A Shrewdness of Apes

An Okie teacher banished to the Midwest. "Education is not the filling a bucket but the lighting of a fire."-- William Butler Yeats

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

The Admissions Squeeze: Bridesmaid Schools Benefit

Ever heard of the phrase, "Always a bridesmaid, never a bride?" Apparently the continued fallout from the Common Application has caused acceptance rates at Ivies to fall, but has made some "safety schools" the beneficiaries of a boomlet. From the Alan Finder of the New York Times:
Lehigh University has never been as sought after as Stanford, Yale or Harvard. But this year, awash in applications, it churned out rejection letters and may break more hearts when it comes to its waiting list.

Call them second-tier colleges (a phrase some administrators despise) or call them the new Ivies (this, they can live with). A swath of 25 to 40 universities like Lehigh, traditionally perceived as being a notch below the most elite, have seen their cachet climb because of the astonishing competitive crush at the top.

“It’s harder to get into Bowdoin now than it was to get into Princeton when I worked there,” said William M. Shain, dean of admissions and financial aid at Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Me., who worked at Princeton in the 1970s, which is one of those benefiting from the spillover as the country’s most prestigious colleges turn away nearly 9 out of 10 applicants.

At Lehigh, known for its strength in engineering and business, about 12,000 students applied this year. That is a whopping 50 percent increase in applications over seven years ago and more than 10 times the seats available in a freshman class of 1,150. The median SAT score of admitted students has climbed about 10 points a year in recent years, officials said.

Students have generally been quicker to adapt to the new realities than parents have been, many guidance counselors said.

“My sense is that parents are a lot more concerned with how the name is going to look to neighbors and family members, and there is a real sense among parents that it’s almost embarrassing if your child has to settle for a lower-level school,” said Carolyn Lawrence, a private college counselor and the author of a blog, AdmissionsAdvice.com.

Some students who might have readily won admission to Lehigh, Middlebury College, Colgate University, Pomona College, Emory University or New York University just a few years ago are now relegated to waiting lists, left to confront the long odds that an offer of admission might materialize over the next month.

John Dunham, a senior at the private Delbarton School in Morristown, N.J., had trained his sights on Bucknell University and Lafayette College. He was rejected by Bucknell and put on the waiting list at Lafayette. His college counselor pushed him toward Kenyon College in Ohio, or, as the counselor put it, “the Williams of the Midwest.”

But Mr. Dunham, a solid student who played football and baseball in high school, decided to play baseball on an athletic scholarship at Central Connecticut State.

“People are definitely broadening their horizons, because it’s gotten so competitive,” Mr. Dunham said.

The logjam is the result of supply and demand. The number of students graduating from high school has been increasing, and the preoccupation with the top universities, once primarily a Northeastern phenomenon, has become a more national obsession. High-achieving students are also applying to more colleges than they used to, primarily because of uncertainty over where they will be admitted.

Supply, however, has remained constant. Most of the sought-after universities have not expanded their freshman classes. The result, said Jonathan Miller, a senior at Mamaroneck High School in suburban Westchester County, N.Y., is that many classmates perceive institutions like Tufts University, Bowdoin, the University of Rochester and Lehigh in a new light. “I would say that high school students are looking more and more at these schools,” he said, “the way they used to look at the Ivies.”

An A student with good SAT scores, Mr. Miller said that he considered applying to Brown University, among others, but that his guidance counselor discouraged him, emphasizing the tough odds. Mr. Miller decided instead to apply early admission to Tufts, and by December, had been accepted. He said he was delighted.

Some students who have accepted offers from these colleges were rejected by the most prestigious universities. Others, keenly aware of the extreme competition at the top, decided at the outset to focus on colleges more likely to admit them.

“I’m sure part of what we’re seeing is people are saying, ‘Well, if the Ivies and Duke are inaccessible, where do I go to get a similar academic experience?’ ” said Jonathan Burdick, dean of admissions and financial aid at Rochester.

There are other reasons, too, why these colleges and universities find their stock climbing. To position themselves in the fiercely competitive market, they have hired stronger faculty; built new libraries, science complexes, dining halls, fitness centers and dormitories; and created international programs and interdisciplinary majors. Many have also sought to transform themselves from regional institutions to national ones, recruiting across the country.

At Middlebury, applications have increased by 1,000 in each of the last two years; nearly 7,200 students applied this year, compared with 5,200 in 2005. At Kenyon, about 4,600 students applied this year, while 2,000 did six years ago. Colgate received 8,752 applications this year, compared with 5,852 a decade ago.

And at the University of Vermont, a state institution, nearly 19,000 applications poured in this year, compared with 7,400 seven years ago. Many of the most prestigious public universities like Michigan and Virginia have also become much more selective, especially for out-of-state applicants.

The academic profile of students enrolling at these colleges is improving, based on average SAT scores and other data.

“We’re getting a remarkably gifted group of students,” said Gerard P. Lennon, associate dean in the college of engineering and applied sciences at Lehigh, who has taught at the university for 27 years. The median SAT score in the combined verbal and math parts of the test is now 1,320 out of 1,600. (That is not counting the writing section of the test.)

But the spillover at the second level has also created its own spillover; some students who not long ago would have won admission to these colleges no longer are.

The admission rate at Pomona, in Claremont, Calif., was about 15 percent this spring; it was 38 percent 20 years ago. Bowdoin’s rate was 18.5 percent this year and 32 percent eight years ago. At Lehigh, 31 percent were accepted this spring, compared with 47 percent in 2001.

High school guidance counselors have become the reality instructors, encouraging students and parents to think more broadly about colleges.

“Now a kid who is applying to Harvard, Yale, Princeton is also applying to the Lehighs and Lafayettes,” said Brett Levine, director of guidance at Madison High School in New Jersey. “It’s the same tier, basically.”

Several of my current and former students have had this experience. The "wait-list" has become the bane of their existence, and there has been much wailing and gnashing of teeth.

Here's what I tell kids: don't just be swayed by a name. Think about what you really want. When I graduated from high school, I knew I wanted a private university with a personal touch. So even though I had been admitted to Big State U and State Party School (where most of my friends were going), I went with something smaller (and unfortunately more expensive), but I think I still reap the rewards of my experience there to this day. A lot of my students want to go to the Local Overpriced Wannabe Ivy that my husband attended for grad school, but frankly, it's just not worth the money.

Don't be swayed by a name. Think about where you will bloom and be challenged. That's my advice for college.



At 5/15/07, 10:34 PM, Blogger Polski3 said...

My wife attended a small, private, religous affiliated college and had a wonderful college experience. It was a good fit for her and she recd. financial assistance in order to attend.

As for me, I went the cheap route, along with some of my friends.....local JC (which was like an extension of h.s.), then nearest big state U. It worked out ok for me and I had some great experiences.

Bottom line is, much of college/university is what you put into it. If you just wanna party and have whatever prestige of attending University X, thats what you'll get from it. But if you do your job and get the classes and professors you need, take part in extra curricula activities (for me, it was intramural sports and the school newspaper), you can get alot out of it.

At 5/15/07, 11:11 PM, Anonymous The Anonymous Okie said...

You give some excellent advice about college in the last paragraph. Therefore it will go unheeded by those who could most benefit from it.

(sad but true)

At 5/16/07, 9:18 AM, Blogger Jess said...

I guess I'm pretty disillusioned as a result of my college experiences. I went to Big State U as an undergraduate because they had an exceptional program for my major; I wasn't looking for personalized attention, and I was self-motivated to get the work done, so I did well. But the "party school" mentality and the special treatment for athletes really turned me off (I worked at the campus hotel and had the dubious pleasure of working the football recruiting banquets...it was eye-opening, to say the least).

My Master's program wasn't much better, unfortunately, but for different reasons (mostly having to do with the caliber of my fellow students). I know that sounds horribly snobby, but most of them were there because Master's degree = promotion, and that was it.

It's quite true that you get out of college what you put into it. In addition, I would say that college needs to be approached as a whole-life experience, and not just "academics." I think my mistake was that I tried to separate the education ("how good is the program?") from the rest of the environment when choosing schools, and made some pretty poor choices as a result.

At 5/19/07, 6:36 PM, Blogger Mrs. Bluebird said...

I agree with Polski3, college is what you make of it. During my first round, I was accepted to USC, but opted for a smaller, state university that had a top-notch program in my major and wasn't full of snobs and party-animals. It was a wonderful fit for me. The second time I attended another state school, but a satellite campus with 2000 enrollment - another fantastic experience. I never was swayed by names, maybe because I'm too much of a financial realist.

At 5/21/07, 1:06 PM, Blogger goin2college said...

This year I applied to college. I knew it was going to be difficult to apply but I never thought that it would be as hard as it was. I didn't know where to apply and I didn't know where I wanted to go. I ended up applying to 12 schools, which sounds like alot but is actually quite small when you compare it to my friend who applied to 18. I got into all of my schools except for Brandeis and I got accepted to Binghamton, but only for Spring 2008 and I got waitlisted there for the fall. Binghamton is my number one choice so it is really frustrating because alot of people I know applied there as a safety to school and have no desire to go there. The college process this year was definitely frustrating and dissappointing for alot of people.


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