Doonesbury Said It First

A few years ago, Doonesbury ran a series where Walden College strove to top the U.S. News and World Report “Best Colleges” list by not accepting any of its applicants. Since it had the most exclusive acceptance rate as a result, it shot up the list and reaped the reward of having even more students want to apply.

I sometimes suspect that the Ivies and other mega-competitive colleges and universities are headed for the same zero percent admission: Every year, the acceptance rates go down, from 12 to 9 to 7 percent and who knows what’s next. It’s like looking at an asymptote, heading for zero. It seems to have become a perverse mark of excellence that a college or university can brag about how many students it doesn’t take while at the same time sheepishly letting future prospects know that they could have filled their freshman class many times over with the high quality applicants who were ultimately shown the trap door.

And every year I wonder what the point of all that is. The competition among colleges for numbers rather than quality and appropriateness builds unabated, with everyone trying for that magical 0%. It would be so amazing–the most exclusive college in the country!!!

What’s also amazing is how no one on the application side seems discouraged by those numbers. Many of my former advisees would scoff at the competitiveness, assuming that they would be among that 7, no 6, no, maybe 5%. Everyone, especially the enormously pampered and privileged, thinks that. Parents often even moreso. The lure of the club with the velvet rope and the enormous bouncer with a suspicious bulge under his left armpit continues to transfix and entrap the “bridge and tunnel” crowd, to borrow from New York City’s contemptuous name for those from New Jersey and Long Island, the ones who dress up but can’t disguise their essential inferiority and non-elite status. Even if they’ve got it, they somehow didn’t get on the list. “But we know the owner!” you say. “Too bad,” says Bruno, “Take a hike.”

Although I never advised a student NOT to apply to the 0% club, I used to refer to the low acceptance rate as a way to inject some reality into the conversation. It almost never worked. Even at 7%, students would still think they had a fighting chance, and their parents would criticize me (sometimes to my face, but more often behind my back) for being too “negative.” Well, what would a positive spin on that be? I floundered until I read a medical study that found that patients who were told they had a 10% chance of coming through an operation OK would nearly always take the chance, while those told they had a 90% chance of having something go wrong almost always passed up the opportunity.

So I changed my tactics and told kids and parents that Ivy U. had a 93% rejection rate. I can’t say it worked in every case, but I did detect some sobered looks and a willingness to widen the list in more than a few instances. They still thought I was being negative, but I figured reality was better than fantasy, or at least that it was my responsibility to be realistic and not feed the fantasy. (Again, that often didn’t go down well with my over-educated, under-socialized parents, who couldn’t fathom that their sweethearts would be turned down by anyone.)
Now that U.S. News has deflated the importance of the acceptance rate, perhaps colleges could let up a little, not in the sense of letting more kids in (although kudos to Yale for actually planning to do just that) but perhaps by not encouraging everyone to apply no matter what the actual probability of their being accepted is. If you have a 7% acceptance rate, do you really need to keep telling kids to go ahead and apply if they have dismal grades and scores but a great backhand? Or nothing much? Are you really aiming for 5% or less? It just distorts your own reality. And where’s the harm in letting an obviously unprepared student know well ahead of time that he or she might want to try another school?

A forty percent acceptance rate seems to me like a good low end figure for most colleges. Let students select themselves out more as the University of Chicago has encouraged for years by challenging students to write essays in response to wonderfully crazy essay topics. The students stopped by those essays are clearly not U of C material. The same goes for schools like St. John’s, who aren’t afraid to say that if you don’t like the “Great Books” format, then don’t apply. If colleges let students know more in advance that maybe your institution isn’t for them, see if you’re not happier around May 1 when the students you’ve chosen are more likely to have also chosen you and not hedged their bets at ten other schools. The “courtship” phase could be more reality-based instead of fantasy-based, and Walden College could return to its former comfortable obscurity.