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College Admissions Season: Four Trends that are Here to Stay

A unique class of high school seniors will matriculate into college next fall as the first class who spent the entirety of its high school career in a pandemic-impacted world. Just four years ago, these emerging adults wondered if their eighth grade graduation activities would be completely canceled or simply delayed due to the recently announced lock-downs. As this group looks out at the pomp and circumstance of high school graduation ceremonies and into the exalted American college tradition, they continue to learn that their world remains less predictable than that of previous generations.

In particular, college and university landscapes at all levels seem to be among the most opaque and complex in today’s mainstream culture. Higher education has always embraced a duality, both influencing and reflecting larger realities and pressure points in our culture and world. And this could not be more true today, with significant media publications devoting whole sections and departments to reporting and critiquing all aspects of American colleges , especially in recent weeks, when campuses nationwide have experienced intense socio-political upheaval. What and whom can parents and college bound students trust when it comes to the noise we hear about access to, the experience of, and the value in college education? As we close out this year’s admissions cycle, I’ve synthesized a set of trends and tensions that will persist and play out over the next twelve months while we continue to keep our eyes on the world’s greatest and most transformative educational institutions.

Culture Wars:

As we sought to acknowledge and combat cultures of harassment, intimidation, and bullying in schools and campuses, a dissolutioning trend emerged. Free speech — a core tenant of American higher education — was accused of threatening students’ emotional well being and mental health. This tension hit a fever pitch on the heels of George Floyd’s murder as institutions continue to come to terms with many troubling aspects of their legacies. Yet, opposition to the diversity, equity, and inclusion movement emerged quickly, as many families became skeptical of what they viewed as professors and administrations taking on the role of activist. This fall, three notable college presidents at the country’s most elite institutions lost their jobs when they were unable to convincingly articulate their institutions’ positions on the issue of antisemitism on their campuses. And of course, in recent weeks, campus protests over the war in Gaza have led to the arrests of thousands of students, culminating in some campuses canceling classes and graduation ceremonies.

Whose words are being censured by school administrations, and how? If one group’s political views make another group uncomfortable, how should university’s react? Does curtailing the language used in student protests promote or besiege free speech? Will colleges choose to take political positions, supporting one group’s views and rights while condemning another’s? If they don’t, are they condoning aggression, harassment, and bullying? Is there a place on faculties for all  voices and ideas? These questions and many more pervade as parents and students question whom to trust, to what extent political agendas serve as filters for curricula, and whether conforming ideologies are necessary to receive top grades.

Access to the Most Selective Schools Remains Limited, Opaque, and Unpredictable:

According to Common App data, applications were up by six percent this past year, highlighting a trend that began more acutely in 2020. As a natural result, acceptance rates shrunk. After four years of precipitous increases in applications, the ten or so most selective schools’ acceptance rates seem to be holding steady at a staggeringly low 3–5%. Several notable schools have seen even more significant declines in acceptance rates, with trending schools like the University of Texas at Austin at 11% this year while Fairfield University and Northeastern dropped upwards of 12–15% over the past few years.

Many selective universities are reinstating the standardized testing requirement, citing among other reasons the reality that the SAT and ACT may actually increase acceptance rates for socioeconomically disadvantaged students. This coincides with an updated digital SAT, which is shorter and more streamlined, seeking to more accurately reflect students’ academic knowledge and skills through adaptive testing (the test increases or decreases in difficulty based on the individual’s correct or incorrect answers).

These realities, along with the Supreme Court’s Affirmative Action ruling as well as the significant growth of the college counseling industry, suggest that students and families must be educated, strategic, and realistic when entering the college application process.

Fears, Questions, and Opportunities Inherent in Emerging AI will Grow:

Regardless of the speculation, proselytizing, and conspiracies, AI is here to stay. Admissions offices will fight, yet also come to terms with, the reality that student essays and applications likely received some level of AI support. At the same time, admissions teams will also look to leverage AI tools to become more efficient and objective. Academics wrestle with its place in curriculum, seeking to redefine plagiarism and ensure that students learn the fundamentals of authentic expression while accepting that evolved institutions must develop programs (and majors) that leverage the power of AI, so students are prepared for the workforce they enter. As a society, our collective discomfort and curiosity with AI remains apparent, and this generation of college students will be the first to enter an AI-enhanced workforce. They have tremendous opportunity to harness and legitimize its infinite capacity.

The College Experience Will Remain as Important and Exciting as Ever:

Despite some questioning, the rising cost, and noted disillusionment surrounding higher education in the US, interest remains as intense as ever. The recent decline in acceptance rates has given way to the industry of private tutoring and advising, estimated at a $2.9 billion market share. Some of these advisers seem to seize on the plight of the “overrepresented” student, acknowledging that good students from competitive high schools must become more marketable to admissions offices since there are so many like them applying to top schools. As a result, some advisors charge five and six digit fees to help students cultivate their high school experiences, including founding nonprofits and contributing to research initiatives that will help them stand out in the masses. While this is a logical outcome of the generation whose documentary “Race to Nowhere” chronicled over-scheduling and acute specialization, it also provides students with resources, guidance, and motivation to attach to a larger sense of purpose.

For those seeking to game the system, viewing the process only as a means to an end, getting into college becomes meaningless and cynical. I wonder if the next milestone, graduate degree, or job at a top firm becomes another, “and then,” leading to an existence where external validation drives all motivation.

As a lifelong educator and parent of three — current tweens and teens — attaching some aspirational direction to the high school years allows so many students to gain insight into themselves and provides opportunities for young people to develop individual identities in a world of homogenized social media content. The ability to more intentionally and constructively focus on who they are, what they want, and how they search for and subsequently experience college can expand horizons and personas. For those who embrace the search by seeking clarity on their goals with an open mind and heart, college can be profoundly impactful.