The university marketplace

One of the main things that gets us into the "Am I Worthy?" mindset about college is that we don't really understand colleges--especially admissions. When we're high school students, living among a bunch of other high school students, it's easy to see how unique and different each high school student is. Lumping them all together is really quite silly. 

For example, I just did five minutes of sloppy Google searches on popular music, clothes, and cars for teenagers. But for me to then say that today American teens all listen to Ed Sheeran, get their clothes from American Eagle, and drive a Chevy Spark is ridiculous. I should know better. Similarly, we should all know better than to ask "what do colleges want?" or "what is the best university?" Colleges have just as much variety to them as anything else.

Whether we're conscious of it or not, we tend to think of college admissions as a very one-sided marketplace: colleges are these unchanging, monolithic things that judge and accept (or reject) us, and students are products to be marketed and offered up to the "best" college they can get in to. 

The marketplace analogy isn't a bad one, but it's quite important to remember that markets work in multiple directions. Yes, you're trying to position yourself to get to the college that you think is best for you, but colleges are also working really hard to position themselves to get the students they think are best for them. And there's a ton of variety to what a school might want.

A friend who is a college dean of admissions recommended I check out a book about Elon College (now Elon University). The book, Transforming a College: The Story of a Little-Known College's Climb to National Distinction, by George Keller, details how Elon shifted itself from one type of school to another over a decade. Its radical makeover included everything from the ideal student to the number of professors to the landscaping design. Students who, at one point, would have easily got into Elon were no longer as sought-after, while some who would not have been a prime target before suddenly became high-demand.

Honestly, it's not the most lively book, and I'm not really encouraging high schoolers to go out and read it. However, the opening paragraphs really struck a note, because they explain the marketplace idea better than I ever have:

"Higher education in the United States is unusual. Alone among the world's nations, America has without design settled an arrangement that includes all colleges and universities in its ethos of capitalist competition. Like small and large business firms, the country's thirty-nine hundred colleges and universities are expected to scramble, strategize, and compete for students, professors, facilities, acclaim, and financial stability. If they do not, they are likely to close their doors or be closed. [...] This booming, dazzling array of institutions of higher education in the United States means that America's colleges and universities are in constant competition with each other for students, dollars, and public attention. They often buzz with talk of competitive niche, market position, product differentiation, brand, ratings, and reputation..." 

The complexity that comes from understanding that colleges are fluid, ever-changing things with goals that may or may not include you is overwhelming for a lot of people. They'd really prefer to just have a list of "best" colleges and try to go to one of those. 

But for most of us, understanding this two-way marketplace can be really empowering. It means that the schools are trying to find you as much as you're trying to find them. If you're not the sort of student who looks at a magazine article telling you what you should wear and then goes out and buys it, if you're not the sort of teenager who only listens to music on the Billboard Top 40, if you're not the sort of student who won't join a club without knowing if it has enough popular kids as members, then don't settle for that kind of approach to college. Take the time to figure out what you want, and also take the time to figure out who is looking for you. You'll be happy that you did.


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Full citation for the book: Keller, George. Transforming a College: The Story of a Little-Known College's Strategic Climb to National Distinction. Updated Edition. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2004, 2014.