Behind the College Admissions Curtain

The Wall Street Journal’s Naomi Schaefer Riley looks at college admissions, using the University of Chicago as an example, and comes away from it all with this:

As it is, colleges already discount so many of the concrete measures. In addition to ignoring test scores (when it’s convenient), admissions officers have a hard time keeping track of which high schools are rigorous and which are not. The U of C has freshmen matriculating from 900 different high schools this year. What does an “A” mean at any of them? “We don’t know,” Mr. O’Neill replies. What about the essays? More and more kids pay coaches to compose them. The U of C has picked some odd topics to get around this–“Write an essay somehow inspired by super-huge mustard” or “Use the power of string to explain the biggest or the smallest phenomenon”–but coaches can get creative, too.

I suspect that what bothers kids most about the process is not the cutthroat competition they face, but the arbitrary nature of the whole thing. You struggle to give schools what they want. But ultimately folks like Mr. O’Neill may simply ignore your grades or your test scores, focusing instead on whether you’ve had the right “experiences” or have the right skin color to be admitted to the sacred city.

This is an oft-repeated critique: Schools are moving away from hard measures of achievement and opting instead for increasingly fuzzy, and constantly moving, admissions standards. But what Riley and others miss is that admissions offices across the country are also marketing themselves more aggressively than ever — and many of them are using a Richmond-based agency, Royall & Company, to do it (disclosure: Mrs. Leahy once worked for Royall).

Never heard of Bill Royall’s firm? That’s not surprising, since he generally shuns publicity (and that the perpetually blinkered RTD hasn’t covered him isn’t surprising either…but that’s a rant for another time).

But Royall helps over 200 schools, including some of the biggest names in the biz, generate large, nationwide applicant pools. The process uses classic direct marketing techniques and a healthy dose of technology to give schools like the University of Chicago (a Royall client) the ability to reach beyond their traditional, regional bases, and target kids based upon any number of criteria including test scores — yes, they do matter, a lot — gender, interests, career aims and more. The whole process can begin as early as the ninth grade.

Kids provide the information themselves — more often than not on the testing forms they complete before they take exams like the PSAT. So when Admissions officers say they want to move away from crude measurements like the SAT, they are being truthful…to an extent. The reality is that their marketing efforts rely on test scores more than they want to admit.

And the schools have reaped enormous benefits. Not only are they attracting more applicants, which allows them to be more selective, it also helps make them into national, recognized brands.

The downside of this success is that it has given rise to bizarre essay questions like the ones Riley notes in her piece. It’s also made it harder for some bright kids to get into top schools. When the applicant pools were smaller, they stood out. But thanks to the wonders of national marketing, that’s no longer the case (unless you’re a legacy).

It’s fine and necessary to question college admissions policies, particularly when those policies seem to be ever-changing. But it’s also important to understand that the schools are working both sides of this game — marketing themselves like mad to get more people to apply, and then playing games with their admissions criteria.

Just remember that the next time your ninth grader gets a letter or an email from a college asking them if they’ve given any thought to life after high school.

Share this article


(comments below)


(comments below)


8 responses to “Behind the College Admissions Curtain”

  1. Anonymous Avatar

    Very good post.
    Interesting that the very idea of competitive testing such as SATs was conceived with diversity in mind. The plan was to give smart kids, such as Jewish ones, a chance in an Ivy League dominated by WASP-elites with lots of legacy.
    While SATs broke the WASP-barrier, they morphed into a Frankenstein. Having one child through the process and one about to go through it, I’m not sure how much value to place on standardized tests, extra-curriculars, essays or whatever. Even more interesting, many very talented foreign students very much want to go to our better schools, including UVA, WM and VT. Many train for years to master U.S.-inspired barriers such as SATs. But I’m not sure how this all makes for better, well-rounded students.
    A year ago, I visited a congressman who was my college roomate. We went to a not-quite-Ivy school. He told me that today, neither he nor I would be accepted. He’s probably right.

    (signed) another loser on the Bacon blog

  2. Anonymous Avatar


    Here’s some advice from a graduate of a Virginia University (class of 2000):

    1) College is a business.

    2) The admissions process is nothing more than a glorified lottery. You might get in. You might not. Accept that and move on. I know for a fact I was accepted to schools I shouldn’t have gotten in while others in my HS class were not accepted at those same schools. It’s a JOKE!

    3) Go to community college the first 2-years – it’s cheaper and you get all of the BS out of the way.

    4)IMO, state schools should let in more IN-STATE students. Out-of-state students make up a large portion of a student body. True, they pay more in tuition but how is that fair? Are schools ultimately saying the biggest reason kids from out of state get in is because they pay more?

    If that’s the case schools might as well auction off the spots in a freshman class….let the free market work!!

  3. Anonymous Avatar

    My daughter is a senior in high school and wants to be an engineer. So far she has taken AP courses along with the special pre-engineering classes the school district offered. This year she is taking AP courses in the morning and attending the local community college twice a week in the evening. The days she has off, she works to earn money to pay her college costs next year. She has no interest in school activities, only getting ready for college.

    What you are saying is that all this effort doesn’t matter. That some off the wall essay on nothing is the determinate factor that will allow her to attend the college of her choice. Am I reading this right?

  4. Anonymous Avatar

    That’s what Riley’s conclusion was in her piece. No matter how hard one works, the institution making the admission decision is just one step removed from flighty.

    I think that’s extreme. Hard working kids will still get into good schools — though thanks to larger and more competitive applicant pools, perhaps not the ones they think they deserve to attend.

    My point was to show one of the big, but largely unknown, reasons why the pools are getting bigger, and how that is allowing some schools to fall into the behavior Riley describes.

    — Norm

  5. Anonymous Avatar

    I love these topics as most everyone is so very poorly informed.

    Fact: SCHEV has released a 20 year retrospective study on enrollment that demonstrates yet again that overall out-of-state enrollment has actually declined slightly as a proportion of the total for undergraduate enrollment at public institutions. This figure hovers at around 20% overall…admittedly it is significantly higher at UVa and W&M, but they prohibited from increasing it.

    Fact: On average out-of-state students pay over 130% of the cost of education. In-state students pay about 66% of the cost.

    Fact: Because of decreases in state funding, the state now only subsidizes one-third of the cost of education for in-state students, whereas a little over a decade ago the subsidy was twice that.

    Fact: UVA has one of the highest yield rates in the nation of in-state students which is the percentage of students admitted that actually enroll. However, 1 out of every 3 Virginians that enroll are no-shows.

    Institutions make admission decisions the best they can to build a class that will fill and will be successful as students. Most do a relatively poor job of this, in part because so very mnay students are encouraged to go to college who have little likelihood of success.

    Fact: ONE-THIRD of first-time full-time freshmen enrolled will never complete a degree in Va, and we are on eof the highest performing states in the nation.

    If one looks at these numbers, it should become somewhat apparent that much of the reason that some talented kids do not get into college, or the college they want, then it as much because of other students who get in, take up space, and fail, as any other reason. The reality that many people forget is that 98% of college students are adults and solely responsible for their behavior….in terms of applying to appropriate institutions for their ability, accepting a slot, fillin it, and then completing a degree.

    FACT: the graduation rates for a completing a two-year degree at community college in VA range from 8% to 29% with a system average of about 14%.

    FACT: Students who transfer after earning an associate degree are more likely to complete a four-year degree, and are still better off if they don’t than those that transfer prior to completing the AA. Despite this, only one quarter of community college transfer to public four-years are transfer degree qualified.

    Rational decisions, or the lack of, are much of the problem in higher education…administrators and faculty have to work around these issues and make their best guesses about who will be successful and benefit at their institutions.

  6. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    as per my usual – kids with economic and parental advantages will, with some effort on their part end up with successful outcomes.

    and as my father-in-law once told me .. “it’s not my fault that life is not fair”…

    however, for those kids that ARE bright and do show good potential but are in not so good circumstances, I’d like to see a guarantee from the State that basically says: “if you get good grades, then you WILL have an opportunity to go to college”.

    I’ve noticed that when this “contract” is offered to kids, even kids in terrible circumstances – that many of them will.. resist getting involved with bad groups… stay away from drugs, and focus on achievement – even kids with real losers for parents.

    To me.. THIS is the CORE promise of our public school system.

    I’m not unsympathetic to the trials and tribulations of our middle and upper class kids especially with respect to the cynical way our colleges do businesses…. but . I think a world of education issues could be improved if the State (and it’s taxpayers) made this simple promise to all kids – regardless of their circumstances.

  7. Jim Bacon Avatar

    Norm, Very interesting data about the Royall firm. It confirms my characterization of colleges and universities as status-driven institutions, striving relentlessly to out-do one another in terms of prestige. Because “selectivity” is a major factor in the prestige rankings — “we turn down a larger percentage of applicants than you do” — colleges devote excessive resources to generating applications. Not only is this economically wasteful but, as you observe, it corrupts the admissions process.

    I’m beginning to wonder if one of the biggest problems with higher ed in America today is the very fact that it is not-for-profit. Instead of seeking to maximize profits, every school seeks to increase its relative prestige in an ever-escalating educational arms race. The students (and their parents) are the losers.

  8. Wuttisak Avatar

    Nice blog. I will keep reading. Please take the time to visit my blog about College scholarships

Leave a Reply