College Admissions: complexity and emotion in a time of increasing demand

Every Spring, students and parents confront the subjectivity of the college admissions process, where “No’s”, “Yes’s” or “Maybe’s”, are all equally unexplainable, given the complexity inherent to the admissions evaluation process. 

Thousands upon thousands of applicants are evaluated in under five months, read multiple times by at least two different individuals, who are all susceptible to bias, as well as the circumstances of their day and the point in the application cycle in which the application is read. 

And, while each application is read by multiple people, blind from each other, to reduce subjectivity as much as possible, there is no straightforward metric or rubric from which the nuances of one student’s qualifications thus potential fit with the university community can be ascertained from the application. 

Furthermore, admissions officers are also responsible for enrollment of the next crop of tuition-paying students, to ensure the sustainability of the university as an institution, thus applicants are also scrutinized within larger intricate micro and macro circumstances, further adding subjectivity to their evaluations. 

Additionally, for Fall 2021 admissions, decreased college enrollments in the 2020-21 school year, which many attribute, with much hope, to the effect of COVID (and not some other marked shift in the value of a college education), thus affecting the total number of students needing to be admitted (or not)

The on-going macroeconomic uncertainty is causing some longtime admissions professionals, like Jon Boeckenstedt, Dean of Enrollment and Admissions at Oregon State University, to publicly Tweet last Fall,  “Get ready for another year of  ‘we really can’t tell’ in Enrollment Management and admissions.” 

Then, in Spring 2021, Mr. Boeckenstedt again reiterated the uncertainty pervasive amongst admissions people throughout the US which is affecting their decision making about applications evaluations: 

Almost all the things we would normally use to try to predict what fall will look like are gone. For instance, we try to measure affinity for our institutions [what’s often called, “Demonstrated Interest”]. If you’re moderately selective, you look at the group collectively to see how many students have visited campus during open-house events, how many spoke to an admissions officer at college fairs, how many showed up at a high-school visit. If you’re highly selective, you may allocate individual slots to students based on those criteria. Those data points are mostly nonexistent this year.

“Enrollment Managers are Flying Blind”, The Chronicle of Higher Education, March 9, 2021

Thus, in choosing an applicant, like in any given year, admissions officers are also forecasting the likelihood of the student eventually enrolling, as if they admit too many, then they may “yield” more students enrolled, thus stretching or overwhelming the capacity of the university to accommodate and educate students. 

Mr. Boeckenstedt further speculates about the increasing numbers of applicants, stating:  

Even well-known, large public research universities like my own that seem to be having a very good year in freshman applications have to wonder if maybe those increases are coming from students who have scaled back lofty dreams or who are simply hedging their bets. What if, we wonder, student behavior actually returns to normal after a very abnormal admissions cycle? Do those applications evaporate when it comes time to make a decision in May, when students will have the benefit of some improved glimpse of the future?

“Enrollment Managers are Flying Blind”, The Chronicle of Higher Education, March 9, 2021

Mr. Boeckenstedt questions if students will seek enrollment elsewhere for Fall 2021, if COVID-induced restrictions are less of an issue and normal-ish college life seems more likely, thus Oregon State University (or substitute any college name) will be left short in their Class of 2025 enrollment numbers, and facing a further reduction in revenues, a tenuous situation for universities already running fiscal deficits

College admissions is an imperfect process, even more imperfect in the time of a pandemic. Subjectivity is an inherent aspect of the process no matter how objective admissions officers strive to be objective. Although frustrating to watch admissions expectations dashed on the rocks of such an exacting yet inexact, at times impersonal process, it is part and parcel of the admissions game that many more applicants than there are spaces to accommodate seem willing to continue playing.

Since 2003, Creative Marbles experts have advised families in answering complex educational and college admissions questions, including how an applicant can benefit from test-optional admissions. For more information, contact CMC to schedule a consultation.

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About Jill Yoshikawa, Ed M, Partner of Creative Marbles Consultancy

Jill Yoshikawa, EdM, Harvard ’99, a seasoned, 25 year educator and consultant, is meticulous in helping clients navigate all aspects of the educational experience, no matter the level of complexity. She combines educational theory with experience to advise families, schools and educators. A UCSD and Harvard graduate, as well as a former high school teacher, Jill works tirelessly to help her clients succeed.
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