A Pacifist in the College Arms Race

Ursinus takes a bold stand against admissions madness

Last summer, when I was researching our September package on the utter lunacy of getting into college nowadays, I spoke to a number of local admissions directors. One of the most generous with his time—and frankness—was Richard Difeliciantonio, VP of enrollment at Ursinus, a small (total enrollment: 1,750) liberal arts college in, um, Collegeville, Montgomery County. I’d been aware of the school since my own high-school days; my dad, a superintendent of schools, always sang the praises of Ursinus’s sports teams and the teachers it educated. I’d felt a frisson of local pride when Ursinus was one of 40 liberal arts schools singled out in Loren Pope’s 2006 book Colleges That Change Lives.

Now there’s more reason for pride.

Yesterday, the New York Times’s education blog, The Choice, reported on Ursinus’s decision to buck the trend and actually tighten its admissions standards by restoring an essay requirement and a $50 application fee. The essay and fee had been dropped, on the advice of consultants, a few years back, when Ursinus was fully engaged in the collegiate arms race to increase its overall number of applicants. By pulling in a bigger pool of kids and admitting fewer of them, schools are able to manipulate their “admit rates” and rise in the national rankings published in U.S. News & World Report. In Philly Mag in September, Difeliciantonio lamented how, with the advent of the U.S. News rankings, “The discourse of higher education really began to get affected by the discourse of business and marketing,” making schools less about learning and more about salesmanship.

Now Ursinus has pulled back from the brink. The restored essay and fee reduced its applications for this fall’s entering class by a third in a single year, after a half-decade in which they’d tripled. The college is willing to see its admit rate suffer in order to increase the number of admitted applicants who actually enroll—one small step toward rationality in a world where kids feel pressured to apply to 12, 15, even 20 colleges apiece. Beneficiaries will be those who are genuinely interested in attending Ursinus, the school’s admissions officers, who’ll have more time to ponder which kids out of the reduced pool are the best “fit” … and maybe, someday, more schools that are brave enough to follow Ursinus’s lead.