The slippery slope of college admissions

Opinion by Tiger Sun
April 11, 2018, 5:00 a.m.

Seven-point-two percent. 5.05 percent. 4.80 percent. 4.65 percent. 4.30 percent.

These are the acceptance rates for Stanford for the last five years. The quickly declining numbers are nothing to brag about. The current state of college acceptances is alarming.

At the very shallowest level, these numbers are sort of a way to broadcast a school’s “eliteness.” Along with US News College Rankings, lower acceptance rates always correspond to the quality of an education, right? If US News ranks college A over college B, then I should go to college A. That makes sense. The feeling of attending an “elite” university distinguished by a top five college ranking and a sub-five percent acceptance rate can be a great feeling — I can attest to that too — but at the root, these are numbers that should not be celebrated. Additionally, the fact that a school is so “elite” can be discouraging to many applicants who may be qualified (including first-gen/low-income students), but feel they come from a background that may might not stack up to this idea of “eliteness.” This presents a conundrum, because universities want to brand themselves as “elite,” but this may also dishearten well-qualified applicants who may not identify with being “elite.”

The desire of colleges to continually deflate their acceptance rates to inflate their egos is dangerous. In a sense, it can have an exaggerated amount of sway on a college decision. I remember debating between Stanford and the state school prior to coming to college. Everyone’s advice was always along the lines of “Stanford’s acceptance rate is the lowest in the country, why is this even a discussion?” While I did end up making the choice to Stanford (which I think was definitely the right decision), there were a obviously a lot more factors that should have been weighed much higher than these mostly meaningless numbers. Granted, US News does have a “methodology” with a few factors such as college atmosphere and costs, but this sort of one-size-fits-all model is essentially nothing. Everyone weighs the factors differently, and just assigning arbitrary weights to each factor doesn’t tell us much. Simply considering the numbers could mislead someone into attending a college that may not be the right fit, and would end up hurting the person rather than helping.

At a much deeper level, the spiraling decline of these numbers will only exacerbate the huge class divide in America. The wealth disparity has already been highlighted in studies, most notably by Stanford Professor Raj Chetty and the Equality of Opportunity project. 17.5 percent of students from Stanford are in the top one percent economically, while just a small 18.6 percent come from the bottom 60 percent. Just putting that in perspective can be difficult, but the divide is certain to only get worse in time. Even with universities increasing the percentage of first-generation/low-income (FLI) students, the divide will still get worse. As colleges become more and more selective, anxious parents will invest more and more resources into their children. Before coming to Stanford, I had never realized that people actually hired expensive college counselors and invested so heavily in test-taking/writing camps for their children. The private education industry will boom in the upcoming years, allowing more education resources for the wealthy. Even if the proportion of FLI students is higher than in past years, which is a step in the right direction, it still won’t address the systemic gap in education between the income levels. Additionally, where does that leave families that are neither FLI nor upper-middle class? Without having the money to invest in academic resources, they’ll ultimately fall behind during the college admission process, too.

Previously we noted that colleges are trying to consider applicants more holistically, taking into account background along with academics, this “holistic approach” also has some flaws. Affirmative action has long been associated more with race rather than socioeconomic status, which is problematic — we can’t just generalize entire ethnicities with a simple question on the Common App. As Andrew Lam noted in an interview with PBS, “truly disadvantaged Asians get lumped in with model minority Asians.” He recommended that “we should assist students based on socioeconomic disadvantage, no matter their race. There are rural white kids who deserve special preference, but aren’t getting it.”

Affirmative action definitely has indispensable value in crafting balanced, diverse classes and making sure deserving students with disadvantaged backgrounds have a fair shot at higher education. Although race is a factor in one’s background, one’s socioeconomic status is a much more important factor, especially in that it more directly affects someone’s access to important educational resources and information. In a sort of cynical way, wealth can buy opportunity and educational advantages — as long as someone has a great deal of wealth, they can have an exponentially larger access to resources than someone without. Therefore, a wealthy minority applicant should not receive preference over a lower-class non-minority applicant solely on the basis of race. Socioeconomic status and race should both be factors, but socioeconomic status should weigh heavier in the process.

In addition to altering affirmative action policies, the best way to alleviate this problem for good is to make information and knowledge regarding colleges more available and useful for students, such as through online resources, more guidance counselors, and in general, more money invested in our nation’s education system. Essentially, implementing programs offering the services of college counselors and SAT camps in public schools would really help bridge the gap and allow applicants to be more informed on their futures. Colleges can also do their part of investing more in housing and scaling up the amount of students in the university. Demand for education is at an all time high, as shown by the sheer quantity of college applications, yet universities are not necessarily trying to accommodate more students. The payoff is clear. Students will be more confident in themselves and their abilities and knowledgeable about the whole admission process — the tagline of “elite” school would not put off disadvantaged students and would be much less intimidating, and thus affirmative action policies would in turn be more effective in diversifying the school population.

It’s so difficult to explore a solution to this problem, especially since it spills over to the United States education system as a whole, where public schools, such as those in the inner cities, are falling apart at the seams. There are so many issues with the the system, and falling acceptance rates are only a harbinger for rougher times to come unless something changes.


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