For years, I’ve talked to admissions folks about what one might call the Complexity Question. Just how complicated is the college application process? How much anxiety, frustration, indigestion, sleeplessness, family discord, and spiritual upheaval does it really cause? And what does all that really matter in the end?
As with so many other questions, the answers depend on the kinds of students you’re talking about. In some zip codes, “complexity” means filing two-dozen applications, submitting multiple deposits to super-selective colleges, and rationalizing why little Susie didn’t get into Princeton. In other areas, to acquire even a basic vocabulary about college—to even think of college as a possibility—is to complete an arduous puzzle.
Last fall, the College Board completed a report called “Complexity in College Admission: Fact or Urban Myth.” Based on a survey of 600 students and 300 parents, the report reached various conclusions, but you could file them all under the headline, “Applying to College: Not as Terribly Confusing as You’ve Heard.” At the time, a couple of college counselors who had read the report online contacted me to express concerns about it. “It’s contrary to common sense,” one wrote.
I was reminded of those concerns on Monday when the College Board sent a news release describing the “new” report, which later this month will kick off a six-part webinar series on challenges facing the admissions community. “Contrary to popularly held beliefs, the college application process is not overly complex,” the news release says. And the report states: “Over all, applying to college appears to be a clear and simple process for most students, regardless of their income level, geographic location, or first-generation status.”
I had to read the above statements twice. Then I thought about what to make of them. On the one hand, I’ve often thought that many college-obsessed Americans need to chill out about admissions outcomes, which, last I heard, are not life-or-death propositions (being rejected from Stanford won’t even give you the flu). On the other hand, it would be an understatement to say that the report’s conclusions contradict the experiences of many folks who help steer students—especially low-income and first-generation students—through the application process.
Take Nancy Leopold, executive director of CollegeTracks, a Maryland-based organization that helps more than 500 students, including many from low-income families, apply to college each year. After reading the report, Ms. Leopold was skeptical of the findings.
“As someone who works every day with kids from families with no college-going history, this doesn’t square with what we’re seeing,” she said. “This is a very complicated process, with many high-stakes steps in it, where many kids are without a guide. The consequence of believing that this is not a complicated process is that we’re going to fail to focus on how to help students who don’t have a guide.”