Columnist: The college of your choice |

Columnist: The college of your choice

Nathaniel L. Schwalb
Vail CO, Colorado

When my classmates and I prepared our college applications last fall, we knew we would be part of the most crowded admissions season ever. The number of graduating high school seniors is expected to peak with the Class of 2009, but competition for America’s top colleges has exploded well beyond the actual increase in students.

This increased competition is caused by, and is the cause of, two vicious cycles. First, the massive inflation of credentials: As college admission standards rise, some students take on more extracurricular activities and Advanced Placement classes to burnish their resumes. Then other students have little choice but to attempt to match or better their peers.

Students then apply to more schools as their chances of getting into any one school decrease, further driving down admission rates and prompting students to apply to yet more schools. Whereas college-bound high school students used to narrow down their applications to their top three or four choices, these days applying to 10 or so colleges is the norm (I initially planned to apply to 11 ). And as the number of applications per student increases, each application reflects less about the student’s desire to matriculate.

Most admission decisions are based on whether applicants are perceived to be a good fit. The overall acceptance rate for American four-year colleges is high ” in recent years, the national average has been around 70 percent ” and at most colleges, the determining factor is an applicant’s ability to handle the coursework. But the most competitive schools are courted by many more qualified applicants than they have space to accept. (This year, Harvard accepted fewer than 2,000 of the 27,278 students who applied.)

Admissions officers assess multiple criteria, and they sometimes consider demonstrated interest or use early-decision programs to calculate the probability that a student will attend if offered a space. But the overall effect of these efforts is minor, and each year many equally qualified students with different first-choice preferences wind up taking each other’s spaces.

It is in colleges’ interest to ensure that this does not happen. For one thing, admissions officers seek a “high yield,” or percentage of accepted students who commit to attending. Freshmen who enroll in their first-choice schools are likely to be happier, to be more motivated and to participate in school activities. They are also less likely to transfer.

But the current system is inefficient. Colleges know which students they would most like to accept but desperately want to know which students truly want to enroll. Students know which schools they want to attend but desperately want to know which colleges will accept them. Each side has information the other wants, but they don’t trade. As economics rules tell us, the less information available, the less rational a decision will be.

This conundrum could easily be resolved. For decades, U.S. medical schools have used algorithms to optimize the assignment of medical students to teaching hospitals. The goal is to arrange a match in which all involved are happy, so the algorithms factor in the preferences of both the teaching institutions and the students and even such specifics as salary needs. Similar algorithms can and should be used to improve the college application system. Financial aid offers, for example, could take the place of salary input. The not-for-profit National Resident Matching Program is sponsored by five medical organizations, including the American Medical Association, which nominate a board of directors that includes doctors, medical students and residency directors. For colleges, a similar model would probably work well; participating universities and high schools might fund the program and select a board of directors.

The adoption of such a system would create better college-student matches and also would help remove the wealth barrier to early-decision applicants. It would not eliminate the role of admission officers or remove the human factor in the application process. But it could greatly reduce the stress on high school students and parents and increase the chances that students and colleges end up with their first choices.

The writer is a senior at Newark Academy in New Jersey. He plans to attend Yale University in the fall. This column is syndicated through the L.A. Times-Washington Post News Service.

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