Nov. 30, 1999
Somewhere between two and three million students graduate each year from high school, and a large percentage of these students look for options in higher education across a wide range of colleges and universities.
Let's go back to the early 1970s. It was once a fairly simple process to prepare well for college-level work. Just visit a few schools, apply to those that were an honest match for the student, and be accepted into one or two favorites. Going to college was seen as a pretty good deal, and without actually knowing the specific outcomes of a college degree, Americans were fairly comfortable believing that it almost ensured a better job, an enhanced career, or untold opportunities down the road. For most people, that was just good enough. The few who focused on the Ivies and a handful of other top schools almost seemed destined to attend, while many of us assumed someone on the "inside" made their path to acceptance easier than that of the average person.
Today the entire process of searching for, selecting (and being accepted to) a college, and, of course, learning how to prepare for managing the investment required in order to afford and finish college has become one of America's last great consumer product/service stories. From the outside, it seems to applicants and their families, as well as anyone else on the student's advocate list, that colleges themselves are holding all the cards. Face it: Those of us in the higher-education business know what we do-and why-and you don't. But you'd like to know it all beforehand so you can play the game and get into the school of your choice through savvy research and knowledge of the answers to questions we haven't even considered yet! Right?
Hang on. The rules of engagement between customer and college change almost daily. Higher education is an industry that sells a largely intangible service with a fairly high price tag. So far, no college or university has been able to definitively lay claim to products, services, or experiences so superior that they guarantee any individual an advantage over the average American in matters of careers, personal wealth, or happiness. Thanks to economics, however, the demand for college education has gone up, despite the lack of outcome proof for the investment, or even full disclosure from the schools themselves.
What we do know, as colleges and as consumers of higher education, is that as demand for a college education increases, the American system of admissions and financial aid planning becomes agonizingly more complex. The price for attending goes up as well, except in rare cases when the price seems to go down. Even then, we sometimes learn that the net cost for the family may not have changed at all! It's a strange litany of jargon: Differential application, acceptance and deposit deadlines, Early Action this, early acceptance that, non-refundable deposits (except in special cases, also ill defined and rather flexible), special pricing, discounts, and regulations from athletic-governing bodies. Also factor in impressions of college formed in young people's minds based solely on which team wins what football/basketball/baseball game, unintelligible statistics from the colleges themselves, almost-useless and vague tools, surveys and magazine guides from the media (US News & Word Report, etc.). Add to that a whole host of other influences and issues that have grown along with the competition for students, and for a spot in colleges that may or may not really be all that selective after all, and what do you have? Who knows? And under what conditions do you have all this? And more importantly:
America's 25,000+ high school districts have been using a college search "toolbox" that is based on benchmarks, perceptions, and assumptions about preparing for college that are decades old. In the meantime, the nation's 3,300+ colleges and universities have gone through recent and dramatic changes, including:
> The post-Vietnam boom in college-bound students, followed by:
> An erosion of almost a third of college-bound students in the mid-1980s, due to fewer children born to the Baby Boomer generation;
> Economic recession, stagflation, and other financial challenges that directly affected colleges;
> A subsequent period of growth in marketing colleges and universities amid consumer confusion;
> Our current consumer-oriented era, where American families have responded to college marketing, inconsistent admissions, and financial-aid practices by attempting to equate a college education to the consumption of other consumer products and services;
> The present economic situation that has caused some colleges to close their doors forever or to take serious actions to address financial, human, and physical-plant priorities in a drastically different way than in the 1970s; and
> An all-time high in the level of confusion about just what happens-and why-to any well-prepared student's application and financial aid information. This has resulted in enormous growth in third-party, independent counseling services that claim to understand the secrets about getting acceptance letters and scholarship dollars. (By the way-some of these counselors do know the secrets.)
Something seems to be missing here. The chasm between reality in marketing higher education and that of the process of matching students with individual institutional priorities has grown as far apart as it has ever been. It appears that the American public its advocates who want to help solve the mystery of admissions and financial aid in higher education have filled a niche (and responded to a scenario) caused by all of us in the trade.
Consequently, colleges have developed individual models of admitting students and offering various forms of financial aid that reflect the unique needs of each school. Regardless of the perceived quality of the college or university, colleges use ever-changing criteria and reasoning to decide who gets in, why they get in, and where the school will invest its merit, talent, and need-based financial-aid resources.
On the other hand, students and their advocates in the college-search process believe that there is a singular magical formula for success. It seems to involve: (1) getting the highest grade-point average, (2) taking every available AP and honors-level class, and (3) filling all free time with various co-curricular activities. Oh, and let's not forget (4) volunteer service, (5) leadership activities, and (5) achieving the highest possible standardized test scores. Then, and only then, will the student be a choice (as in worthy) candidate for almost any top school.
Work hard in school, get good grades, and you'll get into a good school! That maxim no longer applies in today's college-search scenario as students and their advocates wonder:
Students, parents, teachers, guidance professionals, the media, third-party vendors, non-profit associations, and any advocate of a student's quest to attend college have all helped create a free market system, spawned and nurtured by a myriad of economic, social, legal, demographic, and, now, business dynamics. The only way to understand and manage the systematic differences among college-admission and financial-aid practices is to learn to ask the right questions. And, just as important, look at the process from the college's point of view.
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