College Admission More Complex than Ever

Educational consultant Janet Loren explores the changing face of college admissions and what it means for students, parents, and college counselors.

The changing face of college admission

The process of getting into college has changed dramatically in a very short time. With the introduction of the Common Application, applications to colleges have skyrocketed. Applications to the prestigious schools increased last year by an estimated 7%. In a study by the National Association for College Admission Counseling, the median acceptance rates dropped 10% at private, nonprofit four-year colleges and 7% at public schools from 2001–2008. In this type of environment, with students competing for acceptance into most schools, high school counselors might tell students things like, "If you're unsure about what you want to do, register as 'undecided' and you can wait to declare a major at the end of your sophomore year," or "Don't worry so much about making a mistake in your college choice. If it doesn't work out you can transfer," or "Let's not worry about money. Let's worry about getting in and we'll work out a financial package later." Once good advice, these suggestions may no longer be valid.

Several factors have caused the change. Most obvious is the skyrocketing cost of a college education, combined with deep cuts in financial aid. More subtle influences are the effects of the depressed economy on student choices and an over-supply of people in certain career fields.

Students struggle to choose a college, a major, and a career

Choosing a college is not easy and takes time and effort for both the parent and the student. Too frequently, this important decision is made on hearsay information or by advice given from relatives or friends. We often hear parents say, "My friend's kid went to Syracuse and had a great experience." In the new environment, this approach simply won't do. The parent, high school counselor, and student must work as a team--researching, reviewing, and reconfirming information. A successful college choice should be based on personal learning style, campus culture, and family finances.

Another new development in the college admission process is the increasing need for early career development and the direction toward a college major. No one wants to force a student to make a career choice before he or she is ready. However, many students and parents are insisitng on a career-related education early on. Their hope is to provide the student with the opportunity for employment when the student finishes school. No more English or poetry majors--it's now all about engineering, computer science, and business administration. Unfortunately, this trend has caused concerns among educators. The colleges with the most popular programs saturated are not permitting students to transfer into these majors after their admittance. The colleges no longer have the space or the inclination to try to turn a junior majoring in philosophy into a computer programming major. Furthermore, many parents can no longer support three or four more years of college while the student is trying to "find himself."

College counselors need broad-based knowledge

The colleges, of course, have an additional if somewhat paradoxical problem. They are coping with the reality of an increased overall student application pool while, at the same time, the walls are bulging in some classrooms while other mainstream courses are underenrolled. And with the exception of a handful of the most selective colleges, all schools are actively recruiting. They are offering all sorts of enticements: merit scholarships, creative loan programs, special academic programs, and dual majors. Here, once again, the counselor's responsibility is expanded. We must be familiar with the scope and quality of these new offerings. But, more important, as the colleges compete for students, they are in essence selling themselves are "unique personalities." As counselors, we need to be aware of these differences and be sure that our students are also aware of them. It goes without saying that matching a student to a complementary college "personality" has tremendous advantages for both the student and the college. Unfortunately, today it's a lot tougher to figure out the school's real personality hidng under that fancy promotional website and brochure. It is also important to make sure that the college is financially stable and will continue to offer a student's chosen major.

Once again, parents need to become active participants early in the process. Most families today cannot afford to spend $30,000 or more only to discover two years down the road that their young hopeful didn't think his school was his best choice.

The college admission process is more complex than ever. It requires a sensitive interaction between the college, the student, the parents, and the counselor.

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