America's elite colleges and universities spend millions of dollars to generate thousands of applicants, the vast majority of whom they reject.
Getting into the college or university of your choice – especially if it's highly selective one -- has become more daunting and more stress-inducing than ever before.
The odds are stacked against students from the start. Consider Stanford. This year we had just over thirty two thousand applications to fill about sixteen hundred freshmen slots. So we accepted just seven percent of those who applied.
Those are astounding numbers.
And Stanford's not alone. Harvard admitted seven percent of its applicants, while Yale admitted eight percent and Princeton admitted nine percent of the students who applied.
To be fair that’s not the whole story. Many very fine colleges and universities admit a significantly higher proportion of their applicants. UC Berkeley, for example, admitted twenty-two percent of the forty eight thousand who applied. And the University of Michigan admitted just over half of its applicants.
It is a great thing about America, that if you want to go to college, there’s a school somewhere that’ll accept you, and it’ll probably do a good job of educating you. But given that there’s a college out there for everyone and most colleges are pretty good, it makes it all the more puzzling why there's such intense competition over the relatively few spots in the so-called elite colleges and universities.
The problem is our society is obsessed -- extra-ordinarily obsessed -- with pedigree and prestige. Deep in their heart of hearts, many people believe that the prestige of the college you go to will make an enormous difference to the rest of your life.
Hardly anybody stops to ask whether that belief is true. But whether or not it’s true, the bare fact of it gives selective colleges and universities a sort of perverse incentive to be even more selective. Because people take selectivity as a signal of pedigree and prestige. Which makes prestige-hungry students -- and their parents -- even more eager to apply. And more crestfallen when they don’t get in.
It’s a vicious circle. Increased applications means more selectivity, which means higher prestige, which invites more applications, which means… well you get the idea.
It’s a costly circle too. As the competition for admission has intensified, the pressure on students – pressure to be more and achieve more -- has intensified too.
The pressure starts early -- as early as elementary school -- and continues without let-up, right up through high school. I’m not sure it's an entirely good or healthy thing.
We’re pretty sure it’s not a healthy thing. It leaves many students, even highly successful students, stressed out and burned out.
Or worse. Here in Palo Alto, for example, there was a rash of student suicides a couple of years ago. And while we don’t know that the relentless pressure to excel was a direct cause, wewouldn’t be all be surprised if it played a role.
Somebody needs to stop and ask some tough questions. We need to deconstruct the college admissions rat race. What do we really get by subjecting our teenagers to such intense pressure to achieve in the first place?
Have we distorted their lives? To what end? Whose interests are really served by the way the college admissions rat race is currently structu red? And is there a better way?
We’ll ask these questions of our guest, Mitchell Stevens, author of Creating a Class: College Admissions and the Education of Elites