I am glad I am not a prospective college student today. When I entered college 13 years ago, I had been accepted to all five schools I applied to and managed to secure enough financial aid to attend my first choice — Boston University. I graduated with some debt, but 1999 was the heyday of the dotcoms so I had my pick of jobs that could pay for it.
Nowadays, entrance into a respectable four-year college — much less gainful employment to pay for it — is hard to come by. According to this story in Newsweek, the children of baby boomers are flooding state universities, first tier and even second tier colleges with a record-breaking number of applications.
State schools like Rutgers — which accepted me in 1995 — have seen their applications almost double from 26,000 to 43,000 that it cannot accommodate all the prospective visitors. All tours are booked and it plans to build a visitors center.
Even worse, many smart and ambitious high school students are left crestfallen as they must apply to as many colleges possible — a feat in itself — and accept their fair share of slim envelopes.
It turns out the odds of getting into a selective college have never been worse. Why? It’s simple demographics. A little less than two decades ago the biggest population bulge in the history of America, the baby boomers, were busy having kids. Now those kids are in junior high school and high school and creating a demographic boomlet all their own. This spring the largest number of high-school graduates in the history of the country—some 3.32 million—will don a cap and gown, according to the U.S. Department of Education. Next year, at the peak of the peak, the number of high-school graduates is expected to top 3.33 million. “For many middle- and upper-middle-class kids, the transition from high school to college was never without some obvious stress,” says Barmak Nassirian, spokesman for the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers. “But now it has become a multiyear nightmare.”
Last year about three-quarters of four-year colleges and universities reported an increase in the number of applications from the previous year. This year applications are pouring in again. The deadline for most colleges is between Dec. 1 and Jan. 15, and although administrators don’t tally the numbers of applications they receive until later in the year, many admissions officers—even some at schools not normally considered highly selective—are already calling it a banner year. Last year Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Va., got 4,000 applications for 455 seats. By the first week in December the school had already topped that number—and the deadline was still six weeks away. Colorado College, which received 3,410 applications for 500 seats in 2002, expects to break 5,000 this year. Last year Ball State in Muncie, Ind., saw applications jump 22 percent when it got 13,000 applications for 3,100 spaces. So far this year applications are up an additional 15 percent.
School admissions officers are in the unenviable position of having to reject a record number students, including those who boast the credentials to do the work. But save your hankies. These admissions officers admit this is a good time for their schools because they can become more selective in applicants, thus receive a boost in their reputations and coffers.
So, despite the fact that some schools are turning away larger and larger numbers of hopeful applicants, colleges are spending big bucks on marketing, about $2,000 per student, to keep applications rolling in. And it’s not just glossy brochures and interactive Web sites. Ball State, for instance, recently hired a public relations firm to create a brand image for the school and come up with a tag line (“Education, redefined”). These days the university advertises itself on billboards and through a series of slick television ads. When it comes to marketing, “sometimes it feels like we’re all locked in an arms race,” admits Bryn Mawr admissions chief Jenny Rickard. “But no college wants to back away,” even though they are getting more than enough applicants to keep their institutions healthy…
By 2015 the number of high-school graduates will begin to drop back out of the stratosphere. But admissions directors are already worrying about the shrinking pool of future applicants, especially the sliver of those who can afford to foot the $40,000 annual tab. The most selective institutions have begun to aggressively recruit applicants from China, Korea, India and South America. Publicly, college admissions officers say they’re encouraging international students to enroll in order to improve diversity on campus. At most colleges, though, the active outreach is directed at wealthy international students who can afford to pay the full sticker price of a private four-year education.
I was turned off by the corporate greed of these schools. At a time when the economy is sagging and most working class families cannot afford even state school, I am left wondering when our colleges and universities will answer their call of duty. (At least Harvard is attempting to give middle class families grants so as not to saddle students with debt. Then again, it is impossible to get into Harvard!)
Also, perhaps it is time for upper middle class families to consider the only institutions that are actually filling a need in our communities: community colleges. My sister received an affordable and quality education at Berkeley Community College. After receiving her fair share of rejection letters at “elite“ schools, she will attend San Francisco State University at the end of the month. I assured her that the workload will be challenging — I took a course there and never returned! — and she will be prepared for the workforce without the debt I accumulated at BU.
The “elite” schools can SUCK it.