UB op-ed: Why college is more accessible than ever

Many say it's more difficult to get into college than before—this couldn’t be further from the truth.
By: | July 23, 2019
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Terry Cowdrey is an enrollment management consultant currently serving as the interim vice president of enrollment at Beloit College.

More than 85% of four-year colleges in the United States admit more than half of the students who apply. More than 50% admit more than three-quarters. Less than 1% of four-year colleges—16 institutions—admit fewer than 10% of their applicants.

To read the headlines about college admissions, one would never imagine these statistics to be true. In recent years, many have emphasized how much more difficult it is to get into college than before—this couldn’t be further from the truth.

While it’s true that the 16 colleges referenced in the statistic above receive a record-breaking number of applications annually, many colleges have surplus capacity and would be delighted to enroll qualified students.

At most colleges, and for most students, access to the college experience remains well within reach.
Gaining admission, of course, is just the first step toward enrollment for students who will need financial assistance.

However, some of the colleges where more than half the applicants are admitted provide scholarships and financial aid to a large proportion of those students—in some cases to every student. This financial aid allows many students to enroll at colleges where the published price is beyond the family’s reach, but the net price—once scholarships and grants are figured in—is a price the family can afford, albeit often with sacrifice.

Not a lottery ticket

So, where is the disconnect? Why do schools admitting the lowest percentage of students remain so popular? While it’s true these colleges have much to offer, so do hundreds of other colleges. Rather than encouraging high school students to think beyond household names where selectivity is higher, we reinforce the cycle and encourage students to apply as if they were buying a lottery ticket.

“You never know” a well-meaning adult says. Yet, somehow when the answer is “no” we feel indignant, convincing ourselves that the student has been robbed of an opportunity they deserve—and the adults in their lives feel entitled to. While we should be celebrating the higher education system in this country for allowing every student a chance to attend college, we bemoan when a student cannot be guaranteed admission to a specific school with unbelievably high acceptance rates.

Students should be encouraged to look for places where getting admitted isn’t the hardest part of the college experience.

What we lack is a sense of imagination, curiosity, and courage. Access to information about colleges nationwide has never been more available to parents and students who are passionate about obtaining a post- secondary education. High school students should be encouraged to be trailblazers—to investigate colleges in different locations, to research schools that might not be popular with their friends, and to keep an open mind about colleges that aren’t household names.

Students should be encouraged to look for places where getting admitted isn’t the hardest part of the college experience—places where they will be challenged and stretched by the academic rigor and where they will need to figure out how to navigate a new social environment.

I have witnessed students transformed by their college experience at schools that admit two-thirds of their applicants. Their world views have been broadened, their assumptions challenged, curiosities piqued, and their hearts opened. They have benefited from the experiences they have had and the people they have met, and they have gone on after graduation to live lives full of purpose.

My wish for all high school juniors in the early stages of the college search process is this—refuse to play the admissions lottery game. Find a place that values you for who you are and will welcome you with open arms. It’s a much happier way to spend your last year of high school and the best way to ensure a successful, satisfying college experience.

Terry Cowdrey is an enrollment management consultant currently serving as the interim vice president of enrollment at Beloit College.