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Right fit: Will the poor economy finally allow us to see the forest through the trees?

By Julie Bogart

In meetings with our independent school clients, many of whom are admission representatives, the topic of college placement often comes up.

With regard to colleges, what should a private school include in its admissions materials? A list of the best colleges its students have gone on to attend? Or should the school’s focus be elsewhere? While many of our clients’ students do indeed enroll in some of the country’s top colleges, Ivy-League prep isn’t their schools’ sole objective. Rather, our clients strive to help their students find the college that’s right for them, not just a college that’s well ranked.

This conversation is one that I’ve heard countless times, both in the news and at my former place of work—the National Association for College Admission Counseling. High school guidance counselors and college and university admissions officers usually agree on this point. While high school counselors want their students to ignore college rankings and find the colleges that suit them best, admission reps want to find and recruit students who are right for their schools.

It’s an important distinction, but one that often gets lost in the overly competitive admissions culture. Case in point: Despite the fact that even the best students have less than a 5 percent chance of getting into top-tier colleges like Harvard, Yale, Princeton and Stanford, most Ivy League schools saw an increase in applicants this year (Harvard’s applicant pool went up by 5 percent; Dartmouth’s by 7.5 percent; Yale’s by 8.5 percent; and Brown by 21 percent).

Obviously, what we’re saying and doing to encourage right fit over prestige isn’t working. I’ve been in on the conversation for eight years now, and every year, more and more students apply to the most competitive schools in the country. While some of this can be attributed to an almost yearly increase in student applications, this admission cycle has no doubt experienced a decrease, and college admission will be even more competitive in years to come.

Many things are to blame for this, of course. Over the last ten years, the admissions process has become a booming business that everybody wants a piece of. While many high school guidance counselors point their fingers at the College Board (evil testing empire!) or college-prep companies like the Princeton Review (evil ranking system empire!), many college reps blame the advent of “helicopter parents,” the overly involved Baby Boomers who write their children’s essays and send nasty letters to colleges that reject their sons or daughters.

Ironically, in many instances, the same people or organizations that are encouraging “right fit” are also profiting in some way from the admissions racket. Between college magazines, big-name college-prep companies, crazed parents and the media, it becomes impossible for students to dig themselves out of the college admissions rabbit hole and see the forest through the trees. Many students, students who can afford to and even many who can’t, have no choice but to play the game. The “If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em” mentality, however, has only made the problem worse.

So where does that leave us? Oddly enough, as horrible as this economy is, it may actually benefit students in that it will allow everyone involved in the admissions process to take a step back and examine the madness they’ve perpetuated. Colleges and universities will (and should) focus their efforts and their dollars on finding the right students. Students will be more inclined to apply to a variety of schools based on tuition costs (though finances should obviously not be the only factor in their decisions). And as for those college-prep companies, perhaps parents will think twice about spending hundreds of dollars on an SAT class if they’re struggling to pay the mortgage.

This economy has forced all of us to examine the ways in which we spend time and money. How can we do things more efficiently and effectively? What really matters and what doesn’t? At the heart of all of this admissions craziness are two things: students and education. In a word, this is about our future. If it takes a broken economy for us to recognize that, then so be it. I just hope that it prompts the kind of change we so desperately need.

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