Admissions & Student Aid

Admissions Officials Ponder the Recession, Yoga Teachers, and 'Score Choice'

September 27, 2009

The National Association for College Admission Counseling's annual conference is a time for catching up and talking shop. This year, it was also a time for catharsis. On Saturday, admissions officials and high-school counselors gathered to discuss the difficulties they faced during the last year

In a session called "Alice and Alex in Wonderland—Charting Their Paths in This Confusing World of Admission" on Saturday morning, Marjorie T. Jacobs described how the recession had affected admissions professionals and students alike.

"There's an unsettled feeling in the pit of our stomachs," said Ms. Jacobs, director of college counseling at SAR High School in New York. She described how families had seen their home values decline, how colleges had seen their endowments fall. She lamented that there were 24-year-olds with Ivy League educations who, because of the difficulty of finding other jobs, were teaching yoga.

"Consumers are beginning to question the worth of spending $1,000 a week for education," Ms. Jacobs said. "What will happen in 2010?"

Practically everyone at the conference asked the same question. Some admissions officials predicted that the current admissions cycle would prove more chaotic than the last; for one, they believed that more applicants than did last year would choose colleges based primarily on price tags and financial-aid packages. Other deans were more optimistic, and some blamed marketing consultants for spreading gloom-and-doom prognostications.

Continuing Financial Stress

Nonetheless, the session on Saturday revealed that admissions professionals face another season of uncertainty. Angel B. Pérez, director of admission at Pitzer College, described the challenge of preserving "parent confidence" during difficult economic times, especially among private colleges. "How do we balance where our heart is," Mr. Pérez said, "with where are wallets are?"

Pitzer has seen a drop in campus visits recently, so the college has done more to engage prospective students and their parents online. Moreover, Mr. Pérez said, he was doing more to try to allay families concerns about the admissions process, especially about the role financial need plays in the evaluation of applicants. "Counselors and admissions officers need to be as transparent as possible about what goes on in our office," he said.

Students have always asked about financial-aid programs, but now they are asking more specific questions about how the economy has affected financial aid, as well as campus offerings and services, according to Marcia L. Landesman, associate director of admissions at Yale University. Ms. Landesman described the challenge of providing accurate information. Amid budget cuts at colleges, it can be difficult, but necessary, for admissions officials to stay up to the minute on which department has done what, she said.

A Confusing Choice

Finally, panelists discussed the immediate impact of Score Choice, a new College Board program that allows students who take the SAT more than once to decide which of their scores to share with colleges. Previously, colleges automatically received them all. Since the College Board introduced the option, however, many colleges have set requirements that applicants must send all their scores. This has convinced some high-school counselors that the Score Choice has caused more stress and confusion among students, who must now verify the policies of each college to which they apply.

When Ms. Jacobs read statements from a College Board news release describing the benefits of Score Choice for students, a groan arose from the audience. After Rose-Ellen Racanelli, an upper-school dean at Harvard-Westlake School, in California, suggested that the College Board abandon Score Choice, many people applauded and cheered. One counselor in the audience pointed the finger at colleges, urging them to clearly state their requirements with regard to Score Choice on their Web sites—something she said many had failed to do.

Score Choice has prompted many questions among admissions officials, too. Ms. Landesman said that Yale's admissions office had devoted five staff meetings to discussing the implications of the program, and formed a subcommittee to help figure how to respond. Ultimately, Yale decided to require students to send all their scores. For one, the university was concerned about equity issues, Ms. Landesman said. A prevalent worry about Score Choice is that it encourages retesting, and therefore benefits savvier, more-affluent students who hope to raise their scores by taking the test multiple times.

Amid the confusion about Score Choice, Mr. Pérez said he had prepared his staff to do more "hand holding" with applicants: "It's fair for students to ask, What's your policy and how did you arrive at it?"