Too Many Applications? Think Again

Do we have a problem with too many high school seniors applying to too many colleges?

That’s what the New York Times thinks.  A front-page article on Sunday (November 15, 2014) about college admissions (Applications by the Dozen, as Anxious Seniors Hedge College Bets) claims that a lot of high school seniors these days are applying to “more colleges than anyone would have previously thought possible.”  The sidebar proclaims that there is “a perfect storm of ambition, neuroses and fear among high school students.” Yikes!

Well, there must be pretty good data behind this, right?  It was on the front page of the New York Times, after all.

To shore up this claim, the reporter cites two high school seniors, one who applied to 29 colleges, and another who applied to 18. Two cases. An N of two. 

OK, that’s the human interest side (we have names, a back story, and in one case, a picture of a young woman on her laptop, presumably writing application number 29).  What else? A high school staff member tells a story of one person who applied to 56 schools.  Naviance (a company that, among other things, has a web-based program that helps high school students with the application process) says that 1 student in the US has 60 colleges they are thinking about applying to. 

So far I am not really impressed. Two interviews with students and two examples of hearsay.

Finally we get some actual data based on more than a few conversations.  The reporter tells us that the National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC) has a survey that says that in 1990 nine percent of college freshmen had applied to seven or more colleges, and by 2011 (which the reporter tells us is the most recent data), this had risen to 29%.  Now we’ve got some data. 

Only it’s not quite right, as this is not a NACAC survey, it’s the CIRP Freshman Survey, which NACAC clearly credits on their website as the source. It looked very familiar to me, since I directed the CIRP Freshman Survey for eight years, and provided the information to NACAC at the time.  We would typically have around 200,000 students represented in the CIRP Freshman Survey database each year (note to reporters, that is not a “2,” it’s “200,000”).

While the source is wrong, the numbers cited are correct.

Even though the reporter did not actually use the most recent data or the most relevant data.  Figures for the class entering in fall of 2013 (not 2011) have been released, and the percentage of four-year college first-year students who applied to seven or more schools rose to 31.6. 

But wait, seven schools isn’t what this is about. It’s about 18, or 56, or maybe even 60 if that student using Naviance applies to all the ones being considered.  The CIRP data doesn’t tell us about such high numbers because we topped out the available responses by asking about 12 or more applications. And that’s at 5.9% of the college freshman for 2013.

So make a reasonable guess about how many of those are sending 18, or 56, or even 60 applications.  It’s not very many, is it?  And that same database tells us that the median number of applications per student is still just, well, four. Which seems pretty reasonable.  

Why is this on the front page of the New York Times?  The headline was “Applications by the Dozen, as Anxious Seniors Hedge College Bets.”  And while the article does have quotes from guidance counselors that explain that this is not a good strategy, that wasn’t the headline, was it? Why not have a headline of “A Very Small Number of Anxious Seniors are Sending in Too Many College Applications in a Practice that May Actually Hurt Their Chances of Admission”? The message in the headline is that some seniors are hedging their bets by applying to a lot of colleges. Who doesn’t want to hedge a bet?  That’s good.

But this article is not good. It’s playing on the fears of already anxious students (and as a father with a high school junior, it’s scary to their families too). I expect better from the New York Times.

So, don't worry that we have hordes of students applying to 59 (or 60!) colleges. Worry how to pay for college these days. That's the scary part.