It didn’t take long to realize that the College Admissions Cycle of 2018 was an utter failure. No sooner was the last article published on Waitlists That Run to The Moon and Back, but Bloomberg thought they’d try and cheer everyone up by telling us that the birthrate in the US is declining at an alarming rate. Their conclusion? Fewer teens means fewer students applying to college— all colleges– making the process that much less stressful for everyone.
It may have been another long admissions season, but it didn’t take the Twitterverse long at all to respond with a collective, “What?” Several respondents pointed out that a vast majority of colleges have had empty seats on the first day of fall classes for years—according to James Murphy of Princeton Review, that number is about 78% of all colleges.
The next round of rebuttal came in the form of witty repartee, including remarks like “Well, Harvard should just become an open admissions institution,” and, “What will those poor admissions officers at Penn do with all their free time?” Bloomberg may be able to count babies, but their abacus counting the ever-rising number of Ivy League applications is apparently in the shop.
The Bloomberg piece may have come as comic relief to admissions officers who had a busy April, but it also points to a reality that has long plagued the college application process. Using national newspaper coverage of college admissions as their North Star, nearly a full generation of college applicants have had to deal with the “high stress of applying to college.” What was once viewed as a fairly simple process that took less than an hour is now viewed as a gut-wrenching, life-altering experience that makes waterboarding seem like a date with your rubber ducky. The hyperbole about the stress of applying to college is so bad, I have actually had to guide students through stress management strategies because they finished applying to college and never once felt worried about it. It was the lack of stress that was stressing them out.
The attention-grabbing headlines equating the odds of admission to college with getting hit by lightning overlook the realities school counselors know. A vast number of students will apply to four colleges or fewer, all of them within 150 miles of home. Most of those colleges will admit 75% or more of their applicants, and—to Mr. Murphy’s point—most will still have seats open in classes on the first day of the fall term. For these students, the greatest stress is how they will pay for this opportunity, but that has nothing to do with birthrate, and much to do with the times we live in.
None of that will make the front page of a single national newspaper, since it isn’t exciting or controversial. Neither will the damage that’s done by the national media’s obsession with a handful of colleges with single digit admit rates. There’s a little bit of stress involved in any college application, just like there’s a little stress involved in driving a car on the freeway; it helps you pay attention. Suggesting that a life-altering amount of stress is involved in applying to college if you’re doing it right places a burden on our children, and keeps first generation students from applying in the first place. They deserve a better, and more accurate, picture of the process.
Each year, I somehow hope this will be the time Southwest Michigan College’s need for more students will find its way to my newsfeed, and change the way America sees college. Perhaps an admissions officer from Brown will write an op-ed about this in the coming years, making it interesting enough to make coast-to-coast headlines.
After all, they’re going to have all that free time on their hands.