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Dismantling the Admissions Myth


By Ann C. Logue
Illustrated by Abigail Friedman

The Myth of Selectivity

No doubt about it: getting into an Ivy League school is extremely difficult. But how common is such super-selectivity? What about the other thousands of colleges and universities in the country? The mythology surrounding the college admissions process has become so pervasive that many imagine the angst of Ivy League admissions to be the norm. Teenagers see it played out in “Gossip Girl” and the like, where the role that college applications play in the lives of fictional, rich, prep-school students in New York intensifies the suspenseful narrative. After all, there would be no drama if Serena van der Woodsen dreamed of attending the City University of New York, the first college in the United States to accept all applicants as a matter of policy.


The reality is far different. 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. A few hundred more accept more than 95 percent of applicants.

Harvard, by contrast, accepted only 7.1 percent of applicants last year. But that level of exclusivity is unusual, even among “elite” institutions. Northwestern University, which draws students with similar academic credentials, accepted 25.3 percent of applicants for the class of 2012. Surprised that it’s that high? Believe it or not, only about 135 colleges in this country admit less than 50 percent of applicants, according to College Masters, a consulting firm in the business of helping high school students get into the college of their choice. That means that about 1,865 four-year colleges—93 percent—admit more than half of those who apply. But people in the business of getting kids into college, and colleges with recruitment strategies built on an image of exclusivity, have an incentive to downplay that fact.


Columbia’s “Generous” Admissions Policy

Columbia College Chicago accepts more than 80 percent of undergraduate applicants. Does that mean Columbia sets the bar low? No, it means it’s typical, at least when it comes to acceptance rates. Although their acceptance rates may be identical to Columbia’s, most colleges like to refer to themselves as “selective” if they don’t admit everyone who applies. Columbia takes a different tack, choosing to champion inclusiveness over exclusivity, and describing its admissions policy as “generous.”

Mark Kelly, Columbia’s vice president of student affairs, notes that emphasizing generous admissions, rather than selectivity, is important to attracting the diverse student body that Columbia prizes. “High school grade-point averages and standardized tests are inaccurate measures of artistic and creative talent,” he says. “They do not speak to the talent, passion, and motivation young creative students bring to their chosen arts and media disciplines.” So while Columbia looks at GPAs and ACTs, those measures are not primary in the admissions process. Neither is a flashy portfolio, which is often an indication of a student’s past opportunities, rather than potential. Cutbacks in educational spending often target arts and media, leaving many potential applicants—particularly those from public schools—with plenty of talent and passion but without the sophisticated portfolios required of the most competitive art schools.

Such gaps in students’ high school educations may also leave them without an understanding of the differences between an arts education and a more traditional college curriculum. “I think about students growing up in rural farming communities,” says Murphy Monroe, Columbia’s executive director of admissions, citing one of many possible examples. These students may face two hurdles: First, no one in their families may have attended college, so they don’t know where to start. The entire application process is unfamiliar and intimidating. Second, these people may be flouting local conventions by pursuing study in the arts. “Columbia wants some of those students,” says Monroe, but only, he stresses, “the ones who are going to thrive here.”

Columbia’s admissions department’s job isn’t to bring in warm bodies; it is to bring in a freshman class that fits into the school and that has the right expectations about life at Columbia.

Generous Admissions, Selective Recruitment

Columbia’s particular brand of exclusivity starts with how people find out about the place. You won’t see recruitment ads for Columbia on billboards or buses; recruitment is far more targeted. Screening takes place before a prospective student even looks up the application, and the admissions staff works extensively with high school guidance counselors and alumni to help identify students who would thrive at Columbia. “The answer, to me, is a combination of carefully targeted recruitment and transparent messaging,” says Monroe. Columbia College is not right for everyone, but many of those for whom it is a perfect fit lack a traditional academic background or are new to the whole idea of college. They don’t want to play games; they want to study arts and media.

Those games are well known in the admissions world. Many small, private colleges reject students they believe view the campus as a safety school, giving them the satisfaction of reporting a lower acceptance rate while remaining confident that the rejected applicant will be able to receive a good education elsewhere. Other colleges encourage students who are not qualified or appropriate to apply, just so that they can then reject them. And other institutions recruit the students they really want for early admissions, then reject a large percentage of regular applicants.

These colleges have a stake in being seen as selective: an image of exclusivity is often equated with excellence, and that impresses parents, students, and alumni, no matter how difficult it really is to get in. Many public school districts want to create the image that all of their graduates go on to elite four-year colleges because that keeps up property values and makes taxpayers happier about levies. Private high schools have an even greater incentive to make parents believe they are getting their money’s worth. All of these factors play into the idea that college should be difficult to get into; therefore, an inclusive, generous-admissions campus must be a second-rate one.

Columbia College takes a different approach to recruitment. “There is something going on at Columbia that isn’t going on at the most selective art schools, and that is tied to diversity,” Monroe says. Columbia’s culture encourages an admissions policy that finds and welcomes students who will thrive at the college, whatever their previous academic experience may be. To determine who these students are, the admissions office relies on open-ended interview questions to help sort out which potential applicant is which, then recommends alternatives for people who are unlikely to be successful at Columbia. These discussions take place at high schools, at college fairs, during on-campus interviews, and via 50,000 phone calls and 100,000 emails received—and answered—each year.

Monroe says that roughly 80 percent of students admitted to Columbia College come from about 250 different high schools where the campus is known to the teachers and guidance counselors. The admissions staff visits these schools once or twice every year both to meet students and to get a feel for what takes place there day to day. “Your application is always taken in context of the high school you are coming from,” he says. Some high schools offer more opportunities than others, and the admissions office knows that. That’s why they consider more than just grades and test scores. After all, a high school that teaches to the test may have students with different results than one where the curriculum is more freeform.


Exclusivity ≠ Excellence

Debra McGrath is Columbia’s associate vice president of enrollment management. “What is amazing about generous admissions, especially in the way Columbia has defined it,” she says, “is that the policy is understood and embraced, not only by students who appreciate a school that will allow them to ‘begin at the beginning,’ but by students whose strong academic preparation and accomplishments would allow them to compete successfully for admission to those schools that truly are highly selective.”

In other words, “Students who could go anywhere are choosing Columbia because they believe we offer the best opportunity for creative development, and they understand that diversity is central to growth in the arts and media. Not only is it central to their own personal growth as artists and communicators, it is essential to the growth and advancement of these fields.”   

“Columbia’s commitment to its mission is driven by the high value it places on giving access and voice to cultures and viewpoints underrepresented in the documented history of cultural creation,” Kelly says. Students who are clearly not right for Columbia are rejected, as are those who do not have the academic skills to do college-level work. Some of the students who are accepted are advised to wait a year before matriculating. Admissions counselors may suggest they take community college classes to strengthen academic skills, spend time on their portfolios, or look more carefully at their ability to take on the cost of tuition. In addition, Kelly says, many admitted students are required to complete the four-week Bridge Program, which helps build skills in college-level reading, writing, and math work. Last year, 190 students were referred to the program; 45 percent enrolled, and 90 percent completed it.

People studying and working in the arts know they have to challenge convention every day. The students and faculty at Columbia know this, and so does the admissions staff. Its approach combines recruiting; generous, holistic admissions policies; and transparency of information to create a vibrant campus community. “You’ll find experiences here that are unique,” Monroe says, and that requires a unique admissions process.

Ann C. Logue is the author of several books, including Socially Responsible Investing for Dummies (Wiley, 2009), and has written for Alpha, Barron’s, Newsweek Japan, Business Week Chicago, and other publications. She is a lecturer in finance at the University of Illinois at Chicago, and holds a B.A. from Northwestern University and an M.B.A. from the University of Chicago.

Illustrations by Abigail Friedman.

Comments (21)

I agree! Columbia has been the perfect "fit" for my daughter. She is learning, excelling and extremely happy. After scoring a 800 on the verbal reasoning section of the SAT she was told by another university that she would need to take summer classes to "prepare" her for college! Columbia has challenged her but also supported her in her learning style, so she has been very successful.

My daughter researched CCC on her own and told me that's where she was going without a doubt. It fit her needs and wants and the sky is the limit for her at CCC. I am thankful she got her acceptance letter when she did b/c she would be at community college or still home...she was determined to get into CCC!!!

Not "on par" with other schools? It doesn't need to be. Columbia is about following your passion, which is a large part of receiving a job.

Passion should always be followed but what is the rate of employment of CCC grads working in their passion? Ask the proud CCC alum if they are working in their passions. The doorman at the Chicago Hilton, the Starbucks barista in LA, and those unemployed grads having to move back to their home towns - all bright people. How did Columbia's education help them?

People follow their passion until they realize they have to pay bills - all with an $80K student loan debt.

CCC has left me, as a student, very disheartened. In hind sight, I should have gone to a school with a better screening rate - around 67%.

Dream BIG!!!

Question James? What did you major in, what grades did you receive, and how many internships did you participate in....?

I am not sure what this has to do with anything but I am accomplished. Why do you ask Mike??

AEMM, As and Bs, 2 internships

Management Information Systems, Magna Cum Laude, 1 internship

I agree with James. It hurts to have someone attack your school, but the truth is the truth. I love Columbia, and I adore the culture and creativity created there. But now, I also have 80K in student loans and no job offers.

Not to mention, that the 80K I paid to go to school bought equipment for film majors and bought Columbia more buildings. I think each major should have to pay according to its own costs. I was creative writing. It would have been nice just to pay the cost of pencils and not film lights.

Also-for dreaming parents: Most students change their minds halfway through school about what they want to study. Check out Columbia's turnover rate. Most students leave disenchanted half way through their programs. It's the second highest rate in the country.

This school will do whatever it takes to make money off you. It's a business. Look out for yourself. This school is NOT looking out for you. Get internships, get in the field, and move on with, or without, Columbia.

p.s. I won't be responding to post-backs.

I disagree with this article. I think that Columbia is trying to sell this image to everyone. Columbia admits everyone, they are not exclusive or whatever they want to say they are. If you have a high school diploma or GED you get in. I do not know anyone that has applied there and not gotten in. This makes the school hell for everyone who wants to learn. You are held back by students who do not care, and choose not to do any work. Try being in a group project with 3 kids who do not care what grades they get. You are stuck with doing all the work. Try being in a Finance class where every 2 minutes we have to stop because kids are not paying attention. This open policy that Columbia chooses to have, can really hurt the students who care to learn.

As a response to a few comments above, isn't every school just after to make money?

I'm attending Columbia in the fall as a transfer student. I was originally at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. UWM isn't ranked as that good of a school. As a film major, the program wasn't funded well, because it's not an arts school. I did not have many resources. But since Columbia is an arts school, they are funding things that students can use...like programs etc.

I personally think that is good for a student's education.

And just because certain people aren't working in their major does not mean it's just Columbia's fault. That's EVERY school, not just Columbia. I know tons of people from other schools that graduated with majors and have not done anything with them, and none of them went to Columbia.

Columbia is a school for people who KNOW what they want to do...if people are unsure, they should know ahead of time that Columbia has a slim list of majors, and that's their fault if they still go to Columbia and they're unsure.

How is that Columbia's fault?

I do agree they want money, but isn't that what every college wants? They all want people to apply to them so they can make money off of the students.

And if people aren't participating in their class work or in a group project, which I might add is not just Columbia...my past school was like that too, it will help them learn their own responsibilities and how to deal with people like that in the real world.

I think people are accusing Columbia of being some terrible school, but when you look at the scheme of things, at least Columbia gives people a chance...

"...at least Columbia gives people a chance..."
AMEN to that !

The fact is that you'll always have the people who don't care and those who do. I've learned the hard way that an educational experience is what you make of it. Associate yourself with those who are driven rather than complain about those who aren't & please don't blame CCC for lack of unemployment! NO SCHOOL GUARANTEES YOU A JOB; You'll only be given the OPPORTUNITY and the supplies to build the skills you need for one. It's sad to see that people expect so much to be handed to them by a college; is it because you're paying for it? Silly you.
If you've walked away with nothing then you've simply failed. Luck itself is hard work and opportunity meeting one another; maybe you haven't made your own luck?

I've seen the school, I've heard students voice their opinions, both good and bad: I am PROUD to say that I will be attending Columbia College Chicago in the Fall.

-NYC High School Junior.

Does anyone have an opinion about the graduate school? I am thinking about applying for admission to the AEMM program for fall 2010.


This year was the first time I had never ever heard of our "generous" or "liberal" admissions policy until this year. Partly because I work hard and learn an immense amount of knowledge here at Columbia. Whatever the policy, the academic rigor at Columbia has been that of Ivy League school, in fact, I would argue better. Not only do we have theory at Columbia, we have practice. We obtain the acumen to compete in the world that is often blinded by the mystique of labels, titles, and money.

I came to Columbia at the age of 35 years old. The essay part of the application process was "What are the Seven Wonders of your World". I thought this was a profound question. I graduated in 2006, and one of our speakers told us ,"If you're actor and can't find a role write one, if you're a singer and can't find a gig , form your own band, etc. etc." My experiences with people who didn't care were in the general ed classes. I never experienced that in my field of study, Photography. The admission policy might be lax, but to succeed and graduate you had to put up or shut up.

In response to those above complaining about paying back their loans and tuition and not having a job, the fact is - each student, by choosing to go to an arts college and receive a degree in any field pertaining to the art of that student's choosing, risks not having a job that correlates to his or her major right out of college -- or at any time in the future. That is why the term "starving artist" is in existence. In reality, you can go to ANY school and get ANY degree and never have the job you want - no matter how good your grades or how many internships you did. You can have the most immense passion for your field, but not have the drive to achieve or not have the amount of talent needed to succeed. The truth hurts, but there it is.

I love Columbia. And I know that paying back the $80-some thousand will be hell. But I also know that what I have learned and am learning at Columbia is shaping who I am as a performer and a person. If the experience is less than you had hoped, you should get out as soon as that is the case. But before you attend any arts school, you need to face the reality of the situation: 90% of artists are out of their jobs at any given time. That's the risk of doing what you truly love, assuming that your major is something you love.

Going to any arts school is a risk. You take it or you don't. But there is no use complaining about it after the fact. It's done and done, and that's all there is to it.

As for the admissions policy, I am grateful that Columbia has a generous admissions rate. As is so well put in the article, many students have the potential, the passion, and the drive to succeed in the art field of their choosing, but do not have the opportunity to explore those arts while in high school due to lack of funding or lack of opportunity around them. What I find so beautiful about the policy is that the school is willing to give anyone a chance, and as long as you put into your education, you will get out of it also. Sure, it's easy to breeze through, but if you push yourself, I promise your professors will push you also. I am in love with this school, with the education I've received, and with the teachers I've worked with. And the truth is: many students come to Columbia thinking they love something, and realize a semester or two into the education that it is not for them... At least they had the chance to come to that conclusion on their own rather than looking back and wishing they had given it a try. Rarely does a school allow this opportunity to its students. And by sophomore year, the students who don't belong there have been weeded out and you're left with the best of the best. It's a great policy, and gives each student the opportunity to step up and perform.

I'm really glad I read all these comments because I plan on applying to CCC my senior year. From reading these comments I have come to the conclusion that college is expensive and college doesn't guarantee a job afterward, but like anything in life, it's up to you, not the people around you, to succeed.

It's not about the admissions, it's about what you make of your time, at any college!

Before I applied in February, I had so many doubts about going for my anticipated major at Columbia. The main things going around in my head were the cost, the cost, and the cost. I know I'll come out of CCC (after four years) with a bill of over $120,000, which definitely sucks. But I have slowly come to the conclusion that if I need it, then it's necessary. CCC is necessary to me to get the best out of my education. I'm sure I can pull a lot out of this school by myself alone. Which helps me reiterate what so many people before me have said, that an educational experience is only what you make of it.

Yes, an education is what you make of it - This is obvious at any school. The problem is that CCC's almost-open (or 'generous' as they like to say) acceptance rate limits a good student's ability to make the best of their education.

A more selective school with more stringent admissions policies ensure that students are surrounded with a peer group that is on par with each other and students challenge each other. There is a higher population of students at CCC that do not care about education so good students have to work even harder to be challenged.

Sadly, CCC does not ensure good students are challenged by their peers considering the 95% acceptance rate. Accepting 95% of students does not ensure a diverse population of 'artists.' 95% acceptance is a disservice to students who want to learn.

I just completed my first year at CCC in the radio program. I graduated high school with a 3.4 GPA and high SAT scores, so Columbia's "generous" admissions policy was not a major concern for me. Maybe it's the fact that most of my classes are rather small (12-18 students on average) or the fact that all of my professors have been dedicated to challenging us to meet our full potential (potential that is clearly not measured by GPAs and test scores), but I have been consistently surprised and happy with the content and quality of the education I am receiving. Yes, there are a few slackers in the mix, but you are not responsible for their education and the professors seem to recognize those students that are there to learn and do everything in their power to make it happen.

As far as job placement, at least 3 of my professors attended CCC themselves, and all have jobs (and had them very soon after graduation) in their field. No college can guarantee success in a career, but it seems that Columbia and its staff are ready and willing to offer the tools and assistance that students need to get started. The rest depends on the student, the employers and the market.

It is expensive, but that's no secret. It's up to the student to decide if it's worth it for them.

I am incredibly happy with CCC so far and am taking it upon myself to milk it for all it's worth.

I worked at Columbia College Chicago for three years. I have 26 years of experience in higher education, am a leading national advocate for access to a higher education and currently a university administrator. Columbia's use of "generous" is a take on liberal and open admissions. One cannot compare the student admission policy and the caliber of students admitted by a school like CCC to non-PFAVAC (Perfoming, Fine Arts, Visual Arts & Communication) schools. The majority of students who apply to a school like CCC are not looking for the experience provided by a school like DePaul, Princeton, The University of Illinois, Seattle Pacific or UCLA. CCC has a niche of its own. It does not claim to be a selective school. I have worked at schools with selective, rolling, open, liberal and generous [admissions]. As an admissions professional with the blessing of having worked at several schools, I can say that CCC does an excellent job in enrolling students who fit into their mold of student. Any school worth its salt recruits to its strength. The admissions team at CCC does a fine job doing it. It is folly to criticize because the approach is not held by many schools. There are not that many schools like CCC that focus on the Arts. Those of us in this industry respect CCC and Mr. Monroe for what he does for his school and the students who will attend CCC. Most of the CCC admissions staff is homegrown. In the arena of effective recruitment for CCC, this is a smart practice. They can relate the experience. They know CCC. It would be folly for one to expect them to be adept at the recruitment practices of other non-Arts colleges. CCC is not easily compared to a school like Northwestern U. My wife took classes and enjoyed them. Yes, there were students in the class who struggled because of poor academic habits. There are services to help them. Finally, there are thousands of colleges and universities. CCC is just one school who happens to do what they have to do to recruit very well. Yes, this approach would not work at a selective Pac-1) university (where I work), but then again it should not be expected to do so.

I submitted my app last month and I truly feel that Columbia is the school for me!!! I feel more comfortable and less nervous about the application process! I have been wanting to attend this school since my freshman year and Columbia fits me personally!!! I really hope that I get in!