The Problem with College Admissions

Jasmine Fernandez, Editor-In-Chief

I’m the first to admit it’s easy to get sucked into the college rat race. The anxiety that strikes that August before senior year is disarming and makes for vulnerable students—entire forums and conversation threads are dedicated to stress about the college application process, including “College Confidential” and “Reddit”’s ApplyingToCollege subreddit. Even during my junior year, I would scroll through page after page and fill my head with wild preconceptions about just how competitive the admissions process is. I began to sift through numbers with terrifying scrutiny, completely casting aside my own GPA and SAT score because they were not “enough,” whatever that means in an admission officer’s holistic world. With so many what-ifs accompanying decision season, these threads to which I once allowed to boost or tamp my hopes became sad examples for everything wrong with college as an institution.


Let us outline a typical application.


Depending on the university, there are a few basic requirements to apply to school: your GPA and transcript, your SAT or ACT scores, and maybe a personal statement. Again, while this varies from school to school, few schools such as University of Chicago and certain trade schools are test neutral; for the most part, either is required to apply to a four-year university. I’ll be focusing on the SAT, the test administered by the College Board, though some aspects of one test can be applied to the other and vice versa. While they may not be entirely identical, the tests have the same purpose: to measure a student’s ability to a) take tests and b) retain information they have learned throughout high school.


The modern version of the SAT was introduced by the College Board in 1926, then known as the Scholastic Aptitude Test to determine Ivy League students and scholarship recipients. Invented by Carl Brigham, professor of psychology at Princeton in the early twentieth century, the SAT was a direct product of the eugenics movement as Brigham went on to become a major proponent of preserving the nativist idea of “American intelligence” in wake of the large influx of immigrants that America saw at the time. He believed that the test would weed the intellectually inferior from the pool of college applicants and funnel only strong-minded, competent individuals into schools, particularly the elite Ivy League and Seven Sisters universities. Though these sentiments are not nearly as extreme today as they were in Brigham’s time, the vestiges of these attitudes are still felt within college circles.


Considering that a student’s performance is largely determined by numbers such as their GPA or grade percentage in a class, I would argue that SAT scores are the most arbitrary of the lot. While there is not a limit on how many times a student may sit for the test, it is taken in one, three-hour sitting that spans reading, writing and mathematics. However, there is no guarantee that a student’s performance on a one-time test reflects their intellectual abilities; it is impossible for College Board to completely avoid the effects of the infinite confounding variables at play, including mistakes on behalf of either student or proctor. It is irresponsible to so heavily determine a student’s ability based on their SAT score, no matter how much a college stresses the holistic nature of their admissions process. Especially in recent decades, if the widespread belief is that societal and economic advancement comes through post-secondary education, wouldn’t colleges seek to scrap the assessment altogether and focus solely on grade-point average, course load and extracurricular activity? If this test is so rigorous that it is almost impossible to score a “good” score without the help of astronomically expensive tutors and books, is it fair to enforce it as a requirement for applying to college? If these supplementary resources are necessary at all, is the test truly a measure of intelligence? The very existence of the standardized test contradicts every progressive thought put forth in recent social reform circles, particularly by groups promoting college as a way of uplifting minorities from destitution and poverty.


Even on sites such as “College Confidential” and “Reddit,” students post their 4.8 GPAs and 1550 SAT scores begging others to “chance” their statistics for admission to specific colleges with the understanding that the process is largely a game of luck. Though colleges tout the “perfect fit” philosophy when admitting or denying their students, there is also something perverse in the fact that students can put so much work into attaining these seemingly unattainable numbers and open their portals to the dreaded “we are sorry to inform you…” spiel. Holistic considerations have upped the ante in the way of what is expected from an “ideal” applicant, but the way colleges stress standardized tests is misleading. A 1600 is no indication that you are a college-bound student for some universities anymore, namely the prestigious Top 20 schools.


Furthermore, while the price of college has long been disputed for being unreasonable, it poses yet another contradiction to the idea of college as a ladder. From my own experience, my family is not in the lower income bracket, but neither are we in the higher bracket. We are an upper middle class family living with a comfortable income that covers our major expenses. My parents still need the financial aid to send me to college, though, because we do not make enough to send me across the country for $80k a year. I applied to Cornell University, Boston University, as well as five UC schools and three CSUs. Yes, I was able to cover the standardized test and AP fees, send my scores, pay for my CSS profile and meet application fees. But after filling out my FAFSA form, I quickly learned that college was still a far cry from anywhere near affordable. My student report read that my family’s expected contribution would be a third of our income per year—from both parents—with the rest most likely made up of federal student loans. In other words, my family and I would be financially wrecked for the rest of my adult life. The bracket for aid is so narrow that students either must come from nothing or everything to afford a post-secondary education, shutting the proverbial door on thousands, if not millions, of students trying to attend these pricier schools for their programs, majors or locations. Though most tuition-free policies introduced by recent politicians such as Bernie Sanders have their fair share of issues, the $30k/year tuition average is not sustainable for any student, nor do I believe that some colleges are justified in charging the prices they do. And even if I were to attend a community college before transferring to a four-year, the debt would still stick with me for years, if not decades. Ultimately, universities are businesses and students are their customers. I do not think it is a radical notion to support equal opportunity; schools acting as gatekeepers to society are the antithesis of that.


I understand that universities are considered prestigious institutions determined to produce entire generations of leaders in all realms of the modern world. A college is supposed to be a symposium for intellectuals seeking policy, reform and advancement as well as a vehicle for individuality and identity. A cultural phenomenon, graduating from high school and moving to the university-level is highly regaled as a sign of success; a college acceptance is a sign that an individual no longer has to cling to the lowest rung of the ladder, wherever their starting point may be. With that said, the road to college is still a very rocky one, lined with unrealistic potholes, contradictory traffic jams and a load of tollways. If we truly want to make it the benevolent opportunity society continues to push, institutions must reassess and adapt to the evolving generations they educate.