In February, when asked to describe how college admissions was going so far this year, one affluent white parent in Los Angeles sent me a text with three emoji faces: one was sad, one was blue-faced and shivering, and one looked ready to barf.
Speaking later over the phone, this person chose the word “bleak” to describe how the early action/decision results that were announced in December (regular admission results come out in late March and early April) had gone over at the exclusive independent school, where their child—a top student and leader with reams of extracurriculars—had been deferred from an Ivy League school despite a legacy connection. Classmates who’d also applied for early decision to the school were flat-out rejected.
“A dumpster fire” was how Jen Kaifesh, the founder of Great Expectations College Prep, whose clients hail from tony Los Angeles neighborhoods like Beverly Hills, Bel-Air, and Brentwood, called early admissions results. “Certain private schools that used to have incredible admissions results have just been obliterated. And parents are furious.” Kaifesh says she retains hope for the regular admissions pool in the spring, but that “early decision has aways been the way in for wealthy families, because you can commit. You don’t have to worry about financial aid. You probably had the funds to go visit and make sure it’s your dream school. For that to be a bloodbath is not a good sign.”
Although the main derby of admissions, “regular” decision, was still weeks away—those results started coming out in late March—the disheartening verdicts of the early rounds for many families this past season felt like a harbinger of what was to come, as well as confirmation of just how much more angst-ridden the reality of getting into college has become. Indeed, the process has undergone more tectonic shifts over the past two years than anytime in recent memory.
The college admissions process—and the albeit unscientific sense of who gets in an why—has been completely upended in a matter of months, thanks to a global pandemic; the now optional nature of the ACT and SAT, which has sent college application numbers soaring; and a post–Black Lives Matter social climate that has caused colleges and universities to put greater energy into admitting Black and brown students, as well as kids who are the first in their families to attend college. Covid, in particular, tightened the screws for applicants this past year. Portions of freshman classes were eaten up by kids who’d deferred their enrollment in 2021—not wanting to pay $60,000 for a Zoom education—and in-person opportunities to round out an application, such as interviews, became obsolete. With fewer ways for kids to present themselves (remember, no more SATs), more emphasis has been put on GPAs and high school coursework, causing widespread agita: Are nine APs enough?
There will likely be more turmoil later this year, when the Supreme Court hears a bid to outlaw affirmative action in response to lawsuits brought against Harvard and the University of North Carolina; both were sued separately for allegedly discriminating against Asian-American and white applicants. Given the conservative bent of the highest court, affirmative action is likely to be overturned, potentially greatly undoing the efforts colleges have been making to diversify their ranks. According to David Card, a labor economist at University of California, Berkeley, and a key witness for Harvard in the affirmative action case, eliminating race-conscious admissions would decrease the number of Harvard students who identify as Black, Hispanic, or “Other” by nearly 50 percent. In doing so, the current calculus of college admissions—which places so much emphasis on which race/ethnicity box is checked on an application (the box itself could be eliminated in a post–affirmative action world)—would once again be rewritten.
No one is arguing that the college admissions system is not in major need of reform. The so-called meritocracy of admissions has always been a false front with the odds blatantly stacked in favor of those with means. All those $500-an-hour independent college counselors advising rich kids on what nonprofit to start as a means of demonstrating character and do-gooder-ism. All those fencing and equestrian lessons that lead to walk-on slots at Harvard and Princeton. Colleges’ anemic acceptance rates have only fueled the sense that an education at an elite college has become a rare luxury. As Mitchell Stevens, a professor of education and sociology at Stanford and the author of Creating a Class: College Admissions and the Education of Elites, puts it, “You just can’t tell a story about merit with a 3.4% admission rate”—Harvard’s acceptance rate for the Class of 2025—“It’s not possible.”
The push to inject more equity into the system is outwardly applauded, even by families who have benefited from the status quo. These families understand the social and civic significance—indeed, the national imperative—of Brown University saying that 51% of its most recent early decision admits self-identified as Black, Latinx, Native American, Native Hawaiian or Pacific Islander, or Asian. Or the University of California system’s announcement that it received more Latino and Black applicants this season than ever before. They praise Amherst for following in Johns Hopkins’s footsteps and pledging to eliminate legacy preference. But that doesn’t mean that the recalibration underway isn’t unleashing a sea of conflicting feelings, particularly for families who have a horse in the race—i.e., a child applying to college—and who do not have the kind of wealth and influence that is still seen as being able to tip the scales—i.e. someone who can donate a library wing or call up a college president and arrange for a personal interview.
These parents suddenly feel a bit, well, helpless, unable to control something that was, if not controllable, then at least easier to game. As the emoji-texting parent said, “Schools are saying they have more applicants than ever. They’re also saying, ‘By the way, we hear you, world, and we’re really working hard to have a diverse, incoming class.’ If you take a step back, you’re like, ‘That’s great. That’s really, really good.’ But if you happen to be an upper-middle-class white parent of an upper-middle-class white child, you’re like, ‘Oh. This kind of sucks right now.’ ”
To try to fit themselves into this new world order, affluent families are rethinking their admissions strategies. Gone are the letters of recommendation from a family-friend-slash-CEO or celebrity. As another Los Angeles parent told me, “A letter from a fancy person is not going to work anymore. Big files are negatives.” Another said that a college counselor at the private school that her child attends advised students to “get a job.” This could be working at a coffee shop or restaurant to understand the value of low-wage labor, or volunteering as an EMT, a gig that requires arduous and emotionally draining work. Either way, “The sense was, ‘Don’t go on one of the poverty tours in Peru—get a job. Stop doing all this stuff that rich kids do.’”
Says Kaifesh, “The narrative has to be about using your privilege to make the world a more equitable and better place. I had one student who was interested in going pre-med,” she goes on. “I said, ‘Don’t just volunteer at a hospital. That’s great, but that’s not enough these days. If you go volunteer at a clinic and you’re trying to practice your Spanish in the inner city or working with underserved communities in the inner city, that’s different.”
Matt Butler, founder and CEO of the Butler Method International, a college counseling company with offices in Manhattan and London, sees the shift in extracurriculars as a positive development that’s making kids into better, more self-aware citizens. “I think there are a lot of social justice and diversity clubs and organizations, activities, and experiences that students are undertaking given the BLM movement and the fight to end racism against Asians. It’s a dynamic time, and students are doing the work. I had a student who asked different doctors to donate masks to nursing homes because their grandmother was dying from Covid-19. That was a great essay, because during a time when so many students felt like their wings were clipped, you had a student on the phone, hustling, getting masks for the elderly. So there are things like that that are of this era that kids are identifying.”
The problem, of course, is that at times all of the rigorous world-improving can start to look a little performative, particularly when the goads are coming from paid counselors. Priscilla Sands, the head of the elite, all-girls Marlborough School in Los Angeles, says that students at Marlborough are encouraged to show genuine empathy when it comes to what could be seen as a résumé-building cause.
“It doesn’t have to be that you found a cure for whatever,” she said one afternoon, sitting on the school’s immaculate grounds with a lanyard that read “Equity Leads” hung around her neck. “It has to be something that sounds so real” to colleges. “It’s so much more about who you are as a person. If you have the grades, if you have all of that, are you a person who is going to really add value to your new community? Are you going to be a standout? Are you going to care for others?”
Sands said Marlborough’s early decision round was strong, though she declined to list which schools seniors had gotten into. “Wouldn’t it be great if the school was able to actually celebrate—which we try to do—that every student found a place where she or they could excel, and feel comfortable and good about it,” she said, “rather than rating us by how many Ivies” students were accepted by?
Sands added that it’s generally the parents who bemoan admissions results more so than their children. “The parent whose child doesn’t get in will likely be the parent who’s saying, ‘It’s been terrible. Nobody got in.’ But they did. And more are getting in.” Christina Simon, an African-American author who has a senior at Viewpoint, an independent school in the rolling hills of Calabasas, just north of Los Angeles, has had her own run-ins with such parents, whose response to the current environment is to call out race. When Simon’s son, an honors student who scored a 35 (of 36) on the ACT and is co-captain of the basketball team, a national math honor society member, and a trumpet player in the honors band (among many other accolades), was accepted early decision to the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School this year, she said she began hearing murmurs. “I have had a couple people imply that he got into Penn because he’s a person of color,” Simon says. “They talk about it in terms of ‘schools are trying to bring in a more diverse class, so they’re admitting more minority students.’ ” My response is, “Well, if not him, then who?”
Indeed, how much of these parents’ sense of woe is real and how much is it simply finding new factors and groups to blame for their kids’ rejections? Is college admissions truly being turned on its head to the point that the privileged class will be shut out of acceptance pools? Athletes are still considered sacred cows, given the nod by university coaches as early as their sophomore year in high school. And no one believes that kids of fantastically wealthy and influential people—the Gateses and Bezoses of the world—are heading off to Drake University (a top-rated, sometimes overlooked school in the Midwest).
As for those who fall slightly below that one-percent bar, “There’s always a spot somewhere for a kid who can pay full tuition,” says Stevens, the Stanford professor. “There’s always a spot somewhere. It may not be at school of choice No. 1 or No. 2. Of course it creates anxiety in this world, because parents’ own status is intimately intertwined with where their kids get into schools. But is it an existential problem for the American class structure? I don’t think so.”
His comment underlines the economic model of American higher ed institutions, which, though supported by significant funds from the federal government and, in some cases, astronomical endowments—Harvard’s is $53 billion—are still heavily reliant on tuition to help pay for faculty, financial aid, and state-of-the-art buildings and athletic facilities.
Even the threat to a tradition like legacy preference, the practice of admitting a student because they have family connections to the school, doesn’t feel so drastic when you consider that the practice is seen as a “thumb on the scale,” says Kaifesh. In other words, a VIP asterisk that comes into play when the child of an alum is being compared with a student of equal caliber who doesn’t have any legacy connection—in that case the legacy would bump ahead in line.
“More so than legacy admissions, I’d say ‘influencer’ recommendations are more important to admissions departments,” says Mickey Munley, a former vice president for College and Alumni Relations at Grinnell College. “If the president of the college has a best friend whose kid wants to come, the president might call admissions or a board member. There’s much more linkage between influencer and giving and admission than there is this idea of alumni preference.”
Stevens says the push from schools like Amherst is, more than anything, symbolic. “Ending legacy admission is one, tangible thing that elite universities can do to demonstrate that they’re trying to be on the right side of history.”
More than anything else, what’s sending shivers through upper-class high school seniors and their families are acceptance rates. “When Harvard’s rate is 3 percent, then you have to do the calculation,” said one father. “What if you take away all the slots for first-gen students, all the athletes, and the legacies? Then how many are left in that 3 percent? The feeling is: What can kids possibly do? How do they distinguish themselves?”
This person’s child actually was admitted to the Ivy League. The system, it seems, has not quite been toppled.
This story appears in the May 2022 issue of Town & Country. SUBSCRIBE NOW
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