Stress, costs and rankings: Experts discuss changes in the college admissions process


Nearly 500 people filled the Menlo-Atherton High School Performing Arts Center on Jan. 16 to hear experts talk about how the college admissions process has changed over the last two decades.

Alice Kleeman, who served as M-A's college adviser for 20 years and led its College & Career Center, sat down with Angel Perez, a vice president of student enrollment at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut, at the event, "Twenty Years in College Admission -- What Has Changed, What Hasn't: Reflections from Both Sides of the Desk."

A main takeaway from the night was that more has changed than stayed the same since both Kleeman and Perez started in the field about 20 years ago.

The event was part of the Parent Education Series, a Sequoia Union High School District program in which experts in subjects like academic success and student well-being discuss their fields with district parents, staff and community members. Kleeman took audience questions at the end of the event, which was attended mostly by parents.

Stress levels

Both speakers agreed that students are more stressed about the college admissions process than they were 20 years ago.

There's more of a culture of perfectionism today, Kleeman said. She used to tell students that they shouldn't be so burned out that staff has to "scrape (them) off the floor" when they arrive at college.

Students Kleeman worked with experienced "competitive stress," she said. For example, a student would say he stayed up until 3 a.m. studying for a test and another student would reply that she studied until 4 a.m.

Twice as many students at Trinity are using the counseling center because of stress compared with 20 years ago, Perez said. About 76 percent of roughly 77,000 undergraduate students surveyed in a spring 2018 American College Health Survey said they'd experienced overwhelming anxiety in the last year.

"High school students are on this marathon for four years, and the goal is to get to 'XYZ' college, then they go through another extraordinary marathon (in college)," he said. He added that this generation of students is more comfortable seeking mental health counseling than students 20 years ago, which helps them cope with stress.

Test-optional colleges

Some colleges are making it optional for students to submit standardized test scores from the SAT or ACT with their applications. There are now more than 1,000 accredited colleges and universities in the U.S. with bachelor degree programs that have test-optional admissions policies, according to FairTest, a nonprofit striving to "end the misuse and abuse" of standardized tests.

"The test-optional movement is really a movement to try to relieve some of the pressure on students and families in a test-obsessed culture," Perez said. "People like me (college admissions officers) have found the best predictor of success in college is actually not the SAT or ACT; it's actually grades. ... Why do we make students jump through hoops?"

He said that admissions offices try to look at all of the student's qualifications - including their letters of recommendation from teachers and essay submissions - and are familiar enough with the rigor of different high schools to know what an A grade means at each school.

"Folks believe testing will be an equalizer, but there is a strong correlation between wealth and doing well on the SAT," he said.

College costs

College costs have skyrocketed in the last 20 years.

In 1988, the average tuition for a private nonprofit four-year college was $15,160 in 2017 dollars. For the 2017-18 school year, it was $34,740, a 129 percent increase, according to College Board's report, "Trends in College Pricing 2017."

Students at public four-year institutions paid an average of $3,190 in tuition for the 1987-88 school year, with prices adjusted to reflect 2017 dollars. Thirty years later, that average has risen to $9,970 for the 2017-18 school year, a 213 percent increase.

Students today may go to their second-, third- or fourth-choice college - even when they get accepted to their first-choice school - if the school offers a better financial aid package, Kleeman said. A student will end up being just as satisfied in college, she said, if he or she doesn't attend the first-choice school.

"This (going to a second-, third- or fourth-choice school) is not a tragedy," she said. "It's not even sad."

The college financial aid system is broken and doesn't take into account differences in cost of living across the country, Perez said. Tuition costs are far too high, too, he said.

"There is nothing normal about paying $70,000 to $75,000 for a private college education," he said. "If anyone has ever tried to fill out a FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid), it is the most soul-sucking experience in your life. It's cumbersome and bureaucratic."

More students are also choosing to go to community college before attending a four-year institution to save money, Kleeman noted.


College rankings have become more prevalent in the last two decades, Kleeman said. As an adviser at M-A, she made a point of not mentioning college rankings or having a copy of U.S. News & World Report's college rankings list in her office.

College rankings don't tell students how good a fit they will be at a given school, Perez said.

"In my personal opinion it's one of the worst things that's happened in college admissions," he said.

For more on the Parent Education Series, go here.

A recording Kleeman's discussion with Perez can be viewed here.


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