Schools Also Compete in College Scramble

While students are obsessing over their college applications, they might be surprised to learn that the colleges are worrying, too — over whether they will get the kind and number of applicants they want.

(This story is the second in a series of five. See links below for other stories in the series.)

In recent years, many colleges have begun going on the road to generate more interest. The most recent annual National Association for College Admissions Counseling conference was held in Salt Lake City last fall. In the university world, it is the place to see and be seen.

"The marketing techniques have been injected into this process and I think have really created problems," said Charles Deacon, dean of admissions at Georgetown University. "If you went to our national association and looked at that exhibit hall, it would look like a trade show.

"I think that's not really in the best interest of the students and schools in the end," he added, though he attended the Salt Lake City conference. "It's important to keep your finger on the pulse, and here we have 3,600 people from high schools and colleges all across the country."

Recently, Georgetown representative and admissions officer Gregg Roberts made the pitch to students at Langley High School, a public school in a wealthy suburb of northern Virginia.

"The college is putting their best foot forward, too, because they need you in order to stay in their business," said Meg Brinker, a college counselor at Langley High. "Really, the whole admissions process is a business. And so, they need you to keep up their numbers. So, it's a two-way street. They're trying to impress you just as much as you're trying to impress them."

College Rankings

Deacon thinks he knows what's responsible for the commercialization of college admissions — the college rankings. Georgetown ranks 24th in the annual U.S. News & World Report survey of colleges.

Deacon gives little credence to these lists.

"We're a society that ranks," he said. "We rank the top 10 books of the month. We rank the top 10 basketball teams or football teams. And I think that there is an attitude of trying to somehow find some way of distinguishing. Unfortunately, in my opinion, the way these rankings are drawn is way too heavily weighted toward dollar signs, and not enough weighted toward quality of educational opportunity."

But students or their families seem to love them.

"I think it plays a big role, especially to my parents," said Elliot Formal, a Langley student. "They try to make it seem very important, because they want me to go to one of the best universities so they can talk about it with their friends and what not."

Early Admissions

One of the biggest tools for improving a college's rankings has also become one of the most controversial — programs that admit anywhere from 10 percent to 50 percent of the incoming class months ahead of the usual deadlines. The programs are called "early decision," and they have roiled the admissions process at elite colleges like little else over the last decade.

Here's how it works: A student is only supposed to apply to one college or university early. If admitted under early decision, the student is bound to attend. It improves the college's increasingly important yield, which is the number of kids who are admitted and actually enroll.

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