The world around us is incentivized to focus on the negative and deliver it with hyperbole. As a society and as individuals, we are suffering as a result. We can help our kids cope by teaching them how to separate fact from fiction. What follows is a reprint of a piece titled, “The Myth of College Competitiveness” (Seeds of Thought, July 2013). My hope is that it may relieve some of the pressure kids, and their parents, are feeling.
In spite of everything you may have read and in direct contradiction to what we have been led to believe, it is my contention that it is in fact easier to get into college today than it was in 1980. Don’t take my word for it though. Instead, consider the facts. In 1980, there were 21 million Americans between 15 and 19 years old. Today, that number is exactly the same. On the other side of the equation is the number of spots available to those who aspire to attend college. Since 1980, the number of spots available has grown by 97%. So you could say, it’s twice as easy to get into college today as it was 30 years ago. Not so fast? What about international students? Well, the truth is, they only make up 2% of the undergraduate population and for every 10 international undergrads who come to US colleges, 5 Americans go abroad to study.
So, why is this fallacy so deeply entrenched in our collective consciousness? Like it or not, college administrators are running a business, and marketing is just as important for their industry as it is for all others. Despite their argument to the contrary, they care about rankings and one of the most important factors in those rankings is selectivity, ie acceptance rates. The lower the acceptance rate, presumably, the harder it is to get into the school. It is the plummeting acceptance rates that have American parents stressing over their kids’ futures, pushing them to spend billions on test prep courses, hiring ghost writers for application essays and fretting over which elementary school puts them on the most direct path to the Ivies. The acceptance rates also improve fund-raising, attract better professors and even reduce funding rates for the schools.
If the number of applicants is stagnant, while the number of available slots has doubled, how could colleges possibly push their acceptance rates to all-time lows? Like any good marketer, they use a combination of hope and fear to motivate their customers, while making their product more accessible. The College Board sells 80 million potential applicant names to 1,200 colleges at 32 cents a name. These students then receive marketing material, “fast-track” or “V.I.P.” applications with some information already filled in and fees often waived, while others are sent the “likely letter” which suggests their application will likely be accepted if submitted, even when they clearly will not. As an example of how absurd this gimmick has gotten, Tulane University, a school which accepts just over 2,000 undergrad students per year, sends out 130,000 VIP applications. Low acceptance rates inject fear into the hearts of applicants and their parents, driving them to widen their net by applying to far more schools than we did back in the ’80’s. These days, more than a third of all applicants apply to 7 or more schools. Thats a 4-fold increase over the 80’s. The final piece of the puzzle is to make their product, the application, more accessible. Enter the Common Application, a one-stop shop for applying to 488 colleges including all eight in the Ivy League with just a few clicks of the mouse.
Yield represents the percentage of students who effectively accept the acceptance by enrolling. Harvard only accepted 9% of its applicants last year, but in spite of this incredible selectivity and their best efforts to only accept those who they believed would actually enroll, just 61% of them elected to accept that acceptance. The average among all American colleges is also a steadily declining 41%. The simple truth is, despite all the commonly cited statistics that argue the contrary, it is no harder to get into college, including the Ivies, than it was 30 years ago. In fact, it is almost twice as easy.
Having read this, it’s very likely you are currently experiencing what social psychologists call cognitive dissonance. Cognitive dissonance theory explains human behavior by positing that people have a bias to seek harmony between their beliefs and reality. When that isn't possible, it can trigger feelings of frustration, anger, embarrassment and/or anxiety. To cope, people tend to engage in a process called "dissonance reduction," which can be achieved in one of three ways: lowering the importance of one of the discordant factors, adding consonant elements, or changing one of the dissonant factors. In other words, instead of accepting the data I’ve just provided, you might be focusing on brilliant Johnny from down the street who didn't get into his backup school or making the argument that the top schools are somehow unique, that it's just University of Phoenix to which this applies. You are achieving dissonance reduction by making the world fit your beliefs, rather than the other way around. The point I'm attempting to make is that we are all vulnerable to cognitive biases. Like most, this bias sheds light on otherwise puzzling, irrational, and even destructive behavior among the most intelligent parents, and investors alike. It requires effort to see the world as it truly is, as opposed to the neatly packaged, often distorted version we are sold by others. The first step toward the development of a more objective view is recognizing that we are all vulnerable. The second step is actively seeking out the facts and then choosing to give them more weight than a more convenient narrative. We’re not wired that way so it’s not easy, but it can be very rewarding.
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About the Author For nearly thirty years, Stephen Duneier has applied cognitive science to investment and business management. The result has been the turnaround of numerous institutional trading businesses, career best returns for experienced portfolio managers who have adopted his methods, the development of a $1.25 billion dollar hedge fund and 20.3% average annualized returns as a global macro portfolio manager.
Mr. Duneier teaches graduate courses on Decision Analysis in the College of Engineering, as well as Behavioral Investing, at the University of California.
Through Bija Advisors' coaching, workshops and publications, he helps the world's most successful and experienced investment managers improve performance by applying proven, proprietary decision-making methods to their own processes.
As a speaker, Stephen has delivered informative and inspirational talks to audiences around the world for more than 20 years on topics including global macro economic themes, how cognitive science can improve performance and the keys to living a more deliberate life. Each is delivered via highly entertaining stories that inevitably lead to further conversation, and ultimately, better results.
Stephen Duneier was formerly Global Head of Currency Option Trading at Bank of America, Managing Director in charge of Emerging Markets at AIG International and founding partner of award winning hedge funds, Grant Capital Partners and Bija Capital Management.
His artwork has been featured in international publications and on television programs around the world, is represented by the renowned gallery, Sullivan Goss and earned him more than 50,000 followers across social media. As Commissioner of the League of Professional Educators, Duneier is using cognitive science to alter the landscape of American K-12 education. He received his master's degree in finance and economics from New York University's Stern School of Business.
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