Many colleges are doing something kind of fishy with admissions. In general college admissions works like this: a college has an acceptance rate that’s known and many students want to attend school there. There are other students, say, athletes or rich people or very smart people or ethnic minorities or something, who might not ordinarily be interested in attending the college, but who the school then seeks out.

The fact that a college sent you a brochure or a Facebook message doesn’t necessarily mean you’d get in if you applied there—the college probably only had the contact information because it bought it from a database of students with certain characteristics—but the chances were generally sort of good. They were sending you information because they wanted someone like you to attend school there.

That’s not entirely how it works anymore. According to a piece by By Laura M. Colarusso at the Hechinger Report:

As college-admissions season kicks into high gear, [many students are] target[s] of a little-known practice among colleges and universities called “recruit to deny,” under which they try to make their admissions process look more selective by boosting their number of applicants — then turning many of them down — through hard-sell marketing techniques.

One major reason for this is that the more selective an institution appears to be, the higher it ends up in the college rankings, said David Hawkins, executive director of education content and policy at the National Association for College Admission Counseling, or NACAC.


This is a serious, high stakes numbers game. In prior years students mostly applied to colleges they wanted to attend. We were urged to choose six when I was in high school.

But today, according to the article, students can easily apply to 11 schools for which they are fully capable of being admitted. And that means that colleges run the risk of admitting a whole lot of students (a higher acceptance rate) and not getting very many to attend (a lower yield). And that’s very bad for college rankings like U.S. News & World Report. Academic administrators are anxious to avoid that.

The solution is to try to get a whole lot more students to apply, but sort of lower quality students, so the school can reject them and still admit the capable students and have only one in five actually attend the college.

It’s understandable for colleges to behave like this, but it’s really very difficult for high school students, who get information from interesting schools, get excited because they think the schools want them, fill out the application and send that fat application fee, and then get rejected anyway.

It’s a little cruel. From the article

“I’ve had students come in with those letters,” said Jayne Fonash, guidance director at the Loudoun County, Virginia, Academy of Science, a public high school. “It’s terribly disrespectful for a student with a solid academic record but who still isn’t getting into an Ivy League school to be misled to think that one of those schools is a real possibility. That borders on being dishonest.”

The admissions process has long been a little misleading (those college tours where middling academic institutions are disguised to look the country clubs of adolescent dreams) and trying for high school student emotions (the annual parade of acceptance letters mistakenly sent to the wrong students) but this is something new.

This is deliberately misleading, since the only point of this targeting is to encourage the unqualified to apply and increase the rejection pile.

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Daniel Luzer

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer