“I go to seek a Great Perhaps.” -François Rabelais.
You just got a notice from your 11th Grader’s guidance counselor that parents are strongly encouraged to attend upcoming “Junior College Night.” They want you to know it’s time to get serious about your student’s college future. What to expect? It depends on your student’s high school, but most likely it will include a perspective on today’s college application process, how it differs from “back in the day.” Why has the process become so competitive (therefore stressful)? Sally Springer et al, authors of Admission Matters: What Students and Parents Need to Know About Getting Into College, identify three factors: the “echo” boom (or baby boomlet), social changes, and the Internet.
1. “Echo” boom. “More high school graduates than ever are competing for seats in the freshman class…In 1997, there were 2.6 million graduates…by 2009, the number of high school graduates had grown to 3.3 million…they are projected to stay at or above 3.2 million at least until 2022.” (p. 2). This demographic explosion explains, at the simplest level, why you were accepted at “Ivy U,” but despite playing Mozart in the womb and sending your child to the best schools, he or she may be edged out of yesterday’s most prestigious colleges. An institution you viewed as “second tier” back in the day may be viewed as a hot school today, and the quality of student at that school will be much higher now, too.
2. Social changes. “Application numbers have grown much faster than the age cohort…Not only are there more students graduating from high school each year, proportionally more of them want to go to college. A college education is increasingly seen as the key to economic success in our society, just as a high school diploma was once the minimum requirement…At the same time, colleges themselves have increased their efforts to attract large, diverse pools of applicants.” (p.3).
3. Internet. Not only can students research colleges more efficiently than ever before via the Web, but electronic applications such as Common Application, connected to school guidance departments through Naviance, have made it easy to apply to multiple colleges. (p. 3-4). The Common Application now has over 500 member colleges and universities. NACAC’s State of College Admission 2014 survey indicated that 32 percent of college applicants submitted seven or more applications in 2013, versus only 9 percent in 1990.
Global Education: In addition to the three factors mentioned by Springer, U.S. colleges admit a substantial number of international students today. According to Open Doors 2014, published by the Institute of International Education (IIE), the overall number of international students in the U.S. has grown by 72 percent in the past fifteen years, from 514,723 in 1999/2000 to 886,052 in 2013/14. Over forty percent of those students are undergraduates.
The top three places of origin for international students studying in the U.S. are China, India, and South Korea, followed by Saudi Arabia, Canada, Taiwan, Japan, and Vietnam. International students are desirable for U.S. colleges and universities not only because of their strong academic performance encouraged by the cultures from which they come, but also because they typically pay full tuition (two-thirds of higher education funding for international students in the U.S. comes from their own families).
According to IIE and College Board Big Future, New York University enrolls the most international students, with non-residents representing 14 percent of the undergraduate student body. Private institutions with a high number and percentage of international students include USC, Columbia, Northeastern, BU, Penn, and Carnegie Mellon. State universities include Illinois, Purdue, UCLA, Arizona State, Michigan State, U. Washington, U. Michigan and many others.
While the presence of international students has the potential to enrich education for all, language and culture barriers continue to create problems. In addition to limiting the number of seats for American students, the high, growing percentage of international undergraduates most likely drives up test score norms, inferred from the fact that students from countries such as China and South Korea are top performers on the PISA assessment and U.S. students are average or below. Such a challenge certainly should motivate U.S. applicants to practice more diligently for their standardized tests, because the competition is global and fierce.
Your counselor will mention the above factors to manage expectations, but also will offer the reassuring news that there are thousands of accredited four-year colleges in the U.S. As Springer et al point out, “The crunch that drives the newspaper headlines and the anxiety that afflicts many families at college application time…is limited to about one hundred colleges that attract applicants from all over the country and the world and that are the most selective…” (p. 5).
You can also expect an overview of the college application process at your student’s particular high school. Your guidance department may ask you and your teen to fill out questionnaires to help generate the initial college list and provide input into the counselor recommendation that will accompany every application. If your student attends a large regional high school, where it is impossible for guidance counselors to get to know students individually, your family’s input into the counselor recommendation will become even more critical. Your family has an opportunity to have some control over the narrative by giving thoughtful input.
Your son or daughter will also be asked to create a preliminary college list, identify teachers as recommenders, perhaps fill out extracurricular activity forms, and develop a resume or “brag sheet,” depending on what your school requires. Your guidance counselor will introduce you to Naviance (Family Connection) a computer-based program most school districts use to help students navigate the college process and make realistic choices. Some guidance departments even lead role-play exercises, where students and parents get to play admissions decision-makers reviewing applications. As a parent, it will be essential to pay attention to deadlines and help your teen stay organized and on top of the process. And clear the decks for spring break–plan to be doing some campus visits during any school holiday!
To offer further insights into the kickoff of the college process, I am sharing a segment from an interview I did several years back on Hometowne TV, a local access cable network based in Summit, New Jersey, hosted by Myung Bondy. You can find additional segments of this interview covering a number of key college application topics on my YouTube channel.