When it comes to undergraduate admissions, how much is too much?

On Monday, the last of the high school students vying for places in the Class of 2015 scrambled to submit their application materials on time to the Office of Undergraduate Admissions. If history is any indication, this year’s applicant pool will come closer than ever to numbering 20,000 students.

That daunting figure is a milestone many of Georgetown’s peers surpassed years ago. Last year, the University of Pennsylvania and Duke University each received applications from about 27,000 hopefuls; Boston College and Harvard University attracted pools of 30,000. Officials at Tulane University said they pulled in 44,000 applications — an impressive number, especially for a private university.

Compared to the size of its undergraduate student body, Georgetown receives proportionally fewer applications than most of its peers. Is Georgetown behind the curve?

No, says Dean of Undergraduate Admissions Charles Deacon (COL ’64, GRD ’69). Deacon sees the swelling numbers at schools like Tulane and BC differently: as evidence that the nation’s universities are taking increasingly desperate measures to lower their acceptance rates, protect their all-important rankings and satisfy alumni and administrators hungry for numerical evidence of their institutions’ greatness.

“For most colleges, the issue is getting as many applications as you can — that’s the Holy Grail,” Deacon says.

 

By attracting more applications and keeping the size of incoming classes steady, universities lower their acceptance rates, which factor into their placement on U.S. News & World Report’s list of the best institutions of higher learning in the country. More applications also mean more options for admissions officers, and supposedly, more talented, diverse classes.

“I don’t think these larger applicant pools are materially improving the quality of their classes,” former Dartmouth College Dean of Admissions Karl Furstenberg told The Chronicle of Higher Education last year. “What’s driving it is the institutional self-interest factor, where bigger pools mean you’re more popular, you’re better.”

Bruce Chamberlin, a senior associate director of admissions at Georgetown, echoed this statement. “If you are denying four out of five candidates … the freshman class is not necessarily going to be stronger if you were to deny nine out of 10,” Chamberlin says.

 

A Thoughtful Process

In Deacon’s view, the measures taken by many elite universities to expand their applicant pools make the undergraduate admission process homogenized at best and dishonest at worst.

The Common Application, for instance, a form that can be used to apply to over 400 U.S. colleges, caught on among elite universities after Harvard began using it in 1994 in order to start “leveling the playing fields,” as Dean of Admissions William Fitzsimmons told The Harvard Crimson that year.

But for most universities, Deacon says, the Common Application primarily functioned as an easy way to increase application numbers after the number of college applicants dropped in the 1980s and colleges began recruiting more intensely.

“The real underlying motivation was to increase your applicant pool. The easier it was to apply, the more you would get,” Deacon says.

Deacon says the drive for more applications has made admissions a “high-tech,” numbers-based process, rather than the personal, “high-touch” process he thinks it should be. As colleges have prompted students to send more and more applications, the only results — besides rising tides of rejection letters — have been dubious statistical triumphs for colleges: lower acceptance rates and boosts in the rankings.

“Is it seemly for institutions to behave in this fashion?” Deacon asks. “Much less, [is it] necessary?”

Deacon sees his office’s approach as an alternative, if not a direct counterpoint, to prevailing trends. Georgetown remains, along with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the University of Southern California, one of only a handful of top-tier universities that do not accept the Common Application. Georgetown did not even allow students to complete its application online until the 2007-2008 application cycle, according to James Colman, a senior associate director of admissions at Georgetown. The university also remains unique in continuing to require a personal interview for almost all applicants — a requirement that has become impossible for many universities in light of climbing applicant numbers.

“Applying to college should be a thoughtful process,” Deacon says. “There should be some effort involved in it.”

The office also maintains a policy not to discuss candidates with private-sector college counselors. “This is meant to be a pure process, between student and college. To let the private sector in to wreak havoc on the process is to sell out, in a way,” Deacon says.

Notably, Georgetown continues to offer a nonbinding early action admission program. Schools like UPenn use binding early decision programs to inflate their yield, the percentage of accepted students who choose to enroll, another much-touted admissions statistic, by forming large portions of their incoming classes from the early decision pool. (Last year, UPenn assembled 50 percent of the Class of 2014 in the early decision round.)

The admission rate for Georgetown’s nonbinding early program, on the other hand, is typically the same as or slightly lower than the overall admission rate, according to Colman; this year’s early acceptance rate, 16.9 percent, is 2.4 percent lower than last year’s overall admission rate.

In Deacon’s view, this approach helps Georgetown to be “an institution that seems to have a soul, that seems to have a rationale for behaving in the public interest.”

Deacon attributes his ability to maintain this approach to the consistent support of Georgetown’s administration, as well as Georgetown’s unique identity and lack of direct competition with other colleges. “We can make a stand because we don’t really have a common competitor group” of the kind faced by small liberal arts colleges or Ivy League universities, he says.

 

The Man Behind the Curtain

But even more important to the currency of Georgetown’s unique admissions philosophy is Deacon’s presence. Deacon has led the admissions office as dean since 1972 — just eight years after his own graduation from Georgetown, and well before college admissions transformed into the high-stakes, intensely competitive field it is today.

Decades before Georgetown proudly stood apart from elite schools like UPenn and Duke, Deacon helped lead the university’s effort to be more like them. In the late 1970s and 1980s, during the tenure of University President Fr. Timothy Healy, S.J., the admissions office expanded its recruitment to the West Coast and to the elite boarding schools of the Northeast.

“The idea was that Georgetown should be one of the great national universities, and that Washington could have a really great national university,” Deacon says.

In 1982 the university was invited to join the Consortium on Financing Higher Education, a group of highly selective universities that shares research about admissions, financial aid and undergraduate education.

“That was the world we moved into,” Deacon says. “That was a transition, and we behaved, in admissions, more like the highly selective Ivy League universities.”

The length of Deacon’s tenure as dean, however, has given him a perspective that continues to set Georgetown admissions apart from its highly selective peers, according to Chamberlin and Colman.

“Dean Deacon knows admissions from a vantage point shared by very few. He can see the forest through the trees. … That perspective is really respected by admissions colleagues and high school counselors far and wide,” Chamberlin says.

Colman acknowledges the potential drawbacks of Georgetown’s approach to admissions. The university may lose some talented applicants by not offering early decision, not using the Common Application and not recruiting high school students more vigorously.

“The lack of aggressive recruiting and marketing means that some potential candidates may not believe that Georgetown is as interested in them as our peers,” he says.

But for Georgetown’s purposes, Colman maintains, Deacon’s high-touch approach is a good fit, and students who have served on undergraduate admissions committees agree.

“The fact of the matter is that we accept a certain number of applicants every year, and whether or not we have a larger pool is unaffected by that,” says Tiffany Yu (MSB ’10), who served on the McDonough School of Business admission committee in 2008. “Having an acceptance rate around 20 percent versus 8 percent [is] meaningless to me.”

Chris Butterfield (MSB ’12), a member of last year’s MSB committee, says Deacon’s office should continue to make adjustments to its admissions practices without compromising the philosophy it has in place. “Otherwise [Georgetown] will lose its prestige as an educational institution and more closely resemble a multinational American company focused on numbers, not results.”

Contrary to common attitudes among admissions officers that lower applicant numbers mean lower rankings and less prestige, Deacon says Georgetown’s position has not been hurt by his approach. Georgetown’s high ranking by high school counselors in last year’s U.S. News & World Report rankings suggests that applicants respond well to Georgetown’s approach, he says. The counselor ranking, a new criterion for the overall rankings, helped move Georgetown up from 23rd to 21st on the

2010 list.

“Nothing bad has happened to us by having our stance,” Deacon says. “We’re continuing to be competitive.”

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