Feature: College Admissions: The New Rules of Getting In

Stressed about whether your kid can claw her way into Penn? Or Swarthmore? Or ’Nova? Relax. With the college-application landscape changing fast, local admissions pros share the latest secrets about how to play the game.

That’s what gets lost in the rankings. “The admit rates at Ivy League schools have created a frenzy,” says Jenny Rickard, chief enrollment and communications officer at Bryn Mawr College. “A lot of parents who went to those schools can’t get their kids in today.” It’s particularly frustrating for Rickard because Bryn Mawr is one of the few remaining all–women’s colleges in the nation. “People make judgments based on the admit rate,” she says. “But students aren’t applying to Bryn Mawr on a whim. The ones who apply here are making a different, conscious choice.” Such self-selection skews Bryn Mawr’s admit rate, which this year is a middling 49 percent.

The situation is even more complicated at Temple, long considered a “safety school” locally. Temple’s current admit rate is 60 percent, says Bill Black, senior vice provost for enrollment, yet the school has hoisted selectivity by 50 percent in the past decade. At the same time, Temple famously has educated generations of the city’s immigrants and lowest-income students. So the school strikes a tentative balance between its need to seem more selective—so it can rise in the rankings—and its mission of accessibility.

All schools are struggling with this delicate dance. With the advent of the U.S. News rankings, says DiFeliciantonio, “The discourse of higher education really began to get affected by the discourse of business and marketing.” When he first came to Ursinus from the admissions department at Swarthmore, in 1990, “We’d started calling kids ‘markets.’ The faculty was not happy with that. But a market was created. And there were lots of comparisons—what’s value, what isn’t—just like in a discussion about buying an automobile.”

One result: The glossy brochures your high-school junior should start being bombarded with right … about … now. Colleges today shell out an average $2,000 per student to solicit the thousands of applicants they need to keep their admit rates low, paying for school fairs, hotel-ballroom information sessions with buffet spreads, and increasingly sophisticated marketing materials (including, most recently, social media like Facebook). It’s all part of what Rickard has called “an arms race” to attract America’s high-school grads, who in 2009 numbered some 3.33 million—the most ever in history.

Now the baby boomlet has peaked, though, and the numbers should ease off. Unfortunately, the admissions madness won’t. That’s because a college education isn’t an automobile, at least not the way most parents see it. When it comes to cars, lots of us are satisfied with Priuses, or PT Cruisers, or even a nice used Honda. For college, though, nothing less than a Rolls will do. College admissions is “a high-stakes proposition for good reason,” says Villanova dean of enrollment management Stephen R. Merritt. “There’s a lot more attention to how vital it is to get into a good college, how essential it is to a good life. And with the cost of higher education, most families are going to have to sacrifice. You’re bound to be anxious when you’re investing that kind of money.” So we obsess over the Princeton Review’s Best Colleges books, and haul Junior to college open houses and soccer camps, and pay for SAT tutors, and send him to Africa to help the needy, all in a desperate attempt to keep up with the game. The only problem is …