Sending my children to a Baltimore inner-city public school and conducting research for elite private colleges gives me a bifurcated perspective on the selective college admissions process. I work for institutions that have a genuine desire to diversify their cultures. And yet, sometimes I think my well-intentioned friends and colleagues in the admission offices underestimate the cultural impediments to achieving their goal.
Let’s look first at the college-going culture in the affluent, elite enclaves of our country. There the intensity with which families compete for entry to highly ranked institutions is stunning. They play the selective higher education game with an amazing amount of knowledge – what my daughter would call “cultural capital” – and resources.
I remember last spring I was sitting in an information session at Wesleyan with my son. There was one high school student in the group who was hard to miss. He was sitting up front oozing enthusiasm, dressed in expensive, hip, yet at the same time understated, clothing. After the session ended I overheard him saying to the presenter that Wesleyan was his first choice and that he’d specifically travelled from southern California just to be at the school a second time. His slender, casually though well put together mother hovered in the background. The admissions officer engaged him in conversation.
Kids from more modest backgrounds have no idea about this intense press for a spots at the selective private colleges. Nothing in their background or their communities leads them to understand it. And I’m not just talking about poor kids or students of color. I’m talking about middle class kids who don’t occupy the cultural elite. I’m talking about the other 99%.
These students fail to understand the intense jockeying and packaging that goes into an application to an elite institution nor can they put themselves forward the way this young student at Wesleyan did. They don’t know that you need to take the SATs multiple times, and that if you don’t do well, you switch to the ACT. No one tells them the value of contacting the college rep assigned to your region and making your interest known to him or her. They have no idea, unless they themselves attend an elite private school and sometimes not even then, of the amount of “shaping” of a student’s record and activities that goes into a polished application.
Now here’s the rub – because the elite institutions receive such a large surplus of applications, and because any competent admissions officer has to be mindful of yield (i.e. the candidate’s likelihood of enrolling if accepted), it makes a significant difference in admissions outcome if a candidate expresses a passion for that particular institution, like the student did at Wesleyan. Admissions officers see a huge number of prospective students, most of whom will not attend their institution if accepted. They pick out those who seem to indicate a genuine interest in going to their institution.
Most students from the other 99% don’t understand this. They’ve gone to public schools and have never been treated with such a selective lens. They think you take your classes, get your grades, sit for your standardized tests, and apply to college.
If individual elite colleges are not just going to rely on programs like Posse and Questbridge to do their packaging of the other 99% for them, then I think they need to change their admissions practice.. They must be willing to accept more students of modest means who do not seem to have such particular knowledge or passion for their institution. They’ll need to accept normal, not just exceptional, students. I’m not sure it’s realistic to expect this or not. The countervailing force of the elites is great and they are so much more effective at advancing their agenda.