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Why is it so difficult to get accepted to college?

Updated: Nov 2, 2021

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Over the course of the past few decades, it has become increasingly clear that the process of college admissions is cutthroat. Making your applications stand out from thousands of others, especially for highly selective schools, takes grit. In the past, it was much more feasible to achieve higher education. Why does it seem that older generations had an easier time getting accepted into college?

The answer begins with the Progressive Education Movement that came into fruition around the late 1800s and early 1900s. Utopian philosopher John Dewey was a major proponent of this reform. He argued that education had become a vessel for the useless memorization of aristocratic academia and that Democracy and learning through experience should be emphasized instead. Dewey also thought that what a student learned in school should be relevant to their life and identity.

Progressive education became more popular during the Great Depression because it reflected on America’s past and worked to make improvements. However, during the Second World War, progressive education began to be widely denounced. Its reflective nature was now viewed as unpatriotic and even communistic. Curriculums began to revert to a focus on obedience that was relevant to the war effort, like the intense physical education that colleges began to promote, assumedly for military purposes, if necessary.

After the war the 1944 GI Bill, which provided financial support to veterans, encouraged many to finish high school and attend a postsecondary institution. The US population spiked from the baby boom, which would later also contribute to the selectivity of colleges.

At the start of the Space Race in 1955, the US was shocked by the Soviet Union's launch of the first artificial satellite, Sputnik. A new wave of educational reform emerged that focused on academic excellence. The idea was that American students were not being pushed at the level that those of the Soviet Union were. Mathematics and sciences became a main focus as a result. Homework had been minimized during the Progressive Education Movement, but with this rise in rigor, homework levels surged.

Soon the Academic Excellence movement began to fizzle out a bit. Having a college degree was becoming progressively more necessary and as a result, more women and people of color began to take standardized tests like the SATs and apply to college. In 1983, The National Commission on Excellence in Education wrote a report entitled “A Nation at Risk.” The report warned Americans that declining test scores and academic achievement would have dire consequences, such as impacts on the economy. It recommended the implementation of many adjustments to the existing system including longer school hours, the “5 basics” (comparable to the A-G requirements), more testing, and more homework–many of which were carried out. “A Nation at Risk” even urged colleges to increase their admissions standards to motivate students to work harder.

However, even after its initial release people continue to criticize the report’s prepositions and even legitimacy. Standardized tests are known to be biased to certain groups. Since more women and POC began to take the SAT in the 1980s, comparing their scores to that of white men in the Sputnik era garners inaccurate projections. American students were actually showing slight improvement, contrary to what the report argued. Nonetheless, many of the ideas mentioned were executed and can still be seen in school today.

Since the 80s, it has become exceedingly essential to have a degree in order to make a livable wage. The influx of applicants gives colleges a larger selection, fostering competition. Educational reform that has made curriculums and college readiness standards higher, coupled with expensive tuition, makes it especially difficult to get accepted to college and eventually graduate in the present day. On a more positive note, the pandemic has helped colleges realize that the SAT and similar standardized tests are not the most fair way to gauge a student’s intelligence or work ethic. Although this is a good starting place, there is still work to be done towards a better road to postsecondary education.

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