How Colleges Are Using a Cynical Ploy to Appear More Exclusive

The charade in which schools solicit more applications than they need -- just to improve their selectivity ratings -- isn’t just underhanded, it’s cruel.

If a high school student performs well on the PSAT -- or even if he doesn't -- he can look forward to a deluge of fawning, come-hither letters and packages landing in his mailbox soon afterward.

If you’re one of the millions of families currently running the college application gantlet, you’re no doubt familiar with these mailings: colorful, congratulatory brochures replete with love-letter language designed to make an anxious college-bound high school senior swoon. Reed College sent one a few years ago to students that schmoozed, "Listen: college admission people all over the country, including me, have decided that you are the kind of smart student they want."

How flattering! Until you take into account the fact that Reed summarily rejects two-thirds of “you,” which makes its invitation (worded as if it were practically an acceptance letter) seem downright Machiavellian. Isn't this sort of sly linguistic charade -- "you are the kind of smart student" we want, not "the smart student" we want -- a little cruel to impose on adolescents competing in one of the most emotionally wrought contests of their lives?

When Reed was called out on its misleading pamphlet by Washington Post reporter Jay Matthews, whose college-bound daughter received one in the mail in 2003, Reed’s admissions dean Paul Marthers wrote a mea culpa that’s posted on the school’s website. In it, he bemoans the very solicitations his office sneakily sent out: "Prospective students and their parents probably do not realize that many colleges, Reed among them, sometimes contract out the writing of the search letter to direct mail firms skilled at crafting catchy phrases…I suspect that prospective students and their parents wonder sometimes whether admission deans are educators or sales managers. We can seem like masters of the bait and switch.”

I don’t mean to pin this whole confidence trick on Reed -- it’s standard practice at nearly all college admissions offices. Matthews, who also wrote the excellent Harvard Schmarvard, told me he checked letters from 100 colleges the year his daughter applied, and only one, Harvard, had any language indicating that the letter should not be taken as a hint of impending acceptance. (Something you’d figure Harvard applicants would be smart enough to figure out on their own.) These letters "create false expectations of admission, particularly in the many low-income households where the search letter is a new and unexpected feature of the process,” Matthews says.

One high school senior I talked to who's applying to Harvard, Princeton, and the University of Chicago, among others, told me she opted out of receiving mail based on her PSAT scores. An older friend who had already gone through the process had told her that it would only get her junk, the collegiate equivalent of takeout menus under your windshield wiper. Opting out cut her college mail load down to virtually nothing, save for schools she'd contacted for information herself. "How much more money could colleges spend on financial aid or teaching if they didn't waste so much on marketing?" she wonders.

Colleges engage in such aggressive marketing to get on students’ radars, of course, but also for a more cynical, fairly transparent reason: U.S. News & World Report's infamous guide to America's Best Colleges. One key statistic in this annual guide to the country’s top colleges is acceptance rate: The higher the percentage of applicants a college rejects, the more sought-after and exclusive it appears to be. How does a college lower its acceptance rate? By hoarding as many applicants as possible. The emotional turmoil -- not to mention hundreds of dollars in wasted application fees -- that this formula inflicts upon students and their families is hell.

Because colleges have such overwhelming incentives to boost their applicant pool, it's unreasonable to think that they'll make their language less misleading just to save a few thousand college students from having their hearts broken. One solution is for parents to understand and explain to their students the bait and switch tactics involved in college search letters.

But a better solution is to check the box on the PSAT asking that your mailing address not be given to colleges: Slick brochures filled with athletic events and classrooms full of smiling faces and raised hands are no way to make a decision about college -- the second largest investment most people will ever make in their lives.

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