I sat down with journalist and New York Times bestselling author, Jeff Selingo to learn first-hand about his year-long experience embedded in three different admissions offices and his countless meetings with students, families, college consultants and higher education influencers. Jeff’s experience and observations are carefully detailed in his new book, “Who Gets In & Why: A Year Inside College Admissions.” His takeaway: the college admissions process is more often about the institution than the applicant.
Alison Griffin: The nation has followed along as the Giannulli-Loughlin college admissions scandal — also known as Operation Varsity Blues — has unfolded. It has provided many with a glimpse into the curious and oftentimes confusing college admissions process. How did recent events shape how you approached this book?
Jeff Selingo: One of the reasons I wrote this book is that we see college as a gateway to the rest of life: the jobs we get, where we live, who we vote for, our health and our relationships. That’s why getting into college, and then paying for college, has become so angst-ridden, especially for middle-class and more affluent families in the United States. We think that the opportunity is increasingly scarce, so families are rushing to get into what they think is the right college. So in many ways, the Varsity Blues scandal was an illustration of that worry, of course, by a set of people who didn’t need to worry at all.
My hope is that this book can show families inside the process all its players — from colleges to students to the marketing and testing companies — so that it helps them better understand the playing field and hopefully reduces their stress about college by showing them some of it is out of their control.
Alison: While many universities emphasize their holistic approach to application review, it seems like many members of the public have lost trust in light of the Varsity Blues admissions scandal — specifically, the findings of discrimination in the admissions processes at elite universities. How has the scandal impacted transparency around the admissions process? Do you see institutions making a shift towards more open communication around how applications are considered?
Jeff: We have no more transparency today than before the scandal. The problem is that most of these top public and private universities are overwhelmed with applications for too few seats. So there’s a lot more applicants who don’t get in. And for those who don’t, there will always be complaints about how the process is unfair and demands for more transparency. So, until we have a real conversation in the U.S. and at the state level about expanding access to what we consider the best public and private universities, we’re always going to have these debates about the transparency of the process.
As an admissions officer from the University of Washington told me in the book, “If your child got denied admission, you’re going to think the process is unfair.” That will always be true no matter how much of a light we shine on the process.
Alison: This year has been truly unusual for higher education — in particular, college admissions. The college admissions process is one many families struggle to navigate under normal conditions, but this year, colleges and universities are adapting to the worldwide spread of coronavirus. How has the pandemic impacted college admissions? How will the effect of the pandemic be felt in future years?
Jeff: The biggest impact is on standardized tests. More than 500 colleges and universities have gone test-optional this year, meaning they won’t require the ACT or SAT. After they recruit and enroll a class this year and their world doesn’t fall apart, I believe many will stay test-optional permanently. The ultra-selective colleges, such as the Ivy League, will probably go back to requiring standardized tests, but there will still be dozens of selective colleges that don’t.
Another change, and one that I hope sticks, is happening because students can’t visit college campuses in person. We’re starting to see students take virtual tours, connect with alumni online and faculty, too. It’s opening up their perspective that there are more than just a small group of colleges out there. That’s a good thing. One of the most frustrating parts of reporting the book was that the students I followed never looked up and out beyond a small group of 10 or 15 schools because those are the ones that visited their high schools.
This is the reality for both privileged students and low-income students. My hope is that going forward students won’t be enamored with only the name brands and realize that there are all these other schools out there that provide a high-quality education, perhaps even at a lower cost.
Alison: As a result of the pandemic, many high school students have not been able to participate in extracurricular activities or work as ways to showcase their involvement outside the classroom. A recent Inside Higher Ed-Gallup survey reported that the majority of institutions that went test-optional during the pandemic do not ever expect to restore a standardized testing requirement. What will replace these two components of the historic college admissions process—or what will colleges and universities rely on now?
Jeff: In the short term, institutions will rely more on students’ high school courses and grades. I think they’re also going to rely on a longer academic history of those students. Even though part of their junior year and part of their senior year was interrupted, they still have freshman year and sophomore year and early junior year. So admissions officers will look at those.
In some ways, I’m not sure the activities piece of this is a negative. The Common App has ten spaces for activities, and I think many students saw that as a checklist. There was this pressure to do activities just for your college application, not because you actually wanted to do them. What I hope comes out of this is that, as colleges assess students during this process who are missing activities because they couldn’t do them, the colleges realize, “You know what, we don’t need to ask for ten. Maybe we should ask for five instead.” That will send an important signal to students that you can still do ten, but the five you put on your application are the ones that you care most about.
Alison: You have an esteemed career in higher education journalism and you have likely heard or seen it all over your years talking with college and university leaders, students and families and policymakers. As you traveled the country in preparation to write this book, what surprised you the most?
Jeff: The anger at higher education. We saw this before the pandemic in Pew and Gallup surveys of both Republicans and Democrats. Republicans think that the academy is way too liberal and trying to brainwash 18-year-olds. And, on the left, there is the belief that college costs too much. Both sides worry a degree doesn’t necessarily provide the outcomes that people are paying for.
So that anger was there. And, since the pandemic hit, this rush to get students back to campuses as quickly as possible was seen as a money run. I don’t think that was the case for every college, but it still led to further distrust in higher education.
Parents are frustrated that they have to mortgage their own future in order to pay for their kids’ future. We’ve created a signaling system in the job market that you have to get a degree, and in some cases a degree from the right place, in order to get a good job. All of that pressure is bearing down on students and parents right now and higher education seems somewhat oblivious to it. They say, “It costs what it costs” or “Whoever gets in gets in.” They say, “We’ll help you as much as we can, but you should take out those loans.” Or “Yes, these are the degrees, and we’re not going to offer them in a shorter, faster format. We’re not going to rethink our degree programs. We’re not going to put them online, which might be cheaper. We’re not going to do any of those things.”
I think the anger has really increased in just the last six months. If I’m a college administrator, that’s worrisome to me because I think the anger is particularly rising among people who might have been the biggest supporters of higher education.
Alison: If you had one piece of advice for aspiring college students—regardless of their age or stage in life—what would you offer?
Jeff: Get the basic skills that are absolutely necessary for success in life. We know from a number of surveys over the years that soft skills really matter to employers and that those have staying power in an economy that is changing. The ability to work in teams, the ability to problem solve, communication—all of those skills are the ones that I think will allow you to navigate the ambiguity of the workforce that is ahead of us.
Alison: And, because I know you enjoy baseball as much as you enjoy your role as a journalist: what do you think about the Yankees’ playoff chances?
Jeff: I’m worried. 2020 is not the year for a lot of us and I fear that might be true for the Yankees, too.