How to fix the crazy competitive world of college admissions

May 1, 2014, 8:27 PM UTC
Stressed out about college

FORTUNE — Two recent articles in the New York Times are getting many parents pretty frazzled: This year, only 5% of those who applied to Stanford University were admitted — the worst acceptance rate among top colleges. As colleges send acceptance letters out, reported acceptance rates elsewhere aren’t much better: Harvard and Yale are at 6%; Columbia and Princeton at about 7%; and Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the University of Chicago at about 8%.

Those are some pretty daunting numbers. The Times’ David Leonhardt dug a little deeper to find that foreign students now take up double the number of slots compared with 20 years ago, constituting some 10% of admissions. Slots for Americans at Harvard have dropped 27% since 1994; 24% for Yale and Dartmouth.

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Meanwhile, there is another story about a high school-er from Long Island, ranked 11th in his class, who applied to all eight Ivy League schools and was accepted to all of them.

As a parent, and a graduate of one of the top elite schools, and a volunteer admissions interviewer for my alma mater, I have been led to one conclusion: There has got to be a better, fairer, less stressful system for college admissions. It certainly is the “the opposite of a virtuous cycle at work” as Bruce Poch, a former admissions dean at Pomona College in Claremont, Calif., is quoted in the 
. “Kids see that the admit rates are brutal and dropping, and it looks more like a crapshoot,” he said. “So they send more apps, which forces the colleges to lower their admit rates, which spurs the kids next year to send even more apps.”

College admissions are a complicated business, and one that is very hard for most applicants and their parents to understand due to the opacity of the schools themselves. Reading the amusing 
Crazy U: One Dad’s Crash Course in Getting His Kid into College
 by Andrew Ferguson, one finds some loose statistics divulged off the record by a former admissions officer presumably from an “elite” school: Adding up the kids with “hooks” (i.e. legacies, athletes, underrepresented minorities), and “development” admits (i.e. children who are not legacies but whose parents show signs of “incipient generosity”) only leaves about one-third of the slots for the admissions dean to “play Michelangelo,” in Ferguson’s words.

If you add in Leonhardt’s 10%, the odds of getting in as an American without a “hook” are even lower.

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In my years doing admissions interviews, virtually every student I have met seemed extraordinary, with the majority having grade point averages above 4.0 from one of the top magnet schools in the country (which often reminds me of the line from the 1984 mockumentary film, Spinal Tap, where the band finds an amplifier that must be better because it “goes to 11” on a volume scale of 10). When everyone has the same astronomical GPA, it makes it very hard to understand the grading system to the point where it seems somewhat meaningless. But even excellent grades and perfect SAT scores are no longer enough: For example, 69% of Stanford’s applicants over the past five years with SATs of 2400 — the highest score possible — didn’t get in.

Yet anecdotally, many professors at these elite schools say they find the students entering their universities are unprepared. How is that possible? Are we all living in Lake Wobegone, where all the women are strong, all the men are good looking, and all the children are above average? But that is of course a different question, more focused on our primary and secondary educational systems and society’s recent move to tell all children they are special and everyone gets a trophy. (My favorite thus far was when my youngest daughter got a ballet trophy for performing on stage where none of the girls could remember their steps — she was 4 at the time!)

Setting those issues aside, there remains the riddle of the admissions process and how to improve what appears to be its somewhat random nature. How can one student get into all eight Ivys whereas another gets rejected from Stanford but admitted to Yale?

How about a matching system for the elite schools, just as the University of California now uses where students rank which campus they prefer? Or better yet, what about using the same system as medical schools use to match residents? It is administered by an outside non-profit entity — the National Resident Matching Program — that has been matching residents and hospitals for over 60 years using a mathematical algorithm to pair the preferences of applicants with the best fit for the programs that need staff.

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Last year, the Match filled 99.4% of available residency positions, using an algorithm developed by Alvin Roth that helped garner him the Nobel Prize in Economics in 2012. The Match process begins much like the college applications process with an online application. It then culminates with medical students ranking programs they want to get into, as well as residencies independently ranking which students they want in their program through a match algorithm that errs on the side of benefiting the applicants. There is even a match process for couples who want to stay in the same geographic location.

Having this type of a match program would reduce the stress of students (and parents). It would also reduce the number of applications to each school, and it would obviously increase the yield rate for every university. It might put the U.S. News & World Report rankings out of business, or it would force some changes in the inputs of those rankings to the better.

It’s time to try to reduce the “crapshoot” nature of the college admissions process.

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