Posted by: kathyseal | October 7, 2008

Wall Street Helps Drive College Application Anxiety

As kids and their parents go through the college admissions process this fall, they may not realize that Wall Street provides a subterranean source of their anxiety, even beyond the current melt-down (sorry to bring that up.) It’s a little-known but well-documented fact that college admission “selectivity” and “yield” help determine a university’s bond rating.

What, you may well ask, are selectivity and yield? (Why parents who want a good education for their children have to know this stuff is another question entirely.) Selectivity is the percentage of kids a college accepts. Yield is the percentage of accepted kids admitted who attend. Bond ratings, while we’re into definitions, determine the cost for colleges to borrow money for expansion or other needs.

So, the more kids a college rejects, the higher its selectivity. The more kids who think a certain college is nirvana and utopia combined, and a prestigious pathway to success, romance, and fun, the more students apply and the higher the selectivity and yield rates.

That’s why colleges market their “brand names” to the hilt ( “Live, study, and work in both sleek high-rise towers and turn-of-the-century brownstones” reads one gorgeously thick brochure. “Win a Hummer. All you have to do is attend an SJSU football game” trumpets another.) It’s all about luring students to apply, a large number of whom will never be accepted.

As one kid told an Education Conservancy research project focus group, “All colleges say they are highly selective and then encourage us all to apply. They are just playing a game for themselves.”

Selectivity also helps determine a college’s ranking with U.S. News & World Report, Consumer Reports and other publications. (U.S. News dropped yield rate from its ranking formula in 2003.) Such rankings are proliferating today in the college-industrial complex. Some colleges even reward their presidents if their ranking rises. The contract of Michael Crow, president of Arizona State University, promises him an extra $10,000 for reaching each of ten goals, and $50,000 if he achieves all of them. One of those goals is an improved USN&WR ranking.

Colleges’ drive for selectivity and yield — which have nothing to do with educating our children — add to the pressure and anxiety mounting in most families at college application time. Families face so many unknowns (“What exactly are these colleges looking for, anyway?”) and today’s precarious economy pressures us all the more to equip our children with a good education, as we scramble to get the tuition together. In addition, the prospect of separating from our children as they go off to school makes us want to do all we can to give them a terrific environment for the next four years.

One way to calm all that anxiety is to realize that colleges use marketing and branding to artificially shine up their images and sharpen the “demand” — our appetites — for one or another school, raising their selectivity and yield ratings. That may help you stop worrying that your child has to gain acceptance to a place with a certain cachet.

It’s not only that such thinking harms kids. (“I have never wanted anything in my life as badly as I wanted to get into that college,” another student told the Education Conservancy focus group. “…that is not how it should be.”)

It’s also that cachet doesn’t translate automatically to a sound education or to competence, confidence, and good relationships with teachers and friends. And those are the things our kids need to succeed and be happy.

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