Fixing College Admissions

By: Dr. Michele Hernandez

The fact that admissions practices at top schools are not fair is hardly new. Forty to fifty years ago, headmasters at top prep schools simply told the deans of admission which students they should accept: hence the moniker “feeder schools.” Things have improved since the days of all white, male Ivy League classes. Now, admissions offices are working harder than ever to recruit, admit, and enroll diverse classes of students.

But, efforts to broaden access to students from around the world and the ease of applying online have caused applicant pools to balloon, driving down acceptance rates. Increasing numbers of “hooked” applicants—principally legacies and recruited athletes—have seats set aside for them. With legacy students at most top schools representing 10-15% of the class, and another 15-20% of the class made up of recruited athletes, and a desire to admit more underrepresented students, close to 50% of the first year class at most top colleges is reserved for “hooked” students.


Recent articles have suggested that legacy admissions be abolished and athletic recruiting reexamined, but we know that kind of change won’t happen overnight.  We have a simpler idea to make the admissions process fairer that doesn’t require a complete upheaval. For starters, all colleges should adopt the same early admissions program. When Harvard, Yale, Princeton and Stanford invented “single choice early action,” they artificially made themselves the most selective/desirable colleges.

These four colleges accept fewer than 14% of the students who apply in the SCEA round. If we add up all the denied/deferred students in a typical year, that’s 23,000+ students, most of whom are world class, who do NOT earn admission to each of these top four schools. Once denied or deferred, those 23,000 students panic and apply to 15-30 schools in the regular round. That means all top colleges are flooded by applications not only from those 23,000 students, but also from another 150,000 students thanks to the ease of the Common Application. It’s an inefficient process with the same cohort applying to dozens of schools in the regular round without a way to signal that a school is a true top choice.

One way to remedy this issue of duplicate applicants would be to do away with non-binding early action programs and replace them with the two rounds of binding early decision, ED I and ED II. ED is often criticized because it is seen as disadvantaging lower income students and first-generation college students. At most top colleges, underrepresented minority students don’t apply in large numbers in the early decision round. But colleges and universities, as well as community-based organizations are taking steps to help students from under-resourced schools apply early.

The key is LIMITING the percentage of slots filled in the ED round. Currently many colleges fill up 50% of the first year class in the ED round. What if all the colleges took closer to 30-35% of their freshman class in ED I (perhaps 5-10% in ED II) and left the majority of slots open for regular round? At the same time, push athletic recruiting into ED II or the regular decision pool. Why should athletes cut in line ahead of other students? What if the colleges used the early decision process to admit those students whose scholarly bent, community impact, and diversity of perspectives and backgrounds were truly notable.

Now, that top student who was in love with and qualified for Yale would be IN. He/she would not be able to apply to any schools in the regular round. In turn, colleges could take more of them and then those students would be, in effect, off the books. Instead of Harvard having 40,000+ applicants, it would have more like 10-15,000 and the overlap in students applying to the same cohort of schools would be diminished. With fewer applicants, admissions offices would gain more time for a true holistic read rather than an 8-minute skim.

This shift would make the process less stressful and saner, and if there’s anything needed right now, it’s bringing humanity and integrity to the admissions process. If not for the US News and World Report rankings, perhaps colleges would have done something like this earlier, but unfortunately for too long they have put their selfish interests in moving up in the rankings over being fairer and kinder to their applicant pool. Change is urgently needed to make selective college admissions more transparent and fair.

One Comment

  1. Sheetal Bajoria

    Posted on May 3, 2019 at 9:57 pm

    The suggestion of EDI and EDII does sound like it may work. Great article!!!

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