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College Application Pointers for Seniors

The start of the fall semester means the beginning of the college-application season for high-school seniors and their parents. Since we've become totally obsessed with the notion of college for all in this country, I think it's time to take a closer look at how the game is played ("Invitation to a Dialogue: Stop Deflating Grades," The New York Times, Sep. 15).

Recognizing that rankings in U.S. News & World Report ever since 1983 have been closely followed with a zeal bordering on fanaticism, administrators realized that something had to be done to distinguish their brands.  What ensued was early decision ("The Early-Decision Racket," The Atlantic, Sept. 2001). The goal was to engineer a balance between selectivity and yield.  

Although the terms are related and together considered an indication of a school's desirability, they are not the same. Selectivity measures how frequently a school rejects students.  Yield measures how frequently students accept a school (once they are admitted). No college wants to be turned down by students once they are offerered admission.  Early decision protects colleges from that slight by locking in students.  Once they are accepted, they promise to attend. I'm sure that not all students play by the rules, but at least enough of them sign up because they stand a better chance of admission.

Once admitted, students are treated like customers who are entitled to the highest grades possible.  After all, they've jumped through many hoops and gone into substantial debt to emerge with a degree. But too many A's are seen as cheapening the brand. As a result, colleges have painted themselves into a corner.  If they deliberately restrict the percentage of A's in order to buff their image, they run the risk of a student rebellion, particularly from wealthy parents who threaten to withhold making annual contributions.  It's a no-win situation for colleges.

Whether applicants and their parents are fully aware of these realities is unclear.  I tend to think too many focus solely on rankings, which I think is misleading.


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The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner's Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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