On this episode of the Getting Smart Podcast, we’re talking with journalist and author Jeff Selingo about his new book Who Gets In & Why: A Year Inside College Admissions. This book was published in September 2020 and was named an Editors’ Choice by the New York Times Book Review.

Jeff has written about higher education for more than two decades and is a New York Times bestselling author of three books. He is a regular contributor to The Atlantic and is a special advisor for innovation and professor of practice at Arizona State University. He also co-hosts the podcast, FutureU.

The episode kicks off with a quiz about postsecondary statistics asking: what percentage of Americans have a postsecondary degree? What was it 20 years ago? What should it be? What’s the size of the postsecondary education sector?

In response to the last question, Jeff points out one of the biggest misunderstandings of the postsecondary space: “We tend to think of higher education not as a workplace but as a school … these places employ […] Universities are the factories of the modern economy.”

When writing this book Jeff followed 30 learners, a dozen of them closely. In the journey of writing this book, he learned that admissions were thoughtful but not fair, consistent or meritocratic. The admissions team typically spends 8-12 mins per application using assets that come with their app, based on past performance.

Jeff also provides examples of how applicants can better take control of the process:

  • Expand the field (it’s not a scarce resource)
  • Make it a learning experience
  • Balance your list, think about money
  • Personalize application
  • What’s the story you want to tell … you have 8 min to tell story
  • It’s about an overall fit rather than signaling.

“[Students should] use college search as a learning opportunity. Start with 30-40 schools.”

He also suggests making all colleges recruit their entire student body like they do athletes. This involves a pre-read of the application and expectation setting. It also involves more transparency from the college regarding what they are looking for.  “All students, early in the search, need to see the total cost.”

On parenting, Jeff believes that parents should stop using the college admissions process as a trophy for successful parenting.

On high school guidance, Jeff believes that we need start younger, 8th and 9th grade, using a strong counseling system for college preparation.

If Jeff were to write the book again, knowing what he knows now about the pandemic, he would be sure to add more about financial stability and more about the possibility of a test optional system.

Key Takeaways:

[:10] About today’s episode with Jeff Selingo.
[:48] Tom Vander Ark welcomes Jeff to the podcast!
[:52] What percentage of Americans have a post-secondary degree? And is it better than it was twenty years ago? What should we be aiming for?
[1:52] Does Jeff see higher ed changing from something that you do after high school to something that you continue to access throughout life?
[4:53] Should colleges be turning their alumni networks into learning networks?
[6:14] How many institutions are there for American higher ed?
[7:06] The impact that the pandemic is having on these institutions and, in turn, the communities they’re a part of.
[8:32] How many universities are selective?
[9:47] Is it true that a large percentage of young people actually get into their first-choice college?
[10:30] Jeff shares his thoughts on the ACTs and the SATs. Is he pro- or anti-testing?
[12:20] Has college lost its return on investment over the last decade?
[13:20] Tom congratulates Jeff on his new book, Who Gets In and Why: A Year Inside College Admissions.
[13:40] Why did Jeff decide to write this book?
[15:06] While researching his book, Jeff spent a lot of time in three universities in particular. How did he choose them and why? And were these universities selective?
[15:54] How many students did Jeff track at these universities?
[16:15] Is the admissions process better or worse than most would think?
[17:37] What does Jeff mean by, “Schools are either buyers or sellers”?
[18:48] Jeff’s predictions for the future of “buyers.”
[20:32] Jeff’s advice for applicants from his book.
[22:59] How big should your college funnel be? And how do you narrow it down?
[24:02] Does early admission improve your chances of getting in?
[24:33] Is fit or image more important when choosing where to go?
[25:12] How Jeff advises learners and their families on the trade-offs between reputation and cost.
[27:57] What the parents’ role should be in this process.
[28:50] What should the high school experience be so that learners are positioned to make a good choice in selecting which college or university is right for them?
[30:27] What would Jeff add to his book now, given the pandemic?
[31:43] Jeff’s predictions on what college might look like coming out of the pandemic.
[32:14] What does Jeff mean by, “Colleges should recruit all students like athletes”?
[33:15] America seems to have fallen out of love with higher ed in the last few years. Is Jeff optimistic about the future of the sector?
[35:08] Tom plugs Jeff’s book, Who Gets In and Why: A Year Inside College Admissions and gives his recommendation on who should be reading it.
[35:47] Where to learn more about Jeff and his book online.
[36:10] Tom thanks Jeff for joining the podcast.

Mentioned in This Episode:

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