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Dear High School Senior, Please apply to our college even though we'll likely reject you

This morning my 17-year-old twins received more than a dozen emails from colleges around the country reminding them January application deadlines were approaching. The colleges ranged from Ivy League universities that admit 9 percent of applicants to little-known campuses that take almost everyone.

Several emails offered application fee waivers, explaining, “I want to make sure that a talented student like you receives all the notable advantages that come with your status.” Or, “A successful student like you deserves an edge when applying to college.” (Application fees are usually $50 to $75.)

Many parents assume these emails mean colleges have somehow sorted through the 3.3 million seniors who will graduate U.S. high schools this year and discerned the tremendous potential in their child.

Yes, there is some sorting by test scores and self-reported student profiles, but the process is more akin to dredging the ocean floor than delicately picking up shells on the beach. If your children take the bait and apply, they'll end up in a bucket with thousands of other students sucked in by the promising emails. Many will be rejected despite all the solicitous comments about their talents and their success.

There is a name for this aggressive practice – recruiting to reject. Why do colleges spend time and money romancing applicants they will likely not embrace as students?

Because it improves their standings in national rankings that both students and parents take seriously.

Colleges are not just judged by how many students enroll but also by how many apply. That has caused even highly selective colleges to bombard high school students with enticing emails and glossy packets.

College brochures arrive daily in the mail; the record at our house is 22 in a single delivery. After touring some colleges, my kids have even received telephone calls from current students telling them how much they love the school and what an awesome place it is.

A friend’s son took advantage of an application fee waiver offer and applied early action to a Midwestern college still inundating my kids with recruitment emails this week.

Under early action, students apply by around Nov. 1 and find out by Dec. 15 whether they're admitted. (An exception is Georgia Tech, which will not notify its early action applicants until Jan. 14.)

My friend's teen has a 4.4 GPA and scored in the top 1 percent on the SAT, putting him well above the students admitted to the university. Given his credentials, I told his mother he would be a shoo-in. Yet, he just learned he was deferred, which means his application will be held over and considered later. In the meantime, this school is still churning out emails urging more kids to apply.

I can’t be sure why colleges court and then rebuff even applicants who exceed their qualifications, but I assume admissions officers realize kids who apply in response to admission fee waivers but have never demonstrated interest -- visiting the campus, inquiring about it or meeting with an alum -- probably aren’t going to enroll.

And that is the other side of this college application racket. Today, students apply to many more schools than a generation ago because it's easier to do so. Online applications have made the process much quicker. In the equivalent of one-stop shopping, students can fill out the Common Application, a single undergraduate application accepted by 700 schools. (Some of the schools require additional essays.)

About 29 percent of high school seniors apply to seven or more colleges, according to the Higher Education Research Institute at UCLA. The recommended number I hear most often is six to eight, which is what the National Association of College Admission Counseling deems typical.

The LEAP Academy University Charter School in Camden earned national attention last year when it announced its students apply to an average of 45 colleges to increase their options and opportunities.

So, we have colleges lobbying kids they don't intend to admit, and students applying to schools they don't intend to attend. Parents pay a price for this charade as it costs money to apply and send off SAT and ACT scores and financial aid information.

Is there a better way? If so, what?










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About the Author

Maureen Downey has written editorials and opinion pieces about local, state and federal education policy since the 1990s.