Are you the customer or the product?

What do you have to do to get into college in 2022? Also: Understandably Live, plus a look back, and 7 other things worth your time.

Today’s newsletter is about college. It’s prompted by a good Understandably Live we have coming up this week.

I’ll be interviewing Becky Munsterer Sabky, a 13-year veteran of the admissions office at Dartmouth University, about her new book: Valedictorians at the Gate: Standing Out, Getting In, and Staying Sane While Applying to College.

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I have more than a passing interest in this, as I’m sure many of you do, even if my daughter won’t be college-application-age for quite some time.

Frankly, three things popped out at me when I was asked if I’d like to talk with Sabky:

  • First, the title. I know I’m literally judging a book by the cover here, but any riff off Barbarians at the Gate is likely to get my attention.

  • Second, the endorsement: Adam Grant of Wharton, whose quote below the title says that this is “the most honest, most helpful book I’ve ever read on applying to college.”

  • But most important: the opening pages, in which Sabky talks about her early admissions committee days, when she wanted to admit everyone—and how she had to learn which applicants to reject.

A lot of the book comprises her practical advice to today’s applicants. But I hope we’ll also get to talk about the state of college admissions in general, and elite universities’ role in the world.

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  • Date: Thursday, August 5

  • Time: 1 pm ET

  • Where: Live on Zoom, then shared on YouTube

Understandably Live (Thursday 8/5, 1 pm)

Previous episodes of Understandably Live are all on YouTube. Find them at!

Customer or product?

Back in the early days of Understandably, I wrote about a trick that the Wall Street Journal reported some colleges were using to get more students to apply—even as the colleges knew they likely wouldn’t admit them.

In short, they were buying student leads from the College Board (at about 47 cents each) so they could encourage the students to apply (often, accompanied by a $50-75 fee)—only to be rejected.

Why do that? Because a lower admissions rate increases the perception that a college is more elite. Or even “elite among the elite.”

Take Harvard University. For the class of 2000, the admit rate was 10.9%. By 2019, it had fallen to 5.2%. This year, it plummeted to 3.43%.

Or look at Vanderbilt University, which the WSJ said tripled its number of applicants between 2002 and 2017, while its admit rate plummeted from 46% to 11% over the same period.

In 2018, the report said, Vanderbilt bought “between 100,000 and 200,000” student leads from the College Board.

Among them was Jori Johnson of Illinois, who received brochures from Vanderbilt, Stanford, Northwestern, and the University of Chicago after taking a practice SAT test.

She applied to all four; all four then rejected her.

“I just stared at my computer and cried,” said Johnson. (She wound up at New York University.)

Maybe you’ve seen me float my radical solution to all of this—the idea that colleges should expand.

They should admit many more students, and the successful universities with enormous endowments should be encouraged to make offers to take on some of the struggling institutions around the country in a merger scenario.

It’s what would happen in virtually any other industry, right? Any other business.

But at the risk of reusing a pithy phrase, it reminds me of a classic story from Harvard Business School.

An MBA student was arguing with the registrar:

Student: “Why are you treating me like this? I’m the customer!”

Administrator: “No, you’re not. You’re the product.”

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