College admissions reality

From reading the news, you’d think all college admissions was about how damn tough and competetive it is to get into college these days.  Yes, it is absolutely absurdly difficult and competitive to get into the nation’s most elite (notice, I didn’t say best) universities, but that is not the reality for the vast majority of college students.  Ben Casselman with a great corrective at 538:

Here’s how the national media usually depicts the admissions process: High school seniors spend months visiting colleges; writing essays; wrangling letters of recommendation; and practicing, taking and retaking an alphabet soup of ACTs, SATs and AP exams. Then the really hard part: months of nervously waiting to find out if they are among the lucky few (fewer every year, we’re told!) with the right blend of academic achievement,extracurricular involvement and an odds-defying personal story to gain admission to their favored university.

Here’s the reality: Most students never have to write a college entrance essay, pad a résumé or sweet-talk a potential letter-writer. Nor are most, as The Atlantic put it Monday, “obsessively checking their mailboxes” awaiting acceptance decisions. (Never mind that for most schools, those decisions now arrive online.) According to data from the Department of Education,1more than three-quarters of U.S. undergraduates2 attend colleges that accept at least half their applicants; just 4 percent attend schools that accept 25 percent or less, and hardly any — well under 1 percent — attend schools like Harvard and Yale that accept less than 10 percent.

Yeah, I went to Duke and it was great (especially the basketball), but I’ve spent enough time at high-quality public universities that there is no way I would ever encourage my kids to put themselves through the stress and extreme workload seemingly required to end up at an elite college.

And Casselman makes a nice argument that it really does matter that journalists are focusing on the wrong things:

That myopia has real consequences for education policy. Based on media accounts, it would be easy to think that the biggest issues on U.S. campuses today are the spread of “trigger warnings,” the rise of “hookup culture” and the spiraling cost of amenity-filled dorms and rec centers. Meanwhile, issues that matter to a far larger share of students get short shrift.

The media’s focus on elite schools draws attention away from state cuts to higher-education funding, for example. Private colleges, which feature disproportionately in media accounts, aren’t affected by state budget cuts; top-tier public universities, which have outside resources such as alumni donations, research grants and patent revenue, are much less dependent on public dollars than less selective schools.

Or consider the breathless coverage of the college application game that few students ever play: For most students, or at least most high school graduates, getting into college isn’t nearly as big a challenge as getting out. Barely half of first-time, full-time bachelor’s degree students graduate within six years; for part-time or community college students, that share is even lower. But it took years for what is known in education jargon as “college completion” to break into mainstream education coverage, perhaps because at selective schools, the vast majority of students graduate on time or close to it.

Yes indeed.  Sure, trigger warnings and campus PC are interesting, but what we really need to talk about is how states, like North Carolina, are turning their back on public higher education.  Oh, and stop sweating your teenager so they can try and be among that 1%.  Lots of people have accomplished lots of awesomeness with some pretty modest colleges on their resume.

About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State

12 Responses to College admissions reality

  1. ohwilleke says:

    FWIW, the journalistic narrative perfectly captures the experience of me, my wife, my children, many of our peers and many of our children’s peers. We are the upper middle class and we are the target audience – members of the middle class who don’t even really consider highly selective institutions of higher education watch TV, rather than reading print media or listening to NPR.

  2. ohwilleke says:

    I should note that as I write this, my junior in high school daughter, together with my wife, sister-in-law and young niece, are spending my daughter’s spring break college tripping, visiting Amherst, Williams, Brandeis, Tufts, Northeastern and Boston University – none of which are really unrealistic for her, although the first two might be a bit of a stretch. There have been ACTs, SATs, APs and IBs already. She’s previously visited Miami University in Ohio, Oberlin College, and the University of Denver. More visits will follow before it is over sometime about a year from now.

    Lots of the benefits of these institutions have more to do with sorting and the connections you will make (personal and professional), rather than necessarily the quality of instruction. But, they are material benefits nonetheless. And, the people who attend these institutions mostly get their money’s worth, even though the sorting function could be done with much less expense.

    The real victims in the story of higher education are people who attend college, get burdened with loans and delay entry into the workforce significantly, and don’t get a degree in the end anyway. Their failures are mostly predictable and it is irresponsible for our society to routine send unprepared students to college only to predictably wash out at a great expense of time and treasure. If we focused more resources on students who have both strong academic ability and limited family financial resources (a very significant number of students who frequently opt out of higher ed for economic reasons often informed by the experiences of their less academically able peers), our nation would get much more bang for its higher education buck – a huge share of public funding for higher ed is wasted on affluent students who don’t need the subsidy and on unprepared students attending programs inappropriate for them from which they will mostly fail.

  3. Jon K says:

    I can remember my senior year at boarding school and how seriously we took the college admissions process. It was, at the time, something that was seen as the most important decision that we would ever make. We taped our decision letters on our doors (facing up if you have been accepted, side ways for wait list, and upside down for rejected). I can remember people looking at me funny for deciding on NCSU when I had gotten in at Wake Forest.

    For me, I realized that I could go to NCSU without obtaining any debt. Wake Forest, or Presbyterian College (in SC) would have required me to borrow money to attend. I am pretty sure that I made the correct choice for a few reasons.

    First, I had a ticking time bomb called narcolepsy that would begin to affect me in the second semester of my freshman year and fully incapacitate my academic abilities by my third year. Since I graduated high school in 2001 – and my narcolepsy wouldn’t be diagnosed until 2011 and controlled until late 2013 – acquiring student debt would have been an absolute disaster. Choosing NCSU actually made it possible for me to finally obtain my degree. Because my parents are so awesome and on my team I have still remained debt free.

    When you consider the massive expense of private college and the uncertainty of finishing I don’t see the wisdom of middle class students borrowing massive amounts of money when there is a much less expensive high quality alternative available.

    Middle class kids at expensive universities also face an uphill struggle to gain acceptance from very status conscious wealthy students and faculty who look down on middle class people and make life more difficult for them.

    • ohwilleke says:

      “Middle class kids at expensive universities also face an uphill struggle to gain acceptance from very status conscious wealthy students and faculty who look down on middle class people and make life more difficult for them.”

      I think that there is a good case to be made that the assimilation into upper middle class culture provides more real life value for middle class college students (especially outside STEM fields for the non-academia bound) than the content of the instruction. This is one of the reasons that employers often care more about where you went to school than they do about your transcript. They are looking for cultural traits more than intellectual prowess.

      For example, success in most of our national economic centers requires shedding an obvious Southern accent and Southern habits of etiquette and social interaction in day to day work dealings (at least by learning to code switch), which is something that Southerners who attend non-Southern elite institutions almost always do. A similar process is the norm for most minority students who are genuinely culturally different from members of the upper middle class

  4. BlythBros. says:

    A nice piece by Casselman, and much-needed perspective. How I, a sort of in betweener, relate:

    I was an excellent student in high school, and though I was risk averse (safe driver, no drugs/alcohol, no kids…) I definitely lacked in the maturity needed to sort through the colleges and majors available. I think I was lucky to choose a viable career path; I liked cars a bit too much, and my brother was studying mechanical engineering at the time. Being practical, I chose Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology, which is very easy to get into (I think the acceptance rate is around 75%, though skewed a bit since a lot of people applying to more elite engineering schools apply as a safety school), as well as reputable to those in the Midwest (it ranks #1 in US News for undergrad engineering at schools *without doctorate programs*. Sometimes they forget that caveat…)

    With two excellent paid internships and a merit scholarship based on my national merit letter of commendation, I ended up basically paying half price for a very personal and fulfilling education. Now, I work with engineers from U of Michigan and Penn State etc. and I now realize that, thought I liked the small classes, we basically learned the same information with the same efficacy. To their credit, the larger class sizes probably also improved their “grit”, a trait that I’m working to improve.

    So, I went to a school with the learning benefits of an elite school, but without any of the name recognition or networking benefits. Compared to the more mainstream option of a state school, I had smaller classes and labs. I would have been happy to take my prereq classes (calc, chem, physics) at a community college, or better yet, online, had I been a bit mature or crafty at the time. I was the kind of student who learned a lot from just doing the damn problems (engineering is very straightforward…), and I never asked questions, so why waste the time/money on instruction when the problem sets taught me everything?

    I think 2 years in a standardized community college or online course + two years in more involved labs and challenging classes would have landed me in the same place I am today. I feel every bit (let’s call it 98%) as competent as my Cornell engineering brother (who is a nuclear researcher at NC state!  ) and my Brown engineering girlfriend.

    In addition to encouraging more community college (at least in engineering fields – I’m not sure if it would work as well in political science), I’m curious to see how high school guidance counseling can be improved to reflect a broader student base. I don’t think everyone should go into “STEM” fields, but they are definitely careers that will pay for college debt pretty quickly. And, I think that a more pragmatic approach like that is boring but necessary. I know two guys who went to law school – one who as $200k in debt, and one who is debt free. The difference is not in their high school grades or quality of education, but in their approach to the college question. One was much more willing to sacrifice a big name for a big scholarship.

    There might be a market driven solution to this. Yes, articles about Ivy League applications excite NPR listeners, but given the number of low income marginalized citizens (who may be less educated but are likely just as intelligent given the chance), why not target them as a demographic as Trump has? Except in this case, offer them viable solutions, factual information, and respect.

    • Steve Greene says:

      Really enjoyed your perspective on this– thanks! I think the importance eliteness of your undergrad institution really depends a lot on what field you go into. Honestly, the fact that I went to Duke as an undergrad matters not a whit as a professor, where it is all about where you got your PhD. I know some really accomplished professors who got their undergrad at no name schools. I imagine for Wall Street and high-end finance, it’s a different story.

    • ohwilleke says:

      I would add that STEM fields are qualitatively different from most of the rest of undergraduate higher education in that in STEM fields there is a great deal a value added from the instruction itself relative to the sorting, socialization and connections factors, while most non-STEM fields are teaching advanced literacy and rhetoric as much as they teaching content that will have practical value post-graduation.

      This isn’t to say that there aren’t some benefits to a prestige degree even in STEM fields (my brother, for example, has hit a glass ceiling at a firm in Cambridge MA where the unofficial rule is that no one who didn’t graduate from an Ivy can be in management). But, it is also the case that in a lot of STEM fields, you need a graduate degree anyway and that the prestige of your grad school can substitute for undergrad prestige in a way that isn’t true in fields like investment banking, management consulting, entry level management posts with big companies, and the like.

  5. itchy says:

    I read this yesterday, and, while I agree with much of it, the first part that you quote really bugged me, especially coming from 538.

    Casselman talks about the “reality” — most students don’t have to do all of this admissions stuff — then he supports this statement with evidence based on attendance.

    This is apples and oranges. Applications and attendance are not the same thing. Because you ended up attending a lesser school does not mean you didn’t apply to other schools.

    “Nor are most, as The Atlantic put it Monday, ‘obsessively checking their mailboxes’ awaiting acceptance decisions. (Never mind that for most schools, those decisions now arrive online.) According to data from the Department of Education, more than three-quarters of U.S. undergraduates attend colleges that accept at least half their applicants; just 4 percent attend schools that accept 25 percent or less, and hardly any — well under 1 percent — attend schools like Harvard and Yale that accept less than 10 percent.”

    The fact that 4% attend schools that accept 25% is barely meaningful. It tells you that maybe 16% applied to those schools, assuming applicants didn’t also apply to other schools in this category (they probably did) and weren’t also accepted at more than one of them (they probably were) … but then he throws in 25% “or less,” meaning the multiplier is greater, which means the number who applied is probably greater …

    It’s lazy and sloppy, and the author’s justification in the comments was that “well, we don’t have application data, so I had to use attendance data,” which is not a justification at all. Don’t say it if you can’t support it.

    Also, do schools that accept half their applicants really not require (or encourage) an essay or an SAT or a recommendation letter or extracurriculars? Really?

    I get the main point — the elite universities are disproportionately viewed as the norm — but this opening seemed poorly supported.

    • Steve Greene says:

      Good catch. That went right by me. I guess that’s how things work when you agree with the larger point :-).

      • Jon K says:

        “Also, do schools that accept half their applicants really not require (or encourage) an essay or an SAT or a recommendation letter or extracurriculars? Really?”

        Nope. They do not. SAT scores still help, but I only had to write essays and get recommendations for Wake Forest and UNC. The less selective schools I applied to (NCSU and Presbyterian College) did not require anything other than an application, transcript, and test scores. My sister had a similar experience with her college applications (she applied to Appalachian State only and only sent application, transcript, and test scores). Many schools will take the common application, transcript and test scores only. It really is only the very selective that persist with the essays and recommendations gauntlet.

    • ohwilleke says:

      Almost every state has at least some “open admissions” colleges that will admit anyone who graduated from high school and meets minimum standards in terms of grades, test scores, and high school courses taken, no essay, recommendations or extracurriculars required.

      For example, a 2.75 high school GPA and an 18 ACT (36th percentile) with four years each of English and Math, three years each of science and social studies, one year of foreign language, two additional years of academic electives will guarantee you admission to Metro State University in Denver (a public four year college). In Colorado, you have to take all or nearly all of those courses and to take the ACT to graduate from high school anyway. Community colleges are even more lenient.

      Good grades can compensate for bad test scores and visa versa. And, most open admissions institutions will bend to admissions rules for pretty much any legitimate reason or if you aren’t straight out of high school.

      Pretty much anyone who has any business being in a higher educational institution whatsoever can get in somewhere to an institution where in state tuition is also relatively modest compared to the $50K+ per year that private colleges charge and usually there is one close enough to home that you don’t have to pay for long distance travel to school or for room and board away from home.

      The retention rates for students admitted on this basis are dismal, but pretty much anyone can get in somewhere.

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