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Who to Blame for the Applications Arms Race? The Colleges (and US News)!

Ever wonder why college admissions seems so competitive?

Ever wonder why students are applying to so many colleges–even when they can attend only one?

Ever wonder why so many kids were seeking help from independent college consultants?

Don’t blame the kids: blame the colleges. An article in the Washington Post, drawing on a report from the National Council for College Admissions Counseling (NACAC, or “nack-ack”) points to the much-discussed but poorly documented phenomenon of “application inflation.”

What do we mean?  Get this:

  • The number of applications rose 47 percent at public colleges and 70 percent at private colleges between fall 2001 and fall 2008.
  • The share of students applying to seven or more colleges rose from 12 percent in 1999 to 23 percent in 2009.

A friend and college admissions director and I were talking about this just yesterday over lunch.  Colleges have every incentive to make it look like they are desirable.  Thus they use every means possible to widen the sales funnel and to increase the number of applicants…just so that they can reject more of them.

Thus kids, feeling the pressure of rejection, apply to more colleges.  For game theorists, this is a game of “chicken” in which escalation is inevitable until someone swerves, someone breaks the cycle.  An Applications Arms Race.

Who’s going to break the cycle?  The kids?  Not on your life: they feel that their futures are at stake?  The colleges?  Not when they live and die by their budgets and by their rankings with US News (which depend, in part, on application rates).  NACAC?  Nope, they represent the colleges.  The government?  Hah…now, that’s funny!

I don’t see an end in sight, unless parents and kids get smart and really start looking at raw statistics, including yield rates, and figure out that it doesn’t make sense to apply to so many.

Choose more wisely, be realistic about your chances (neither too optimistic nor too pessimistic), spend the time developing a very solid application to the colleges you really, really want to attend, and have the confidence that you will get a great education no matter where you land.

Mark Montgomery
Educational Consultant

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