Change the Process

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Academic thought leader Jeff Selingo on the future of higher ed

Jeff Selingo, Founding Director, Academy for Innovative Higher Education Leadership

In his upcoming book, “Who Gets In & Why: A Year Inside College Admissions,” Jeff Selingo talks about the journey of the selection process from inside three admissions offices, providing an inside look at what really matters to the gatekeepers and how the ultimate decision is often based of a college’s priorities.

As one of the academic world’s foremost thought leaders, Selingo has carved out a career by offering a unique and introspective glimpse into the higher education landscape. As both an observer of higher education and an insider with academic appointments at two prominent universities, Selingo’s takes can regularly be seen in The Atlantic, The Washington Post, The New York Times, the Chronicle of Higher Education and as co-host of the podcast, “FUTURE U.”

Working as a special advisor for innovation to the president at Arizona State University, Selingo also is founding director of the Academy for Innovative Higher Education Leadership and visiting scholar at Georgia Tech’s Center for 21st Century Universities. In addition, he regularly counsels universities and organizations on their innovation strategy and storytelling.

We sat down with him to get his take on the changing world of the college admission process.

Who plays a role in the admissions process? How does each help students?

There are multiple players in the process. Parents and counselors help shape the playing field for students based on what they think is the right academic, social and financial fit. Often, the various rankings, along with public perception of a college’s prestige, also play a critical role. Parents want to know that a college their son or daughter applies to will pass the window-sticker test. Will it be a name that people instantly recognize on the back of the family automobile?

Colleges play a large role, too. Many start to recruit students as early as their sophomore year of high school, buying names from the SAT, ACT and other sources. Research has found that the vast majority of marketing from colleges is ignored by teenagers and their parents. Only 11% elicits some sort of response (that is considered good by comparison to direct mail for consumer products where the response rate is even lower).

Still, colleges send so much because the admissions process is so uncertain for many schools. They must have enough prospects in the pipeline in order to yield enough students at the end to fill classrooms. Other colleges hope that their marketing will generate more applications, just so they could reject more and make themselves look more selective to the outside world.

Finally, a handful of colleges are always looking for that needle in a haystack—the talented student from a middle-of-nowhere high school they hope will be among a stack of search names they buy.

In the end, the most important player in the process is the students. They must make the choices for themselves, maneuvering through the unpredictability of life after their senior year by embracing the best fit at that moment and remembering that college is a staging ground—one of many stops they will make throughout life.

What motivates students to choose a particular university?

It comes down to three factors: financial, academic and social. The emphasis put on any one of these depends largely on the socioeconomic and academic background of students. Most students start the college search looking at institutions near home. Indeed, most go to college within 100 miles of their home. That narrows the search for the majority of teenagers to a select group of institutions.

From there, students search for the right social and academic fit—small/large, urban/rural, and most of all, does it offer the majors they are interested in pursuing. Unfortunately, too many students and their families wait until much later in the search to think seriously about financial fit. They believe every school offers a discount (they do not) or that every financial aid package is negotiable (it is not). Families should winnow out costly colleges on the front end, using the net-price calculators colleges are required to display on their websites.

In the end, choosing a college is an emotional decision, one economists refer to as an “experience good.” We do not know what we are buying until after we experience it. Choosing the right college, the right major or the right classes is difficult because we lack the tools to make bottom-line comparisons between options. As a result, the decision-making process is ill-informed, usually haphazard, and full of false starts.

How has the college admissions scandal affected students’ decisions?

The Varsity Blues scandal has not impacted students’ decisions. If anything, the scandal just reaffirmed the belief that going to a name-brand school mattered: There were people willing to risk going to jail to get their kids into a top school.

You claim that college admissions is not about the applicant, but about the college. Can you explain?

College admissions is not about being “worthy,” per se, it is more about fitting into a college’s agenda, whatever that agenda might be. Every school has different needs that change over time, sometimes even from year to year. Goals for the admitted class are set by university leaders and then left to the admissions staff to carry out.

In a given year, that might mean more full payers, humanities majors and students from the Dakotas. Sometimes the goals are narrower: a pitcher for the baseball team, a goalie for the soccer team or an oboist for the orchestra. Many colleges give special consideration to applicants with deep and lasting connections to the school, such as the children of alumni and employees.

Choosing the right college, the right major or the right classes is difficult because we lack the tools to make bottom-line comparisons between options.

A rejection then is not about you—it is about what a college needs the year you apply. Just because a college accepts 25% of its applicants does not mean you have a one in four chance of getting in. This reality is hidden from applicants beneath impenetrable layers of reviews, rendering it open to criticisms of favoritism or outright discrimination.

What can universities do to better serve applicants?

There are many things. Let me focus on three here. First, colleges can limit how many names they buy in search. The reality is that many of those names are noise in the system—they are prospective students who either have no intention of going to the school or no real shot of getting in.

Second, eliminate early-decision and early-action deadlines. Early decision—with its application deadline two months into a student’s last year of high school—rushes a process that should be a journey of discovery and reflection for teenagers and their families. Early decision leaves students with the impression that there is only one right college for them.

Third, colleges should redesign their applications to focus on what really matters. Schools typically know that two basic measures indicate whether students will succeed on their campuses: high school courses and grades. That is why nothing usually carries more weight in admissions than those two elements. Yet, colleges ask for so much more in the process that every year whips high-school students into a frenzy. Colleges have the power to change the process.