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Curbing The Excesses of Admissions

One of the challenges facing schools like Cornell is that the admissions landscape has become increasingly competitive -- schools routinely boast of having acceptance rates in the single digits. At Cornell, the acceptance rate has fallen by close to half, from 33 percent to 18 percent, over the last decade.

It's unclear to me, however, how this is benefiting either the colleges or the students. High-achieving students are applying to increasingly more colleges in hopes of being accepted to at least one "top tier school", while the colleges are left with more applications to read through and more uncertainty as to who will enroll once they are admitted.

And there is not a lot of evidence that the quality of the accepted students is increasing all that much. Consider that despite Cornell's acceptance rate falling by 15 percent in a decade, the SAT scores for students at the 25th percentile as reported in the Common Data Set have barely budged:

25th SAT Verbal25th SAT Math

To be fair, however, the average SAT score at Cornell did rise by 40 points over this time frame, from 1360 to 1400.

The admissions game also does a disservice to helping students find the college that is right for them. More and more students are applying to every single Ivy just to see if they get into one, even though it is clear that a student who would enjoy the Princeton experience might not exactly have the best time at Brown.

What's especially concerning are the number of 'false negatives' -- those students who are rejected by a school who really wanted to attend the school and would have performed brilliants there had they been given the chance.

So here's a modest proposal: Allow the colleges to limit the number of applications a student can submit. Perhaps the Ivy League could limit the number of applications a student can submit to all of its colleges to a modest number,
perhaps three or four. This would encourage each student to research each school more exhaustively before choosing which ones to apply to, as well as allow them to put more time into each school's application.

And if that doesn't work, "tax" the excessive applications, making each marginal application more expensive to submit.

The proposal would probably be seen as 'anti-competitive' in the eyes of the U.S. Department of Justice. They already disallowed the colleges from agreeing on a common set of financial aid packages for each applicant. But there are obviously other models that can be followed. For instance, English students may only apply to Oxford or Cambridge, but not both.

And it may just help to make the admissions process a bit more sane.

Matthew Nagowski | Posted on April 08, 2010 (#)

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