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.

In the New York Times in April, Duke University’s dean of undergrad admissions, Christoph Guttentag, justified his school’s lengthy wait-list—3,382 out of 27,000 total applicants—by saying that choosing whom to admit is essentially an artistic process that can’t be hurried: “I have no idea what I’m going to need to finish sculpting the class.” “He took so much heat for that,” Penn’s Furda says ruefully. The way the Times explained it, Guttentag couldn’t determine by the decision deadline whether he might need more engineers, or English majors, or perhaps oboe players, to complete his sculpting. The truth is, schools like Duke and Penn and Yale, the ones whose admit rates are as low as seven and eight percent, don’t have to explain themselves to anybody. “Basically, they hold all the cards,” says DiFeliciantonio. “They can do whatever they want. It’s kind of mean.”

>And these schools love the U.S. News rankings, for a simple reason. “You do know we’ve been number one in our category for more than a decade?” asks Villanova’s Merritt. “My feeling is, the rankings offer good general information in a concise format.” Still, enough leading liberal arts colleges disagree that hundreds of them have agreed not to participate in aspects of the U.S. News survey and not to use the rankings in their advertising.

The way Furda sees it, it isn’t Penn’s fault that so many kids want to go there: “We do have a platform from which to influence a great deal in this country, from the macro-policy level, but we can only move the needle so much.” The Ivies and their ilk, he points out, aren’t the institutions enrolling the vast majority of American students. “I can get up and say: ‘There are thousands of colleges and universities; don’t concentrate on 20 of them.’ But still, people do.”

The Ivies’ disproportionate force impacts the financial-aid picture, too. In the past decade, as costs at four-year colleges swept toward the $50,000-per-year mark, a number of Ivies, including Harvard, Yale and Princeton, announced “need-blind” policies, in which applicants would be admitted based solely on merit, without consideration of whether, or how much, they could pay. Lesser institutions followed suit—just in time to get smacked in the face by an economic downturn that sliced even Harvard’s renowned endowment almost 30 percent.

That’s why schools are fiddling with those need-blind policies. Some colleges are only need-blind now for as long as aid money holds out; others have turned “need-aware,” granting free rides to top prospects but considering means for students at the low end of the admissions scale. They may be admitting more students from their wait-lists, or international students, or transfers, all of whom are expected to pay the full rate. They may even be looking at parents’ occupations and zip codes for clues to their economic standing.“Colleges have their own goals, and increasingly, those are financial goals,” says DiFeliciantonio. “Very few schools are really need-blind.”