Commentary: The College Crunch: Why Getting In Has Gotten So Tough

At Duke, there were 19,170 applicants for only 1,665 spaces

By Christoph Guttentag

For many American families, March Madness refers not to a basketball tournament but to the ever-increasing anxiety in the weeks before colleges mail their acceptance letters. As dean of admissions at a prominent U.S. university, I hear the complaints firsthand. Last week my office sent disappointing news to more than 15,000 students—including almost 800 valedictorians—applying for admission to Duke University.

With the second-highest number of applicants in our history (19,170 for only 1,665 spaces), we had little choice. And my school is not unique. Record numbers of students are applying to record numbers of schools. So many students—not just good ones, but exceptional ones—are getting rejected by so many colleges. That has caused many students and parents to feel the whole college-admissions process is high-stakes, random, or unfair.

In fact, it is far from random, and it helps to look at how the process evolved. In the 1980s, all of us working in college admissions were petrified at the then-declining number of 18-year-olds. There was talk of colleges closing because there wouldn't be enough students to fill the available slots. So we all ramped up recruiting, more students applied, and most colleges survived intact. In fact, they thrived. And we all learned that a larger pool of applicants yielded a more talented and engaged class that was closer to our ideal. So nobody wanted to turn back the clock; if anything, we increased recruitment even more. As a result, the past 20 years have seen a jump in the number of college applications far exceeding the rise in the number of 18-year-olds. And colleges don't expect to reduce their recruiting efforts anytime soon.

Recently, a self-perpetuating element has come into play as well: Selective colleges attract more applicants simply by virtue of their ever-increasing selectivity. And anxious students, less certain of their chances, apply to more colleges, resulting in even greater selectivity at a wider number of colleges—and more anxiety.

Ultimately the admissions process lies (somewhat uncomfortably) at the intersection of the interests and aspirations of individuals, institutions, and society. We should not be surprised that both applicants and colleges act in their own self-interest, just as we expect businesses to compete, consumers to be savvy, and society to allow as much choice as possible. And most admissions staff consider a wide range of factors in the admissions process, a task more complex and personal, and less predictable, than admitting students on the basis of their academic work alone.

That's not all bad. For years, many of us have made a conscious effort to bring together on campus students of varying backgrounds, values, and experiences, enhancing their education and their preparation for the real world. We've worried about pricing out the middle class. And, keenly aware that the admissions process does not take place on a level playing field, colleges have been more active in reaching out to talented students who might otherwise be overlooked. This expanded access has meant more competition for a relatively fixed number of slots at some schools.

Still, we in admissions need to support the calls for colleges to be more transparent in their decisions and more reasonable in their expectations of students, for parents to help their children relax a bit, and for high schools to focus more on the process of education than just the results.

Finally, we need to remind ourselves that the media's focus on a very small number of so-called elite colleges and the public's obsession with seemingly objective college rankings, dramatically distort the public's understanding and appreciation of the many exceptional opportunities for higher education available in our country. There are dozens, if not scores, of good options for virtually every student who wants to go to college. Every senior can find more than a few colleges that would be comfortable, challenging, and affordable. The more we keep this in mind, the easier it will be to remember that the quality of an education has more to do with a student's work than with a college's name. The beneficiaries, of course, will be our children.

Christoph Guttentag is Dean of Undergraduate Admissions at Duke University

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