Foot in the Door
days, it's harder to get into college than to get through
If youre the parent of a college-bound
high-school senior, wrote Joe Blundo, a columnist for
the Columbus [Ohio] Dispatch, youre
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 Americas 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 Insiders Account of the Elite College Selection Process
(St. Martins 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 BWRKsthe
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
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 colleges selectivity increases, so does its
The reason for this cruel process of come-hither,
dont-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 doesnt 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?
Thats 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 wouldnt 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.