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the reply-to-this-email-and-you're-an-applicant trick, the school's yield rate plummeted to as low as 8 percent despite a surge of applications. The college has since taken steps to stem the flood by returning to a more traditional process. The cause of all this volatility is a problem in the college admissions marketplace that Stanford University economics professor and Nobel laureate Alvin Roth calls "congestion." "Congestion is what happens when you have a lot of people in the market and too many offers," says Roth, author of Who Gets What-and Why: The New Economics of Matchmaking and Market Design. "It's gotten easier to apply to colleges, but now colleges get many more applicants. That changes the 'signal to noise' ratio." It's an ironic and unintended consequence of college admissions on the internet: the seeming efficiency of online applications means less efficiency overall. ut if colleges are aiding and abetting this market congestion, a big share of the burden of coping with it has fallen on prospective students, the wealthiest of whom are best equipped to navigate the marketplace. For example, many schools are increasingly relying on "early decision" and other tools to secure commitments from top recruits. According to NACAC, nearly half of colleges said they admitted more students through early decision during the 2013-14 admissions cycle, while the number of early decision applicants also grew. While colleges enjoy the certainty of a student's commitment to their school (and the resulting boost in yield), the downside for students is less ability to compare financial aid packages across schools. As a result, affluent students are the most likely to apply early decision, especially to more-selective schools. A 2016 investigation by the Washington Post found that many top schools filled as many as half of their freshmen classes with early decision students, effectively shutting out lower-income students from a big part of the applicant pool. The same bias afflicts schools' increasing reliance on "demonstrated interest"-another tactic colleges use to raise their yield by looking for proactive indications that a student will enroll if accepted. "It used to be that applying was how you demonstrate interest, but it's just not the case these days," says educational consultant Jeff Knox. In fact, some admissions officials say that "demonstrated interest" is now almost as important as an essay or teacher recommendations in determining who gets admitted. The best way for a student to demonstrate interest is to visit the campus. The problem is that while a college tour might be a rite of passage for middle-class and affluent students, it's far less feasible for students without the resources or support to visit prospective schools. In addition to campus visits, colleges are also creating elaborate systems to track and measure students' interest in other ways. "Colleges now have these sophisticated electronic dashboards so that every interaction with them B is logged into the system," says NACAC's Hawkins. "Even something as simple as liking a college on Facebook-that's a little checkmark in your dashboard. It's part of a very comprehensive recruitment strategy that colleges are now engaged in because of this uncertainty around yield." "We also know every interaction students have had with the university," says the University of Colorado Boulder's MacLennan. "Maybe they've come in and visited the campus for an information session. Maybe they've toured the campus. Maybe they've shown up on a high school visit or brought their parents to one of our hotel programs. We have a record of not only how many times we have contacted them but how many times they've contacted us, and that will begin to show the strength of their interest." These records can begin as early as ninth grade. Of course, most students have no idea that this is how colleges are judging them. Some, however, do, because they have the means to hire private educational consultants who can explain the rules of the current admissions marketplace. "One way to tell that the market is dys- At many schools, "demonstrated interest"- such as through a campus visit-is as important as the essay for admissions decisions. But this rigs the process against students for whom a college tour rite of passage is unaffordable. functional is if you have to hire a guide," says Stanford's Roth. "The college admissions process at one point was supposed to be something that high school seniors could do for themselves." According to Mark Sklarow, CEO of the Independent Educational Consultants Association (IECA), the number of private educational consultants has skyrocketed over the past decade. Sklarow estimates that there are 5,000 fulltime consultants nationwide, including the roughly 1,500 who are members of his organization, plus another 10,000 to 15,000 consultants working part-time. Thirty years ago, Sklarow says, educational consultants numbered less than 100 and catered exclusively to the highest-income families. Today, he says, the typical client is a middle-class or upper-middle-class student in a public school. Despite the mainstreaming of private counseling, it's still expensive. Washington Monthly 75

Table of Contents for the Digital Edition of Washington Monthly - September/October 2016

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