A Foot in the Door

These days, it's harder to get into college than to get through it.

If you’re the parent of a college-bound high-school senior,” wrote Joe Blundo, a columnist for the Columbus [Ohio] Dispatch, “you’re knee-deep in brochures about now.

“At our house, they arrive daily in bunches, each beckoning the child to an ivy-covered paradise where the student-instructor ratio is low, the campus is always cloaked in autumn color, and the population is an exact mirror of America’s ethnic makeup.”

Sounds like Moravian College. Also sounds like every other college and university, if you read the self-adulatory prose in their recruiting packets.

Getting in there is another matter. One recent guide to the academic admissions maze is Admissions Confidential: An Insider’s Account of the Elite College Selection Process (St. Martin’s Press) by Rachel Toor, a former admissions officer at Duke University who now writes for the Chronicle of Higher Education.

Her book is an unflattering portrait of the way schools such as Duke select against BWRK’s—the “bright well-rounded kids” that every institution says it wants but that too often are recruited to apply so the university can turn them down in order to bolster its selectivity statistics.

Though it describes itself as a “selective liberal arts college” in its official literature, Moravian is actually what is called among college administrators “competitive.” In neither its draw nor its end product is it in the same league as Duke or Harvard or Stanford. The applications pile up so deep in their admissions offices that screening procedures with very coarse meshes indeed are used just to cut them down to manageable size.

Nonetheless, acknowledges Bernard J. Story, vice president for enrollment at Moravian, the problems in the admissions process today are common to all American colleges.

“Selectivity has little to do with the size of the college,” he said. “It has everything to do with the size of the applicant pool. Obviously, the larger your pool of applicants, the more selective you can be. As a college’s selectivity increases, so does its prestige. ”

The reason for this cruel process of come-hither, don’t-bother? The proliferation of college guidebooks, college ratings surveys, books about how to get admitted to, survive in, and succeed after college, fueled by the tremendous increase in the cost of a college education and, therefore, the natural desire of students and the parents who pay their bills to get full value for their money.

At Moravian, Story said, the goal of the Admissions Office is to make 1,000 offers in hopes of enrolling about 350 freshmen. “The admission process has to look more like a funnel than a tube,” he says. “So although the number of acceptances doesn’t change much from year to year, our aim is to attract a larger pool of applications at the top of the funnel.”

And because all kinds of data are collected nationally about incoming students but little about the same students as they exit four years later, “the public still judges the quality of your program by the student body as it enters and not as it exits.”

Most colleges have their own follow-up surveys and tracking systems, he said. But until there are national standards by which to measure the success of the college experience, the admissions end of the business will continue to have a powerful spotlight beamed upon it.

All admissions officers begin with the same question, Story said. It is: “Can you do the work?” That’s why the first cut among applicants is made strictly by the numbers: the high school GPA, the SAT score. “We try to do a very good job of not compromising that first question,” Story said. “It would be unethical, immoral, and unprofessional of an admissions officer to approve an application if the numbers suggest the student wouldn’t survive in the classroom.”

Subordinate factors, ranging from family (descendants of alumni get some preference at every college and university) to special talents or interests, then come into play. These are assessed in the application essay, the personal interview, and other methods that cull an applicant, however briefly, from the herd.

At a school like Moravian, the herd is manageable enough that students can make their individuality known. Toor says the essay and the interview are meaningless at a school like Duke. “By the time kids were [in the interview], their fate probably already was determined by test scores and class rank.”

Some attempts are being made to assess the college experience at departure time. Pennsylvania (and other states) has a built-in measure of success: it requires potential teachers to pass certification exams and applicants to other professions to be accepted by licensing bodies such as medical or legal associations. At least graduates who surmount these barriers know they have achieved a minimum level of competency.

But what about the larger meaning of a college education? Do the ivy-covered walls and the eternal autumn colors and the happy faces of black, white, Asian, and wheelchair-transported matriculants tell a prospective student anything about the reason to attend this college, not that one?

“By reputation, Moravian does a better job than most places in terms of value added,” Story said. “But we are continuing to look for ways to better assess our performance.”

December 4, 2001

A Foot in the Door
Wassail, Wassail!
Ich bin ein Berliner
Student Exchanges
Poetic License
Lift Ev'ry Voice