What’s Wrong with College These Days?

Okay. What is wrong with college these days?

Well, for starters what, exactly, is a seller’s market? Here’s a good definition, in terms of home sales:

A seller’s market is one in which there are more buyers than homes for sale. Since supply is less than demand, homes will be higher priced and more attractive to the sellers in the market. In contrast, a buyer’s market is one in which there are lots of sellers and relatively few buyers, which leads to lower prices.

Now, just substitute “applicants” for “buyers” and “admission spots” for “homes” and you’ll see that in many cases, particularly at the top level (with the so-called “elite” and other competitive schools), you can easily see that they control a tremendously strong seller’s market. It has pretty much always been that way and there’s no relief in sight, unfortunately.

Another word that springs to mind that may describe this situation is monopoly (not the board game). Let’s define that:

Exclusive control of a commodity or service in a particular market, or a control that makes possible the manipulation of prices.

Aha! You may be hearing bells ring.

Question: What “service” is under the control of a highly exclusive industry that has made the manipulation of “prices” possible?

If you answered, “higher education,” you’re of the same mindset as I am. Take a good, objective look at the providers of higher education and you may be able to see, as I do, a monopolistic enterprise that manipulates the prices of their services beyond all reasonability and enjoys a permanent position in the seller’s market hall of fame.

Of course I’m painting with a broad brush here. There are certainly colleges and universities that are happy to welcome nearly all applicants, thus projecting acceptance rates in the over-70-t0-80 (or higher) percentage bracket. However, even though these kinds of schools clamor — and scramble — for enrollment every year, they still elevate their prices beyond the inflationary curve.

What am I ranting about all this? I bring my frustrations to the keyboard every now and then because I’m associated with the ebb and flow of college admissions. I work with high school seniors every year who aspire to higher education, seeking insights for both self-understanding and a life’s work direction. I rise and fall with their successes and disappointments.

Every year, after the dust has settled from their admissions outcomes, I sit back and ponder what has just happened through their college processes. I ask myself if their final decisions were the right ones. I wonder if their choices would have been different had the economic factors been different. I stew over the apparent unfairness of the admission process. Lately, I have been irritated by the actual application process itself.  That’s where my personal opinions met up with those of a writer from U.S. News.

Danny Ruderman is an opinion contributor for U.S. News, as well as an independent college counselor (birds of a feather?) living in Los Angeles. He attended Stanford University and was the first from his family to go to college. He wrote an opinion piece entitled The College Admissions Process Is Broken, also known as The College Application Process Works For No One — Colleges should work together to make applications more manageable for students.

He makes many excellent points that fit my perspective like a glove. I thought I would excerpt a few of them and then add a few words of commentary of my own. Danny notes:

… it is finally time that someone steps up and says what needs to be said: The college admissions process is broken and needs to be fixed.

As an independent college counselor, I have spent the last 15 years watching two disturbing trends on both sides of the socioeconomic spectrum. Upper- and middle-class students face a preposterous degree of pressure to attend a “good” college. Every day, I spend hours with teens applying to college. They tell me how they base a good part of their self-esteem on whether an institution deems them smart enough or good enough. To students who have barely glimpsed the challenges of life, getting into college serves as the ultimate validation for their level of ability, potential, work ethic and societal acceptance.

This reminds me of those pompous “elite” admissions officials who address the large campus tour groups every year. They stand before high schoolers and parents and make ominous proclamations, such as, “Most of you who apply here won’t get in.” Or, “Look to your left and right. Fewer than one out of three will be accepted here.” The smugness with which these warnings are issued deserves no less than a good seltzer-bottle face washing.

Consequently, more of these students are applying to more and more colleges each year to try to increase their chances of getting accepted. In fact, according to the National Association for College Admission Counseling, almost three-quarters of American colleges have seen increases in applications in 10 of the last 15 years.

Can you say, “Seller’s market”? The Common Application has enabled this application avalanche. This past admissions cycle, I worked with one economically disadvantaged high school senior who applied to twenty (yes, 20) colleges. He didn’t apply to more than that because the Common App limited him to that many. Ruderman comments on that:

For low-income or hard-pressed middle-income students – the type I once was – the process is simply overwhelming. Public schools are short on counselors, leaving students with little guidance to navigate a confusing process. Students who have parents who did not attend college are at an even greater disadvantage. These students often “undermatch” themselves, applying to too few colleges or to schools that don’t match their level of academic achievement. According to the Association for Education Finance and Policy, 50 percent of students from low-income families undermatch into colleges less selective than are warranted by their academic record. …

The 20-college applicant I mentioned certainly didn’t fall under Ruderman’s “too few colleges” umbrella, but he did qualify as someone who applied to schools that didn’t match his level of achievement because of not being able to accurately assess his own appeal as an applicant. This, as Ruderman notes, was due to a lack of proper college guidance from his high school.

Ruderman goes on to detail the hurdles colleges throw in front of their applicants. Maybe that’s why those snarky “You probably won’t get in here” college reps seem so sure of themselves. They have an unlimited number of tricks up their sleeves to keep the hordes at bay. Ruderman references a few of these that the seller’s marketeers employ:

… Even those that do often have additional [application] requirements. Stanford University, for example, requires three different essay answers, along with multiple short answer responses that are completely different from those required by say, The University of Pennsylvania. Some colleges require two recommendations and SAT subject tests, while others do not.

Application timelines also vary. The deadline for The University of Vermont is different from that the one required by USC. Some colleges offer interviews, in some cases requiring students to sign up in September, while in other cases granting interviews only after the application is submitted.

This is just a fraction of the minutiae the typical 17-year-old college applicant must figure out. Ask any parent who has tried to shepherd a child through the process and you will hear horror stories about last minute essays, screaming matches over missed deadlines and frustration over different requirements. …

If I had a dollar for every time I advised a client, “To be absolutely sure about the [deadline, restriction, exception, etc.], be sure to check the school’s Web site,” I wouldn’t be typing this post right now. I would most likely be on the beach in the Maldives Islands, complaining about the lack of a fast Internet connection.

If you would like to waste some time verifying the fact of non-standardized application information and requirements, select three of your preferred colleges and then try to find the answer to this question: “What do I have to do to qualify for merit scholarships and which ones do you offer?” That should keep you buying Pepcid for weeks to come.

Solutions? Ruderman has a suggestion or two:

… First, all colleges and universities in the United States should standardize their requirements and deadlines. The Common Application should be used for this purpose unless and until a better solution is developed. Additionally, all colleges should require the same personal statement and only one supplemental essay – I’d suggest the popular prompt of “Why do you want to attend this specific college?” because it forces students to research the schools to which they are applying. …

Unfortunately, this will likely never happen. Changes like this would level the playing field and, consequently, dilute the exclusivity of the elite schools who roll on with impunity.

I have a suggestion of my own that speaks to the seller’s market aspect: Government intervention. While I am firmly anti-regulation, I believe that the obscene rise in college costs is something that needs to be sat upon. Apparently, the only organism with a big enough bottom to span this seat of arrogance is the Federal government.

As a young baseball fan, I became concerned when Congress wanted to break up the New York Yankees’ dominance of the World Series during the Forties and Fifties. They were viewed to be a monopoly (see above). That never happened but my question is, “Why has higher education been allowed to inflict so much economic damage upon the American public? (Search the Web for “student loan debt.”)

My solution: Lock college cost increases to the same scale as that for Social Security. Then, higher education institutions would have to live within their budget constraints. In a recent news item, an auditor investigating Penn State University noted:

“Over the past 30 years, Penn State’s in-state tuition — at $19,347 for the 2016-17 academic year — has increased by a whopping 535 percent,” [my emphasis] Mr. DePasquale said. “With the exception of 2015-16, resident tuition increased every year — on average about 6.4 percent.”

Check inflation for that same 30-year period, along with the percentage of Social Security increases. Be sure to take your blood pressure medicine before doing that research.

Enough. You get the point, I hope. If not, here it is, from my point of view:

Higher education has become a monopoly, spawning an ongoing seller’s market, which has inflicted both application misery and economic hardship upon American (and other) students and families. It shows no sign of improvement and will continue if left unchecked.

It’s time for revolutionary change.

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Be sure to check out all my admissions-related articles on College Confidential.