Ethical College Admissions: Restricting Applications

Despite the frustrations created by students who apply to too many colleges, high schools shouldn't limit applications, writes Jim Jump.

March 9, 2020
 
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Several years ago a senior walked into my office on a Monday morning and announced that he had applied to 17 colleges the previous afternoon. When I asked him why, he responded that his father had “gone crazy” and made him. Several months later, after the student had been admitted to most of them, I ran into the dad at a baseball game. He shook his head and said, “Please don’t tell anybody we did that.”

I thought about that last week when I read the Inside Higher Ed story about an unnamed independent school that restricts its students from applying to more than nine colleges. Such a rule would have seemed useful and convenient on that Monday morning, but I have philosophical reservations about the wisdom of such a policy.

I share with the school in question a concern about students overapplying. I also recognize that is part of a vicious cycle that the college admissions world has created, unintentionally or intentionally.

When I ask groups of students or parents how many believe that admission to college has gotten harder, a majority of hands go up. That belief is fueled by media coverage of college admission that focuses on the “haves” of higher education. We are about a month away from the perennial stories about how this is the most competitive year in college admission history, with “elite” colleges and universities having record low admit rates. Those stories ignore the broader truth -- admission to college is getting easier. Admission to a small group of colleges is getting harder.

Students and parents respond to the stories about record low admit rates by feeling that they need to apply to more colleges. As a result colleges are unsure how serious applications are and they hedge their bets by placing more students on wait lists, setting the cycle in motion all over again.

I advise my students that they don’t need to apply to more colleges but rather apply more thoughtfully and intentionally, knowing why each school is on their list. That seems to be the belief that underlies the college counseling approach at the school described in last week’s article. Both of us agree that fit is the goal of the college search and that the value of college lies in the experience a student has rather than the “brand” on the student’s diploma. I fear that approach to college counseling is an endangered species.

It is also the case that deciding how many colleges to apply to is no longer a simple calculus. When I started in the profession many years ago the prevailing wisdom was that students should apply to two reach schools, two likelies and two safeties. I never liked that terminology, and today it is less meaningful than ever.

Using those labels requires an ability to predict decisions, and that is harder today as colleges play a variety of enrollment management games. I know of universities whose goal is to be less predictable in admission, and a few years ago, we went through a period where no college wanted to be seen as a safety, a desire that today may be in the midst of being replaced by a new epoch where no college wants to be no longer in business. The fear of being shut out drives students to submit more applications.

What is the “Goldilocks” number of applications, neither too many nor too few? The College Board advises five to eight, and my answer is typically four to seven, but the truth is that it depends on the student. Over the past couple of years, 20 to 25 percent of my students have applied to only one college, either because they successfully applied early decision or were a recruited athlete. It is rare for my students to apply to as many as 10, and when they do it is usually because aid is a consideration or because they are shooting high, hoping to land an acceptance at a highly selective institution. For the latter group, I caution them that they may be increasing not their chances of admission but their likelihood of receiving multiple rejections.

How often do students nationally apply to an unwieldy number of colleges? Last week’s article cited National Association for College Admission Counseling statistics from 2015 indicating that 36 percent of first-time freshman applicants applied to seven or more colleges, just over double the percentage from a decade earlier.

I contacted both the Common Application and the Coalition for College for information on numbers of colleges applied to per student.

In 2017-18, 65 percent of the one million students using the Common App platform applied to five or fewer colleges. Another 26 percent applied to six to 10. That leaves 11 percent who applied to more than 10, with 2 percent applying to more than 15.

The Coalition provided current-year numbers. The average number of colleges applied to via the Coalition Application is 1.93. More than half (54 percent) applied to only one, another 26 percent applied to two and only 10 percent applied to more than three via the Coalition. Of the 82,500 students using the Coalition App platform, only 451 applied to more than nine. Of course what the statistics do not tell us is usage from students who use both platforms.

So what about a school restricting the number of colleges to which it allows a student to apply? It is one thing to advise against applying to more than nine and another to prohibit the student from doing so.

Most students only go through the college search and application processes once, and as a result they should do it thoughtfully. I don’t want students looking back and asking “What if?” and as a result I would never tell a student he or she can’t apply somewhere. That’s not my call. It is my responsibility to advise them properly and make sure they understand the consequences of their decisions and the reality of the admission landscape.

Should a school restrict students from applying to colleges? “Should” implies an ethical dimension, and in ethics intent is important. If the intent of the restriction is to protect student mental health and wellness in the face of a process that can seem overwhelming, that makes sense. If the intent is the to lessen the burden on the school in preparing supporting materials, that is understandable but less defensible.

I worry about a different motivation for the restriction. According to last week’s article, the independent school has a strong student body with high aspirations for the “usual suspects” -- the Ivies and selective liberal arts colleges. One benefit of restricting the number of applications any student can submit is helping to sort the senior class to spread out acceptances to elite colleges. The unnamed counselor was quoted as saying that 50 of his seniors might apply to certain institutions, with only 20 getting in. The school’s policy serves as its own kind of enrollment management game.

I suspect the school is not alone in doing that. It may be strategic, but that doesn’t make it right. Ethics is about ideals. Does the school believe that its policy is ideal and best practice? If so it should go public and proudly preach what it practices.

Bio

Jim Jump is the academic dean and director of college counseling at St. Christopher's School in Richmond, Va. He has been at St. Christopher's since 1990 and was previously an admissions officer, women's basketball coach and philosophy professor at the college level. Jim is a past president of the National Association for College Admission Counseling.

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