Are we better off now?

One of the “historical documents” in my files is the May,1989 issue of Money magazine, featuring this cover:

You have to admit that headline “The Sacrifice of the Children” and the cover image are attention-grabbers. So is the title of the main story inside the magazine: “The Agony of College Admissions.”

The college admissions scene was in bad shape then, at least according to Money magazine.   Is it in better shape now?

On the whole, I’d have to say no.  I think the admissions scene is crazier in 2012 than it was in 1989.  Much has changed on the college side of the admissions process in the past 23 years, but the way the process is experienced by students has not.

Several factors have amplified the stress and pressure high school students feel as they apply to college. In a nutshell, these are:

* Demographics: the number of high school graduates in the US remains at an all-time high, and because many colleges and universities now seek students from all around the world, instead of from their home regions, competition for space in the entering classes at many colleges has increased significantly. Application numbers are up, and where colleges have not increased the size of their entering classes, admission rates are down.

* The prevailing view that there is only a small group of “good” colleges out there. From this follows the proposition that you will only be successful if you attend one of those “good” colleges…which leads to the perception of college admissions as a high-stakes contest. This annual drama of “who gets in” has a strong grip on our attention.

* The explosion of “experts” offering advice and opinion about colleges and the admission process. The questions “what’s the “best school” and “what do I have to do to get in” can be hideously compelling to high school students and their parents. Many publications, websites, and individuals have rushed to help students answer those questions. Particularly interesting to me is the rise of the “citizen counselor” — those individuals who don’t have a lot of experience with the admissions process, but who are able to sell their advice and opinions nonetheless.

* Making the private, public. This is obvious, but the ease with which students can share impressions, anxieties, rumors and wild untruths about the application process with each other has ramped up the stress for everyone involved.

I’ll write more about these topics, among others, in future posts.