Why Can’t You Get into College?

College applicants should work to destigmatize college


Patrick Blanc ‘23, Writer

Many of us seniors are encountering an issue similar to, or perhaps even more dramatic than that of our recent predecessors, the Class of 2022: trouble getting into colleges that a decade ago, we would have had a shoo-in to. Here are a few compelling statistics to affirm that fact: Boston University’s (BU) acceptance rate in 2013 was 45.6%. In 2022, it was 18.6%. In 2013, Northeastern University’s acceptance rate was 31.8%, and in 2022, it was 18.4%. These admissions trends are not mere coincidences; there have been policy changes, social expectations, and judicial rulings that have directly affected these numbers, and therefore, students’ ability to get into college.

These examples—BU and Northeastern—are some of the most popular universities that Boston College High School (BC High) students apply to. It is no fluke that these universities have shared admissions trends over the past decade; the three prevailing factors which have contributed most to these admissions trends are COVID-19, Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) efforts—mainly that of Affirmative Action—and Fisher V. University of Texas (2013 and 2016). 

COVID-19 affected college admission standards perhaps more than anything. With student’s struggling to find test centers available to administer the SAT and ACT, institutions in the United States, the vast majority of which previously required these tests, decided to implement a test-optional policy which stated that students can submit test scores at their discretion. Schools were careful, though, to note that if a student does not submit a test score, it will not be held against them. Institutions around the United States called this practice a “holistic” review—meaning they will take into consideration all parts of your application that you submit, and none that you don’t.

This test-optional policy had a snowball effect which yielded many unforeseen results. Firstly, students with high GPA’s—perhaps due to the inflation of their school or teachers—were now able to make their application look better. They did not have to submit their SAT or ACT scores, which may not have correlated to their GPA and did not match the standards of the desired institution. Secondly, institutions looking to lower their acceptance rates and increase their standings in college rankings were now able to only accept students with test scores that exceeded their historical average and fill the rest of their class with students who opted not to send their scores. These two trends, if left unchecked, will rebound off one another until the SAT and ACT are obsolete, and universities only have a student’s performance in school to judge their academic ability. Depending on interpretation—and how much you trust high schools not to inflate student’s grades beyond their true knowledge and ability—this could be a good or bad thing. 

There is an abundance of data that suggests tests like the SAT and ACT are geared towards those more economically fortunate. Due to historical wrongdoings by American society and government—red lining, slavery, Jim Crow laws, immigration laws, untethered (and racist) capitalism, etcetera—individuals who are identified as economically misfortunate, and therefore less likely to achieve the academic standards of college, are often members of minority groups. College applicants that were born into a greater economic standing are often endowed with access to better school systems, a better education, and sometimes personal educators (tutors) that their parents/guardians pay separately. Under these circumstances, of course someone who was unlucky enough to be lucky enough to be born economically fortunate will perform better on the SAT and ACT tests. 

Colleges have identified a solution—a two birds with one stone, one might say—that solves the issue of economic misfortune, and the issue of racial inequity at their school: affirmative action. The Cornell Law school defines affirmative action as “a set of procedures designed to; eliminate unlawful discrimination among applicants, remedy the results of such prior discrimination, and prevent such discrimination in the future.” In the practice of college admissions, here is how affirmative action works: two applicants apply to the same college, both with the exact same application—grades, high school, essays, test scores, etcetera—however, the only difference between the two applicants is one is white, born into a family where the household income is greater than $300,000 per year, and the other is a member of a racial minority, born into a family that makes $80,000 per year. If the admissions counselor is down to their last spot, who does the admission go to? If the school practices affirmative action, which most, if not all, do, the minority student will be admitted, and the white student will be either waitlisted or denied admission. Admittedly, this is an oversimplification of the system, but for simplicity’s sake, I include it. Proponents of affirmative action argue that it is a just practice that fights racial inequity and works to right historical wrongdoings. Opponents of affirmative action argue that it is a racist, and hypocritical practice. 

The Supreme Court, our highest judicial body, has affirmed the constitutionality of affirmative action countless times. Most recently, in the cases Fisher v. University of Texas (2013), and Fisher v. University of Texas (2016), the court held that affirmative action was a practice “narrowly tailored to serve a compelling state interest.” This opinion is in accordance with the courts strict scrutiny test which they use to use to determine if discrimination is lawful 

or not. Since affirmative action is narrowly tailored to the compelling state interest of racial equity, the court ruled that it is constitutional. 

In terms of academic admissions, the opposite of affirmative action is meritocracy. Opponents of affirmative action argue that a college should not allow race to be considered at all. Meritocracy, the idea that an appointment or admittance should be based purely on merit, ability, and knowledge, suggests that an institution should admit students, or compare their applications, not on economic, racial, or social status, but purely on academic merit. The issue with this is that it does not address economic disparities and would thus produce a racially inequitable class population. 

Ultimately, though, the reason that getting into college is becoming exponentially more difficult is due to the increased size of the applicant pool. While affirmative action creates an admission environment where one’s race could assist or detract from one’s application, it does not produce a higher number of applications. The increased number of applications stems primarily from test-optional policies which results in applicants applying to more colleges than they would have previously. Now, with more students applying to more colleges, it becomes increasingly difficult for institutions to distinguish between students who are seriously considering their school and students who are just applying to that school as a backup. 

Now, the question presents itself: why don’t schools just accept everyone that they feel is qualified? To protect and enhance their yield rate (the percent of accepted students who enroll in the college). For many colleges and universities, the secondary goal, behind filling their class with qualified, valuable, and diverse students, is to increase their endowment, lower their acceptance rate, increase their yield rate, and therefore increase their national ranking.

The vast majority of competitive institutions across the United States are facing these admission trends. It would be easy to blame the institution, their admission policies, and the employees reading and determining the outcome of applicants. But they, too, are unhappy with the situation. The two policies—test optional and affirmative action—which were designed to make college more accessible, have now created a situation in which an admissions counselor must now read twice as many applications, and decide between many more qualified, deserving applicants for their incoming class. Under no circumstance can I imagine being pleased with doubling my workload, and having to deny many more students who I know are qualified to attend my university.

It is facile and immature to scapegoat admissions counselors and affirmative action for disappointing college decisions. Instead, college applicants, and society in general, should work to destigmatize college, and appreciate the value that every college brings to its students. Where you go to college does not define you, and it certainly should not increase or decrease your self-worth.