Opinion

Gaming the numbers? Conflicting college admissions messages confound parents and kids

NEW YORK — A friend snapped photos of the colorful college brochures cramming his high school son’s mailbox and posted the pile on Facebook with a message that all but gushed, “Look which schools want us!”

Colleges send out realms of encouraging mail to potential applicants every year in stepped-up-recruiting campaigns.

Colleges send out reams of encouraging mail to potential applicants every year in stepped-up-recruiting campaigns.

As a higher-education journalist and the parent of a college applicant, I had a more cynical reaction: aren’t they being gamed?

Why are colleges extending application deadlines, dropping once-required essays and sending reams of snail mail and social media encouragement to students they may have no intention of admitting? Why are many of these same colleges then boasting about the number of kids they are turning down?

The Hechinger Report and other skeptical journalists are documenting this aggressive approach, known as “recruit to deny,” which colleges hope will lead to more applications and in turn boost their rankings by helping their institutions appear more selective.

Related: Colleges ratchet up recruiting of applicants just to turn them down

Yet consider these facts: An annual survey of admissions directors found many colleges are having difficulty filling their classes with qualified applicants — a fact few disclose. Analysts say higher education is beset with financial woes and headed for a shakeout as declining enrollments mean fewer college students in the years to come. Nearly 30 percent of public and 20 percent of private universities will suffer declines in revenue in 2015.

Then there are parents and kids, worrying about how they can afford college, repay loans and get decent jobs in an uncertain economy: last year’s college graduates were the most indebted in history, with an average debt load of $33,000.

You might conclude from this worrisome picture and the amped-up recruiting tactics that colleges are starting to look desperate. Their relentlessly upbeat press releases and announcements proclaim a different narrative.

Public and private four-year colleges maintain they are shattering application records (take note, U.S. News & World Report!), with many once again claiming this year’s applicant pool as their “most competitive” ever.

Related: Can we please change the conversation about college admissions?

UCLA reports freshmen applications are up 7.2 percent. UNC-Chapel Hill reports a 37 percent increase over the number five years ago. And private colleges with annual price tags upward of $60,000 are reporting even more dramatic increases. Bucknell University in Pennsylvania says applications rose nearly 39 percent over last year; Swarthmore dropped a required essay and claimed a 42 percent jump.

The Holy Grail of Harvard saw a 9 percent jump in applications: 37,305 for a class of about 2,000. Harvard attributes the rise to heightened recruiting on social media and a new financial aid gift that will defray costs for some.

Union College in upstate New York reported a 10 percent surge for a record number of applications. It credited “new facilities” and “an ambitious marketing plan designed to elevate its reputation,” and added that “the competition to get into a top-tier school like Union remains fierce.”

Related: U.S. university enrollment continues to slide

Can you blame students — and their parents — for being confused?

I decided to ask Ted Fiske, founder and editor of the popular Fiske Guide to Colleges, for some insight.

“The whole thing is a crap shoot,” Fiske told me. “It’s a chaotic marketplace … nobody really understands how the whole thing is working anymore. Colleges aren’t in control of the process — there are too many things making it complicated for them.”

One of those factors includes a hunger for the prestige that comes with looking increasingly selective, which elevates rankings. Yet the perception of increasing competition causes students and parents to hedge their bets by applying to dozens of colleges, which is easy to do with the Common Application.

That practice leaves colleges confused about the intentions of applicants, Drake University President David Maxwell told me. In turn, colleges feel the need to step up recruiting.

“You don’t know if they [the applicants] are serious,” Maxwell said. “What you really want is a big enough applicant pool with diversity, both geographic and socioeconomic. You want the tuba players and the scuba divers — and you hope they will be learning a great deal from each other.”

Tom Delahunt, vice president for admission and student financial planning at Drake, believes colleges are judged by the wrong data, including “how many kids we deny. What they should be concerned about is how our graduates do. I am in complete agreement that this race to increase more applicants just to deny more students is a big part of the problem.”

After reading a recent story in which Bucknell’s admissions dean readily acknowledged that he used a “bag of tricks” to ratchet up applications, I sought out Lloyd Thacker, whose sensible book, College Unranked: Ending the College Admissions Frenzy, is filled with essays about hype and hypocrisy. Thacker decries the emphasis he believes colleges place on marketing over teaching and learning.

“Colleges are confusing what is good for business with what is good for education,” Thacker said. “They are competing for rank, status and prestige — not educational quality. This increasing competition to be selective has worsened or exacerbated widening inequalities in education.”

Such inequalities are exactly why recruiting and then rejecting students seems contrary to President Barack Obama’s push to get more Americans through college. Just 39.4 percent of Americans between the ages of 25 and 64 have either a two- or four-year college degree. Only one in three students from the bottom half of the income distribution in the U.S. attends a college with a six-year graduation rate of at least 70 percent. Isn’t this the population needing attention?

Unfortunately, it isn’t working that way. At The Hechinger Report, we’ve reported that America’s colleges and universities are quietly shifting the burden of big tuition increases onto lower-income students. That could leave four-year college degrees beyond their economic reach, even as Obama pushes to make college more affordable — and attainable.

Related: How Tuition Tracker helps kids compare colleges and other tips for overwhelmed parents

All this brings me back to the anxiety-fueled world of college admissions, to the anxiety of my son and his friends and their parents as they wait to hear from many colleges that initially made them feel wanted. In these weeks before the hoped-for thick (acceptance) letters arrive alongside the feared but inevitable thin (rejection) letters, we agonize:

Did we include enough safety schools? How much, if any, financial aid will be offered? Will the admissions offices overlook a C in physics or chemistry, a missing math or foreign language sequence, or any other perceived weakness? Will our kids get caught up in or dismayed by the incessant bragging over who got in where?

Hopefully they’ll thrive wherever they end up. But what if they end up feeling used and dejected in a cynical game to juice the numbers?

“I’ve watched too many kids say this [admissions process] really screws them up,” Thacker told me, adding that he’ll continue pushing colleges to think of their entering classes not as clients or customers — but as students who want to learn.

Imagine that.

This story was written by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. See more on higher education.

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