Navigating College Admissions: A Series Overview

A student studies on campus.

A student studies on the campus of Princeton University. The frenzy surrounding college admissions, especially at a small group of highly selective colleges, is intense and, according to some college deans, out of control. A seven-part series explores the alternatives, from deciding not to apply to Harvard to deciding not to go to college at all. William Thomas Cain/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption William Thomas Cain/Getty Images
  • Stories in This Series

  • Series Overview — The frenzy about college admissions, especially at a small group of highly selective colleges, is intense and, according to some college deans, out of control. NPR explores the alternatives, from deciding not to apply to Harvard to deciding not to go to college.
  • Part 1: Students Opt Out — Panic over admissions to the 50 top colleges has so increased the number of applicants that some schools accept fewer than one in 10. But some high-achieving students in excellent high schools are applying to places their friends have never heard of. Margot Adler reports.
  • Part 2: College Presidents Opt Out — The overwrought college admissions scene is fueled by a multibillion-dollar industry of marketers, college consultants and test prep courses. Recently, a number of university presidents and deans came together to try to regain control over the admissions process. Margot Adler reports.
  • Part 3: Tufts Admissions — Tufts University outside Boston is offering applicants new, unconventional essay questions in the hope that students will offer better clues about themselves. Tovia Smith reports.
  • Part 4: Community College — Close to half of all college students go to community college. These two-year schools are playing a key role in educating millions of Americans who can't afford, or can't get into a four-year school. Larry Abramson reports.
  • Part 5: Historically Black Colleges and Universities — To some African-American students, the cutthroat competition to get into Harvard or another top school is unappealing. Historically black colleges are a way out — and up. Audie Cornish reports.
  • Part 6: Blue Collar and Proud — There's growing pressure on high-school students to follow the college track, even if they're not suited for it. Tovia Smith reports on kids who are saying no to college — and what it takes to get a good blue-collar job in the 21st century.
  • Part 7: Money — A college education is more valuable than ever, but millions of students will never get one because of money matters. New efforts are under way in a few places across the country to address costs and other barriers to higher education. Wendy Kaufman reports.

If you're an upper middle-class parent of a high-school junior or senior, living on the coasts or in a handful of other highly competitive cities, there's a good chance you're in a semi-panic about college admissions.

Competition at the nation's most selective colleges is intense and, some would say, out of control. The frenzy is fueled by a burgeoning population of high-school students competing for a fixed number of seats, compounded by cutbacks in financial aid and a growing belief that the right college is crucial for success. Add in a multibillion-dollar industry of marketers, college consultants and test prep companies, plus rankings in U.S. News and World Report — which rates colleges on factors such as applicants' grades and SAT scores, and the percentage of students rejected — and you have an admissions scene run amok.

Consider this: Last year, 22,753 high-school students applied to Harvard; 2,109 got in. That's 9.3 percent. Yale accepted 8.9 percent – the lowest percentage of applicants admitted in its 300-year history. Now let's put things in perspective: A typical college accepts more than two-thirds of its applicants. Most community colleges have open admissions – and for every 100 college students, 46 go to community college. And in the end, despite the college frenzy, only slightly more than one-quarter of Americans over age 25 have bachelor's degrees.

In a seven-part series, NPR explores alternatives to the college admissions game — from deciding not to apply to Harvard to deciding not to apply anywhere. We'll have stories about students at competitive high schools who are applying to colleges their friends never heard of. And we'll hear from accomplished African-American students who are eschewing the Ivy League path. They'd rather go to a historically black college or university, where classes are generally small and African-Americans are in the majority. Overall, the percentage of black students attending historically black colleges is declining. But for some, it's a way out – and up.

We'll hear from college presidents and deans who feel the admissions process has been hijacked by marketers – and who are learning how hard it is to take back control. One university dean says kids are so packaged these days that applicants – all with good grades, recommendations and extracurricular activities – tend to look the same. That dean designed new essay questions to help the school identify future leaders.

We'll also hear about the challenges facing students who choose community college. These two-year schools offer opportunity to people who can' afford or can't get into a four-year school. But if they're like Kanese Cook, a single mom making her way through Valencia Community College near Orlando, Fla., it will be a struggle. After seven years, Cook is still working toward her associate's degree.

Then there's money. A college education may be more valuable than ever, but millions of students won't get one because they can't afford it – or they think they can't. Tuition is up and scholarship money is tight. As colleges seek more prestige and higher rankings, many are emphasizing scholarships based on high grades and test scores, not finances. Money goes to students who don't really need it, leaving less for those who do. That's troubling to college leaders, including Mark Emmert, president of the University of Washington in Seattle. He is offering free tuition for moderate-income students – and expecting about one-quarter of the school's 20,000 students to take advantage of it.

"If we want people to move up the economic and social ladder, we have to get them into school and get them out with degrees," Emmert says. "We can't let economics stand in the way of that."

How about if the students themselves want to get off the college track?

The number of high-school students going to college has increased dramatically in recent decades, but so has the number of college dropouts. To many, that reflects growing pressure on kids to go to college — even when they might be better suited to other options. Will Anderson, a senior at Kingsford High School in Kingsford, Mich., says his passion has always been working on cars.

"I don't need math, science," he says. "I just need to learn what I need to learn and get out there."

Economists say skilled workers certainly can earn good money, especially early in their careers. But their earnings tend to cap out early, too. Moreover, they say, kids need more and more education, even for blue-collar jobs like welding, manufacturing...or fixing cars.

NPR's Cathy Shaw edited this series.

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