Sunday, April 08, 2018

“Demonstrated Interest” is Really Time-Consuming

In the community college world, the admissions process tends to be relatively straightforward.  You show up before the deadline with evidence of a high school diploma or equivalent, fill out a few forms, apply for financial aid if applicable, make a payment, and schedule a placement test, an orientation session, and your classes.  SAT’s and ACT’s are optional, and used only for placement. (If you hit certain numbers, you’re exempt from the placement test.) The whole thing can be done in a day or two. And if you sign up prior to August for a September start, in most cases, you should be able to get the schedule you want.

The Boy’s process, focusing on selective places, introduces a host of new variables.  Some of them aren’t surprising. They look closely at transcripts, including scrutiny of both grades and course selection.  They require essays. They require letters of recommendation. Some offer interviews. All of those, I remembered and expected.

But since my search, they’ve also introduced a new variable: “demonstrated interest.”

You’d think that submitting an application and paying a fee would demonstrate interest.  (The typical application fee is roughly triple what Brookdale charges, which would seem to suggest interest.)  But apparently not. In this context, “demonstrated interest” means signing up for an attending an on-campus information session and tour.  

These are not trivial expenses, either of time or of money.  And there’s no financial aid for them.

In the case of UVA, where we went last week, it involved driving about six hours each way.  (It should have been slightly less, but Route 95 is a fickle beast.) Obviously, that also involved hotel stays and meals on the road.  We decided to make a trip of it by adding Luray Caverns and the Shenandoah National Park to the itinerary, and I’m glad we did, but we probably wouldn’t have made the trip just for those.  Nobody at the Caverns caught my Fraggle Rock reference, which mostly made me feel old. The whole place looked like Fraggle Rock had come to life.

TB’s high school is sufficiently familiar with the process that it actually “excuses” a set number of absences for college visits, assuming you return with the relevant documentation.  And the colleges are familiar enough with the documentation that everybody there knows what you’re talking about when you ask for it. Cultural capital finds a way.

The campus was lovely, as I’ve heard it would be.  TB liked it enough to put it in his top five. I didn’t know until the dean’s presentation that UVA actually doesn’t consider demonstrated interest as a variable.  But most of his other top choices do.

He’s becoming a savvy consumer of college information.  He noticed, for instance, that the tour didn’t include a dining hall, a classroom, or a dorm room; they usually do.  I noticed that the dean’s presentation didn’t include a student, as they usually do. He picked up the requisite pennant to add to his collection, and we explored some of the culinary offerings of Charlottesville.  I was impressed by “Insomnia Cookies,” which is open until 3:00 in the morning. That’s some good market research right there.

Still, as we recovered from the length and cost of the trip, I couldn’t help but think about the burden of “demonstrated interest” on students of modest means and/or limited cultural capital.  Does a student whose parents know about “demonstrated interest” actually have more interest than a student whose parents didn’t go to college? Or who live in a school district that isn’t quite so attuned as to give “excused” absences for college visits?  Or whose jobs just don’t allow that much travel? It seems unlikely.

The point, as near as I can tell, is that many selective colleges receive far more applications from capable and qualified students than they’re able to accept, so they have to winnow the field somehow.  Public ones usually have in-state numbers they have to hit, so start with that. Then they try to hit desired gender ratios, racial distributions, distributions of athletes and musicians, and all of the other variables that make up a class.  (In some cases, they defer to “legacies” or “development admits,” both of which are entirely about cultural capital.) That probably still leaves more than they can accept. At that point, “demonstrated interest” serves as a filter that may help screen out students who are “only” using it as a safety school.  Or not; I’ve never seen any actual data on that.

But from a student and parent perspective, “demonstrated interest” is a steep burden.  Yes, it’s great to see schools if you have the chance; I’ve enjoyed taking TB to several, and we hope to see a few more before we’re done.  But the costs are real, and resources are finite. And not every student has the advantages TB does.

My modest proposal?  In the name of fairness, I’d love to see selective colleges drop legacy admissions, development admits, and demonstrated interest as categories.  Less time on Route 95 is a win for all concerned. And in the meantime, we’ll keep building up the Honors offerings to make the community college a more appealing option for the entire community.  Let’s infer interest from applications, and get around the applicant surplus by making more places appealing in the first place.