Where, when, how, and why did US college admissions go wrong? Or did it?

People make a lot of great points in this thread. Some of my thoughts, reemphasizing the points others have made in some cases:

  1. The “good old days” were not so good. True, getting into an Ivy was a lot less stressful before the 70’s if you were a wealthy white boy, but the door was slammed shut for just about everyone else. Privilege still has a massive advantage in acceptance to top colleges due to grade and EC inflation at the private and wealthy suburban high schools, but the door is no longer closed to everyone else.

  2. The “elite” schools do a masterful job of selling their elite status. HYPSM are among the top marketing organizations in the entire world. The rest of the T20 are pretty good at marketing too, but the rest of the T100 need to raise their game. There is not a big enough gap between #1 and #50 to justify the insanity of trying to get into #1.

  3. The transition from humanities to the more career oriented majors in business, pre law and STEM is a big step in the right direction to breaking the lock the T20 schools have on top applicants. Accounting is accounting and computer science is computer science and engineering is engineering whether it is learned at an Ivy or a state school. The relative ROI of the “elite” privates is dropping quite a bit.

  4. It takes two to tango, and the parents and kids do bring some of this stress on themselves. Parents are emptying their savings and kids are leveraging their futures to get degrees of questionable value that they can’t afford because of the prestige of getting into certain schools. They don’t have to do that.

  5. It takes two to tango, Part II. No one is entitled to admission at a top school, and the process is not unfair when you don’t get in. The schools get to pick who they want, and while giving admissions advantages for factors like legacies and lower standards for athletes seem ridiculous at T20 schools, that is the schools’ choice. There are plenty of good schools out there for smart kids that want to work hard and succeed.


That is lovely to hear and I am happy for your communities. But the majority of the posts on CC (not all but most) don’t match the picture you paint. And CC is the platform that is giving us the opportunity for this lively discussion.

I guess I wasn’t trying to make the point that students are better now than they used to be. I do think there are more “good” students simply because there are far more students, a greater number of them have parents who both graduated from college and being wealthier likely have better education opportunities. They also value education more. Their parents often compare their students to standards that were applicable to when they were applying to college. It’s no wonder they are amazed that what they perceived as a top 1% student is no longer as top as they believed. We had this happen to us. Ironically our D had to read a book called “The Overacheivers” written in the mid 2000s. After she took her SATs she was better qualified than many of the students discussed in the book. We were amazed! Friends were telling us that she was a lock for anywhere and would likely be getting free rides. In that short 7 or 8 years since the book was written, while she was still a excellent student, however, she was not an exceptional student just a very good one. It was CC that brought us down to reality and she never really had aspirations for a top university to begin with so all worked out very well.

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Sometime in the last few decades, many of the “tippy tops” became driven more by their endowments than their missions (MIT, Cal Tech excepted). College presidents are judged more on fundraising ability than educational improvement. Seriously, why would Harvard accept a Development admit whose family gave $40 million when the Harvard endowment is already $42 Billion? They’ll never be able to spend all that money anyway.

The good news is that over those same decades the quality of education at the publics and privates a step or two down from these “top” schools has improved tremendously, so if we as parents put aside our need for prestige we can find phenomenal educations for our kids at much lower prices. The education my DS is getting at his “Mid-Tier” LAC is much better than I got at my Ivy a few decades ago.


Very interesting perspective. I would love to hear more about those differences if you have the time.

“Back in the day” (i.e., decades ago when I was in college), I loved it. I “found” myself there, and I could major in anything I wanted. I used to believe that was a critical distinction between the US and other countries, in that you could be what you wanted to be.

Is declaring a major when you apply to schools (and perhaps this is limited to just a few schools?) a real trend in the US? If so, that takes away one of the great things I have always believed about US higher ed: that you can find yourself once you’re in college, not being forced to stay in something you thought was interesting in high school, but not when you actually experienced it.


It’s a couple of things. Grade inflation, first. And the SAT/ACT has been dumbed down significantly over the years. 20 years ago, scoring a perfect on the SAT would make the 6:00 news. Now, any kid in the top 20% can do it. This gives a false impression that kids are geniuses when they’re not. So, to compete with all the above average kids with perfect scores, you have to accomplish a laundry list of ECs and risk a complete mental breakdown in the process. It’s a process that is not worth the effort. The reality is that these schools are just lazy stagnant universities that pick smart kids to make themselves look better, and the pandemic exposed that better than anything else. The real renaissance has been with the state universities, that focus more on teaching than research.

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I can think of a few things that have dramatically changed.

  1. Back in the Stone Age when I applied for college, most of my classmates applied to three colleges or less. No one applied to 20 or more colleges. No one.

  2. Everything was done by paper and snail mail, so students, school personnel, everyone needed to really plan ahead.

  3. We didn’t get mailings or emails or social media posts. Finding out about colleges was word of mouth, help from the school counselors (who really weren’t much help), and going into the guidance office and reading the college catalogues they had shelved there.

  4. Most students went to colleges that were very close to where we lived. Some went to the vast number of instate publics in our state (Ohio). A very small number went to private colleges.

I need to add…this was a very wealthy suburban high school where better than 90% of students went on to post high school studies.


Otoh, state schools have been getting their budgets cut for years. It is more and more common for it to take 5 years to graduate because the required classes aren’t available. Getting into flagship stem programs can be just as competitive as private elites. It isn’t all rosy at the state flagship. The rat race is spilling over.

Am I the only one seeing “race to nowhere” stressed out overachieving behavior in k-12, even among those for whom elites aren’t a goal?

There’s more to the cultural dysfunction than just what is happening with the common app and the SAT and marketing efforts.

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How do you square the “race to nowhere” with the VAST sums being spent by school systems on support systems for various disabilities (which was a negligible budget item when I was in a public school system K-12). There are kids in my town’s public school system who just could not get access to public education back in the day. These aren’t kids gunning for Harvard- the parents hope is that their child can hold down a job behind the counter at a diner, or as a clerk in a municipal services office.

There was one deaf kid in my school. (Thank you, mumps epidemic of the early 1960’s).

So there may be a perception of the Race- but look at actual school budgets, see where the money is being spent. In the last decade, for many school systems, it’s on para’s and support and intervention- not on helping kids get ready for the Ivy League.


I agree that k-12 budgets are part of the problem. Special ed funding is a very interesting topic to me.

But my focus was on what parents and families are doing to themselves - the sports, the ECs, the tutoring, etc. some of it is because the schools can’t provide it. Some of it is because it is just what everybody does, seems to me. This may be more of a suburban phenomenon, but it is there.

Yes, much self-inflicted pain. Kids who have zero interest in sports being dragged to special coaches, kids who’d love to spend an afternoon reading a book stuck on a travel soccer team everyone complains about (no weekends, no life, too much car pooling) but nobody seems able to quit.

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Lol! You just described the last 5 years of my life, but in reverse, with another 9 months left on my sentence until I’m released for good behavior. I’m the one being dragged by my son. I feel like I should blink 2 times to let people know I’m being held against my will.

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Personally, I have found students to be just as prepared now as they were in the late 1990s.

This is a story told among older professors with selective memories, and others.

While grade inflation is a problem, particularly in wealthy areas, it really does not change the student body.

Yes, there are students with 3.9 GPAs who would have had 3.7 GPAs 30 years ago. However, these students with the 3.9 GPAs are still attending the same colleges that they would have attended, had they received a 3.7 in a world without grade inflation.

The problem with grade inflation is mostly that it maintains the barrier to low income kids, since, as I have repeatedly showed, grade inflation is worse at high income high schools.

It also keeps poor kids from popular colleges because, now that every top students has a 4.0 GPA, the popular colleges are relying even more heavily on ECs and different awards, all which favor the wealthy even more than grade inflation does.

Yes, grade inflation does mean that a kid with a HSGPA of 4.0 is about as prepared as a kid from 1990 with a HSGPA of 3.8. However, in 1990, the classrooms which are now filled with 4.0s would have been filled in 1990 with students whose GPAs were mostly 3.7-3.9.

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Forget about the money, the time, the energy parents spent. Think about the kids. They wouldn’t be doing these ECs they had little interest in if they weren’t told that it’s what they had to do to get into “good” colleges. Many of them are exhausted by the time they get to the colleges that they don’t have the energy to meet the new demand and face the new challenge a rigorous and demanding college curriculum would require. It’s such a waste of human potentials at so many different levels.


I don’t think that the kids who are doing lots of ECs in which they’re not interested, are getting into the top schools because of those ECs. It seems to me that the kids who are getting into the top schools are extremely invested in one particular EC interest, with very high achievement in that specific, focused EC.


Exactly! You knew the name of a school because you knew of someone who went there or maybe you saw a game on tv. Tracking down a phone number to request an application was a hassle, if your parents even let you make a long distance phone call.

I guess now, that is still a thing except you get your list from a magazine like USNWR and you can watch way more college games than you could back then. All it takes is a few minutes on the internet to sign up for mailings and it is one more box to check on the common app.

I didn’t say these kids all got into top schools. Most of them didn’t but a few of them probably did. I’m certainly not against investing heavily in a EC (or two) that a kid is deeply interested in, but s/he shouldn’t be doing it for the sake of college admissions. IMO, it still isn’t worthwhile even if the EC helps her/him get into a top school due to her/his achievement in that EC (despite her/his lack of interest), because s/he likely would have accomplished even more by investing her/his time/energy in something else s/he is more interested in (and likely even better at).

I agree with this. While gpa’s might be higher, it doesn’t mean the kids are automatically less prepared. I’ve found the course work at my kids’ public HS to be equal to (and often better than) the preparation I received (which was quite good). The writing program is strong (had one mom tell me that her kiddo’s college English courses were less rigorous) and math is more advanced than it was in my day (no AP calc for advanced students - just trigonometry). Of course, education standards vary a LOT around the country and we are in MA where most public schools are pretty good.

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I’d love a study that showed how many kids continued on with the EC’s they were so passionate about in HS – I’d guess very few.

When I was teaching at NYU & Fordham (several years ago), I observed that students in the early 2000’s had significantly diverse backgrounds yet also significant differences in level of preparedness compared to students in the 1980’s. Not better. Not worse. Just more variability in their preparedness and academic backgrounds. Likewise, there was more geographic diversity. My students in the 1980’s came with more consistency in the high school curriculum, books read, content of courses. If you are teaching currently, it would be interesting to read your perspectives on this in 2021.

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