College Pete

‘This is Crazy!’ What’s Happened To All The ‘Safety’ Schools?

‘This is Crazy!’ What’s Happened To All The ‘Safety’ Schools?

On the very first page of the very first book I ever wrote (ok, co-wrote) about college (Never Pay Retail For College) I referred to college admissions as being in a ‘Code Yellow’ State of Emergency. Since I’m pretty sure there were only about four people who read that book (including my mom), here’s the gist of why I’m bringing this up today.

Among my many concerns at the time was the increasingly hyper-inflated nature of college selectivity – the result of a confluence of newer intentional and unintentional factors (read: technology, aggressive marketing tactics, price differentials, ratings targets, etc.). While I went on to explain those factors ad nauseam in the book, for our teens specifically, as well as the parents who love them, and the high school counselors who support them, I expected this to cause quite a shock to their fragile emotional systems. Uh, ya think?

That was 14 years ago.

And if it seems to you as if the ‘selective’ colleges have only become increasingly so since I first published, you’d be right. Take Tufts, where Jill and I met. For its Class of 2015 the admit rate was 22%, with 17,000 applications. This year Tufts admitted only 9% of its 34,000 applicants. Or Tulane, where my youngest is finishing his freshman year: back in 2018 Tulane boasted of a drop in its admissions rate from 30% to 17%. This year Tulane admitted only 10% of its 42,000 applicants. And perhaps the largest change was at UCLA, which in 2015 received almost 93,000 applications with a 17% admit rate; today that number is a record 149,772 applications, with only about 10% admitted.

Considering this trend of increasing selectivity, NY Times Money columnist and higher ed author Ron Lieber has referred to such schools not as ‘highly selective” but rather “highly rejective”.

I get that this is frustrating to all involved. I truly do – as a professional sure, but equally important, as a parent. It seems absurd when a hard-working, high-achieving, strong student and good kid doesn’t get admitted to a school where that student appears to be more than qualified.

In any given year, I’ll have a few eye-brow raising, head scratching moments. Like this year, when I learned that a student was admitted to UC Berkeley, but not UF…another who was admitted into Georgetown, but not American University down the road…or still another who was accepted at Cornell, University of Chicago, Rice and UF, but not Boston University.

There’s more: for example, did you know that this year Northeastern University’s acceptance rate (7%!) is equal to Northwestern’s? For parents who applied to college back in the 1980s or early 1990s, that’s a shocking fact. But Northeastern made a strategic decision about 20 years ago to boost its selectivity in order to rise in the US News rankings. That strategy has worked, with Northeastern now ranked #49 in what I believe is mostly a meaningless formula.

I’d certainly understand if you are a parent and looking at the data in a mild state of panic. I understand if it makes you angry. It makes me angry… but after 15 years, I also know that it’s far better, and more productive, to get educated (about the process) than to get angry about it. I guarantee you that your ranting won’t move the needle on your child’s admissions chances – at least not in a good way.

With proper information AND admissions planning, the college application experience should not be a soul-crushing, frustrating endeavor. Each of these students I mentioned above has really great options – despite (and sometimes because of) this data. This is by design. By intention. With each of my students, we set expectations early – before the first application is even started, and our goal is not perfection but greatness of fit – and multiple options.

So what can you/your child do right now to tip the odds in your favor?

For starters, they need to go the extra mile with admissions offices at schools they are considering well before they submit a single application – reach out and ask questions, make yourself heard, attend virtual sessions, even visit campus if you can and then follow up with an email to admissions. Show that you care, that you’re interested in their school.

And all students, parents, GRANDPARENTS and counselors need to reevaluate what is meant by “safety school”. Parents who applied to college 30 years ago may recall some schools that were deemed to be “safe”, only to look at the admit rates of those schools today, as well as average SAT/ACT scores, and react with shock at their current selectivity. Examples may include FSU, and the aforementioned American University and Boston University, with admit rates of 23%, 32% and 14%, respectively.

I know it might be easy to just throw up your hands and succumb to the notion that all college admissions is a “crapshoot” or a “lottery”. While sometimes it can feel this way, this sentiment misses a larger point, which is that high school performance does still matter. Getting denied admission to a school where you feel you are qualified might hurt, but it’s not an indictment on who you are or will become! By and large students do end up where they are supposed to be. Especially when they have and follow a thoughtful college plan!

It’s true, the admissions process isn’t always fair. There are inherent advantages as well as hidden landmines all over the admissions landscape – to the privileged who can afford test prep and other counseling services; to Legacy students whose parents may have attended the school; to people of color who may benefit from affirmative action programs; to athletes who are recruited by coaches who may fast track their application; to Development Cases, or students from families who donate significant money to the school.

It’s ok to acknowledge these benefits and challenges. I recommend that you do what you can to learn how the process works so that you can make it work in your favor. It’s not that I’m out to change the system; I’m making no such recommendations in this column. Rather my mission is to help you and your student to navigate the system – both admissions and financial aid – so that you can identify advantages for your student and then act upon them.

I sometimes hear from people that “where you attend college doesn’t really matter, anyway, so why all the fuss?” I agree that where you go to college is less important than what you do when you get there. But I also emphatically believe that where you go can have a big impact on what you do once there. Not only do some schools offer unique research opportunities, or co-ops, or other experiential learning benefits. But also there are, or at least there can be, major advantages derived from those with whom you surround yourself. The people you meet in college, the connections you make, could prove far more valuable years down the road than the simple name on your diploma.

So, while I do believe that some fuss is deserving, I think it far wiser to help our students to be pragmatic and assemble the right list of schools to maximize their chances of success with admissions, with financial aid/scholarship, and while on campus. What I still see are far too many families stuck chasing the herd, doing the same thing as everyone else…and this becomes a problem in spring of 12th grade when the numbers dictate that too many qualified students will needlessly get waitlisted or denied from the same batch of schools.

The fact is, 80% of colleges admit more than 50% of their applicants. There are some good schools in that group, both private and public, that are worthy of your student’s consideration. The trick is knowing which of these is appropriate for you (or your child). When it comes to college admissions, students (and parents) should place less emphasis on the names of schools and more on the type of learning environment where they will thrive. Such a strategy will result in far greater success in the long run.

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