Solomon: Dartmouth’s Fear of Rejection

Dartmouth’s admissions policies are unjust and harmful in the long run.

by Ioana Solomon | 4/13/17 12:25am

One thousand, five hundred and forty-two high school seniors from almost every corner of the world opened their acceptance letters to Dartmouth on March 30. While they rejoiced, eager to become members of the Class of 2021, around 18,000 others were met with the words, “We regret to inform you…” For an 18-year-old, rejection from an elite university can be crushing. For years, academic institutions have indoctrinated their students with an obsessive desire for validation and an aversion to failure beginning from a young age. But what those students do not know is that the colleges and universities of their dreams are victims of the same systematic fear of rejection. 

The college admissions process has become a game, not just for the students applying, but for the institutions as well. At the end of April, Dartmouth will find out how many of the newly admitted 2,092 students will actually stick with us. The College, too, will receive its own acceptance and rejection letters. But in the midst of declining application pools, lower perceived student satisfaction and rising competition from institutions of a similar caliber, Dartmouth has found a way to maintain its exclusivity. Unfortunately, it has done so not by improving itself as an institution but by artificially inflating its selectivity. 

This year, Dartmouth accepted 550 students through the early decision process from a record-large pool of 1,999 applicants. These admitted students will form around 47 percent of the Class of 2021. While Dartmouth’s overall admission rate for this year settled at 10.4 percent, it is fairly obvious that the students applying early faced better chances. Of course, the classic argument endures: students applying early are mostly those who know they have a fair shot at gaining entrance into a school like Dartmouth during the binding application phase. They are, therefore, better candidates than a large number of those who apply through the regular decision process and who may be throwing their application into the pile without as real of an expectation of being accepted. But is that the full story? Can Dartmouth truly claim that it accepts one-in-four students applying early, as opposed to one-in-10 applying normally, simply because those applying early form a “better” pool? Our own admissions office’s website would suggest otherwise.

In response to a frequently asked question on whether there is an advantage to applying early decision, the office’s listed response acknowledges that early decision applicants are admitted at a higher rate than regular decision applicants but adds that the published higher percentages could be misleading because of the number of recruited athletes who are accepted. “With recruited athletes removed from the early decision numbers, the statistical advantage isn’t quite as large,” the office’s website states. While this statement is perhaps reassuring to some students, it is far from a denial that early decision applicants have an advantage. 

But what is even more convincing are the numbers. While Dartmouth’s general pool of applicants has been in decline since 2012, the number of early decision applicants has been steadily rising. If a school is actually becoming more appealing, that discrepancy should not exist. We are losing interest overall, and that is reflected by the fact that we are losing applicants almost every year. The fact that more and more applicants choose to apply through the early decision process means that they have good reason to believe doing so gives them a strategic advantage. With only vague rebuttals and an ED acceptance rate higher than 25 percent over the last five years, that is far from surprising. Some students may have learned to game the system, but U.S. colleges and universities invented the rules. What do these statistics actually say about us as a school, about our admissions policies and about our administration? 

Artificially controlling Dartmouth’s admissions rate may contribute to an increased perception of the College as elite but does nothing to make us a better institution. Instead, it shows a disappointing lack of confidence and the same fear of rejection we see in our 17- and 18-year-old applicants. The message we are sending is that we are afraid. We take more students who show definitive interest in us because we think that when regular decision admits put us side by side with other universities, we will not be winning many of those battles. As a result, we reject and hurt too many qualified regular decision applicants only because we think we cannot afford to risk losing them to other schools. 

Additionally, our admissions policies inherently give an advantage to privileged students. Those who apply early decision are often students who have had access to great academic resources, attentive counseling and significant assistance in college admissions planning. To complete all the required testing, finish all application materials and be informed enough to make a choice that early in the college application season, students have to have had a level of preparation and support that low-privilege backgrounds rarely supply. In addition, Dartmouth is far from cheap, and many of the students who apply early decision are those who can afford to lose a little bargaining power with Dartmouth’s more or less binding financial packages. 

In the end, many of our policies are antithetical to the progressive mask we wear. Instead of working to make itself more appealing to prospective students, Dartmouth is only playing with the numbers. Our admissions policies are changing the label but not the contents, and that kind of solution is not just immoral but one that will not suffice for the long term.