From 1950’s “Gentleman’s System” to Brutal Competition; Matriculation to Top Colleges Has Decreased Over Time

Fifty years ago, a PA student’s admission to a prestigious college was dependant not on a 6.0 GPA and an endless list of extracurricular activities, but a simple phone call. The college admissions process at PA has changed dramatically since the late 1950s. Back then, admittance to prestigious colleges such as Yale, for which PA was the main feeder school, was easily secured by the College Counseling Office. The “gentlemen’s” system, used by PA and most other prestigious preparatory schools through the mid to late 1950s, involved a college counselor selecting “appropriate” colleges for students, followed by a phone call to the admissions officers of the aforementioned prestigious universities. One common rumor goes that the phone call would suffice to assure a PA student’s place at said college. Director of College Counseling John Anderson said, “The assumption that if you went to Andover, you would go to X, Y, and Z college is exaggerated and hyperbolic,” although based roughly on the truth. Since then, a number of tumultuous events like the Cold War, Civil Rights Movement, and Vietnam War have led to a reform in the college admission process, as prominent academics warned the United States was falling behind the Soviets in both science and mathematics. Concerning the struggles facing the United States at the time, Anderson said, “The key of privilege that came with the college admissions process was being redistributed.” The government then poured money into education, especially in mathematics and science because the “gentlemen’s agreement” was not conducive to the progress, according to Mr. Anderson. The recognition and attainment of a high academic quality became a high priority for the U.S. government. According to Mr. Anderson, the Civil Rights Movement also played a vital role in the changes to the college counseling process because it brought the concepts of equality and social class into the limelight. Mr. Anderson said, “Colleges began to ask who/what are we admitting,” and began to disregard economic and social power as a factor in admittance. He also believes that the meritocracy that emerged from the late 1950s played a vital role in bringing a merit-based system to the college admission office. “If places like PA considered themselves the elite, then how are they going to be non-elitist?” Mr. Anderson asked. The new college admissions process was intended to “make for a level playing field” for students. Mr. Anderson believed that the Civil Rights movement and the war in Vietnam not only brought into question the system of college counseling and college admissions, but it also scaled back the number of over- privileged students and expanded the number of people from disadvantaged backgrounds. According to Mr. Anderson, Phillips Academy has adapted to the forces of change by reshaping the college admissions process. Students are now given a much more realistic picture of what the college process entails. One of Mr. Anderson’s goals is to continue to educate students as well as the college admissions offices to help them to gain a better understanding of PA and its students. To achieve this goal, the College Counseling Office invites admissions officers from various colleges to campus each year. The changes made in the college counseling process have affected students in a variety of ways, most notably through the increase in competition. This growing number results from an expanding group of high school graduates who are seeking to further their education. However, colleges have not grown enough to accommodate the increase in college applicants and high schools. Grade inflation has also played an important role in the shift towards competition. In previous years, according to Mr. Anderson, it was much more common for students to receive lower grades. However, with the increase in competition and pressure, students have striven to receive higher grades and teachers felt pressured to give higher grades, thus leading to inflation. According to Mr. Anderson, 1983 was a pivotal year in the college admissions process because the first college ranking was released. This ranking illustrated the new competitive spirit, as students strove to attend higher-ranked colleges. In reference to the fierce competition created by the new college admissions system, Mr. Anderson said, “I am delighted to have a much fairer college admissions process, [but am] sorry students bear the brunt.” Currently, according to Mr. Anderson, PA strives to “foster and nurture the process as it has moved away from the directive approach of telling students what to do to a much more open process of self-assessment, teaching students how to make decisions and judgments.” Anderson said, “there are no guarantees anymore. We have to help students and parents understand how and why these changes [in the college counseling process] have come about.”