Over at Room for Debate (The New York Times), various commentators have offered ways to improve and revitalize the college admissions process.
The problems? The application process is so convoluted and complex (even with the Common Application) that students spend hours, weeks, months on applications that might get a quick read at most. Also, application numbers have soared at selective institutions, leaving students uncertain and anxious over their chances. Mixed messages abound. The admissions results often seem illogical or arbitrary, and financial aid awards (or lack thereof) can amount to acceptances and rejections in themselves.
Barry Schwartz, a professor of psychology at Swarthmore College, revives a suggestion he made a decade ago: Create a lottery system, where those students qualified for the college would be entered in a pool, and a given number would be chosen at random. This would eliminate the pretense that colleges select “the best.”
Alan T. Paynter, an assistant director of admissions and the coordinator of multicultural recruitment for Dickinson College, recommends that colleges give clearer information (not only in brochures but in conversations with applicants) about what they seek.
Alvin E. Roth, the McCaw Professor of Economics at Stanford University, recommends establishing a system whereby students indicate their two top choices. (The American Economic Association established a similar system for the job market.) This would cut down on the number of applications and allow colleges to admit interested students.
Ron Unz, a software developer and publisher of The Unz Review, recommends ending tuition altogether at elite colleges. The free tuition would draw a more diverse applicant pool and allow the colleges to enroll those who qualify, not just those who can pay.
There are more ideas, and most of them strike me as good. Yet I doubt that any one of them would work in isolation. A lottery system could easily lead students to apply to still more colleges. Clear communication is great, but what if colleges are communicating similar messages, even with the new clarity? Roth’s idea could leave many students without a college, and Unz’s would still leave the elite colleges with far more applicants than they could thoroughly consider.
A combination of reforms could work well. Limit the number of colleges to which a student may apply. Have students indicate their top two choices. Give priority to subject-matter tests over SATs. Simplify the financial aid application (and give students earlier information about their financial aid eligibility). Cut excessive administrative costs and increase financial aid. In short, make the process more straightforward and economical. Take the awe and hype out of it. That way, students can apply to colleges with reasonable confidence, and colleges can devote more of their attention to those likely to attend. On the other hand, the streamlining required for such an approach could create problems of its own.