Narratives from the Admissions “Game”

Having worked in college and university admissions for most of my professional career, friends, family, family friends and friends of friends often reach out for counsel on the admission process. I am often at a loss for words. It’s difficult to describe the process and particularly the outcomes these days. And the recent athletics-admissions scandal also left me befuddled and angry.

My post-admissions process talk often goes something like this…I certainly can appreciate the disappointment and angst your daughter is feeling. I have heard from several other friends about their children’s experiences and outcomes recently as well and have provided some feedback when I can. Let me first also acknowledge the foreign feeling of the college and university admissions process. I think that is true for all parents, but particularly acute for those who did not experience the US higher education system or for those who have do not have experience with colleges and universities at all. Even for those that did, our experience 25 years ago or more was quite different than our children are experiencing. In today’s admission process, most students receive a number of “denied” responses. This outcome is not a reflection on the student themselves, their ability, their intellect or their motivation; it is a reflection of the sheer number of students applying to universities today.

My narrative is accurate, but it frustrates me. Actually, it angers me. “Success” in admission to college has become narrowly defined as being admitted to elite private universities or highly selective public “marquee” institutions. And those universities have enormous resource. Meanwhile, the workhorses of American higher education, public comprehensive colleges and universities, get maligned, even though many of them better serve first generation students, low income students and students of color.

As recently articulated in The Atlantic, elite college admissions policies were designed to promulgate the status quo. Even when they “opened up” to a broader range of applicants, admissions policies still favored white students, and particularly wealthy white students. Flagship public universities don’t do much better. They’ve institutionalized an admission policy and process that advantages students with resources (time and money) to be more “involved,” “well rounded,” employ tutors and engage in test preparation.

Changing admission policies at elite colleges and universities is not a quick endeavor. It will take a groundswell of pushback from alumni and constituents inside and outside the institutions to even be a catalyst for change. And, often those same people benefit from the existing policies.

In the meantime, the workhorses of American higher education are rolling along, changing the life trajectories of thousands of students. Perhaps instead of the following the paparazzi and the spectacle of the elite college admissions scandal or spending more time on those marquee university names, we should turn our attention (and our resources) to the real actors in education, our public comprehensions colleges and universities.

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