Food For Thought

The College Selection Process: Is It Fair?

by John E. Bonfadini, Ed.D.,
Contributing Columnist
Professor Emeritus, George Mason University

John E. Bonfadini
John E. Bonfadini

Many parents are saving for their childrenís college education, their goal to have their children attend the best school they can afford. Some will be lucky, their children having the ability to obtain a sports or academic scholarship, but most will face the competitive college-admission process.

In December, the Washington Post published an article on the University of Virginiaís (U.Va.) early-admission process. After reading the article I decided to offer my views on the college-admission process to the readers of Cooperative Living magazine. I donít claim to be an expert on the subject; but I have had three children finish college and I spent over two decades working in a university environment, which included recruiting students for my programs.

Colleges would like parents to believe their selection process is based on some magic formula that centers on the best interest of an individual prospective student. In reality, the universityís goals come first and students are chosen for a wide variety of reasons in addition to the studentís academic ability. The university would also like parents to think their selection process is an exact science, but I believe for a significant number of applicants, the process is more of an educated guess than a science. Each year a portion of students admitted either fail or drop out. U.Va.ís retention factor is the highest in the nation among public universities, but for many colleges, retention rates are alarming. George Mason Universityís retention rate over the past decade ranged from a low of 71 percent to a high of 80 percent in 2001.

The universityís main goal is to fulfill enrollment targets. All schools are competing for the so-called ďbest students,Ē but adjust their expectations according to enrollment projections. A state school that fails to meet enrollment targets will suffer loss of state revenue. Revenue correlates with jobs and programs Ö need I go further?

The college-selection process is a complex matrix that considers many factors, such as the following:

In-state versus out-of-state student population. State schools need out-of-state students for economic reasons and for prestige. International students are also considered in the demographics.

Regional considerations are very important. A politically acceptable number of students must come from every region of the state.

Diversity is also factored into the selection process. This includes gender as well as race. A recent study showed that 70 percent of college slots would go to girls if current academic standards were the main consideration. Colleges are going to strive for a 50/50 gender enrollment, regardless of qualifications.

Your parents can make a difference. Are they alumni? Do they donate money? Are they well connected? You get the idea. Universities are no different than other institutions of society.

Slots are allocated to various college programs. Some programs have strong competition for their allocated slots and therefore can demand higher requirements. I would like to note that above a certain level, higher academic requirements donít necessarily correlate with a better product.

Since colleges have limited dorm space, whether a student would be a campus resident or a commuter is also a consideration.

Whatís Your View?

Obviously, there are at least two sides to every issue. Do you have a different view? This column is meant to provoke thought, so keep sending comments. Each one is read with the utmost interest. Send e-mail to:, or send written responses to the editor.  Mail will be forwarded to the author.









A studentís individual academic program, record and test scores are important considerations. A studentís extracurricular activities and essay are also considered in the admissions process.

The Washington Post article discussed this last item at length; little of the article dealt with the others. The article gave the impression that 15 people sat around a giant table agonizing over each individual studentís quest for admission, which in most universities is probably far from the truth.

Universities use the high school GPA and the SAT as the main screening criteria. As mentioned in previous articles, these two items only account for about 42 percent of the variability leading to college success. Many other factors contribute to an individual studentís success or failure. In the Post article, a teacherís recommendation was weighted heavily in one student decision. How much of the remaining variability leading to college success can be predicted by teacher recommendations? Does participation in extra curricular activities or sports help predict college success? Students are also asked to write an essay as part of their admissions package. I wouldnít want my English teacher on that admissions committee. Iíd still be in third grade if it was up to her.

A studentís program of studies is considered an important item in the admissions process. An admissions counselor told me that using only the math and English grades of a studentís program would predict college success as accurately as using the entire high school program. The Post article highlighted an admissions discussion that involved a student who took a marketing course instead of French IV. It was implied that the student was looking for an easy out by taking marketing. Maybe the kid just likes marketing. How much influence should colleges have on a studentís high school program? If 75 percent of the studentís high school program generally shows academic strength, the remaining 25 percent of the courses probably donít add to the accuracy of predicting college success. The present line of reasoning illustrated by the French IV discussion is a form of the academic snobbery that I discussed in a previous article. The present college-selection process has too much control over a studentís high school program.

A friend of mine gave me a copy of her sonís ACT report. On the bottom it states the following: Remember that test scores and past grades do not guarantee success or failure in college. Other factors such as program of study and motivation count, too. Iíve concluded that universities should be given the opportunity to determine the top and bottom thirds of the applicant pool, and that the remaining successful applicants should be chosen by lottery. This is especially true of schools supported by state funds. It would be difficult to convince me that a college can predict what group of students in the middle third will do better than another group chosen from this same pool.

Maybe if we showed the same concern for getting into heaven that we do for college admission it would make for better public schools and a better society. I just hope French IV isnít a requirement posted on the pearly gates.



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