College rank, rejections go hand in hand

EDUCATION BEAT

Admissions: Among the nation's top universities, the accepted measure of quality has become the number of students they turn away.

April 21, 2004|By Mike Bowler | Mike Bowler,SUN STAFF

APRIL CAN be the cruelest month for those who didn't "get in" to the selective college of their choice.

By now, the letters have arrived - thin envelopes for the rejections, thick envelopes with instructions and registration forms for those accepted. Joy for those who hit the jackpot, disappointment, even bitterness, for those who didn't.

For those seniors feeling the sting of a rejection, there is little consolation in this fact: That turn-down by Johns Hopkins, the University of Maryland, College Park or any other college or university is actually a feather in the rejecting school's cap. It will show up next September in U.S. News & World Report as an indicator of the college's quality.

In the twisted value system of higher education in America, it's considered good to be selective, bad to be scrambling for students. And so a college's number of freshman applications and its "yield" - the percentage of those accepted who actually show up - are important in the annual ratings race of U.S. News and other publications.

"Our success is judged on how many people we say `no' to," said Brian Rosenberg, president of Macalester College in St. Paul, Minn., at the annual meeting of the Education Writers Association last week in San Francisco. "No other enterprise is like that. It's as though you went into a Ford showroom wanting to buy a new car, and they told you, `We're probably not going to let you buy that car.'"

Rosenberg, who heads one of the few selective private colleges in the Midwest, said his school has been turning down more students than it has accepted for at least six years, "and it doesn't make us feel good."

But there it is, and there's little that the thoughtful Rosenberg or anyone else can do about it. Admission to a brand-name selective college has become so important to the upper middle class in America that the level of angst during the April admissions season approaches psychosis.

Schools such as Hopkins and those in the Ivy League - Yale, Harvard and the like - are getting so many applications from so many super-qualified kids that their admissions officers "are intellectually running out of rational tools for telling someone this is why you got in and this is why you didn't," said Barmak Nassirian, associate director of the American Association of College Registrars and Admissions Officers.

To get into these schools, it would appear you've got to speak three languages, have published a novel, scored 1,600 on the SAT (1,590 is a pathetic 10 short of perfection) and have established your own summer camp for dyslexic children. Or, like George W. Bush and his father before him, you have to be a "legacy" - the son or daughter of a graduate, preferably one who has endowed a science lab.

And even then you might fail. These colleges regularly reject class valedictorians and others who, on paper, have better qualifications than those who "get in," said Nassirian.

But Nassirian and others point out quickly that these elite schools are only the tip of the vast and highly diverse higher education system - really it's a non-system - in America. "There are `haves,' there are `have-somes' and there are `have-nots,' " said George Dehne, who advises colleges on targeting and marketing to students.

Schools in the last two categories vastly outnumber the haves, said Dehne. For every Hopkins, there are four or five Hoods, McDaniels and Goucher colleges. In the public sector, for every College Park, now a selective school, there are several Frostburg States, Towson and Salisbury universities.

"Unfortunately," said Dehne, "we hear much about the top 100 in the press and very little about the rest, the other 1,500 private colleges, for example." They have an average enrollment of 1,900 and an average acceptance rate of about 70 percent, said Dehne. They're perfectly fine colleges with perfectly fine professors, some of whom were themselves rejected by the selective institutions and many of whom tend to be better teachers than research-oriented professors at elite schools.

It's little comfort for those who discovered this month that they'll have to settle for a second or third choice, perhaps not up there where the air is rarefied, but Rosenberg said students get over it. Once they're immersed in college life, they "tend not to look back," he said. "The trauma tends to be short-term."

The higher the education, the lower the numbers get

From the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education:

In Maryland, for every 100 ninth-grade students, 75 graduate from high school four years later, 45 immediately enter college, 32 are still enrolled in their second year of college and 19 graduate with either an associate's degree within three years or a bachelor's degree within six.

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