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Applying to College? You've Got To Know The Rules Of The Game

Article appeared in Worcester Magazine, August 2009

It may be a personal quirk, but as soon as I learn that I can't get a reservation at a new restaurant, I really, really want to sample their cuisine. I can think of no other satisfying meal or environment in which to enjoy my meal other than the restaurant that politely informed me that they could not offer me a table at the time I requested. It doesn't matter if the restaurant is filled with loyal and satisfied patrons that night or with the owner's freeloading friends and relatives. If it's hard to get a reservation, I want one. And no restaurant will be quite as tempting as the one that doesn't want me.

For many people, it works the same way with college admission. The more selective a college appears to be, the more people want to attend. Colleges, who spend a significant portion of their hard earned endowment and of families' hard earned tuition dollars marketing themselves as ‘the’ place to be, have learned that lesson well. An early attempt to appear more desirable was the Early Decision admission option, a way for colleges to lock in a portion of their freshman class before other colleges have a chance to accept those high achieving students. A new incarnation of the ‘let's look good’ game is the SAT-optional movement. While both of these plans serve the needs of some students and, when used correctly, can simplify and expedite a student's admission to the college of his choice, both plans were designed for the benefit of the institution. Benefit to the student, where it exists, is a fortunate byproduct.

Early Decision is one way that colleges can skew the public's perception of quality without changing academic offerings, instructional processes, or the quality of student life. As a culture, we evaluate our educational system by what goes in, rather than by what comes out. Like the restaurant that builds a following among people who wait weeks for a desirable Saturday night reservation, colleges build a reputation by denying admission to a large number of high school superstars. Accepting a large group of students under a binding Early Decision plan means that the college needs to fill a smaller percentage of its freshman class during the regular application period. Therefore, by accepting fewer regular decision students, the college appears more selective than it really is. To encourage students to make an early commitment to their college and help the college appear more selective, colleges use a variety of enticements. One common one is to let students know that they have a greater chance of being accepted if they are willing to make an early commitment to the college.

Christopher Avery, a Harvard professor, and his collaborators, Richard Zeckhauser and Andrew Fairbanks, studied admissions decisions at ten highly selective colleges and universities that employed Early Decision programs. Their chief finding, documented in their book, The Early Admissions Game: Joining the Elite, was that applying early does significantly increase the student's chances of acceptance. It found that, on average, the Early Decision colleges accepted seventy percent of Early Decision applicants with SAT scores between 1400 and 1490 on a 1600 scale, but only forty-eight percent of those with the same scores who applied during the regular admission process. The authors calculate that the advantage of applying early is the equivalent of one hundred additional points on the combined SAT Critical Reading and Math scores.

Avery states that the fact that Early Decision applicants are accepted with less impressive credentials than regular applicants points to another advantage that Early Decision offers the college, the opportunity to construct a freshman class that effectively meets the needs of the institution. That means that colleges seek students who will fill specific niches. During the early selection process, colleges are free to accept students with lower academic credentials who will fill the roster of athletic teams and the marching band, meet geographic and gender needs, and populate majors such as Greek and philosophy. Knowing the makeup of part of the class in January enables the admissions committee to know exactly what niches remain to be filled. They have a skeleton around which to construct their ‘ideal’ class. The advantage to the college of being able to predict the composition of a portion of the class in January is a disadvantage to the student, who cannot know which niche they might fill at any given school. The tap dancing baton twirler may be a hot commodity in November, but be of little interest in January if the spot on the pep squad has already been filled.

As Early Decisions programs have come under closer scrutiny and increased criticism, colleges have begun to look for other ways to meet their enrollment needs and to appear as selective and desirable as possible, while claiming to serve the needs of their applicants. The much maligned SAT is the new target. In 2001, Richard Atkinson, then president of the University of California, the country's largest user of the SAT, threatened to stop requiring the SAT for UC applicants. He believed that it was not a good predictor of college success and was "distorting educational priorities." His announcement was called "the most important single anti-SAT effort ever in the history of the test" and sent shock waves through the academic community. ETS, the owner of the SAT, immediately got to work redesigning the test, but Atkinson's criticism encouraged other highly selective colleges to assess the value of the SAT for their individual institutions. Currently 815 four year colleges, including 32 colleges on the U.S. News Top 100 Liberal Arts Colleges list, do not require the SAT for admission decisions. Locally, WPI is a test-optional school.

Students cheered as an increasing number of schools announced that the SAT would become an optional component of the application packet. However, some administrators and experts in college admissions have begun to see cracks in the SAT-optional system and have raised questions about the real beneficiaries. As reported in the Journal of College Admission, Providence College in Rhode Island implemented an SAT-optional policy in 2007. Its applicant pool increased by 12 percent, the acceptance rate fell to 42 percent from its previous year rate of 49 percent, student of color applications rose by 17 percent, and first-generation student applications rose by 21 percent.

After they had submitted their enrollment deposit, Providence College students who had taken the SAT but had not submitted it with their application were required to submit their scores. Students who had not submitted their scores as part of their application package averaged 1100 on a 1600 point scale, while students who submitted their scores with their applications averaged 1200. While a statistically significant difference, it remains to be seen whether the lower scoring students will be lower achieving students. Studies at other colleges that have used SAT-optional admissions indicate that this might not be the case.

One vocal critic of SAT-optional policies is Colin Diver, president of Reed College in Oregon. While not a supporter of the validity of the SAT, Diver states that if it has value for some students, it has value for all students. He believes that colleges should either accept that the SAT is predictive of student achievement in college or they should abandon its use completely. "It is illogical," he says, "to count a test if it is high, but ignore it if it is low."

Opponents of SAT-optional policies assert that this plan makes colleges look more selective as it increases the number of applications because students have less data upon which to decide where to apply. In addition, it is obvious that students will submit high scores and withhold low scores. The question to ask, then, is how colleges calculate and report students' scores. Thirty-one of the 32 selective colleges noted above do not include scores of non-submitters when they report scores of admitted students, thus artificially inflating their ranking and making it harder for students to determine whether they are a good academic match for that college. And with the increased number of applicants who apply to SAT-optional colleges, colleges appear more selective than they are.

It will be a shame if artificially inflated scores and lowered acceptance rates discourage students from applying to colleges where they would be successful and happy. It is also a shame that rapidly changing policies and practices make families feel that colleges are being disingenuous about what they say. Colleges expect that applicants will be honest in their application. Students should feel equally trusting about colleges. "It feels like a game," one mother told me, "and my child's education shouldn't be a game in anyone's eyes."

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