“Fact-checking College Admission”

By Peter Van Buskirk

“Young man, it is your job to try to disprove everything I say. If you can disprove something, you have discovered a new truth. If you can’t disprove it, you have validated an old truth. Regardless, you have come to a better understanding of the truth.”

It has been many years since one of my professors who, upon observing my fastidious note-taking as he presented to our small group seminar, broke from his remarks to push me out of my comfort zone. The message, “Don’t accept something just because I say it is so,” continues to resonate. While I don’t remember anything else from the class that day, I have never forgotten his words!

As another college admission season begins to ramp up, the need to challenge assumptions—and search for the “truth”—has never been more relevant for students, parents and college access professionals. At a time when eagerness and anticipation morph into stress and anxiety, we tend to seek certainty—facts that can be trusted from seemingly reliable sources, things we know to be true—to guide our decision-making. In doing so, however, we are prone to accepting false “truths.”

Given the high stakes nature of college planning and the abundance of information being conveyed by institutions, online forums, media (social and mainstream) and backyard conversations, the need for critical thinking on the part of consumers is paramount as things aren’t always as they seem.

And, frankly, that shouldn’t come as a surprise. Full transparency is not part of the marketing formula for colleges as they seek to improve their admission measurables (test scores and selectivity that are projected as proxies for quality). The media panders to the mindset of rankings and the rhetoric of high profile institutions. And social media and backyard conversations revel in ill-informed, self-made expertise.

Consequently, the truth about college access and educational opportunity is often buried in layers of rhetoric and urban legend! A little digging, however, can be revealing. For example:

1)  Be wary about assertions regarding the “real” cost of attendance. Colleges are prone to such statements and the media likes to frame “best value” in related terms. While it is true that just about every student at a college might be paying a different amount due to either merit-based or need-based discounting, it is also true that colleges identify a “sticker cost” for a reason—they need cash to pay the bills and want to enroll as many students as possible whose families can afford the full amount.

Statements made in the abstract about students only paying X% of the sticker price are often misleading. Yes, many students pay the discounted amount—or less. If, however, you want to be one of those students at a given college, you need to be able to prove your value as a candidate (what does the college gain by admitting you?) in order to receive that type of discount. It is important to know, then, where you fit academically on a college’s competitive playing field and to have a realistic sense as to how your non-academic credentials will be regarded.

2)  Question policy statements that seem to be absolute. “We are need blind in the admission process” and “We meet the full, demonstrated need of 100% of our students” are moral positioning statements often associated with high profile institutions.

“Need blind,” an assertion that students are considered for admission without regard to the family’s financial circumstances, is highly conceptual. It assumes a complete lack of awareness of financial circumstance, actual or implied, in the selection process—which is highly improbable—as well as an inexhaustible supply of financial aid. Truth be told, however, even the wealthiest schools have fixed, financial aid budgets.

Moreover, “meeting 100% of demonstrated need” is a subjective notion in which the institution determines both the student’s “need” and the manner in which it is met. The assertion that students with family incomes under $X won’t have to borrow is similarly ambiguous given the range of potential interpretations for “income” that can be rendered.

Don’t allow yourself to be distracted by such policy statements. While they reflect noble ambitions, they are not verifiable nor should they be regarded as differentiators in the choice of a college.

3)  Allow a healthy dose of cynicism in the face of those who seem to have all the answers regarding the admission process at your favorite college. Students who have been admitted to high-profile schools tend to become experts about the selection processes that they successfully navigated and are all too happy to proffer advice. Little do they realize that they were simply fortunate to have won the admission lotteries at their respective schools!

A similar “whisper-down-the-lane” phenomenon can be found in many high schools, workplaces and backyards as well where the “word on the street” about college admission takes on a life of its own. At times, the “noise” can be deafening, yet not many facts come from such conversations! Perhaps the best advice I can give you in this regard is to stop listening to your friends! They don’t know any more about the process than you do! Unless they were part of the decision-making effort at a college or university, they have no clue regarding how or why a candidate might be admitted! In the search for good information, your best bet is to focus on conducting original research.

NB: Predicative algorithms and apps are of limited value because they are unable to capture the potential synergy between you, your interests, talents and perspectives and a highly nuanced admission selection process.

4)  Don’t take everything you hear from colleges at face value. Institutions spend millions of dollars to create good impressions—to promote their brands. When you think about it, they’re trying to justify their sticker prices.

As a result, you will be treated to a “show” at every turn along the way from tours and information sessions to websites and literature. Stories abound about small classes, close interactions with professors and great internships as it seems like colleges are intent on being all things to all people. Be discerning, though, as you take it in. Does the rhetoric seem logical given the host environment? Do the stories reveal situations common to most students or are they truly exceptional? If something sounds too good to be true, it probably is!

If a college is putting on a “show,” take time to go “backstage” and immerse yourself in the culture of the place and of the academic programs that interests you. Talk with students and faculty who are not part of the cast. Can you see yourself functioning well with them? Will the place be a good fit for you given your goals and learning style?

In the final analysis, you need to remember that the college process is all about finding the best educational opportunity for you. There are no reliable shortcuts. Don’t expect answers or outcomes to be handed to you. Keep asking questions, challenging assumptions and pressing for information that will enable you to make smart decisions about your future. Don’t let the college process happen to you—make it happen for you.





Comments are closed.