College Application: Who Benefits?

hope in an envelope

By the end of my sophomore year, applying to college had become an obsession.

My room was cluttered with brochures and catalogues. I kept the Reed catalogue right next to my pillow so that I could re-read it whenever I couldn't sleep. My best friend wrote COLUMBIA in giant red letters on her mirror, so that whenever she looked at herself she saw her goal stamped on her forehead. Like everyone around us at our prestigious private boarding school, we worried that two years wouldn't be enough time to prepare.

Meanwhile, a friend of mine was attending a Los Angeles public high school where the college counselor visited her class to remind them that "it wasn't too late to plan for college."

"Isn't it a bit early?" she wondered. She figured she couldn't compete with the kids who could afford private counselors and SAT prep courses. As a first-generation American who was daunted by the expensive and stressful process of applying to colleges, she decided right then and there not to apply at all.

While she may have been taking it a little far, I can imagine how she may have felt. Now, rounding out my senior year, I am finally over the application hump. Looking back, I have grown skeptical about the whole process. And I can't help but wonder who is on the other end of this industry laughing.

Let's face it, the college application process has become part of a giant industry. Many students are under extreme pressure, and their families will stretch to the bottom of their bank accounts if they think it'll bring their child closer to "the right school."

Although many colleges do have extensive scholarship programs and affirmative action policies, students who grow up outside of the elite track are at a disadvantage simply because the application process is so complicated and expensive.

For starters, there's the most obvious cost -- the application fee. It usually costs around 30-45 dollars, not much if you stick with one or two schools, but it can add up if you're trying to cover all your bases.
The Higher Education Research Institute says that in the last nineteen years, the percentage of high school seniors applying to four or more colleges has increased, while those applying to two or fewer has declined dramatically. The percentage of students applying to seven or more schools has increased the most dramatically.

The Higher Education Research Institute says that in the last nineteen years, the percentage of high school seniors applying to four or more colleges has increased, while those applying to two or fewer has declined dramatically. The percentage of students applying to seven or more schools has increased the most dramatically, going from 4% to 11%. And, they say it is no longer uncommon for students to apply to as many as twelve schools.

It makes sense that admissions departments do need to offset the cost of processing the applications, but what about the costs of their grandiose marketing schemes?

Starting my sophomore year, when I took the PSAT, I began receiving stacks and stacks of promotional materials in the mail. These brochures are design masterpieces, and are obviously not cheap to produce. Each school appears to be trying to one-up the rest by producing snazzier, more exciting promotional materials. Many feature fancy paper, full-color images of past and present students and embossed lettering. One catalogue was so extensive that it had eight "chapters." Another I received even had paper textured like tire traction to illustrate the fact that their students were "going somewhere." (As glossy catalogues piled up in my recycling bin I couldn't help but wonder if the money that pours into promoting a school might be better spent on scholarships or other programs that more directly benefit students.)

Another important factor in the decision about where to apply is the cost of traveling to visit the schools of your choice. This can also add up quickly, especially if you are flying out of state to do so.

If you feel like you need to get a professional involved, there are private college counselors who charge anywhere from $65-$90 an hour to advise you on the whole process.

Then there are the SATs. SAT registration fees are not so bad, unless you take it several times. But, these days, an SAT-prep course goes for around $900. The College Board, which administers the SAT series stands to make a fair amount of money this way. The National Center for Fair and Open Testing says that The College Board "earns more than $125 million each ear in revenue from the exams."

The application industry has a huge monetary interest in keeping the SAT in place regardless of the fact that it has been said to be both ineffective and biased. Part of the way the test makers, the College Board and the Educational Testing Service, keep themselves in business is by providing test preparation materials that perpetuate the test prep frenzy. National Center for Fair and Open testing estimates that students spend well over $100 million on test prep materials each year.

When I spoke with a representative from Princeton Review on the phone I was told that for $899 and five weeks of effort on my part, they would guarantee that I would raise my SAT I score "by at least a hundred points and maybe as much as 190 points."

But its not only the testing industry that's cashing in. Many colleges are also taking full advantage of their students fears of rejection. A recent study examined the benefits of applying for an early decision (a binding agreement that says if an applicant is accepted early, they must attend that school,) or early action (an early but non-binding option at some schools) and found that some schools may be profiting from the process.

The New York Times reported that, "Students who apply [for an] early decision have a clear advantage over those who do not - the equivalent of adding 100 points to an applicant's SAT scores overnight."
"Students who apply [for an] early decision have a clear advantage over those who do not - the equivalent of adding 100 points to an applicant's SAT scores overnight."

Many students can't sign a binding contract until they know if they will receive scholarship money. Therefore, those who do apply are usually the ones who can afford to pay the full, or near-full tuition. What is most worrisome about the early admissions process, however, is the fact that not everyone knows it exists. "While most of the students from private schools understood the early admissions process and its advantages," continued the New York Times "only half of the students at less competitive public schools had a solid grasp of how it worked."

In December of 2001, Yale University's president called for all colleges to stop offering early decision, but it is still uncertain whether this will cause a significant shift in the numbers of schools that offer it as an option.

On a similar note, almost 400 of the 3,700 public and private four-year universities in the country have eliminated or de-emphasized test scores in their application processes, according to The National Center for Fair and Open Testing. The list includes highly selective colleges such as Bates, who explained in 1990 that their decision to make all admissions tests optional was true to its history of "commitment to social justice, civil rights, and respect for the individual."

The application process is so complicated, expensive, and unfair that I'm surprised more people don't give up by the time they reach senior year.

It's sad but true; in order to get into college you have to go through some of this process. What matters is that we start asking for a process that is accessible to everyone.

In the mean time, we can look for free test-preparation programs, share our test prep materials with friends, and make it a point to tell the schools that don't require test scores what we think of their policies. We can also look for free college counseling through public schools, or take it upon ourselves to do the complex job of searching for colleges by our selves.

Anya Goldstein, a freshman at Brown University had this advice for high school students: "The best way to look at (the college application process) is as a game. One that you want to play as little as possible."

Elizabeth Miln-Kahn, 18, is a contributing writer for WireTap.

To read more about the standardized testing debate check out Testing...Testing...One, Two Three by Amy Gluckman.


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