More than twenty years ago I transitioned from a history department chair position to a job in college counseling and entered into a new and challenging role. For four years I worked in a college counseling office in the northeast at a PK-12 school very similar to Colorado Academy. When I entered the field wide-eyed and excited, I could not have envisioned all the changes and developments that would occur over the next couple of decades. Nor could I have imagined one other important reality: in 2020, my own son would be entering the college admission process. But here I am, and here he is. As a result, this year’s College Counseling Junior Kickoff for the Class of 2021 brought a new level of anticipation for me, as I listened, not only as a former college counselor and a current Upper School administrator, but as a parent, too. How would I take it all in? And what wisdom could I offer my son (and myself), after all these years of seeing the whole process up close?
Like many aspects of our world, things have moved and shifted very swiftly in college admission. First, and not surprisingly, I would point to the incredible competitiveness that now pervades the college process. I often hear adults say (and they are probably right), “I would never get into the college I graduated from now!” Whether we are talking about the Ivy Leagues or large state universities, or regional liberal arts colleges, virtually every institution that has competitive admission has gotten much harder to get into.
And as the acceptance rates get even smaller (now under five percent at Harvard and Stanford, for instance), the chances of admission are much slimmer. And for the most part, these institutions have not gotten any larger. Some have tried to get more creative and expansive with their admission strategies, such as bringing in students mid-year or deferring acceptances, but in general, demand continues to grow while supply remains constant.
Second, and more optimistically, this competition has meant that there are more great college options than ever. The old saying that a “rising tide lifts all boats” certainly holds true today. Now that fewer of the highly qualified students are being admitted to and enrolling in the Ivy League and other institutions that dominate our conversations about college, where do students end up instead?
Well, literally everywhere else. And what happens when highly qualified students enroll in these institutions? Those places get even better. Schools like Colorado College and University of Denver in our state (both represented at Junior Kickoff for the Class of 2021) have gone from being very good regional options to exceptionally good national options. Across the country, similar stories may be told. When colleges attract more students, their admission percentages go down, and the students who do get in are more qualified than ever. That means there are more very high quality places to go than ever before.
Better quality teachers
A corollary to this second point is not as widely appreciated. Just as the competition for student spaces has gone up, so too has the competition for much-sought-after college teaching positions. This has driven up the quality of teaching at all colleges and universities. As more qualified PhDs have emerged from colleges and universities, they have sought the relatively few positions available. I know from my graduate school days, and the many people I have kept in touch with since then, that college professorships are even harder to get than admission into Stanford! There are hundreds of applicants for every one good job.
At the same time, colleges and universities regard quality teaching even more seriously. It’s rare now that even a large university will assign a sub-par lecturer to teach a Chemistry 101 course. (The rate-my-professor style evaluations have helped here, too; poor teaching cannot be hidden.) So again, for students entering college today, academic quality has increased all over the country.
The college admission process
A third point involves greater scrutiny of those who are working in college admission. There is increased skepticism about standardized testing, equity of admission processes, and the role of legacies and athletes. The whole process is looked at under a microscope with even greater magnitude. In response, most of the people in the profession have risen to the occasion. They have become more transparent about their process and have looked seriously at the flaws in the system.
Some, like Jon Boeckenstedt, a longtime DePaul University Admission Dean and now at the University of Oregon, have even become outspoken critics of the very system they are in, trying to level the playing field more and calling into question some long-standing practices. This self-scrutiny and transparency was quite evident at the College Night as well, as college admission professionals from Colorado College, Harvey Mudd, the University of Denver, and the University of Michigan all spoke candidly and thoughtfully. They recognize that putting together a new freshman class is a challenge, but they take their work seriously and strive to treat students fairly and respectfully. So, I believe the greater scrutiny has helped the profession overall, and my respect for those working in this field has only increased over time.
Mental health support in college
These professionals also spoke to another positive development on the college front. Like all of the other points mentioned here, I would not have seen this coming. Twenty years ago, mental health was still kept in the shadows, and students who struggled with anxiety or depression, for instance, often did not get the help they needed. Today, colleges are speaking openly about the kinds of support programs they offer and encouraging applicants to be candid about struggles they may have had or the ways in which they have managed challenging circumstances. Colleges and universities place so much more emphasis on student health and wellness—as evidenced by the plethora of new counseling centers and fitness centers they have built on many of their campuses. Just like at Colorado Academy, where we recognize that a student’s positive mental health is essential to their learning and growth, so too have colleges made positive strides in this area.
This recent College Night reaffirmed what I have witnessed in these past two decades. While the admission landscape has indeed gotten more competitive, that particular reality tells only part of the story. While they are not perfect places (no place is), colleges and universities have responded to the realities of the 21st century in a primarily positive and student-centered way. I am grateful that my son, having been well prepared both emotionally and academically at CA, will be going on to college with a world of great options in front of him.