The Record-Review – The official newspaper of Bedford and Pound Ridge, New York



More applications. More early decision candidates. More kids on waitlists. In less than a decade, the college application landscape has changed dramatically, making for students who are stressed out and guidance counselors who are busier than ever.

That’s the message from Christopher Griffin, director of counseling at John Jay High School. Dr. Griffin presented this year’s college admissions report to the school board at its May 17 meeting.

First, the good news: 97 percent of John Jay’s students are college-bound. They’re headed for 148 different colleges in 29 states and one foreign country; over the last three years they have headed for 260 different colleges. They’ve decided on different types of colleges. Even the top 10 schools attended by John Jay students are a diverse group: NYU, SUNY Albany, University of Maryland (College Park), Penn State (University Park), University of Delaware, SUNY Geneseo, Syracuse, Tulane, Cornell and McGill.

Now the not so good news: over the last decade or so, the college application process has become far more competitive. As a result, the number of applications filed by John Jay students this year has doubled compared to 2004, the year the school first started using Naviance data to track college applications.

“The average number of applications per student in 2004 was 4.7, so we’ve seen almost a 100 percent increase in the number of applications,” said Dr. Griffin. This year, John Jay students applied to an average of 8.7 colleges. In 2010, that figure was even higher— 9.6 applications per student — but an increase in early decision and other early applications have pushed the number of applications back down a bit.

This year, 35.4 percent of the 2,710 applications filed by John Jay students were some form of early application: Early Decision, Early Action, Priority or Rolling. In 2010, only 19.3 applications were “early” types.

Early Decision applications have been increasing steadily. Next fall, 20 percent of John Jay graduates will attend schools where they were accepted under Early Decision. Two years ago that figure was just 12 percent. Ninety students filed early decision applications, and of those, 60 were accepted.

Why the rush to apply?

“I’m thinking that’s because the process is getting more competitive,” said Dr. Griffin. “Students are more likely to make a commitment to a school in the early fall with the hope that it will give them a bit of an edge in the admissions process.”

Superintendent of schools Paul Kreutzer asked Dr. Griffin to explain why the number of applications had increased so dramatically.

He had three answers: the media, marketing and technology.

“The media have been telling our kids that college admissions have been very high pressure and intense,” said Dr. Griffin. “I think students are responding to that by saying ‘I’d better hedge my bets here and make sure I’ve applied to enough schools.’ When I first started in this in the mid-’90s, kids would apply to four or five schools and feel comfortable that they had been given sound guidance, and that they would get into a few of them and then have an opportunity to make a decision. Nowadays, I think kids feel a little scared.”

Dr. Griffin said that when he first started working as a guidance counselor, the people in admissions offices were called “deans of admissions.”

“Now they’re called ‘vice presidents for enrollment management,’” he said.

“It’s true. And they’re taking a new approach to college admissions; it’s really a consumerist approach. And they hire professional marketers to attract more applications. You have professional marketers whose only job is to bring more applications into the school.” 

Dr. Griffin said that colleges’ aggressive campaign to attract floods of applicants is largely due to publications such as the U.S. News & World Report college guide, which ranks colleges, in part, based on what percentage of applicants are admitted. The size of any given college’s freshman class has probably not changed at most colleges, but the size of the applicant pool for the same number of spaces has increased tremendously, making colleges appear much more selective than they used to be.

“It’s like Groucho Marx who used to say, ‘I would never want to be in a club that would have me as a member,’” said Dr. Griffin. “It’s the same feeling the kids have — that the more competitive it is, the better it must be, so that’s where I want to be.” The admissions rate at selective institutions continues to decrease. This year the University of Chicago accepted 13 percent, Princeton 8 percent, and Yale 7 percent.

Dr. Griffin said the third factor contributing to the rise in application volume is technology. It’s much, much easier to apply to more colleges.

“When I first started, it was all paper,” said Dr. Griffin. “Now it’s predominantly electronic. I would say probably 95 percent of our applications that are filed by students are done electronically. You have a common application where a student can apply to 20 schools using one application. So that’s another reason why we see the increase.”

Dr. Griffin said that not only are the counselors in the guidance office dealing with more applications, they’re also dealing with a longer application season. Because of a dramatic increase in wait-listing over the past few years, some students’ college plans aren’t finalized until June.

“Forty-eight percent of colleges now use waitlists,” said Dr. Griffin. “About 10 years ago it was in the low 20s. There’s one school that’s very popular with our students that wait-listed more than 5,500 students this year.” Dr. Griffin said the increase in applications has led to an increase in the use of waitlists.

“Colleges are getting so many applications, but they don’t know who is actually going to attend or not. They want to keep their yield rate strong, so they only accept a few, but hold a bunch back.”

There may be a light at the end of the tunnel: the number of applications may be at its peak. Like many districts in New York State, Katonah-Lewisboro schools have experienced a decline in enrollment in recent years, and enrollments are expected to decline still further. Dr. Griffin noted that demographic trends point to the likelihood that the number of students applying to college is going to go back down. “So what we might see is that the highly competitive nature — some of the frenzy — that might start to subside over the next 10 years.”

Read more local coverage of your hometown in this week’s issue of the The Record-Review. Newsstand copies are available at several locations listed above, or subscribe today for convenient home delivery.

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MAy 25, 2012

College application inflation