College Admissions Bloodbath... and More Waitlist Craziness

Today's NYT writes about how insanely competitive the college admissions process has been this year ("Elite Colleges Reporting Record Low Admissions"). It's never easy getting into an Ivy or Ivy equivalent, but this year has hit a new level off difficulty. The admissions rate at some of those schools for the 2007-08 year (so far):

Harvard: 7.1%
Yale: 8.3%
Columbia: 8.7%
Brown: 13%
Dartmouth: 13%

Those statistics are in large part a function of demographics. As another recent NYT article explained, this year and next have the highest numbers of graduating high school seniors... ever. That's a lot of people competing for a more or less fixed number of seats at a more or less fixed number of top schools.

Compounding this demographic reality is the end of binding early decision at some of these top schools, which has freed applicants up to apply to more schools than they would have in years past.

More compounding: waitlists. As applications to these schools have soared, more students get waitlisted, thereby inspiring them to apply to more schools as a hedge. (See my waitlist advice here.)

And finally: as more of the elite schools ramp up their recruiting of lower-income applicants and make attendance more affordable, those schools are receiving more applications from people who might not have applied to these schools otherwise.

The end result? "There is a pure level of panic and frenzy like they've never seen before," according to Scott White, director of guidance at Montclair High School in New Jersey.

That's a perfect storm right there, as those two NYT articles lay out so nicely.

One of the things I struggle with as an admissions consultant is the duty I feel not to feed that frenzy and make it worse. The last thing I want to do is to use scare tactics as a sales tool. And yet... those statistics really are scary for a lot of families, and I don't blame them for wigging out a little, or a lot.

And I've never bought into the assumption -- fed more by the most prestigious mainstream media than the elite schools themselves -- that your life will somehow be worse because you didn't attend an Ivy League school. On the other hand, I will also never deny that these elite schools really are excellent, and that brand names help in the real world. Nobody ever has to defend being a "school snob" to me when they are selecting schools for themselves or their kids. I just hate seeing people go insane about it and forget that there are a lot of ways to become successful -- at least in this country -- and they don't all involve the Ivy League.

I don't like the ubiquitous message to millions of teenagers that their whole identities should be wrapped up in going to school X. That's unreasonably fatalistic -- they have so many choices ahead of them that will determine their success or failure, and 99% of those choices have nothing to do with the name of their college.

I believe in excellence, and I don't pretend that all schools are equally good. There are excellent colleges out there -- some of them are Ivies, some of them aren't. Some of them have famous brand names behind them, others don't. Some kids flourish at Ivies, others don't. Life is complicated, and so is picking a college.

Note that this whole conversation is completely separate from the question of paying for college, and whether a certain degree from a certain school at a certain price is worth the investment given whatever the alternatives are. That's an entirely different analysis, one I've written about, for example, here and here.