Buying and Selling Higher Education: The Social Construction of the College Applicant

Article excerpt

How high-school seniors become college students is a result of two separate but interacting processes. Applicants apply to and enroll in college at the encouragement of family, friends, teachers, counselors, advertising materials, and other sources [28]. Colleges conduct marketing assessments, establish entrance standards, select, and enroll students [20]. The demographics of high-school graduates would seem to indicate a buyer's market, yet although college access is easier now than twenty years ago, it is harder to get into what some people consider the "right" college because of increased competition and standards [39].

For upper-middle-class students who view college as a pivotal career investment, choosing the right college has become pressure-filled. An industry has grown up to help college-bound students: guidebooks and software for SAT coaching; private counselors; consortia offering paid trips for high-school counselors to obscure college campuses; and slick magazines selling private college educations marketed to students stratified by SAT scores and socioeconomic status. College admissions has become a complex, high-stakes game where insider information is difficult to come by and where the guidance counselor caseloads are staggering. Some parents consider their children's college prospects when choosing preschools [23], and admissions practitioners bemoan the extraordinary amounts of time and money that students spend in "packaging themselves" [16].

In this article I am defining all aspects of the interinstitutional transition of an individual from high school to college as the "field of college admissions" [4]. I examine changes in this field in the 1980s and 1990s and the way in which nonschool-based admission assistance services have developed and expanded. I describe and label these nonschool-based services "admissions management." I offer this concept as an individual-level counterpart to the idea of enrollment management that has become prevalent in the literature on higher education. Admissions management is a constellation of behaviors which include buying services to help mostly high-SES, college-bound students maximize their college prospects, package themselves, and anchor themselves emotionally as they navigate the troubled waters of college admissions. I also describe the social construction of a new type of person--a college applicant--who in making the high school to college transition needs professional help, specifically, the assistance of a private, independent educational consultant.

I argue that due to increased marketing on the part of college admissions officials, diminished high-school guidance operations, and heightened competition for college seats upper-middle-class students have generated new practices which, for them, already appear normative, are taken for granted, and are virtually the only reasonable way to choose a college. Some college aspirants, fearful of being frozen out of certain types of colleges thought to be their birthright, are mobilizing economic capital in an effort to enhance their cultural capital and thereby maximize their socioeconomic advantages. As a specific example, I will discuss the role and function of these private counselors, which I will show to be (1) offering specialized knowledge and assistance, (2) providing private uninterrupted time with a counseling professional, (3) organizing and managing the college choice process, and (4) cooling out unreasonable aspirations with viable, personalized alternatives.

I will also demonstrate the advantages of using a field analysis. Examining the historic changes in the structural and organizational contours of the college admissions field and viewing the interinstitutional transition from high school to college as a "field" allows for greater analytic purchase by simultaneously viewing changes in high schools, colleges, the entrepreneurial sectors, and individuals' college choice actions. …