Fascinating article by Eric Hoover in Sunday’s NY Times entitled “Application Inflation: When Is Enough Enough?” about the ever-falling admissions rates at our nation’s top universities. Depicted here as an “arms race,” the whole educational marketplace seems to function as quite the microcosm of human contradiction, esp when it comes to the whole measurement question. It’s also always a hoot to watch people in this context do acrobatics of semantic justification around the inconvenient reality of exclusivity:
Such announcements [of exploding applicant pools] tell a story in which colleges get better — and students get more amazing — every year. In reality, the narrative is far more complex, and the implications far less sunny for students as well as colleges caught up in the cruel cycle of selectivity. To some degree, the increases are inevitable: the college-bound population has grown, and so, too, has the number of applications students file, thanks in part to online technology. But wherever it is raining applications, colleges have helped seed the clouds — by recruiting widely and aggressively for ever more applicants.
“Colleges are there to educate you, but they make it all about who’s the best college,” [applicant Shaun Stewart] says. “They make it too stressful. Then we make it too stressful on ourselves.”
The scale of rejection worries Karl M. Furstenberg, dean of admissions and financial aid at Dartmouth from 1992 to 2007. “When people keep hearing that they’re not good enough, this has an undermining psychological effect,” he says. Over the last 15 years, he says, growing applicant pools reflected an earnest push for greater diversity among the wealthiest institutions. Yet he believes many have reached a point of diminishing returns. “It’s a classic arms race — escalation for not a whole lot of gain,” he says. “I don’t think these larger applicant pools are materially improving the quality of their classes. Now what’s driving it is the institutional self-interest factor, where bigger pools mean you’re more popular, you’re better.”
A half-century ago, B. Alden Thresher wrote a prescient book called “College Admissions and the Public Interest.” Thresher, a former director admissions at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, described colleges’ justifications for increasing selectivity as “rationalizations for a kind of insensate avarice: we want the best and only the best, we are never satisfied.” But he saw something noble, too, in the relentless search: “It is also deeply connected with the highest virtues of academic man — the impulse toward perfection.” The quest for the perfect class involves irony: the push for more inclusiveness inevitably leads to more exclusivity.
“If you succeed in getting into a selective college, it would take a pretty extraordinary person not to think you’ve already done something pretty terrific,” [Columbia professor Andrew Delbanco] says. “One of the hazards of this arms race is that it can inculcate a feeling of self-satisfaction on the part of the student, as well as the institution.
Mr. Knudson, who graduated from Chicago last spring, chose the university for its “feverish intellectual vapors.” As a freshman, he protested the adoption of the Common Application, fearing it would diminish the culture of the university. Looking back, Mr. Knudson is skeptical of such “utopian visions.” He doubts any university could deliver an experience that matches the story it tells the world beyond its gates. “People like to promote a vision of what makes them unique, but it’s just wishful thinking,” he says. “It was a great education. I’m glad I went there. But I don’t think it ever lived up to its ideal. And maybe that’s the value of an education,” he says. “It helps you realize the limits of an ideal.”