Will COVID-19 start a reversal of the college admissions arms race?

This month, millions of high school seniors are expected to submit a “statement of intent to register” with a college of their choice. However, the situation students face this year is far from normal. Without the assurance that campuses will be open in the fall, many may consider an admission deferral request or a gap year, or community college enrollment that allows students to stay closer to home.

If students feel that there are more options to consider, perhaps there will be less pressure to conform to a single path (immediate entry to college with the best brand name possible) and a return to what really matters for students during their school-age years — self-discovery, cultivation of passions, and personal growth.

In this article:

  • Can the next step be different for this year’s high school seniors?
  • How did we get here? Myths that need busting
  • Why is it hard to fix this problem; Advice for parents

We’ve created a college admissions arms race. Will this year help us pivot?

Over the last 20 years, an increasing level of focus on college brand names and admissions selectivity has created a college admissions arms race filled with stress and anxiety for both students and their parents. If parental pressure isn’t present, peer pressure fills the void. No teen in a college-bound high school setting is immune from the dominant thought that the goal of high school is college, and that success in high school is measured by grades, test scores, the number of APs taken and ultimately, the college one attends.

Films such as “Beyond Measure” have helped broaden our thinking by highlighting the innovative ways schools are engaging students in their personal learning journey and thinking beyond test scores. But even these schools are viewed as alternative four-year stepping stones to a name-brand college.

What if the narrative that children heard from their peers, parents, and social media was different? What if there were 2, 5, or 10 different paths that were equally challenging and prestigious to consider, based on a child’s interests, goals, and strengths? And what if we let students apply to college when they are ready, which might be a year or two after their senior year of high school?

Several paths could include taking a gap year, allowing students to explore new ideas and passions. Gap years that “challenge students with new roles and perspectives (can) accelerate their growth as thinkers and citizens.” Students can return to college refreshed and “with greater capacity to handle emotional and academic stress,” which can serve to “improve students’ future academic performance.” Free or paid internships can also provide valuable experience to stimulate a more purposeful approach to the college experience at a future time.

Other paths could include a few years of community college to complete core bachelor’s degree requirements while exploring potential academic interests. Since many states have mapped out the path from a 2-year to 4-year college or university, starting at a CC can reduce the financial burden while students explore their academic interests, enabling a sharper focus on a field of study they are excited about when they get to the university level. Some students can even save a year of tuition and classes if they do well on enough AP exams and carefully plan out the courses they take during a single CC “gap” year, able to transfer into a university with enough credits to be classified as a junior (this can be done in California).

Perhaps this year more students will consider alternative options. I hope that stories of enlightening, successful next-step experiences will help decelerate beliefs that going to college directly from high school is the most desirable option, and debunk the myth that college admission is the most important goal for a high school student to achieve.

Here are the possible scenarios students face this fall:

  1. Campuses remain closed, and classes are taught remotely, although hopefully with more structure and support (no longer” emergency teaching”). Student organizations and clubs continue to conduct activities online, including the new freshman via virtual video chats. What’s missing? Dorm life, and the experience of living on campus and the feeling of independence that comes from living away from home.
  2. Campuses open up, with the possibility of being shut down again if the virus cannot be contained or if spreading gets worse. For students who travel long distances to be at school, there is a risk they could get stuck far from home, and this potential risk may cause students to either defer or decline admission this year.
  3. Some schools are entertaining the option to ask students to start in January. As long as we do not return to shelter in place next winter, this seems a reasonable option. But what do first-year students do this fall?

With so many uncertainties, attending in-person classes on college campuses may be a less-than-likely proposition this fall. Community college closer to home may feel like a safer bet and a lesser financial risk. Next year could give students an opportunity to gain valuable internship experience (especially for tech companies that may be hiring and willing to mentor an intern).

In addition, schools for which their most compelling features are state-of-the-art facilities, winning sports teams and in-person events/entertainment, student on-campus perks, and location-based benefits may find that without these things, a school is not as attractive as they hoped it might be. Of course, the pause might be temporary and everything might resume as normal in January. Or will it?

With the possibility of classes not taking place on campus this fall, many students are reevaluating the cost/benefit of starting this year or the benefits of enrolling at an expensive private school vs a less expensive public institution that will be offering the same classes online.

The benefit of entertaining a variety of options at this time is that discussions have shifted to what’s really important at the core of the college experience. How do I learn best? Where and how will I find my “community”? What do I want out of a college experience? What do I want to achieve in life? Which environment or choice will best support me on my path forward? These questions are just as important as the decision regarding which college students should choose. A broader discussion encourages students take ownership over their own path and perhaps deviate from what has been an historical norm. And the ultimate benefit could be this: the message we send to middle schoolers and high schoolers is that the traditional jump to college from high school is not the only option to consider.

There are several myths that have permeated the high school experience, perpetuating and accelerating the beliefs that shape the conversation among students and parents today.

Myth #1: Students feel that if they don’t go, they don’t stack up against their peers. Before WW2, only 15% of 20–24-year-olds earned college degrees. College degrees were a choice, not a norm. During the draft years, the percentage of high school graduates who went to college directly after high school rose to 50%. And since the year 2000, nearly 70% of high school graduates go directly to college. The feeling that going directly from high school is the only choice is a myth perpetuated by both parents and students and becomes a vicious cycle that’s difficult to break.

Source: Educationdata.com, Author: Jaleesa Bustamante (2019/09/07)

But is everyone ready for the college experience? While 4 out of 5 high school graduates will attend college, 1 out of 5 who attend will quit without earning a degree. Perhaps if we give students more of an opportunity for personal growth during their high school years we will better ensure that when they get to college they will make the most of their experience.

Myth #2. Brand names and campus “features” create valuable collegiate experiences. From a student perspective, the belief that a highly selective name brand school is the only way to go creates an escalation of activity to outdo one’s classmates. More APs, more extracurriculars, more grooming, often to the detriment of self-discovery and truly finding one’s passion and interests. It’s a rat race that has even pressured kids to cheat, and pressured parents to cheat the system as well.

It wasn’t always this way. Over the past 40 years, to maximize enrollment despite the highs and lows of the student population, schools turned themselves into household brand names, helped in part by independent rankings conducted by publishers such as US News and World Report. To attract the most qualified applicants (to boost averages) and increase the number of applications (to boost selectivity ratios), schools have become sophisticated marketers.

In conversations with marketing platform vendors that serve higher education institutions, I’ve learned about quite a few high-powered marketing and data analytics tactics adopted by admissions departments and development offices. The price of education has gone up for many reasons, but it has also afforded institutions healthy budgets that ensure they can build and maintain brand awareness, and nurture relationships with the students they want as soon as they take the PSAT.

And their marketing is working. So well, that the average middle school student believes that without the best grades and top test scores they’ll never get into a good college. Academic bullying and grades-shaming start in elementary school. High school students, armed with the knowledge of the average stats for each university on their list, retake the SAT multiple times and self-study for AP exams that they have not taken classes for, while also pushing themselves to join more clubs and activities than their classmates.

The marketing does not stop there. To attract the best students, “product features” are developed and promoted by many desirable schools, from state-of-the-art facilities and winning sports teams to student perks, special programs, and trendy food options in brand new campus centers. All of which you have to be on campus to enjoy.

This year may be the first time that the value some schools offer is being questioned because their shuttered campuses cannot reliably deliver on the promised collegiate experience. While students will be able to return to campus at some point, there is a concern that up to a year of students’ college experience will be disrupted. Maybe parents will refocus on buying experiences instead of brands, and find alternate “next step” options (community college, gap year), reducing the stigma of value-based college experiences (such as community college). Or maybe it’s time to entertain a gap year. Maybe we’ll get back to focusing on what’s really important (the learning experience) and emphasize for our students the importance of picking a learning environment that will be best for them. Which may initially not be a classroom at all.

Myth #3: “Grooming” is necessary for students to compete, and reach their potential. Although the applicant pool of high school students and overall enrollment has been declining (down 1 million students from 2010), competition for the most selective schools remains high. Therefore kids are being groomed for college as early as middle school, with private college counselors and admissions experts planting seeds of a well-crafted resume that will impress an admission director four to six years from now.

The danger is that grooming will do the exact opposite. Grooming too early risks burnout. Grooming too closely doesn’t allow the freedom (or the time) to experiment and explore new opportunities or pivot if interests turn a corner. Overgrooming can stifle creativity and independent decision-making and can be detrimental for building students’ confidence in the long run.

While it is true that students who do get admitted into the most competitive schools start developing core interests and building leadership skills during middle school, children mature and develop their identities and interests on individual timelines. Early grooming creates an artificial timeline for a student that could backfire, resulting in increased adolescent stress, lack of motivation, and less tolerance for independent, kid-driven thinking.

Outside counseling support for the college application process can be helpful if introduced at the right time for a student, where a counselor builds on a student’s existing interests and guides the application process, serving as a resource and providing personalized feedback. However, the goal should be to find the “best fit” next-step experience for a student, not necessarily an acceptance letter from a specific list of schools. With over 26,000 valedictorians graduating from high schools in the US each year, if they all applied to the ivy league, fewer than 50% will get a spot. Outstanding, highly groomed resumes will not be enough to guarantee admission at the most selective schools and the expectations of grooming need to be carefully managed. Ironically, students who are socially mature and have developed strong leadership skills have the best shot — and acquiring these skills take time for a student to develop (not grooming).

If students ask themselves what they are interested in pursuing next and where the best learning experience might be for them, there may be a broader range of options to consider, and more opportunities to thrive.

Currently, there are more resources than ever for students, parents, and families to help foster students’ interests, offering them unbelievable opportunities for learning and personal growth. Yet growing up and getting to college is even more complicated, stressful, and costly than ever before. In our efforts to make things better for our students, both institutions and parents have fueled a college admissions arms race. College campuses report a rise in counseling needs and led by anxiety and burnout in high school and college.

The belief in the previously described myths sustain an artificial value system and creates unnecessary peer pressure, creating even more problems that plague our students:

  1. By focusing on college matriculation as the goal of high school, we perpetuate a system where alternative choices are not valued, and many kids think that the selective path is the only way to go. Names of colleges are listed in graduation ceremony programs. Gaps years feel like “what you do when a student does not get into their first-choice school”.
  2. The grooming process as it is used and applied by private college counselors today affirms that the most selective colleges are the goal. And when kids don’t get in, or when they burn out they are lost and feel like failures.

Parents and institutions perpetuate the myths for reasons of their own. But breaking the cycle by dispelling the myths and embracing consideration of alternative paths may be what’s best for our kids, and we must start the chain reaction somewhere. The problem will not fix itself.

One of the ways to exit the maze is to espouse college attendance directly out of college as being only one of the many choices when the high school years end. Showcasing examples of successful alternatives will broaden people’s knowledge and expectation over what is “supposed” to happen.

Some students may feel they are at a disadvantage this year, starting their college years in a remote situation where they cannot easily develop connections with students and faculty. This may lead some students to entertain other options for the next school year. We should encourage our students to be bold and take risks.

Advice for Parents

My best advice to high school parents who are stressed out at this time and parents of middle school students who are starting to feel the pressure is to help students frame their thinking:

  1. Focus on a “best-fit opportunity”, not just a “best-fit college”, as the path to success for each student. Self-motivation comes from passion and interest, and students need to be given time and space to explore their interests so they are ready to take advantage of the next step. Students can apply to college when they are ready, which could be a year or two post-high school.
  2. A gap year is ok (it doesn’t mean your student couldn’t get into college), and make it count. Students can find a cause or a project or start an initiative, and use the time to meet new people, challenge oneself, and self-reflect.
  3. Community College is one of every state’s best-kept secrets. Look at the requirements for potential colleges and universities your student might consider transferring to and help them map out their course selections accordingly.
  4. No social media. Don’t look to social media to find out what other kids are thinking, feeling, and doing. Until more parents start to celebrate the unconventional, doing so will reinforce the false narratives that do not play into the best interest of your student.
  5. Life is a journey and things change. When your students decide to apply, they might be stressed about declaring a major. Just let them know that your major can change once they matriculate, and what you major in is not forever. Instead, have them think about the characteristics of the environment that will help them best discover what they really want to do.
  6. It’s a lottery. The top 50 schools say that over 50% of the applicant pool is qualified for admission. Which means that narrowing the pool will be determined by factors that students cannot control as admissions directors balance the mix of geographies and ethnicities, and the number of athletes, musicians, artists, scientists, and business majors in each class. Therefore getting into a top school is a bit like the lottery. Which explains why the number of applications submitted per student has doubled in the last 18 years.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for the 4-year college experience. But physical age may not be the best indicator of when a student is ready to take advantage of the opportunity, and depending on a student’s interests, the path may not lead directly to a 4-year college directly out of high school.

High school should be a time for academic exploration, leadership, and personal growth, but instead, we have turned these years into a boot camp for “racking up points” to get on a leaderboard on May 1 of senior year.

Despite the outlook that my husband and I share and the environment we’ve maintained for our kids to adopt alternative thinking and best-fit choices, even our kids are not immune to the peer pressure and the social norm. The school system is designed to churn out high school grads that matriculate into college at the end of four years, and the stigma of deviating from the norm has been tough for each them to withstand as I watch each of them gravitate toward “safer” choices that mimic what everyone else does, even if it is not the best fit for them.

I look forward to hearing stories of how this year’s seniors define their next step, navigate through the uncertainty, and pave their unique paths forward. Stories of varied paths may empower future classes to ponder the potential value of alternate timelines for college admission and the merit of best-fit options to nurture personal growth and interests.

This has been week #6 of our shelter-in-place in California. Read up on our journey to date: Week #1, Week #2, Week #3, Week #4, Week #5, Week #7.

Chief Growth Officer, Team Leader & Corporate Strategist | Passionate about helping SMB companies succeed | Lifelong learner, champion of innovative technology

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