American Insanity: College Application Process



An opinion piece on the college application process, coming from a parent and teacher.

What have we done to our children? Applying to college has become a money making business that the college and universities partake in, but is driven by a testing industry gone out of control. At what cost? That of our children's sanity and self-worth. Children are measured by test scored and grades, and they are linking their value to them.

 As a parent of a senior in high school, I am in the midst of watching my child and her peers become a victim of this monopoly. She has tested with Pearson since she was little, in the form of not only our state's standardized tests, but also in the units provided by the same company, through its text books and website assessments. Through both the College Board, and Pearson (affiliated with each other), we have paid (or her school) for her testing of various Advanced Placement (AP) tests (five to date), her two SAT exams, and the transfer of those scores to her colleges, which costs again, more. We have paid for each of her applications through the College Board Common Application site. On top of this, we have had to pay for the ACT, which is thankfully not associated with either the College Board or Pearson, but also costs additional fees. Some colleges prefer one or the other, so in our case we had to pay for both. Not only do you need to take these tests and pay for them, but you are also made to believe that you need to pay money to study for each exam.

Photo courtesy of 

Wikimedia Commons

Willem's PSAT scores came back to me with links to classes, text books and tutoring...all offered by guess who? College Board and Pearson. In addition to those test prep options, there is an entire business surrounding preparing our kids for those exams. Kaplan offers testing prep classes  from $299 to $1500 and offers more expensive individual plans as well. Princeton offers testing prep classes from $600 to $1600 with individual tutoring offered. I have several students who have paid upwards of $5000 for a individualized tutoring program in order to achieve scores they need to get into their top choice schools. There are a multitude of smaller tutoring companies who also offer prep classes at various rates.

My question is...if you have to be prepped to this extent, then is the test really measuring what you know? To me it feels like prepping your kid for taking the gifted screening test. They either are gifted or not. You can't really train a kid to think gifted. If a student has taken the proper high school courses and succeeded, shouldn't they be prepared for the test? I know my kids studied for the SAT just as they would for an end of the term exam; but I did not pay for Sabrina to study with a program because I don't want to pay into a program I don't agree with.

Each day since Sabrina and Willem's first PSAT in tenth grade, we've received both mail and email from colleges seeking their applications. Sometimes the packages are elaborate with glossy magazines and books that obviously cost the school an enormous amount of money, not just to publish, but to ship. Obviously, it must worth their investment to send these out to so many students. It is my belief that what they have done is built a culture where students plan on applying to ten or more schools, and this has driven the market of college application. The goal is not necessarily to recruit these students to attend, but just to apply.

Sabrina was angry and upset when we set her limit to five schools. Why did we limit our daughter, and in her opinion her opportunities? Well, fist of all, some of the schools she was applying to were completely out of our budget. Others were completely out of the range of her ability to get into (Yale, Brown). Yet, she wanted to apply, so that she could say she applied, and that if on the off-chance that she made it in, she could refuse acceptance, but say she got in.  That is the environment at our school in any case. To me it is pointless.Kids should be applying to schools that a) they can get into and b) they would like to attend and 3) that they can afford to attend. As a teacher I can verify that kids are applying to multiple schools, because I have been writing their letters of recommendation for the last seven years. One year I had a student send out twenty applications.

So, what does it actually cost to apply to schools? Some of the schools Sabrina applied to were through the Common Application. Despite the fact that all the information is in the application is in one common place, each school still charges for the application, and each school has separate requirements. Submission fees ranges from $25 to $90. Our lowest fee was $50 and our highest was $75.

But, wait! There's more. We also had pay for the SAT twice -- her first score was just a little lower than she needed for her most ambitious schools, and ACT once. The SAT cost her $54.40 each time, and along with study materials they offer as a bundle, it was actually $80. Then we had to have all her scores sent to each school — see the fee schedule here. You do get four free scores, but you have to list them before you take the test, and in Sabrina's case, she wasn't sure where to send them, and she also didn't want to send scores if they were poor. So, we ended up paying $11 per school, and in two cases, we had to rush them for $31. Then there was the ACT which cost us $56.50, and a score transfer of $12.  You can see the fee schedule here.

For art students, there is even more -- Sabrina had to send in original art work to two schools. Of course, there was not only a deadline to meet, but we also wanted to send them insured. That cost us another $85 per school.

You can tell it is adding up. Especially when you consider that kids are applying to ten schools or more. Colleges are making money from the application process in and of itself. For what? The honor of having applied, to say you did? Then you get into your dream school, or at least one of the ten you applied to, and then you have to figure out how to pay for the tuition.


University of Minnesota, Smith Hall -

courtesy of Wikimedia via Creative Commons

When I was a student at the University of Minnesota in 1991, tuition was $2,300 a year! I remember my parents worrying about that expense. It was money, but it was manageable, even for a student to take out student loans and pay for it themselves. Today, the same education costs $12,240 a year. You can see the rates yourself here. Keep in mind that this does not include room and board.  Adding those in would add roughly $7,500. 

University of Virginia courtesy of Flick via Creative Commons

 As a contrast, if I had been in Virginia then, I would have paid $3,354 for in-state tuition. Next year, in state tuition is $14,468 and add on $10,00 for room and board. If you attend UVA from out-of-state, you can expect to pay $57,538. To me this is baffling. These are state-run education institutions. To me, public school should be affordable for any middle-class family, and made affordable for lower income students.

Isn't it in our best interest to educate our young minds? Why are we allowing attending college to become such a competitive money-making business? Isn't it true that by providing an affordable — quality education, the next generation will be equipped to take over the government, businesses, health care and education systems? Shouldn't we want not just the wealthy students who can afford all this test prep, testing, application and tuition costs? Isn't America based on the notion of equal opportunity for all?

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