5 Ways to Fix College Admissions

7 minute read

Today, high school seniors across the country will make their final decisions about what colleges they will attend in the fall. This year headlines advertised that this was, yet again, the most competitive year ever. College admissions rates at schools like Duke, University of Chicago, Northwestern, Cornell and Penn are half what they were a decade ago.

For almost 50 years, researchers at UCLA have surveyed incoming freshman on a variety of issues. This terrific interactive graphic illuminates some recent trends in college admissions: fewer students are attending their top choice school; economic considerations are becoming a bigger factor in students’ college decisions; and students are applying to way more schools than they were only 14 years ago. In 2000, just 13.1 percent of freshman surveyed had applied to six or more schools. In 2013, 31.6 precent did.

Why? As an increasing percentage of American high schoolers graduate and apply to college, more qualified applicants are competing for the same number of spots. Admission rates drop, making kids panic. Thinking that their chances of getting in anywhere are slim, students apply to more schools than they otherwise would. That, of course leads to even lower admissions rates. When the admissions rates get lower, kids panick again and apply to even more schools. “It’s a vicious cycle,” says Janet Rosier, a educational consultant at Janet Rosier’s Educational Resources in New York City.

This is just one reason so many people think that the college admissions system is broken. Here are some ideas on how to fix it, courtesy of independent college counselors.

1. Colleges must stop misleading students about their chances at getting admitted

Right now, too much emphasis is put on college rankings by colleges, parents and counselors alike. One major flaw in the U.S. News and World Report ranking system is that universities are ranked based on their admissions rate—the lower the better. This incentivizes schools to have as many students apply as possible, so that the school can reject as many students as possible.

Janet Rosier says she has counseled students who are told by college representatives at information sessions that they ought to apply to schools beyond their reach. “Colleges will lead students to believe they have a decent chance of getting in when they do not,” she says. “College representatives will tell students who aren’t academically qualified that they ‘look at more than your transcript,’ which is technically true but can be misleading.”

Joan Casey, president of Educational Advocates College Consulting Crop. in Brookline, MA, believes that even getting an email from a college can fuel unrealistic expectations. Many colleges send materials to students who “don’t have a prayer of getting in,” she says. And it’s not just about scores: “Elite colleges should come clean on how many seats are already taken up for ‘hooked’ applicants, including legacies, major donors, celebrity children, athletes and the otherwise connected.” Giving students a more realistic sense of the number of spots truly available to them could change their application strategy.

But many counsellors believe the only way to dis-incentivize colleges from misleading students is to change the ranking system or for colleges to simply ignore it. “Colleges must stop viewing a ‘good year’ in admissions as one in which you denied a record number of students. Stop the quest for bragging rights for who has the lowest acceptance rates,” Casey says.

2. Colleges should offer specific information to students in order to help applicants make the best match

Any student or parent who has done the college roadtrip knows that just about every information session and tour sounds exactly the same. A typical student is likely to hear the phrase “resources of a large university with the feel of a small liberal arts college” at schools that range in size from 1500 undergrads to 10,000 undergrads. “The info session and tour are a shallow, surface way to learn about colleges,” Casey says. “There’s no time to sit in on a class or talk to a faculty member.” Colleges could match students with specific tour guides or faculty liaisons depending on their interests.

But part of that burden lies on the student too. “Many families place too much reliance on the U.S. News rankings to make decisions about which colleges their students should apply to,” says Julie Gross, president and founder of Collegiate Gateway college counseling in Port Washington, NY. “Instead, students should do their research about the unique qualities of each college they are considering, and identify the colleges that are the best fit for their talents, interests and preferences.”

3. There should be more educated guidance counselors who think outside the box

In high schools, where guidance counselors often act as college counselor, the average guidance counselor is responsible for 239 students, the ASCA reports. Those counselors must be well versed in the over 4,000 American colleges so they can find the perfect match for each student. Too few counselors means there are too many uninformed students navigating the difficult application process on their own.

An even bigger problem is college counselors with too little training. Often, overloaded counselors will point students in the direction of a school that many of their peers are applying to but ignore lesser-known schools far away from their home state. “There are plenty of colleges out there who aren’t getting as many applicants as they maybe deserve,” says Rosier. Those schools could end up being the best match, but a counselor may not be familiar with them. Requiring all college counselors to verse themselves in a variety of schools would benefit students.

4. Schools need to put less emphasis on Advanced Placement tests

More students are taking on too-rigorous course loads in an attempt to impress colleges. Because students’ most direct competitors are their peers in their school, one student taking on six AP courses in a semester motivates others to do so as well. That’s partially the fault of the colleges. Casey points out that even schools who accept 60 percent of students tell families in information sessions that they seek out students who take APs, even when many of the students they admit have not taken a single advanced placement test.

But lowering the stress level is also the responsibility of individual high schools. “Secondary school practices can be modified to better support students’ mental health,” says Gross. “A high school environment that encourages students to take the maximum number of AP courses, in a jam-packed schedule that doesn’t even allow for lunch is sending the message that more is always better…students need downtime to reflect, socialize and ask questions.” Teachers and guidance counselors can advise students to take the classes that interest them most rather than those that are the most challenging on paper. The happy result will likely be a better transcript as students are more likely to perform well in classes that engage their particular interests.

5. Counselors and parents must remind students that their success in life doesn’t depend on where they go to college. But what they do once you get there does.

Studies show that where you go to college doesn’t matter much. What matters is how hard you work once you get there.

A 1999 study by economists Alan Krueger and Stacy Berg Dale followed college graduates on their career paths. All the students in the study had been accepted to elite schools, but half had chosen to go to a “moderately selective” school instead. Kreuger and Dale found that the earnings of the two groups 20 years after graduation barely differed. A larger study from 2011 came to a similar conclusion: graduates of state schools were making as much as those of Ivy League schools.

Another study from the National Bureau of Economics of 6,335 undergraduates found that students who applied to several elite schools but didn’t attend them were more likely to earn higher incomes later than those who actually attended the elite schools. The bureau concluded, “evidently, students’ motivation, ambition and desire to learn have a much stronger effect on their subsequent success than average academic ability of their classmates.”

“Students and parents really need to realize that what you do in college once you get there can be far more important than acceptance into a particular school,” says Marilyn Emerson of Emerson Educational Consulting in New York.

So to all parents and students: Don’t panic.

More Must-Reads From TIME

Write to Eliana Dockterman at eliana.dockterman@time.com