Crunch Time at Collins House

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Author: Cordelia Kenney

Since the advent of the Common Application, applying to college has become far easier and more accessible for students across the country.

A corollary of this new ease, however, has been an increase in the average number of institutions each prospective student applies to. Columbia University and the University of Chicago, for example, both recently switched over to the Common Application and saw a considerable increase in the number of applicants; Columbia’s applications increased by 32 percent this year, according to a recent article from  the New York Times. The same article reported increases in the number of applications at over 50 institutions, including Harvey Mudd, Pepperdine and Pomona.

But as more students apply to more schools, more students inevitably get rejected.

In the last decades, increasing the percentage of rejections has become part of the admissions strategy of some schools.

Occidental Admissions Counselor Adam Greenhouse explains, “The admittance rate is used as a standard for exclusiveness.”

When more applicants apply and are therefore rejected in larger numbers, a college or university increases its selectivity. But while this seems to be the national trend, Occidental is housing more students, not fewer, as first-years cramped into forced triples can attest.

Zoe Butler (first-year), who lives in Braun, shares her room with two other girls and, although she describes it as a generally positive experience, she said, “The room gets messy really fast … the floor gets dirty a lot.”

Greenhouse points out, however, that Occidental is, in fact, not admitting more students; rather, more students are choosing to enroll.

While a variety of factors may have caused the high enrollment rate, Occidental’s strong financial aid program is undoubtedly a significant one for many families, especially in light of the constantly rising costs of attending college.

Vice President and Dean for Admission and Financial Aid Vince Cuseo said, “The college, despite being less well-endowed than most of our peers, is deeply committed to socioeconomic diversity, so we have well over half of our students on need-based financial aid.”

Cuseo broke down the basic considerations of the admissions office: “We see our job as enrolling a class that meets the expectations of faculty and the community at large.”

This includes, he said, “diversity in broad terms: of backgrounds, experiences, interests and talents, with a keen eye toward ethnic and socioeconomic diversity, are key considerations. And we look for students who are socially aware and community-oriented.”

Other similarly-sized liberal arts institutions across the country that are experiencing a similar increase in applicants are not necessarily getting higher yields. At Williams College in Massachusetts, for example, the current enrollment is 2,112, up from 2,067 last academic year, according to their website. Williams also experienced a 5.64 percent increase in applicants between 2010 and 2011.

The California Institute of Technology (Caltech) in Pasadena experienced a 6.38 percent increase in applicants over the past year, but with 967 undergraduates, they had an increase of only 16 students since the previous year.

Cuseo serves as the co-chair on the enrollment committee of the Task Force, a group instituted in order to define the college’s admissions goals. “Its charge is to present different enrollment scenarios to the campus, including a recommendation regarding ideal head-count, by the end of this academic year,” he said.

He added that the process will not necessarily be conclusive until the end of the semester. Comprised of administrators, faculty and students, the Task Force is a panel for conversation and collecting information about enrollment, not maintaining a decisive role.

The number of students attending Occidental has grown 23 percent in the past decade, from 1,697 students in 2000 to 2,089 at the start of last semester. In comparison to schools like Williams and Caltech, moreover, Occidental’s enrollment has gone up by 117 students, enough to fill an entire dormitory.

This has substantial ramifications for Occidental. As Greenhouse explained, the size of an institution influences all aspects of student life, including living space and the student-teacher ratio; it also ensures that the college takes in enough revenue from tuition and fees to cover its operating costs.

Despite the significant growth in the student population over the past decade, Greenhouse does not believe that it will become necessary to build another dorm or to add more facilities.

In considering “long-term versus short-term size” of the school, maintaining the small, tight-knit community is ideal. But how exactly admissions and the enrollment committee task force plan to accommodate the already growing rate of enrollment remains a mystery.

Part of the recent growth can certainly be attributed to a rising interest in Occidental. While 3,274 students applied in 2000, Cuseo reports that admissions is “in the process of reviewing over 6,000 applications for this fall’s class,” continuing an upward trend. “The set of applicants to Oxy for each year has increased over the previous year, with two exceptions, over this time period,” he said.

But although the number of applicants has grown, selectivity, or the percentage of students accepted, has remained fairly constant over the past decade, with an average acceptance rate of 42.5 percent.

Regarding the recent collegiate arms race to increased selectivity, Cuseo and Greenhouse both agree that quality, not quantity, is what counts. Ensuring that more students apply annually is not necessarily a priority for the Admissions Office, and, as Cuseo points out, there are a variety of factors that may influence how many students apply in a given year, such as “the state of the economy, the image of Los Angeles, the perceived academic reputation of Oxy and the satisfaction level of current students.”

Instead, Cuseo said, both Admissions and Financial Aid “work strategically to attract an array of prospective students that will enable us to enroll a class of intellectually competent, socially aware students from a rich variety of backgrounds, talents and experiences.”

Trying to define terms such as “prestige,” a word that often goes hand-in-hand with “exclusiveness” and “selectivity,” further muddies the waters of the actual quality of a school since most people, Cuseo said, simply name the “same set of 20 or 30 colleges and universities” when asked which are most prestigious.

He urges that the public should look less to numbers and percentages and more to the graduates and current students of an institution. “The transformation of students over four or so years of college — the end product — seems the best indication of value.”

Cuseo said, “People seek shorthand answers to complex questions, so it’s easier to assign ‘prestige’ on the basis of input variables such as selectivity percentages and average SAT scores.”

Whether or not one decides to go by numbers, Occidental does seem to be becoming more competitive. The applicant pool is “increasingly national and international,” Cuseo reported, evident in the increase of out-of-state students from 45 percent of the student body in 2000 to 56 percent last year.

Perhaps it is precisely Occidental’s focus on developing the school as a community to benefit students rather than relying on facts and figures that continues to draw students.

“Oxy’s well-regarded reputation as a college that values intercultural education remains a sturdy draw for both majority and underrepresented students alike,” Cuseo said.

He added, “The diversity of our applicants, especially for a pricey, private college, is one our greatest strengths.”

To go strictly by the numbers, moreover, would be to leave substantial questions aside. Although the median SAT scores have gone up by only 90
points in the past 10 years, Cuseo said the academic quality of applicants has significantly increased according to the college’s “internal rating system that considers rigor of course work, writing ability, strength of recommendations and intellectual curiosity, in addition to testing and GPAs.”

“I chose to work at Oxy because of its values,” Cuseo said.

“We don’t chase numbers. We could inflate the average test scores of incoming students by making that a high priority in our selection process, but that would penalize deserving applicants and diminish the quality of education and experience for everyone,” he said.

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