Max Weber, that wealth of social genius, once described the irrationality of rationality. Rationality, he said, was the streamlining of social process for the sake of expediency and efficiency. Governments were most prone to this kind of rationalization, most notably in the form of bureaucracies. But, recent sociologists have described the McDonaldization, Disneyfication and Starbucksing of non-governmental aspects of social life. What all of those fun phrases indicate is a penchant in American life for making things the same. When we walk into a McDonald’s or Starbucks, whether in Indianapolis, Tuscaloosa, Los Angeles or Portland, we know what to expect in terms of product and service.
It’s college application season and it is evident that the very kind of rationalization explained by Weber and later sociologists, has taken hold in that process, too. My youngest daughter just applied to six colleges, using the Common Application, an online application that nearly every college and university in the US accepts. This differs from just a few years ago when my older daughter applied to six colleges using six separate applications, on each of the college’s websites. Today, at this time in this college application season, seniors all over the country are using the same application to apply to the thousands of colleges and universities across the country.
On the one hand, you might think, that’s great, it makes it so simple, a sort of one stop shopping. And while this is sort of true, it would be misleading to think it’s easier, let alone reliable. Although, it’s a one stop affair, each college and university has its own set of criteria within the application framework. Applicants must be very careful to include all of the parts required for each school. So, kids have to be careful, what’s wrong with that? Nothing if that is all there was. The website itself is difficult to navigate and creates a latent learning curve that causes anxiety because the application is everything in these kids’ lives right now. One mistake, one deal could cost them college admittance and possibly alter the course of their lives.
So, take for example, my daughter’s experience. She is an A student with high test scores. a commitment to community service that goes beyond resumé padding, is on the French Honor Society and the Art Honor Society, works on yearbook and has a part-time summer job at our local beach. She is a dream applicant. Am I bragging, a proud mom? Of course! But these are also facts.
She has been preparing her college essays since last summer, working on them between work and AP summer homework. She applied early to an Ivy League school and was deferred an admissions decision until spring. As a result she applied to the five other schools she wants to attend. She had already filled out the general part to the Common Application when she applied for early action, so all she had to do was cut and paste her essays for each college as appropriate and send the application by hitting the “apply now”button. She did this on January 1, the colleges’ deadlines. Three of her essays did not, however, show up with her application. It was unclear, at the time she applied, if they were not available to the colleges or if the colleges access the essays separately, as some do. Fortunately, the following week she was notified by one of the colleges that they hadn’t received her essay. She went into her application and simply started clicking around to see what she was suppose to do. Lo and behold, next to her essay was a button that said “submit essay” that was not there originally. She happened on this and there was never additional instruction during the application process to help her know clearly what she was suppose to do for each school.
So, here we come to Weber’s idea of irrationality. He said that efficiency eventually becomes inefficient- think about your last experience at the highly rationalized bureaucracy of the DMV- and efficacy becomes unreliable as well. In other words, rationality has a tipping point. Had my daughter been able to send a paper application with her printed essays, she would have felt more secure in knowing that the colleges would have everything they needed in one place. The lack of efficacy of this method has become clear in the weeks following her application. One school emailed asking for her social security number, which was on the Common Application. No other school had this problem. Another was missing parental information for financial aid. The FAFSA is not modern enough to recognize that parents get divorced and remarried and leaves no room to explain status accurately.
The entire process in mechanized via the internet so that there are lots of moving parts. Transcripts and letters of recommendation in many high schools are sent electronically via a platform called Naviance. The one stop shopping expands exponentially when you apply for Financial Aid. There is the government website to submit the ever necessary FAFSA. If your child is applying to a private university, there is another financial questionnaire in the form of the CSS Profile, managed by College Boards, that organization that runs so much of the process from SAT testing to AP curriculum and testing to, apparently now, financial aid. Some colleges then want you to upload sensitive financial documents through still another platform, IDOCS, also managed through College Boards. Others want you to upload them through their own portals. And, of course, let’s not forget there are still those pesky SAT/ACT scores to send through their websites to the schools one is applying to. That makes at least 6 different websites one has to work with to apply to college and get some money to pay for it.
Every one of these steps has the potential for electronic mishap- the server is down, the wi-fi is spotty and you don’t know if your sending something was successful or not, you don’t get the right thing using the right link because it’s actually not the right link but you didn’t know because there are no clear instructions.
What we have here is irrationality of a once rational idea. Of course someone though it would be a good idea to streamline the thousands and thousands of applications that colleges and universities receive every year. But, it’s also scary for 17 and 18 year olds who have worked really hard for four plus years for this moment, only to find they didn’t do something correct that they could have done had they more personal control over the process. It’s hard to imagine your opportunities going down the drain because of a computer glitch.
Plus, now, in addition to studying hard to make sure first semester senior year grades are top notch, kids are required to manage the admissions portals, daily, of their applicant colleges, so they don’t miss anything important the colleges may need. And, they always need something they failed to tell you about in the first place or you thought you’d already taken care of.
It is no longer efficient or efficacious, yet, look who stands to lose if this system isn’t perpetuated through the false discourse of “simplicity”. College Board has their hands in so much of the process, and did I mention all the fees for every step of the way? FAFSA, which stands for Free Application for Federal Student Aid, is still free. The SAT/ACT charges a fee to take and to send the scores. AP tests cost per test to take and to send scores to schools.The Application costs per college on average is $70. The CSS charges to send the information to each school. College Board manages most of those. Wherever money becomes involved it lends itself to irrationality and, another subject for another day, it disadvantages so many young people trying to go to college. It seems time to once again revisit how this process works and for whom does it provide the most benefit.