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Building a Class
Fact, Fiction, & Trends

Much like the infamous “perfect storm” that struck off the coast of New England in 1991, today’s college admissions environment is fueled by a potent mix of largely unrelated factors. Taken together, they have created the most competitive admissions environment in American history.

First and foremost, the brouhaha surrounding college admissions is the result of a straightforward case of supply and demand. According to the Chronicle of Higher Education, three million students graduated from U.S. high schools in 2005. In fact, it was the largest graduating class in American history. Among this record-setting “echo boom,” two million sought post-secondary education. Together, they expanded applicant pools across the country and, by extension, lowered acceptance rates at the “most-selective” institutions to unprecedented levels. The “hot” schools became scorching and “safety schools” are no longer safe.

By itself, this historic surge in the college-bound population would have added significant volume to the applicant pools of colleges and universities across the country. But a confluence of additional factors propelled the growth. Soaring economic conditions during the late 1990s enabled families to consider private (and more expensive) colleges. This same economic expansion generated a renaissance in Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Providence, and Chicago, among other cities. Suddenly, universities with an urban zip code—Tufts, Columbia, NYU, Penn, Brown, and Northwestern—became very popular.

The increasing prevalence and reach of the Internet compounded these economic factors. As an admissions tool, the web transformed the way in which colleges recruit students and by which students identify college options. Search engines and collegiate websites guided untapped pools of students to a wide array of institutions. Throughout the 1990s, applicant pools exploded in volume and diversified in their geographic depth and breadth—including an impressive number of foreign students from developing nations in Eastern Europe, Southeast Asia, and India.

Finally, the widespread adoption of the Common Application (used by more than 275 colleges and universities as a singular means of submitting application materials) and the growing popularity of its electronic version since 2000 further expanded these pools. Indeed, applications to Tufts skyrocketed 39 percent in 1996 after the university adopted the Common Application!

Tufts, of course, weathered this sea change exceptionally well. In fact, the current edition of the Fiske Guide to Colleges, considered by many as one of the more reliable sources of college information, reports “applications [to Tufts] are up dramatically, propelling Tufts into the ranks of the most selective schools in the country.”

Clearly, the university is positioned in rarified (and enviable) admissions territory. Freshman applications have soared an astounding 116 percent since 1990, from 7,200 to 15,532 last year. Current indicators this fall point to an 11th consecutive increase—and yet another record pool—in 2006. During this span, for example, applications from California increased 240 percent—from 470 to 1,599—and the number of Californians in the freshman class nearly doubled, from 56 to a record 100 this year.

Against these demographic, economic, and practical trends, the very confidentiality upon which college admissions rests clouds the admissions process with an opaque quality. In a transparent and instantaneous world defined by the Internet, cell phones, 24-hour news channels, instant messaging, and fax machines, such a lack of transparency is discomforting. Once an application is placed in a mailbox (or the “send” button has been clicked), control is lost until a letter comes back a few weeks later. One hopes the resulting document is “fat,” but little can be done to influence the outcome. That element of mystery adds additional anxiety to an already stressful experience. And out of this uncertainty comes misinformation, and herein lies the problem.