High school seniors, cell phones, and the art of waiting
This week I learned that the University of Michigan received over 31,000 applications from high school seniors this school year, up from 17,000 when I applied in the fall of 1996 (an 82% increase). But over those 13 years, the freshman class has only grown from about 5,500 students to 6,000 students (a 9% increase).
At the University of Chicago, over 19,000 applications were received this year, compared to 13,500 last year (an increase of 40%), despite the fact that the number of freshman seats available is not increasing.
These application increases can be seen in colleges and universities across the country, especially in highly-ranked schools. However, it’s not as if there are suddenly a bunch more talented students graduating from high school; students are just applying to more schools. In fact, it’s now common for seniors to apply to 10 or 15 schools. (See one student’s final application tally here. For the record, I applied to one school.)
It’s fair to say that many students do this to ensure acceptance to at least one top school. My first reaction is to say that students, in the aggregate, don’t seem to understand that more applications means more competition; while they apply to more schools to give themselves a better chance of being accepted, their peers are doing the same thing. This leads to more students on waitlists, not a better chance of admission.
Then again, maybe they do understand, and this new generation of high school graduates is perfectly comfortable with the uncertainty that comes with waiting until March or April to finalize their college plans. If this is the case, I would attribute it to their having grown up in our “cell phone culture.” Over the past decade, cell phones have allowed us to be much more flexible with our schedules. And since plans often are tentative and can be changed at the last minute, people are less willing to commit to something well in advance. (A great column in the New York Times last month makes this case as well. I was excited to see I’m not the only one who has noticed this trend!) For many adults, this way of planning can be very stressful. For kids who have never known anything else, maybe it’s not.
Let’s hope Jay Mathews writes a book about this phenomenon so we all can gain a better understanding of it. In the meantime, I’d love to hear the perspectives of high school and college students, as well as parents.