A select few: student recruitment in the US

Alan Ryan muses on ironies and idiosyncrasies in higher education

May 7, 2015

This is boot-on-the-other-foot month for the most selective American universities. Offer letters have gone out, and since universities have no idea what other institutions the students may have applied to, all they can do is try to persuade as many as possible of the students that they have accepted to accept them in return.

The universities of Stanford and Harvard have made offers to only about 5 per cent of their applicants, but many of those applicants have offers from three or four other high-status institutions, and now have to be charmed into accepting one in particular. National public radio carried a report about one young man who has a perfect score – all eight Ivy League universities, and a couple of their peers into the bargain. Nobody knows, yet, which of his offers he will take up. The 5 per cent offer to application ratio for undergraduate admissions in the posh places is in fact rather higher than for many graduate programmes, where it is not unusual for 700 students to compete for 25 places. Of course, the students also will have applied to several programmes, which makes the numbers less astonishing than they look at first sight.

Rejecting 95 per cent of your applicants rather than a mere 87 per cent is a form of conspicuous consumption

But there are some peculiar aspects of the process, all the same. Much as in Oxbridge, at least half of the applicants who are turned down are just about indistinguishable from those who are accepted. Yet universities devote an enormous amount of effort to recruitment. Some of that is rational enough; the socio-economic mix of the best universities is very like that of Oxbridge. Ivy League universities and their peers are vastly more generous than any British university can afford to be, so that a student from a low to middling income background will get a free education without any debt to repay in later life – beyond what loyalty and frequent communications from the development office may suggest. Nonetheless, it is extremely hard to reach the students who would benefit from this generosity. A lot of research has shown that the worst-off students, who would be welcomed with open arms, have no idea of the real situation they face, and settle for whatever local university occurs to them, not because they think they will be out of place or socially isolated at the most selective institutions, but because they simply don’t know what is available.

Beyond that, and beyond the perennial attempt to make universities reflect the national demographic rather than the clientele of the country club, universities engage in a competition for bragging rights. It’s the sort of thing that Thorstein Veblen described so well. You want the lowest possible admissions ratio and the highest possible yield: ideally, accept one in 100 and have them all come. Rejecting 95 per cent of your applicants rather than a mere 87 per cent is a form of conspicuous consumption. If the increase in applications came entirely from the “missing” social groups, we would all rejoice. In fact, it is largely an artefact of the well-intentioned move to a simpler application system. Instead of writing an elaborately different application for every university and paying $50 (£33) or $60 to each, you can now write the same application for several, and pay one fee. The extra applicants are more of the same.

Does it matter? It wastes time and money that could be devoted to something more useful, but seemingly nothing worse. Only “seemingly”, perhaps. The description of a university as “highly competitive” only adds to the pressures that teenagers feel. It is very hard for parents and teachers not to get sucked into the competitive vortex. Status competitions are especially destructive of a student’s peace of mind because they are like a race; how well you have done is measured by how many are ahead of you and how many behind. Doing “well enough” is an impossibility, since the only position that is good enough is to come top. I am never sure whether to feel badly for the young people we put under so much pressure or to feel relieved and astonished that so many of them seem so relaxed and well adjusted, and very much more at ease than my 19-year-old self. But many commentators think that family life as well as the education system is being destroyed, as children come to think that their parents’ affection is conditional on their academic and worldly success.

So, when the admitted students visit to see what they’d be getting if they were to sign up, what can we tell them? Or, since they usually bring their parents, who tend to be more anxious and more talkative than their children, what can we tell the whole family? One thing, surely, is that once they are safely in, there will be a lot less pressure from their teachers than they would have experienced in high school. The American system of devoting so much of the first two years at university to general education allows students to explore, experiment, goof off and find out what they really enjoy doing. Parents, on the other hand, want to know whether their offspring will be employable and don’t always take kindly to being told that a degree in philosophy is a better investment than a degree in business studies. Nor do parents usually want to know that one of the benefits of going away to university is that their children will see less of them; but it’s true. Separation anxiety is no doubt an issue for some students, but in an age of helicopter parenting cutting the reins is a real necessity – at least for the upper-income and over-parented young people who get into the most selective universities. The under-parented and neglected are another matter, and a far great problem.

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