Despite, or perhaps due to, the growing necessity of higher education in the competitive global jobs market, admission to colleges and universities has grown increasingly complicated for applicants, their parents, and also admissions professionals in recent decades. This is of particular concern, because in the twenty-first century, as diverse figures across the educational and public spectrum have conveyed, and as President Obama himself put it, higher education, “is no longer just a pathway to opportunity and success. It’s a prerequisite for success."
That message resonates from all sides in today’s admissions environment. Students are working harder than ever to gain entry into increasingly selective institutions at the top of the rankings, and, it should be noted, simultaneously undertaking an increasingly unsustainable load of debt to afford those, or any, college experiences. Indeed, the sobering reality of the debt problem is illustrated by data published this year by the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis: the single largest monetary asset of the federal government is unpaid student loans, now totaling almost $900 billion, an increase of over $700 billion in the last six years.
The other side of this headline-grabbing phenomenon, however, was my focus in a University Scholars research project this summer (University Scholars is one of the fantastic programs run by Penn's Center for Undergraduate Research and Fellowships). While students are leaving college laden with debt, many are also pushing harder than ever to attend a limited circle of “elite” colleges, which have risen to the top of the various ranking systems.
The disconnect between those two realities — the push to get in, and the troubles coming out — interested me in the current landscape of college admissions and how it is viewed by admissions professionals, parents, educators, and most of all students. Particularly intriguing was the further question of how the process of admissions impacts the decisions that students make once they arrive at a college in choosing a major, and whether this question might provide a novel insight into the ongoing struggles and decline of the humanities at many institutions of higher education within the United States.
One of my main interests is filmmaking, in particular documentary film. I was fortunate to receive funding from the University Scholars to work over the summer on a documentary film that would educate viewers on the current admissions landscape through in-person interviews with the stakeholders at every level. I wanted something that would potentially become a scholastic tool — a way for prospective students and the general public to learn about the current situation and implications of the admissions process.
Furthermore, the immediacy of the documentary format suggested itself as the ideal medium for representing the experiential side of what is, at times, an extraordinarily complex and data-driven issue. I was fortunate to receive guidance and counsel on the project from Dr. David Wallace of the English Department and Dr. Timothy Corrigan of the English Department and Cinema Studies Program.
In early May of 2015, as classes wound down, I started work on the film. In particular, when I sat down to plan out the documentary, I became increasingly focused on studying the portals through which the majority of prospective high school students are learning about and interacting with their college choices: the comparatively new internet technologies and social forums like the College Confidential and The Common App.