Sometime this coming fall, I expect to receive a letter from my alma mater, Dartmouth College, informing me that this year's class of freshmen is the best-prepared, most diverse, smartest, highest potential group of students to ever enroll at Dartmouth. Coincidentally, I will also receive a solicitation to donate to the alumni fund.
Yale, Harvard, Princeton, Stanford, Dartmouth, and a handful of other schools, will announce shortly that they accepted fewer than 10 percent of applicants for this fall's freshman class, a fact that should supposedly warm alumni cockles.
The irony is that these same admissions' departments regularly broadcast that nearly all their applicants are capable of doing the work that would be expected of them at the respective colleges.
So, the message to rejectees is don't feel bad, we would love to have you but don't have the room. Everyone seems to agree that competitive admissions have become too competitive but, like a high-stakes game of chicken, no one seems willing to step back from the edge.
There are about 3,600 colleges and universities in the United States. Of these, about 1,600 are two-year colleges, virtually all of which are "open admissions," meaning they will admit nearly anyone with a high school diploma. That leaves about 2,000 four-year colleges, several hundred of which are also open admissions.
Only about 135 colleges in this country admit less than 50 percent of applicants. Thus, over 90 percent of four-year colleges admit more than half of those who apply.
But, of course, it is the selective colleges or, even more specifically, the super-selective colleges, that garner attention and attract our angst.
Several years ago, during my last full year teaching high school, my seniors exacted some revenge by compiling some of the most obsequious, self-serving rejection letters that colleges sent out and combining extracts from those letters. Several large daily newspapers published our story, along with several students' editorial suggestions.
Various people have suggested solutions to tamp back the competitive college admissions game, perhaps the most radical of which is the idea proposed by Barry Schwartz at Swarthmore College.
Schwartz has recommended that competitive colleges establish minimum acceptance standards and then take all the student applicants that meet the criteria and put them into a lottery.
The real answer, though, will come not from making the system one of chance, or dictating solutions, but from the market itself. Much as the housing bubble burst after years of increasing demand and prices, demand for the name colleges will begin to recede in the next few years for several reasons.
First, the population of college-age students is declining. That fact alone will produce a lesser demand for spots in colleges.
Second, the financial crisis will cause an even greater demand among students for financial aid. While many of the better-endowed colleges can now promise to provide 100 percent of demonstrated need for admitted students, those generous pledges may not last. In any event, the colleges may tighten definitions of demonstrated need.
Third, markets reveal frauds. Or rather, commodities that are overpriced, deflate. As a parallel example, consider law school applications this year, which are at a 25-year low.
At some point, the perception that only a narrow band of elite schools are acceptable and that those elite schools are better than many other colleges will fade.
The public will likely realize that the letter on someone's college sweatshirt has a lot less to do with the quality of that person's education than what the person wearing the sweatshirt makes of her opportunities, no matter where she goes. Unfortunately, that realization will come a little late for the Class of 2017.
Patrick Mattimore taught high school psychology for many years in the Bay Area. He currently lives in Chiang Mai, Thailand.