College Applications in the United States – The background

This is the first in a series of posts that will appear over the next few months about the college application process in the US, and in particular the numbers aspect of that process. But first, some background.

Applying to college in the United States is a head-spinning, gut-churning merry-go-round for high school seniors and their parents. The process starts as early as ninth grade, when students have to decide about taking SAT IIs. (There’s a school of thought that it’s a good idea to take, say the biology SAT II right after you’ve taken the course in ninth grade. There’s another that says it’s better to wait, and take it during the year the student is taking AP Biology.) Everything accelerates as the student advances through school, taking PSATs, SATs, and Advanced Placement tests. (And that description doesn’t begin to touch how the parent feels as she watches her child’s progress.)

Many things have changed in the college admissions landscape over the past 25-30 years, since the parents of today’s high school students applied to college. The Common Application has made applying easier, at least in some ways. The US News and World Report and other college ranking systems have made some schools appear more desirable. Web sites like College Confidential help students pick schools they are likely to be accepted to. The entire college application process has become the subject of academic study. It can be overwhelming.

And with vast amounts of information available, it’s hard to get a sense of the big picture. Today I describe the general landscape. Later posts will cover what colleges are looking for in their applicants, the substantial amounts of information available to colleges and applicants, the Common Application, the ranking system and some critiques of it, tuition and financial aid, the impact on students, and some recommendations for the future.

According to the US Department of Education National Center for Education Statistics, there are more than 2200 four-year degree-granting public or private not-for-profit colleges and universities in the United States, and additional two year public and private colleges and for-profit two and four year programs. Nearly 20 million students are enrolled in post-secondary education. According to the National Association for College Admission Counselors, colleges accept 67% of their applicants.

But for students seeking admission to the handful of selective or highly selective colleges, these numbers provide no comfort. (What makes a college “selective” will be the topic of a later post.) The number of slots available in these approximately 75 colleges has stayed more or less the same over the last 30 years, while the number of students applying to them has increased. (At least one study suggests that this is true regardless of the size of the cohort graduating from high school.) Fewer than 40% (or, in some cases, fewer than 10 or 15%) of applicants will get into those colleges.

So – overall acceptance rates of 67%, with hysteria over a few thousand spots. What happened? A lot of things, as the succeeding posts will show. One big change, as one academic study points out, is that over the last 30 years, the college market has changed from a local or regional one to a national market. High school graduates once went to a local or regional school, and only a few went to a faraway college. Now, colleges try to attract students from far away, and many students travel across the country to attend college. A number of factors have contributed to the change. The author singles out new ease in travel and communications (cell phones, Skype, Facebook, and nationwide calling plans) as two main factors making students more willing to travel further from home to attend college. The Internet has allowed colleges to market themselves directly to student in-boxes. And the rise of the Common Application, particularly the electronic version, has meant that students can apply as easily to distant colleges as to nearby ones. (And to more colleges, but that too will be the subject of a later post.)

This is the first in a series of posts about the college application process based on work done in collaboration with Michelle Slatalla.

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