Simplifying College Admissions: Create the College Culture You Need for Today's Competitive Admissions Environment

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THINK THE COLLEGE admissions picture couldn't get any more complicated? Guess again. Recent trends in college enrollment, applications and costs are likely to continue to baffle students, parents, and the schools and counselors trying to help them negotiate these uncertain times. Below are a few of the key admissions-related trends we have been tracking for some time, followed by suggestions on how to help your students find their way to higher education that work best for them. Let's start with the assumption that college is worth the effort and cost for most students. Whether one considers pursuing a college education from the standpoint of a purely financial return on investment, the opening up of more career options, individual social and intellectual development, or the fostering of an informed democratic society, college makes sense. We believe that schools and school districts should create a college-bound culture. Such a culture fosters student understanding about what it takes to succeed in college and how to get there, and it helps students by offering practical advice and the resources they need to develop and accomplish their goals.

Wishful Thinking

Most parents agree that college matters, and it is the rare parent, or student for that matter, who does not begin school with the idea that something important will come from studying hard and learning more. Of course, there are discrepancies fostered by socioeconomic and educational inequalities between school districts in different economic, demographic and cultural settings. But when it comes down to it, it is safe to say that parents typically want the best for their children, even if they don't know much about college or how to get there. Parents recognize that further education is essential for their children's future security. Schools can play an important role in educating whole families and communities about the importance of learning and postsecondary education. They can then provide the tools to help students get there.

Among families who have long considered college an integral part of raising their children, or families where parents didn't attend college but believe in the benefits of a college education leading to a better life for their children, there has been some wishful thinking going on of late. It starts with an acknowledgment of a few trends: the growing number of high school graduates and the rising cost of a college education. The number of high school graduates has increased from 2.5 million in 1996 to 3.3 million in 2008, according to the College Board and the Western Interstate Commission on Higher Education. Over the next 15 years, the number is predicted to stay between 3 and 3.5 million.

"We understand that this is the toughest admissions year for seniors applying to college, but then it's going to get easier, right?" such families will ask us. (Parents and students are asking their counselors and high schools the same question.) Unfortunately, we must disagree.

More Applicants

Primary among the key trends that school districts must understand is the huge increase in the numbers not only of high school graduates but also of college applicants and attendees. You certainly are aware of the demographics of bigger class enrollments in your own school systems, although there are variations from state to state, region to region, and even within states. The "bubble" moving through many school systems is evident at various age levels currently, but our view of the numbers nationally is that there is not going to be a precipitous drop in high school graduates, and thus college applicants, anytime soon. The numbers will plateau over the next few years but will not decrease to the lows experienced during the early 1980s.

There will be a diversification of the college applicant pool, with so-called nontraditional applicants, students of color, and first-generation college applicants becoming a larger percentage of the college pool. …