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College Admissions in the Internet Age: A Documentary Research Project

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College Admissions in the Internet Age: A Documentary Research Project

By Benjamin Finkel.

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

    • College Confidential / The Common App

I wanted to learn more about how these resources had impacted students’ experiences of applying to college, and how the colleges themselves were being affected. Early on, I had the great opportunity to sit down with Penn's very own Dean Furda to discuss the project and gain his insight into this current admissions landscape. Dean Furda graciously offered his thoughts on how these diverse new technologies are impacting admissions, and the conversation was extraordinarily constructive in the initial stages of the film, particularly in formulating the conceptual framework around which the documentary would turn.

My initial interest in the project was sparked my senior year of high school. For my entire K-12 education I’d been home schooled, so I approached the college admissions process as a complete stranger. Perhaps because of this outsider’s perspective, I found myself fascinated every step of the way — from the simple logistics that go into quantifying a generation of students, to the manifest intricacies of formatting one’s identity into six hundred and fifty words or less. The rise of internet technologies catered to the college admissions world in the past decade has seemingly complicated this process, creating opportunities for students to share information and opinions about particular schools and potential strategies for admission with peers around the country and the globe. 

College Confidential, the largest online forum for college admissions in the world, has millions of posts from high school students (and their parents), as well as from matriculated college students and even administrators. I decided to begin the project by focusing on College Confidential, and I set the ambitious goal of interviewing the site’s principal founders, who sold the site in 2008 to Hobsons, the international educational conglomerate, which now runs it for profit.

I reached out to the founders of College Confidential, and to my delight they were willing to sit down for an interview. My first interview took me into Western Pennsylvania, near Altoona, where I recorded first-hand the development and unusual trajectory of College Confidential with Dave Berry, a senior advisor and cofounder. I then spent the summer traveling around the country, filming students, their parents, admissions officers, and consultants. 

    • Dave Berry
    • Interview still: Dave Berry, cofounder of College Confidential.

    • Maggie Delessio
    • Interview still: Prospective college student.

    • roadtrip
    • On the road in Massachusetts. 

    • Sally Rubenstone interview
    • Interview still: Sally Rubenstone, senior contributor to College Confidential.

    • Sally Rubenstone
    • Behind the scenes shot of an interview in progress.

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Perhaps the highlight of my research, however, was a trip I took over fall break to speak with college-bound students and high school officials in Asia. I made use of an accumulated stock of frequent flyer miles to travel to Seoul, Hanoi, and Hong Kong, and received great help from the students and school administrators everywhere I went. I especially enjoyed meeting Gregg Maloberti, a Penn graduate and Director of the Canadian International School of Hong Kong, who allowed me full access to the students and teachers of the school. I was interested in traveling abroad and adding that component to the film, hoping the contrasts that emerged from studying the view of the American admissions scene that exists overseas would make the situation in the United States more readily understood.

In South Korea, I spoke with Fred Schneider, a forty-year veteran at the Seoul International School, who offered insightful details into the current international admissions landscape. In a time of intensifying emphasis upon cultural value, where successful admission to a select number of schools is seen as a mark of societal prestige, the focus of many of his students is almost solely placed upon attaining admission to a top-ten U.S. school, without regard to the best fit for a student or even the student’s potential chances of admission. 

    • Fred Schneider
    • Interview still: Fred Schneider, Dean of Students at Seoul International School.    

    • seoulintlschoolok
    • Video still: The gates of the Seoul International School in Seoul, South Korea.

    • Hanoi
    • Video still: A busy street in Hanoi, Vietnam.

    • Catherine Irvine
    • Interview still: Catherine Irvine, Guidance Counselor at the Canadian International School of Hong Kong. 

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I traveled around Hong Kong Island and spoke with prospective students, teachers, and counselors. The environment there, I found, is an intensification of what I had heard in the U.S. from college-bound students. As Robert Sternberg (former President of Oklahoma State University and current Professor at Cornell) explained in 2010, “Our society has a real problem … its obsessive preoccupation with test scores … We need to be concentrating on developing wise and ethical leaders — instead we are developing people who are consummate multiple-choice test-takers.”

I’ve been thrilled to have the opportunity to carry out this project and to produce this film. I’m now in the process of editing the documentary, and am continuing to film interviews during the semester as the opportunities present themselves. When the film is complete, I will be aiming to screen it at educational events on campuses and high schools, as well as releasing it for free online.

Benjamin Finkel is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences, majoring in English. He is the founder of HappyPapaya Films, a video production company, and at Penn is involved with Symbiosis Magazine and the Underground Screenwriting Guild.  

Edited by Mariah Macias.