I wouldn’t expect anything less and applaud them for that.
- However, these highly ranked and prestigious colleges often did nothing to control the cost of tuition in their respective institutions. And God forbid, if you are middle class or lower middle class who don’t quite make the cutoff to qualify for needs-based aid, you’re stuck with the nearly $300K receipt at the end of your four years at this institution. Merit-based opportunity is close to none for an institution that’s highly selective. But wait? You should be lucky enough to have been admitted to a highly selective institution, and you’re “guaranteed” a lucrative career thanks to that institution’s name; you’d pay off that $300K loan in no time. This was the mentality.
Post-COVID19 World of College Admissions Expected: The Age of Hope
Some things will change by default (for the better) while some things will change only if parents and students make a collective effort. Here is the breakdown:
of college will drive college choice decisions more so than ever.
- With millions of people unemployed, reduced hours, pay cuts, shrinking retirement and also college funds, families will be forced to calculate the Return on Investment (ROI) of a college more than ever. Even those who wouldn’t normally look at this number more than the “selectivity” of the college before, they will be more inclined to do so due to the times. Cost will become the #1 factor of deciding which college to attend.
- This in turn will force higher education institutions (highly selective or not) to be even more creative with their needs-based and merit-based offerings and/or look into cutting down cost.
- If they don’t or they’re too slow to implement these changes, then we will see sky-rocketing numbers of applicants into in-state 4-year public institutions, trade schools, and community colleges. Some will altogether skip college and go into workforce. In turn, even the most selective colleges’ admissions selectivity might take a hit.
language will move from “selective” and “prestigious” to “ROI” and
- Due to the affordability factor, even the most selective colleges will need to shift marketing communications and strategies to put “ROI” and “career readiness” in the forefront of their recruitment. Name and prestige will carry them only so far post-COVID19 times.
- However, these need to be backed with practical and even shorter-term workforce ready programs. We will need to see more 3+2 undergraduate and graduate school type programs to support these efforts.
the 3,800+ colleges who wanted to “break in” the top 200? This is their
opportunity to shine.
- In fact, most of those 3,800+ colleges have been practicing the two factors above for years, even since inception of their respective programs. They will need to continue their hard work, backed by actual student and alum success data so that the public will be more aware.
- In return, however, these programs will become more competitive, by default (not because they play a certain game).
By collective effort:
The only factor that might not change post-COVID19 in the college admissions game unless there is more of a concerted effort from families is the weight that’s put on college rankings rather than the fit.
While the changes that are expected to occur above might shift the focus of rankings from being “prestigious” and “selective” to more “career readiness” and/or “higher ROI,” the habit (or reflex, by now) of checking college rankings will continue — unless families become more intentional with their college choice, i.e. fit, moving forward.
After all, that’s for the better: fewer heartbreaks, false hopes, misguided facts, and broken budgets.