Photograph by Matthew Suárez
If we take local private colleges and the ten-campus University of California system out of the equation, San Diego State sparkles. Of late, the campus’s desirability rivals most state schools in America.
The Event: College Fair Night.
The Venue: San Diego Convention Center.
The Scene: A big-box room rowed with white linen-covered tables behind blue-curtained backdrops.
The Hosts: More than 300 college admissions table-sitters selling the glories of their schools, from the Moody Bible Institute to The Ohio State University, Holy Spirit to Holy Buckeye.
Photograph by Matthew Suárez
The Supporting Players: Moms who look like their daughters — jeans, middle-parted long hair, and shiny leopard-print purses; Dads, startled and leash-led.
The Central Players: Scores of kids, 15 and 16, shopping avidly with questions and concerns, their cellphones pocket-packed.
The Rosy Commingling: Families who are, in the Age of Distraction, actually talking to one another, albeit teeter-tottering between the adolescents’ slowly materializing college dream and the parents’ financial handcuffs.
The Hunt: Most seek info on scholarships, on sports programs, on merit-based admission, on how easy or how hard it is to get into the University of Southern California — please, just tell me — and yet each high-schooler is demonstrating that enviable condition we used to call well-roundedness, leaving their schoolmates, the procrastinators, far behind, like dinghies at sea.
According to a former dean at Stanford University, Julie Lythcott-Haims, “There is no scarcity of good colleges. There are 2800 accredited four-year schools in America.” The ostensible need to apply to 20 schools, by students and parents, she says, only “increases the apparent selectivity of schools. They have to deny more applicants because too many kids are applying to too many schools.”
The College Sell: Brochures and posters decorate each table like ads for a Viking cruise. Study Global Hospitality Management at Les Roches Bluche, Switzerland. Learn “The Business of Denim” at Los Angeles’s Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandizing.
The Sports Spiel: Overheard from a University of New Mexico Lobo (wolf mascot) counselor, shilling the NCAA Division 1 benefits to a 15-year-old baseball recruit and his helicoptering dad.
“Son, you look strong. You’re still growing. What’s your [batting] average? .350? Wow! You a good student? Son, a 3.0 and we’ll show you the dough to go to New Mexico. Let’s knock that out-of-state tuition down. At the very least, you’ll get a quarter ride. Hit well and study hard, move up to a half ride. Already we’ve dropped from 36 to 18K. How you like that, Dad? A few grants, a little debt. We give away far more money than anyone here.”
Enduring the pitch, the lanky, bemused kid gets a Lobo sticker and an invitation to baseball summer camp. “Show the coach what you got and we’ll get you a full ride.”
Promises Aside: These mature attendees are self-starters, the talented tenth of the eleventh grade. They know where the money is; they’re leading mom and dad to the pot of gold. They’re self-confident. They’re desire-manifesting collegians.
I ask one jittery father of a daughter if this process of admissions is hard to maneuver.
“Are you kidding? I know how it’s done. I already went to college,” and he waves me away like I’m a street person.
Exactly. This is the crew whose parents went to college and graduated and will make $1 million more in wages over their lifetimes than those who don’t have degrees. Their offspring are good test takers, grade earners, advance-placement placeholders. They are among the brightest, if brightest combines studiousness with ambition.
Sandra Cook is the associate vice president for enrollment management at SDSU.
At college fair night, there’s a surfeit of kids who excel, this generation’s meritocratic shiners. They face fervent competition against scads similar to them, from college-hip high schools throughout California and elsewhere. They are super savvy, like the Somali girl, willowy and serene, with whom I chat. She takes photos of the PowerPoint slides at an SDSU meet-and-greet, and says she’s applying everywhere: State, San Marcos, UCLA, Berkeley. “I’m keeping all my options open.”
“You a senior?” I ask.
“No, a freshman.”
It seems to me she’s already in college. Indeed, in most cases, these millennial Hunters and Taylors, who steeplechase all the hurdles, are in — largely because their educated elders know how to train for and run the race. These kids are applying and may get accepted — chances are good — to one of the (I almost wrote “supposedly”) elite schools in America.
It’s apparent at college fair night that 99.9 percent of tenth graders do not attend. Perhaps the missing 15-year-olds have been recruited or, shopping online, already applied to 10 or 20 campuses, which may cost Mom and Dad $1000 or more. But that’s doubtful. Only a small percentage of parents and kids have done the work. Like a due-next-day English paper, most put it off until the last minute, believing that admittance is a crapshoot and, thus, advance preparation unnecessary. College is an American right, not a goal.
Still, the ease of application is deceptive. I should say, the process seems simple — apply everywhere and you’re bound to get in somewhere. (The Common App is growing in popularity: 800 colleges worldwide accept it, a million use it each year, and rates of acceptance may increase, though not necessarily to the prime choices.) Kids and parents often find maneuvering the admissions maze too complex: too few counselors, too many hoops, too much competition, too many sports- and culture- and self-induced fantasies that imply any student is eligible for any super selective school — Harvard, Yale, University of Michigan, UC Berkeley, even UCSD. No wonder they put it off. And, as the recent college admissions scandal has taught us, the system appears easier to game than anyone thought, especially for the entitled millennial.
Something’s criminally amiss when a former owner of KFMB stations, Elisabeth Kimmel, pays a consultant, Rick Singer, $200,000 — the pair tie for the Darwin Award: emails devising the scam were saved on their computers — to have her son’s face photoshopped onto a picture of “an elite high school pole vaulter,” after which no less than four track-and-field coaches accepted him, vault unseen, at the University of Southern California. (She’s pled not guilty to charges of fraud and money laundering conspiracy.)
Or former University of San Diego head basketball coach Lamont Smith, who allegedly took a $100,000 bribe from a Los Angeles real estate developer, Robert Flaxman, to allow his son onto the USD team. One problem: Junior never played basketball, a fact easily observable, except by the asleep-at-the-wheel USD admissions office. (Smith, who has not been charged, resigned as assistant basketball coach at the University of Texas at El Paso.)
Unquestionably out of whack are parents who think their very ordinary child will ascend to extraordinary if the kid studies at an extraordinarily lauded private university — because of the $60,000-per-year price tag (sometimes more), with or without a bribe. The higher the cost, the better the education? Not true.
This quid-pro-quo perception won’t quit. And yet, the college admissions scandal of 2019 is representative of nothing but fraud. Three in four college students do not attend private schools; they’re at public four-year universities and two-year colleges. What’s more, state schools enroll almost all who qualify, although that doesn’t mean the school you want to attend will enroll you. An outlying, unimpacted school — Cal State Bakersfield, or Fresno State, for instance — typically will. College marketers, admissions consultants, even school counselors spend oodles of time gold-plating their wish-list institutions. Why? Simple: status converts to money. Who else is going to pay Nick Saban, the University of Alabama head football coach and the highest paid public employee in America, his annual salary of $8.3 million?
How so? The process of college admission is overly algorithmic, exhaustively evaluated, deceptively adversarial, and at most “second-tier” schools increasingly selective. College admission is as much misunderstood as it is designed to be an unsolvable mystery, full of perceived and actual bias. Which, in the end, may be the same thing.
According to a former dean at Stanford University, Julie Lythcott-Haims, “There is no scarcity of good colleges. There are 2800 accredited four-year schools in America,” an abundance many parents are loath to consider in the hunt for citadels of learning. The ostensible need to apply to 20 schools, felt by students and parents, she says, only “increases the apparent selectivity of schools. They have to deny more applicants because too many kids are applying to too many schools.”
Citing a 2014 Gallup study, Lythcott-Haims notes that graduates who are “thriving in every aspect of their lives, from finances to intellectual development to friendships to community — it doesn’t matter whether that person went to one of the top 100 schools or the bottom 100 schools. What matters is whether the faculty cared about them.”
Still, the belief is rampant that because of the competition for so few spots in top schools, the process has to favor the wealthy and connected. This is another reason most don’t attend college fair night. Many families are suspicious, think the system is rigged. It’s assumed that to get into a “good” college, parents need to grease a coach’s palm, wine-and-dine a dean, or pay a consultant thousands of dollars.
Further dumbfounding is the control the U.S. News and World Report’s yearly ranking of national universities wields over a family’s decision about where to apply. Based on a slew of nonscientific and nonacademic criteria — 18 famous-name private schools compose the “best,” year in and year out — the college’s self-reported measures include the amount of money alumni give, anecdotal opinions of high school counselors who repeatedly rate the top the top, and an anxiety among students and parents that they must apply to these famous 18, whose rejection rate is around 94 percent. The kids who buy into all this wind up feeling like losers, inferior even at a “lesser” school where they do get in.
Call it admissions inflation with demeaning consequences. More and more families believe their child has a chance to get into UCLA despite its applicant pool last year of 131,000; more and more families believe that Cal State San Marcos is vastly inferior to the top 18, not to mention the top 50. More and more families believe that sis will never get a job with Facebook unless her educational pedigree is stamped Ivy League. One wonders how these inferences happen when it’s a fact that 71 percent of the first-year classes at Harvard, Yale, and Princeton come from the 1 percent.
It’s not that you follow the rules and you get in. It’s that the rules exist so colleges can select you from an ever-expanding field from which they farm their freshman class. The result manifests the school’s need, egregiously manipulated like Harvard’s, or sensibly mandated like San Diego State’s, which creates unreasonable expectations and a self-esteem crisis for most above-average high schoolers who are shut out of the college of their dreams.
The new elite on the Mesa
If we take local private colleges and the ten-campus University of California system out of the equation, San Diego State sparkles. Of late, the campus’s desirability rivals most state schools in America. Consider this statistic: Last year, State took 5400 freshmen and 3700 transfers, out of 69,725 freshman and 24,576 transfer applications. The acceptance rates are 7.7 percent freshmen and 15 percent transfers. A number under 10 — like top-rungs Stanford and Harvard — is judged elite.
San Diego State?
Sandra Cook is the associate vice president for enrollment management. Her title seems fashioned to calm the stormy seas raging in an applicant’s eyes. Cook, administratively with State for 25 years, described the bar that Cal State students must meet. The system uses an Eligibility Index based on grade point average (in tenth and eleventh grades) and SAT scores, math and verbal. (The grade point average is weighted twice as high as the SAT scores. With exceptions for athletes, those eligible are required to have an average of 3.6 and an SAT of 1300.)
It’s tough to get into State for many reasons. There are a finite number of spaces available in impacted majors such as business administration and management. Another limitation is that international and out-of-state students do get in, but they must have higher test scores and pay three times what residents pay. This generates revenue to make up for state budget cuts and inflated administration salaries. New president Adela de la Torre makes just under $430,000 annually. But Cook says these out-of-state admittances do not take space away from Californians, as many assume. She told one parent recently who complained about a Pakistani student at State, a chemistry major, who “took her son’s slot.” Her son ended up, mired in self-loathing, at Mesa College.
“It’s unfounded,” Cooks says of such suspiciousness. There is a “resident enrollment target” that’s set by the State of California. “These students,” international and out-of-state, “are in addition to; they don’t replace others.” She says 15 percent of the total San Diego State population is nonresident.
The majority of students are quantitatively chosen. No essay, no letters of recommendation, and, in the post-affirmative action age, no entry based on race, gender, sexual orientation, or ethnicity. (Proposition 209, passed in 1996, forbids race- or ethnic-based admissions.) In the end, the unwritten formula for State, in Cook’s phrase, is, “the fewer people you can take, the more people want to come.”
How does State make room for the “under-represented”? Cook says that even though African-Americans and Native Americans must meet the minimum score on the Eligibility Index, no school in California can hope to have a student body representative of the state demographic. Last year, only 750 Native Americans were eligible to apply to any Cal State school. Most were already recruited to dozens of other colleges, mostly private, whose diversity numbers are low and whose scholarships for low-income students, where applicable, are sizable.
How about legacy or donor admissions? President de la Torre has decreed that legacy admissions are “off the table,” according to Cook. “She thinks it’s a ticking time bomb.” Cook didn’t say how much those admits factored in before now. “They were usually above my pay grade.” A very few, she says, got in because the parents were alumni and came from families of “legislators or trustees.”
Cook is adamant about State’s impartiality. “We are open to a public audit at any time. We have to be as fair and transparent as we can, especially when you’re turning away good students for which you don’t have the capacity. You have to be able to justify that you have a fair process for getting in.”
She says the recent admissions scandal involves private universities. “Those schools have little or no accountability.” Until now. She believes the fraud has had the opposite effect. Most families don’t think they can game the system.
It’s odd, but even though San Diego State seeks a larger local population — to cut down on high housing costs and distant commutes — only 8 percent are from here. Why? Among the pool of 64,000 applicants, the most eligible —the best and the brightest — come from elsewhere. And San Diego students, as a rule, go to four-year universities where they can get in, or they go to community college.
SDSU’s most exclusive club
For most families, the core factor in deciding about college is cost. Few parents, and fewer students, can afford the $50,000 to $60,000 tuition the elites charge. Cal-State tuition, however, is not an arm and a leg. Students may earn a Merit Scholarship — need-based and highly competitive. The Merit Scholarship requires a 4.0 grade point average and a 1450 minimum on the SAT. In return, the brainiest have their $7500 yearly tuition paid. Not much, in the grand scheme. But for low-income families, it can be a make-it or break-it savings.
There’s another sort of scholarship, just as difficult to get: sports. San Diego State is an NCAA Division 1 school. According to Bobby Smitheran, State’s senior associate athletic director and a coordinator of student-athletic academic support services, the college on the mesa awarded 258.51 scholarship units out of an NCAA-approved 267.6 “allowable” units in 19 sports this past school year. Top awards were bestowed in football (85), rowing (17.88), track (15.84), women’s soccer (13.95), and baseball (11.66). There are 110 positions on the Aztec football team, though defense and offense teams on the field total just 22 players. State gives full scholarships to nearly four times those 22. Then there are 25 students who earn a spot via tryouts (walk-ons), and who pay their own way.
The student-athlete scholarship kids are allowed a somewhat different admissions standard. They may earn a spot with lower grade point average and SAT scores, judged on what Smitheran calls “a sliding scale,” which is buttressed by NCAA guidelines. Another shock: “There are those student-athletes who do not meet that sliding scale,” and are, nonetheless, allowed in. “If there’s a deficiency, we feel as an institution we can support and provide the necessary resources to ensure their success.”
In other words, if they can make the team, they will be tutored as needed. During the “recruiting process,” Smitheran says, “We identify that deficiency, educate the student about that deficiency, and communicate how they can remedy that deficiency.”
The person with the say as to who gets a scholarship is each sport’s head coach. This is so whether it’s a full scholarship given to one athlete or broken up between two or more. I wonder how the value of the player to the team is judged against the value of the student to his studies. Scoring touchdowns won’t keep you in college; you have to go to class. Excelling on tests and with papers should maintain your scholarship, but poor play on the field may jeopardize the “free ride.” The pressure is intense and, when overwhelming, may lead to failed performance on the field or court.
Smitheran notes that San Diego State is way past the days of graduating fewer than half its sports standouts. At last year’s scholar-athlete banquet, 362 of the 550 student-athletes received awards for their 3.0 or higher grade point average. Additionally, State has in recent years lost none of its NCAA-sanctioned scholarships. The Academic Performance Rate has the football team decently higher than the bottom rung of the sketchier colleges. The women’s tennis team is perfect. They all graduate.
Return on investment
What I’ve learned in this deep dive is that sports admissions — everywhere, not just at State — perpetuate a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy. The best student-athletes receive scholarships because in high school, they show great athletic potential. Obviously. But the most essential fact is, they have a high school diploma. Moreover, sports admissions reflect a class of students against which no other class competes. A recruit’s sports potential comes in lieu of his academic promise, just the opposite of every other standard for admission. Is the athlete’s academic track easier than it is for his counterparts? Contrarily, is the athlete less prepared for life because of his limited or overvalued sports skill? Do dollars for sports mean funds are shaved off a college’s academic mission? It seems a small sum at State: 258.51 scholarships times $7500 per year, $1.94 million, though the supportive expenses noted above should be subtracted. What’s the return on investment (an odd way to characterize the athletic enterprise) across San Diego State’s 19 sports?
The return is tangible and intangible, often ethically compromised. The tangible is lucre, plain and simple. Money is made off the sale of Aztec merchandise, the ticket price of games, and contractual earnings from TV and radio broadcasts of football and baseball, which pipeline more scholarships and may help erect, in good years, science labs and parking structures. The cash also flows in via sport-specific donations from former athletes and banner-waving graduates. At State, sports foundation money resides in the Aztec Club, “the development arm of the athletic department to pay scholarship bills,” Smitheran says. Like political campaigns, athletic fundraising is relentless.
The intangible includes the following: the entertainment value of State’s great players such as Marshall Faulk and Kawhi Leonard; the product-placed value of the school’s image on TV and Facebook; the loyalty value to one’s alma mater, post-graduation, that mythologizes sports over academics and fuels a need to root for the team and burnish its reputation, a major magnet that attracts new students.
Sports scholarships are part of a contemporary status-driven and quasi-patriotic identity, backstopped by a new group of outside hustlers—builders, boosters, bankrollers, and Las Vegas bettors—who want to monetize the “college experience.” This, as much as anything, is pumping up the lust balloon to get into the right school by any means necessary.
Average Debt: $30,000
Once, Johnny and Janey studied liberal arts, became well-rounded collegians who played intermural sports for fun, lived modestly in college dorms and student ghettos, had no debt to speak of, and, diploma in hand, felt adequately prepared for a career. What’s different is how colleges keep expanding the idea of what a university education should be. In our time, the focus is on professionalizing and narrowing a school’s identity: a sports franchise, a technology hub, an internist’s path to a corporate position, and a militant, politically-correct group-think. At State these days, that’s what it means to be an Aztec.
The thing a university is least good at offering anymore is a place to find yourself. You should know who you are before you apply, or the best colleges accept you. Once in, there’s less space than ever to explore who you’ll be.
This is so because colleges today must sustain themselves monetarily. The largest growth in expenditures, between 1978 and 2014, has been, no surprise, for administrative salaries, particularly to those warriors of solicitation, college presidents — and the winningest football coaches. In the process, getting students to think comprehensively, to become responsible citizens has languished. According to a Tufts University study, only three in ten college students voted in the 2018 midterms. If the status fantasies about where a student goes are a guide, universities are becoming just another institution that commodifies its “clients,” so students feel entitled to luxury dorms and state-of-the-art workout facilities, digital perks, and armed security, all the while racking up debt (the average is $30,000), the bill now totaling $1.5 trillion.
This trend feels endless. There is no alternative for young people who seek the professions colleges prepare them for, and which our society dictates is the superhighway to fortune, Mark Zuckerberg notwithstanding. Still, the more colleges expand, like San Diego State, the harder it will be to get in. Those who are admitted will be saddled with more costs (and more perks). Because the expense of operating elite and near-elite schools, precisely for their perceived selectivity, has to escalate.
Colleges can never live up to their sales pitches or the expectations of parent and child. And then to try and study with a deferred debt hanging over your pre-adult head, which you and millions like you have accrued because you are on the hook for the college’s very desirability? That realization, if and when it hits, has got to ache.