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The downwards cycle of college admissions

It’s college admissions season again. I don’t plan on specifically discussing Stanford’s admission rates again; one year later, not much has likely changed. But while Stanford poses its own special quirks and challenges in the admissions process, its dropping admission rates are a natural byproduct of a system that drives rates down as a whole. That system is the sort where many students are now applying to 10 schools as a matter of routine, and 30 and 40 are eminently understandable.

Across the country, admissions rates are low and declining, a fact that compels students to apply to even more schools. And ironically, rational decisions on the part of students make admission rates fall even more, a downward spiral that at times seems to overshadow the very universities the application process is supposed to serve. As The New York Times points out, this irony is not lost on the American people.

But there is no clear solution. We can argue all we want about which students are admitted or the type of students our universities should pursue, but at the end of the day, dropping admission rates boil down to supply and demand. On a national level, we can expand the supply of universities, but while more people will get to go to college, admit rates won’t necessarily drop. Students will apply to the new universities, but as the case of UC Merced proves, most of them will also continue applying to the ones that already exist. So counterintuitively, while adding or expanding universities should allow more people to go to college, it won’t really solve the problem.

What about demand, you may ask? We can’t restrict people from applying to college entirely. The entire American educational system is founded upon the belief that everybody should get the same type of education, learn the same central subjects and skills, and maintain freedom and flexibility in both education and careers. By that logic, everybody should also be allowed to apply to the colleges to which they want to apply.

How can we approach college admissions – nationally, internationally? On the one hand, systems where college applications are in practice restricted on a national level, such as Germany, are also systems where students are pre-filtered – sorted into different types of educational institutions starting in the fifth grade. It’s possible for a student placed as a child on a more vocational track to attend university, but the barriers to that are far greater than in the United States. Essentially, the German and American educational models reflect different views of education as an ideal: The Germans argue that not everybody should go to college in the American liberal arts or research university molds, and have designed a system that reflects that belief. On the other hand, Americans broadly believe that everybody should go through the same basic liberal arts curriculum and have the opportunity to go to college.

On the other hand, international (and, for public universities, out-of-state) applicants are becoming a bigger part of the college admissions game. The Sacramento Bee points out that during last year’s admissions cycle, increasing applicant numbers at the University of California system were “driven almost entirely by out-of-state and international students” – and considering that the UCs have been specifically recruiting these students because they can charge higher tuition to them, this should come as no surprise. And in an age where universities are increasingly equated with meritocratic exclusivity, dropping admissions rates – fueled by increasing applications – grant all universities, public and private, increasing prestige.

But what about restricting college applications on the individual level?

So far, those restrictions are done school by school. For example, my first K-12 school had a firm limit of 10 applications per student; my high school had no limits, but I rarely saw students carpet-bomb the educational system with applications, either.

So should we enforce a national limit on college applications? If you limit a student to 10 applications, and that student gets rejected on all 10, nobody ends up happy. Ten applications would force students to think more carefully about the schools to which they apply, but students should be doing that anyway. Certainly if the 517-school Common Application limits students, then the system will start changing. But the Common App is run by the universities it serves, and on the whole, these schools aren’t actively trying to lower rates.

It’s our right to apply to as many schools as we want, and if that right is going to be restricted, there should be a good reason. At some point, there is such a thing as overkill: The New York Times found that last year, the Thomas Jefferson School for Science and Technology had a student that was planning to apply to 86. But what “overkill” is is just my personal opinion, and who am I to judge? If this student is willing to put in the time and effort necessary to apply to that many schools, well, why not?

However, while this isn’t necessarily a canonical tragedy-of-the-commons situation, at its core the admissions process is a downwards spiral. We’ve looked at how Germany deals with this problem; in closing, then, let’s look at what another country more similar to the United States has done. The UK restricts its college applicants: If you’re applying to Oxford, you can’t apply to Cambridge, and vice versa – a system that keeps both universities’ undergraduate admit rates above 20 percent. (Stanford’s is below five percent at this point.) But while restricting the college process would make the college process easier for most applicants, it’s not clear that this particular ideal is one that most Americans would necessarily want to emulate.

Contact Winston Shi at wshi94 ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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Winston Shi

Winston Shi

Winston Shi was the Managing Editor of Opinions for Volume 245 (February-June 2014). He also served as an opinions and sports columnist, a senior staff writer, and a member of the Editorial Board. A native of Thousand Oaks, California (the one place on the planet with better weather than Stanford), he graduated from Stanford in June 2016 with bachelor's and master's degrees in history. He is currently attending law school, where he preaches the greatness of Stanford football to anybody who will listen, and other people who won't.