Little-Known, Infuriating Truths About Applying To College

The application process is only getting worse.
Little-Known, Infuriating Truths About Applying To College

Every year, countless Americans procrastinate on their college applications by reading Cracked. Well, today is your reckoning. The application process has long been a pain in the ass, but it's getting worse. That's because ...

Your School Might Accept You, Then Shut Down

Every prestigious American college likes to advertise that it's been around long enough for George Washington's cousin's bridge partner to have been part of their first graduating class. So we tend to think of our local colleges as part of the landscape, like a more dignified version of the White Castle that's served four generations despite the obvious mold.

But nearly 100 American colleges have closed or consolidated since 2016 (actual accredited colleges, not sleazy for-profit ones). And that trend's not going to slow anytime soon. No, we're not going to lose Harvard, but even the Greendales and Tekerson Techs of the world are big job creators. Whether it's an on-campus position or the combination coffee shop and liquor store just across the road, they might represent the only major center of employment for their communities.

Why are they closing if they're so important? Because college enrollment dropped about 11% across the 2010s. Public, private, STEM, humanities -- down across the board. Broadly, this isn't necessarily a bad sign, as people skip or postpone college when there are more job opportunities out there. A falling birth rate is also a factor. But the biggest issue is funding. States aren't giving colleges enough money to balance out those enrollment downturns, tuition costs rise accordingly, grants and scholarships can't keep up, not as many people can afford to go (especially among those who might need this education the most), and before you know it, you've got yourself a cycle.

Student Enrollment At U.S. Colleges Down 11% Since 2011 About? 3 milliontewer students enroled in colteoe this fall anint fal 2011 219 20.56M1 200 190
Daniel Wood/NPR
What a weird coincidence, the chart for the price of tuition is this in reverse.

Not everyone has to go to college, but just because an economy has a lot of jobs it doesn't mean those jobs are good. Degrees are linked to coming out of recessions unscathed, because a job that pays the bills month to month won't be enough to keep a house or raise a family if you suddenly find yourself unemployed again. So there are ideas to improve enrollment rates, from encouraging adults to go back to school to running more online programs.

But meanwhile, students have to figure out what to do when they're told that their school is vanishing halfway through their degree. Most schools are planning their closures so that everyone can complete their programs or transfer with relative ease, but there are also cases where financial disasters are hidden right up until students need to figure out what they can do with 18 months of sociology credits from a school with a phone number that's now answered by a weed dispensary.

Related: 6 Insane Things You Learn When Your College Goes Bankrupt

You're Competing With Students Who Buy Their Way In

Do you remember the celebrity college admissions scandal, before 50,000 other scandals pushed it out of the headlines? We all had a good laugh at the expense of arrogant actors, but it's not like it actually put a stop to rich parents buying their idiot children places in top schools. The enrollment decline is making that money even more attractive, and not everyone is going to get caught.

Speaking of idiot children, Jared Kushner went to Harvard despite having neither the GPA nor the SAT score to justify his acceptance. What he did have was a father who donated $2.5 million, and so he got a slot that could have gone to a student capable of getting in on merit. (Lucky for Jared that his dad got his wallet out before he was convicted of tax evasion and witness tampering.)

It's not just famous people like Jared and George W. "Spelled Yale With a 6" Bush. Students in families that make more than $630,000 a year -- America's richest 1% -- are 77 times more likely to be admitted to Ivy League schools than the children of families making less than $30,000 a year, despite the fact that getting diamond-studded Tim Ferriss books for Christmas doesn't magically make you 77 times smarter. Even families making less than $65,000, at which point we're talking about 60% of America, have fewer students in elite schools than the 1%.

Little-Known, Infuriating Truths About Applying To College
Aarkwilde/Wikimedia Commons
It's possible they're worried that anyone who ever spent a day in the real world would laugh at their ridiculous owl god.

Rich kids can also take the athletic track. And we're not talking basketball and football. The Ivy League loves golf, rowing, and other sports that you need money to even learn, let alone excel in. The ones who actually have a shot on academic merits can also get a leg up with money, whether it's a private tutor or expensive prep courses. It's easier to ace tests when you have a maid and cook to help protect your study time. These methods aren't corrupt per se, but they are a reminder that life isn't as simple as declaring, "If you think about it, affirmative action is the real racism!"

Then there's the very culture of elite schools, which can be a maze of obstacles and unstated norms. During spring break, for example, rich students travel while poorer students, unable to afford to leave, have to stick around and live off of rationed meals or food banks because the dining hall closes. One school lets students pick up a little money doing custodial work, because nothing says "equal opportunity learning environment" like poorer students having to scrub the toilets and throw out the used condoms of their well-off peers.

Remember, Harvard doesn't secretly teach a different, more accurate kind of economics than Michigan State. These schools are selective because they want their names to be synonymous with exclusivity, even if that exclusivity is based more on how a student's grandfather made his fortune than on a student's ability. And speaking of exclusivity ...

Related: 5 Signs Hollywood Has No Idea How College Works

Colleges Are Targeting Students Just So They Can Reject Them

Schools like to look exclusive because it implies that their education is worth the money. But if the University of Learnin' Good starts rejecting everyone who comes their way, they're going to join the broke and shuttered schools we mentioned earlier. But Vanderbilt got their admission rate down from 46% in 2002 (clearly a school for drunken peasants) to 11% in 2017 (clearly a school for people who spit on drunken peasants), and they were far from alone in "improving" their numbers. All they needed was one simple trick that students hate (because it's exploitative and cruel).

It involves the College Board's SAT, which in theory makes the application process more egalitarian by providing a standardized test for the whole country. But the College Board also sells the personal information of test-takers to colleges, which helps them attempt to recruit from a larger pool of students ... and then turn around and reject the very students they talked into applying in order to make their admission numbers look tougher. That's like saying you're very exclusive in choosing a romantic partner by begging people for dinner dates, then pissing on their appetizer.

As a "bonus," this artificial exclusivity makes performing well on the SAT look all the more important, which inflates the value of retakes and prep services. It's like a symbiotic relationship between two assholes. Test-optional schools can even buy data and then reject students based on the very information they're supposed to be ignoring.

All of this contributes to a dumb snowball effect whereby students are applying to more schools than ever before in order to ensure they get in somewhere, which creates yet more rejection opportunities, which further drives acceptance rates down. Again, this is making education more about branding than knowledge. Surely, if you went to an elite school that rejected hordes of hopeful dummies, the knowledge must be good, right? But it's really class that's being sold, not knowledge. That's because ...

Related: 5 Infuriating Things Nobody Tells You About College

School Rankings Are Complete Nonsense

In 2019, the University of Oklahoma was caught "inflating" the data they sent to U.S. News & World Report, which puts out a yearly ranking of colleges so that your mom can berate you for only getting into Brown instead of Yale. But to be fair to the U.S. News, Oklahoma had only been getting away with it for two decades. Oh, and they're far from the only school to have been caught. Do you think that maybe other schools are not self-reporting data that affects their image and funding with 100% honesty? We guess we'll never know.

Wait, that's not right. Where's the photo of someone looking confused by that question which we'd been intending to use here?

What we do know is that the rankings are wildly overhyped bullshit more interested in getting people talking about them than they are in imparting useful information. Yes, Princeton will probably give you an overall better education than the Bismarck School of Meth Studies, but what does it even mean that Northwestern is ranked one slot higher than Duke? These aren't opinions on Batman movies; there are too many factors at play to be able to declare one analysis a perfectly objective one. You don't need a ranked list for absolutely everything -- and believe us, we'd know that better than anyone.

It's also difficult to rank the ranking's flaws, because they're all so egregious. Turning students away for the sake of looking more selective is a big one. So is the fact that schools spend money on what the rankings deem important, not what their students and faculty actually need. Precisely what the rankings deem important shifts from year to year, which ostensibly makes them more accurate, but also creates large gains and drops that don't really mean anything (but which do draw eyeballs). Oh, and over the years, the rankings have put a heavy emphasis on inane factors like "reputation," which is self-fulfilling, because it turns out that people have better things to say about well-ranked schools even if they've never set foot on their campuses. What the rankings tend to not factor in are minor trifles like what students learn and how well they enter the workforce upon graduation.

It's just a mortarboard measuring contest so that parents at the HOA barbecue can brag about their child going to a "better" school than those hippies down the street who put up an unauthorized Christmas decoration. You can't distill four years of educational and personal growth into a pseudoscientific number. What you can do is make applicants and their parents worry about the class of the school they attend, trick them into forking over money for U.S. News' paid tools, and perpetuate the idea that a degree is the sign of either a genius or a slacker depending on what classroom someone sat in. That's why we just studied Applied Vodkaology at a school we saw advertised on daytime TV, and we've never looked back at those blurry years with any regrets.

Mark is on Twitter and wrote a book.

For more, check out If Student Loans Were Honest - Honest Ads (College Debt):

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