The college arms race

What is the increasing competition among universities teaching high school students and their parents?

Like the top students they seek, many colleges are themselves on a treadmill, grasping for ever-more impressive credentials -- including increased numbers of applications, lower acceptance rates, higher average SAT scores and higher yield rates -- to prove they are the best or at least better than their competitors. Many colleges, like many of the students they hope to attract, focus more on how they are packaged than on their own unique identity and educational values in a constant quest for better market position, according to national press accounts and reports of college admissions professionals and educators.

This increasingly competitive, commercialized contest for prestige, rankings, revenue and the perfect freshman class has become a classic "arms race" among the nation's selective colleges. Students, parents, educators and admissions professionals worry that the competitive escalation comes at high cost for little gain.

No one is more concerned about the collective impacts of this competition on students and education than Lloyd Thacker, founder of The Education Conservancy, a nonprofit dedicated since 2004 to improving the college admissions process and calming "the frenzy and hype."

Thacker has spoken several times at both Paly and Gunn, where he urged students to participate in activities they truly enjoy, to focus on the college that is the best "match" for their interests, and to avoid getting sucked into the commercialized rat race promoting top-ranked colleges as the "prize" to be won at all costs.

According to Thacker and many other professionals in the field, the arms-race fallout is significant: It generates anxiety and cynicism among parents and students. It turns the educational journey into a high stakes contest for a high-status prize. It encourages students to "game" the system. It distorts the way high school years are lived. It sucks the fun out of learning. It favors the more affluent, who are able to purchase advantages. It discourages exploration and risk-taking.

"The colleges know the students are suffering," Thacker said, "but they don't want to take responsibility for this," noting a growing separation between the values espoused in the selective colleges' mission statements and their hyper-competitive admissions practices.

One of The Education Conservancy's goals is to provide a venue for selective colleges to take steps towards collective action for change. In a "classic tragedy of the commons" dynamic (in which students are the "commons"), Thacker says colleges are afraid to risk losing competitive position by taking independent action on their own. Thacker works to help them see the benefits of working together to realign the admissions process to better serve the students they all value so highly.

This year The Education Conservancy partnered with the USC School of Education to organize a conference to do just that. Attended by more than 180 admissions professionals (from nearly 100 colleges, including Stanford and other elites) -- and funded in part by the College Board -- the group addressed the conference topic: "The Case for Change in College Admissions."

The elite colleges particularly felt the heat after three days of candid conversation. When Harvard University Dean of Admissions William Fitzsimmons took the podium, he "joked he felt as if he were representing Satan or Voldemort," according to The Chronicle of Higher Education. The same report also described one unnamed dean as being frustrated by his institution's demands for more and better applicants but was afraid to suggest changing recruitment tactics.

"I'm not going to put my head on the chopping block," he said.

According to the USC conference report on the proceedings, all too often the college admissions process causes students "to regard the high school years as an Olympic training session demanding ever greater feats of accomplishment in order to qualify for admission to a selective university."

As a result, many students become cynical, prizing college admission as "more important than personal growth, expanded understanding, and humility that result from a rigorous engagement with a body of knowledge."

"The goal needs to become something larger than assembling an incoming class of stellar Olympians whose entry credentials help the institution to shine in the college rankings. Institutions and their leaders must come to view the admissions process from a perspective beyond the narcissistic glass of competitive rankings."

One practice Thacker and others want to curb is the increased use of merit-based financial aid to serve strategic goals of attracting top students (whose credentials will build rankings), inciting "bidding wars" between the colleges and sucking "funding away from needy students toward those who are already economically and educationally advantaged," according to the USC conference report.

Another phenomenon Thacker and others decry is the insatiable appetite of many colleges (and their trustees) for more applications each year. The more applications received, and rejected, the more impressive the college appears. This causes a vicious cycle: The need for more applicants leads to more aggressive mass marketing, which leads to lower admission rates and the image of increased selectivity, which leads to applicant anxiety and students hedging bets against falling admissions rates by applying to more colleges, which leads to greater college uncertainty about yield rates, which leads to manipulation of admissions decisions through "enrollment management" strategies like greater use of waiting lists, which leads to more student anxiety, and so on.

The college marketing materials often attempt to cast a wide net, appealing to as many students as possible, including students who have virtually no hope of being selected.

Another practice targeted for criticism is the large weight given to high SAT and ACT scores, which the USC conference report says is educationally unwarranted as well as biased against low-income students. Emphasizing test scores in college rankings, marketing and media also fuels the multi-billion dollar test prep industry, which in turn feeds and profits from increased parent and student anxieties.

The college arms race is predicated on the assumption that students and parents will view admission to a prestigious, selective college as the ticket to a lifetime of advantages, especially in today's increasingly competitive global economy. The allure of this hook (often marketed to the hilt) is difficult for students -- and their parents who want the best for them -- to resist.

And yet resisting this arms race is what most educators, psychologists and other professionals working with youth recommend.

Thacker and other experts emphasize that where a student goes to college is not as important as most people think.

"It's the student and what that student does in college that contributes most significantly to educational payoff," said Thacker.

Stanford Dean of Freshmen and Undergraduate Advising Julie Lythcott-Haims urges parents to start talking with their children about the top 100 schools (instead of the usual top 10 or 12) as excellent places to go "and to truly believe it."

In "Path to Purpose: How Young People Find Their Calling in Life," Stanford Professor of Education and psychologist William Damon warns parents not to substitute their own desires and efforts for those of their children in the college application process.

"Finding the right match ... is far more important for a student's ultimate happiness than securing a spot in the most prestigious place. It is counterproductive to shade the truth about the child's true accomplishments, goals, and interests because the prevarication stands in the way of finding the right match. Many students, driven by their status-seeking parents, squeeze into places they don't belong, only to discover after some failure that their interests and potentials are better recognized and fulfilled elsewhere. ... These concerns are well known by educators everywhere," he writes.

"When you look at college as a source of education, you can see that different colleges have different things to offer, and it's not in proportion to how highly they're ranked in U.S. News," Damon told the Weekly. "One of the glories of the American higher education system is that there's so many different choices."

Related stories:

Driven to succeed, part 1: Getting off the treadmill

Part 2: Do high schools squash the joy of learning?

Part 3: Whose problem is it, anyway?

Editorial: The achievement treadmill


To facilitate discussion all comments on the cover package "Driven to succeed" are being consolidated here: Town Square discussion: 'Driven to succeed'

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