How the Media Distorts College Admissions

FiveThirtyEight: “Here’s how the national media usually depicts the admissions process: High school seniors spend months visiting colleges; writing essays; wrangling letters of recommendation; and practicing, taking and retaking an alphabet soup of ACTs, SATs and AP exams. Then the really hard part: months of nervously waiting to find out if they are among the lucky few (fewer every year, we’re told!) with the right blend of academic achievement, extracurricular involvement and an odds-defying personal story to gain admission to their favored university.”

“Here’s the reality: Most students never have to write a college entrance essay, pad a résumé or sweet-talk a potential letter-writer. Nor are most, as The Atlantic put it Monday, ‘obsessively checking their mailboxes’ awaiting acceptance decisions. (Never mind that for most schools, those decisions now arrive online.) According to data from the Department of Education,1 more than three-quarters of U.S. undergraduates2 attend colleges that accept at least half their applicants; just 4 percent attend schools that accept 25 percent or less, and hardly any — well under 1 percent — attend schools like Harvard and Yale that accept less than 10 percent.”

9 Comments

  1. Great article.

    Of course, Obama already knew this, which is why he pushed to make community college free–which is easily doable, or would be without something called The Republican Party. Bernie’s proposal is also worthwhile, but a much longer schlep. These kids needs help NOW. Don’t make perfect the enemy of good.

    My experience was that I applied to Columbia and Fordham (College at Lincoln Center), got wait-listed at the former, eventually accepted. Got accepted right off the bat at Fordham (both my parents are graduates from there), with a small scholarship. Much cheaper than Columbia–I was not going to hit my parents with that kind of bill. I lived at home and commuted in the first few years. I actually left school at one point to get work, and came back after I had a job with a tuition advance program, and I didn’t have a graduation ceremony, since my graduating class had already graduated, and I didn’t much care about it. I don’t even have my physical diploma anymore–I have no idea where it is.

    The Bronx campus of Fordham (where I work now) basically DEFINES the green leafy campus–so much so that they shoot a lot of movies set at colleges here, including “A Beautiful Mind”. One of my sisters graduated from here, had the graduation ceremony (which was bizarrely attended by G. Gordon Liddy, since two of his kids were graduating–the guy is a total drama queen, ran up there and totally upstaged his kids, like it was about him).

    I got my real education at CUNY Grad, years later. Didn’t finish the PH.D, but I left feeling like an educated person at last. Piled up a bit of debt, nothing too crippling, all paid back now.

    I wonder sometimes if I should have begged my folks to send me to Columbia, but that doesn’t even make the Top Hundred list of regrets for me. 😉

    1. Having grown up in Canada I really wonder about all of this. There, the distinction between private vs public doesn’t exist, and tuition within each province is the same, whether it’s a world-class institution like University of Toronto or McGill or a lesser-known school. So, most students just apply within their home province and are happy to go to wherever they get in. The other thing I never understood was the need for Americans to go out of town for university, even when they live in a large city with many first-rate universities. Between dorms and meals and travel back and forth, that can easily add $15,000/year to your costs vs living at home. If you live in Podunk, sure you have to skip town, but if you’re in NYC, Boston, SF, LA or even Dallas, Houston, Seattle, etc. I’m not sure the extra cost gets you anything.

      And for undergraduate, how much real difference is there between a top-10 and a #50 or even #100 school? Once you’ve fixed on a career and are looking at graduate and professional schools, then I can see the value of aiming for the most prestigious place you can get into. But your chances might be better going to a second-tier undergrad and doing really well than coming out of Harvard with mediocre grades.

      1. Our university system began as a group of private institutions pretty much exclusively reserved for the children of the well-off–at a time when public universities didn’t really exist. That’s part of it. Canada was so lightly populated (still is, relative to size) that it was easier for you to remake outmoded systems.

        Columbia University, to name just one example, is far more than just a college occupying a few city blocks. It’s part of an institution that controls huge swaths of real estate, hospitals, research institutes, etc. And it’s still expanding, all the time. I often wonder when I shall return to Manhattan by way of the George Washington Bridge, and halfway over see a sign saying “Welcome to Columbia University.”

        I believe Canadians also travel away from home to go to school sometimes–it’s not a bad idea sometimes. You learn to be more independent (granted, sometimes on your parents’ dime), you see more of the country you live in (or some other country), you find out things about yourself. And commuting can take up a lot of time, as I know well. But many Americans do this–it’s not the ideal. The ideal is that green leafy campus far from home with many attractive members of the opposite sex (or the same sex if you’re gay). Reality rarely lives up to ideals.

        There are so many colleges you’ve never heard of, and some of them are even more privileged and exclusive than Harvard–ever hear of Bard College? Tiny little place in upstate New York, along the Hudson. 600 acres. Under 2500 students. 10:1 ratio between students and professors. Ultra-liberal (first to offer a major in human rights–I don’t even know what that would entail). Bernie’s doing real well there, bet on it.

        1. Most of the major universities in Canada started as private institutions- McGill, for example, was started by a fur-trader, James McGill, and University of Toronto was founded as Kings College, by the Anglican Church (much like Harvard). They are still privately run, but funded by the provincial governments, which set the tuition. The US allows private institutions to accept federal and state money (something all private colleges do) yet charge whatever they want as tuition.

          I didn’t say no Canadians go away to college, but most who live in cities attend one of the universities in the area. When I was at McGill, the majority of those who lived in the dorms were international students.

          And yes, I have heard of Bard. I live in Albany, so it’s pretty close. They are well known for their summer music festival.

          1. I assumed they did start that way, given how Canada started out. Many of our public educational institutions also began as private ones. But Harvard, Yale, Columbia–they’re on a whole different order of scale than McGill or the University of Toronto. It would be like nationalizing an oil company. And not one of the less important ones.

            Universities here amount to cultures in themselves. Any attempt to meddle with their independence–those that are not already state-run (and ‘state-run’ would invariably mean being run by state government, not Federal) would result in a massive and highly influential cultural backlash.

            Much like trying to nationalize Oxford and Cambridge in the UK. Those are private self-governing institutions that receive public money. Too old, too large, too well-established in their present forms. We can try to boost support for public institutions, but we can’t do what Canada did with McGill. It’s not an option on the table.

            My knowledge of Canada’s higher education, I must confess, comes largely from the comic strip “For Better or Worse.” Which is not set in a large city. Blame it on Lynn Johnston. 😉

      2. With the grade inflation at Harvard, it’s pretty hard to come out of there with mediocre grades. Basically, if you show up, that’s enough for an A.

        There are schools that really do a good job teaching their undergrads and giving them a decent education. Harvard isn’t one of them. And I say this as someone who lives with 2 Harvard-affiliated staff members; one a researcher and the other an instructor, and both with PhDs, from schools other than Harvard.

        It’s reputation (and it’s opinion of itself) is greatly inflated over reality.

      3. With the grade inflation at Harvard, it’s pretty hard to come out of there with mediocre grades. Basically, if you show up, that’s enough for an A.

        There are schools that really do a good job teaching their undergrads and giving them a decent education. Harvard isn’t one of them. And I say this as someone who lives with 2 Harvard-affiliated staff members; one a researcher and the other an instructor, and both with PhDs, from schools other than Harvard.

        It’s reputation (and it’s opinion of itself) is greatly inflated over reality.

    2. The republican party needs to go away, it is a racist party, and has likely kept us from much progress.

  2. interesting but I am not sure that it proves its own point. For this argument, it doesn’t matter where students ended up; it matters where they applied.

    It would be really helpful to know the per centage of seats that are available with no essay requirement, for instance. Or the per centage of students who were not accepted at their top school. Or the per centage who applied to only one school. I suppose nobody has these numbers, but there might be some individual schools that would be great data points.

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