Melissa: All over the country, college admissions officers are getting in shape. A little yoga to calm the mind, a little weight training to strengthen the muscles, a little cardio to get the blood pumping. Why? Because it's application season and they're going to need focus, strength, and endurance to read, assess, and respond to tens of thousands of applications pouring in from hopeful students, young and older, who are hoping that the one school they most want will want them too. Now, I've been a college professor for 22 years. I'm auntie to three college grads and two college students and the mom to one college sophomore. I can tell you there's nothing like getting that letter, that email that begins with congratulations and welcome.
Speaker 1: No way. No way. No way. No way. No way. No way. Oh my gosh. I've gone to Columbia. There's no way. Oh my God.
Speaker 2: How? How?
Speaker 3: What? Wait.
Melissa: Many students and families make tremendous fiscal and personal sacrifices to achieve that aspirational acceptance letter. Within a year or two, many are left wondering if the hefty price tag and crushing debt are really worth it. Ample research shows that graduating from college increases lifetime earnings, but the surge in student loan debt has far outpaced these income gains. How should we be thinking about the college admission rat race? Is it Harvard or Bust, or is it time to consider that really great state college with the small classes and community service opportunities? To get a better understanding of the college admission process, I spoke with Jeff Selingo, who is the author of the book, Who Gets In and Why: A Year Inside College Admissions.
Jeff: First of all, we can't come to an agreement on what deserving means. If you bring 10 people into a room, 10 teenagers with their parents, and you say what deserves merit in admissions, you're going to get 10 different answers based on where their strengths are. We can't even agree on what the word merit means in college admissions. On top of that, college admissions is really around the priorities of the college. Every college has priorities. They want more full-pay students. They want more men. They want more students to major in the humanities, whatever it might be.
They might want more students from the Dakotas. They need students to fill all their athletic teams. They have all those priorities and admissions as the front door to those priorities. As I remind students all the time, just because a college has a 25% acceptance rate, it doesn't mean you have a 1 in 4 chance of getting in. If you fulfill their priority, you have almost 100% chance, but if you're like many other students who fill a priority, you might have closer to a 0% chance.
Melissa: I want to take that notion of priorities and the sense, I think, that both students and families have around fairness and help us to just reconcile that for a moment. As somebody who's been in higher ed for 25 years or something, I guess my whole life in some ways. In that sense, I get the notion of that a class of students should be all kinds of different things. You cannot have a university orchestra if everyone you admit plays the violin, and no one plays the oboe. On the other hand, I think, again, for students in a high-pressure environment often, they feel like maybe that's not fair. If they're a so-called better student who plays the violin, why should an oboe students get in over them?
Jeff: Well, I think there's a sense of context in higher education, especially when applications come to colleges. First, the admissions officer on the other side of the desk is looking at what was available to that student in that high school. We have 25,000 high schools in the U S, not all are created equal. A student could be a really dominating student at a high school where they didn't have a lot of options. Meanwhile, a student who came from a high school that had 30 plus AP courses is coming from a much different context.
Then they're also looking at the context of the class. As you said, they don't want all violin players, but they also don't want all STEM majors. They don't want all students from New York. They don't want all white students. They don't want, you name it. They are trying to create a community. On top of that, they don't also know always who's going to come. Just because you get accepted doesn't mean you necessarily enroll. The other thing they're always trying to balance in this is if we accept this student, will they show up? They do something called demonstrated interest.
They're always trying to get a sense of how interested the student is in coming. I always remind students. If you really want to go to a particular school, show you're interested because at some schools that really plays a factor in whether they get in.
Melissa: You spoke a few moments ago about a 25% admission rate, for example, from a school. We know that some are as low as less than one in 10 applicants. What constitutes selective or a competitive school?
Jeff: Well, this is what's really surprising about the whole admissions process. We think that college is hard to get into, but the average American college accepts about 65% of students who apply. Most colleges accept most students. There are about 1,400 four-year colleges in the US. Most two-year colleges have open admission. In other words, anybody who applies gets in. So 1,400 US four-year colleges, only about 200 of them except fewer than half of the students who apply.
Again, most colleges except most students who apply. About 200 colleges accept fewer than 50% and some of them except 40, 45%. When we talk about highly selective colleges, we're really talking about a handful of colleges here. Basically the top 10, top 20, top 30 in the US news and [unintelligible 00:06:00] report rankings, for example. It's a very small proportion of all the US colleges out there, many of whom provide a really good education to most students.
Melissa: What constitutes a good college education? Are you more likely to get a good or great college education at a more selective university?
Jeff: I laughed at that question because we don't know and it's shocking that we don't know what a good college education is because we spend a lot of money on it. We know from research that students who go to more selective institutions, particularly students who are underrepresented in higher education, first-generation students, low income students, students of color, tend to do better at schools that are more selective.
Melissa: What do you mean by do better? Do you mean more likely to be placed in jobs? Do you mean higher lifetime income? What is the do better measure?
Jeff: It's a great question. Do better means retained and graduate. One of the unknown facts about American higher education is that only about 50% of students who started a four-year college graduate in four years. When I say do better, it means that they come back for their sophomore year and they end up graduating in a reasonable amount of time, usually four years later. Now, we don't have as much data, unfortunately, about their outcomes after college.
Increasingly, we're getting some data on first-year salaries after college, but over time, the signal of a degree from a specific institution may actually decrease. Your success in life depends on more of where you live, the first jobs you have, and other types of career things that are happening beyond, by the way, just your college degree.
Melissa: Let's talk a little bit about another aspect of getting into college and that's testing. What do SATs and ACTs measure?
Jeff: Family wealth.
Melissa: [laughs] How fair does that seem relative to the relevance that they have for admissions?
Jeff: It's not. I think what happens is that people, both colleges and students and parents like the SAT and the ACT because it's a number and that number means the same in New York City as it does in Miami, as it doesn't San Francisco or Seattle or name any town where somebody has taken an SAT or an ACT and where everything else is different. We talked earlier 25,000 American high schools. They all grade differently. They all have different courses, different teachers, students come from different backgrounds, they have different experiences, different activities.
It's very hard to compare students and for parents and students and for admissions officers on the other side, that number allows them to compare students. The problem is that we know from research that the test can be-- you can prepare for that test, that it has a lot to do with the home you grow up in, the school you go to. At the end of the day, it's highly correlated with family income.
Melissa: Help us also to understand, and I think in part this is for the parents of so many high school sophomores, juniors, and seniors, as well as folks who were returning to higher ed in the context of the pandemic. When suddenly many schools went test-optional or test blind as a result of the disruptions of 2020, how much is there a big business of testing that is basically operating as an interest group that wants to reinstate it versus maybe some new pressures to actually continue to move away from this kind of standardized testing?
Jeff: It's a huge business. The college board, owner of the SAT, the ACT and don't forget about all the tutors and all the other agencies that help students prepare for those tests. It's a huge industry, the publishing industry that publishes all those test-taking books and so forth. The other thing though about the SAT, and this is what's critical around how it's used in admissions. We know from decades of research that the only thing the SAT really predicts is freshman year grades, and it doesn't predict them as well as other measures such as the courses you took in high school and the GPA and the grades you earned in those courses. It's why even when I sat in admissions offices at Emory, at Davidson, at the University of Washington before the pandemic, all three institutions require tests at that time. They don't this year, but they required the tests at the time I sat in those admissions offices. The first thing they looked at is a student's high school transcript.
They looked at the courses they took and the grades they earned because they know that that meant that four years of high school means a lot more than four hours of a test in terms of how well that student is going to do at that college. That's in the end, what admissions offices want to know. They want to know is this student going to not only enroll here, of course but are they going to succeed here? The test doesn't tell them as much as those other measures do. That's why they feel a little bit more comfortable now not necessarily using that test as much during the pandemic.
Melissa: Jeff Selingo, thank you for joining us today.
Jeff: It was great to be here. Thanks for having me.
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