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Where I'd go to college today

posted: April 16, 2022

tl;dr: I’m pretty sure I would not go to Cornell if I was starting college in 2022...

The U.S. higher educational system was in a vastly different state in the 1980s compared to the 2020s. I actually think the system is in a crisis now and due for major systemic changes, but that is a blog post for another day. Today I’m focusing on whether and where I would go to college, if I was starting in the Fall of 2022 instead of the Fall of 1982.

I’m pretty sure I would not go to Cornell and not just because I would choose Stanford over Cornell, as I somewhat jokingly described in my Choosing the wrong college post. I would be much less likely to be accepted into Cornell’s College of Engineering in 2022 compared to 1982. I would also be much less likely to want to attend an expensive school like Cornell to study computers (see Choosing my major: CS, CE, or EE), given the alternatives that exist today. For me, attending Cornell or a school like Cornell was much more of a no-brainer decision in 1982 than it is in 2022.

The odds of any given student getting into Cornell, or any competitive school, are much lower in 2022 than in 1982 because of the systemic problem I described in College admissions game theory. Students are applying to many more schools, which means most schools receive more applicants for their open slots than they did decades ago. This means that the odds of any given student getting accepted go down. Because students are less likely to get an acceptance from any given school, they are incentivized to apply to a greater number of schools to avoid getting locked out entirely, which just makes the problem worse. It’s a vicious cycle which hurts both the students and the schools: students are less likely to get their first choice, and schools are less likely to get the students who most want to attend. I’ve spoken with students who applied to every Ivy League school, which is a completely ridiculous notion in my mind because the eight schools are so different from each other. I try to gently ask “which one do you really want to go to?”

Besides the overall odds of getting into a school like Cornell being lower, the odds of a student like me, given the circumstances of my birth, being accepted into Cornell are lower in 2022 than in 1982. I’m not exactly the type of student that Cornell is reaching out to and encouraging to apply. The admissions decision process is purposefully opaque, with the results being a more diverse student body. Many will argue that this is how it should be. What isn’t arguable is that my odds would be lower in 2022 than in 1982. It is what it is.

An expansive green lawn with paved paths and mature trees, with a large two story academic building in the background, with a statue in front of it

Cornell’s Arts Quad

Another factor working to my detriment is Cornell’s decision, made at the start of the COVID-19 endemic, to stop requiring students to submit SAT or ACT scores, a policy that continues through 2022. I took the SATs one time and got scores that, based on the figures published in the college guides at the time, placed me above average for Cornell. So I could be reasonably confident that my SAT scores improved my odds of admission. Cornell still accepts scores if submitted, but since they are not required of all applicants, they can’t be much of a factor in admissions decisions.

Another change to the admissions process would be even more detrimental to my odds of success today: the complete removal of input from alumni gathered via an in-person interview. As I described in my College admissions game theory post, I caught a lucky break on who conducted my interview, and I am pretty sure that I got a stellar writeup. I’ve now participated on the other side of the table in this process and conducted numerous alumni interviews with prospective students. However, as of a couple years ago, Cornell decided that they no longer wanted any input from the alumni interviewer about the student. No explanation was given for this change, leaving the alumni to speculate. I’ve since stopped doing the interviews, since they are now just opportunities for students to ask questions of an alum, and the Cornell I remember is fading from both my memory and from the world.

Price would definitely inhibit me from attending a university like Cornell in 2022. The College of Engineering is one of Cornell’s private colleges, but in 1982 it was still somewhat affordable by middle class families without having to go significantly into debt. There’s been a lot of inflation since then, so one way I like to look at what college costs is in relation to what a student can expect to earn when they graduate with the degree they are seeking. When I graduated in 1986 tuition had just topped, for the first time ever, the $10,000/year barrier, whereas a newly minted graduate with the degree I received got offered a starting salary of around $30,000/year. So students with the degree I earned started their careers at roughly three times the price of tuition. Even if a student took on some debt, it was likely to be a manageable amount. In 2022-23, tuition at the Cornell College of Engineering is over $62,000. I don’t think the typical engineering grad is starting off at over $180,000/year.

The first IBM PC came out in 1981, and I entered Cornell in 1982 to, among other things, study computers. The only other viable way to learn about computers and programming in that era was to be fortunate enough to work for the right company and get on-the-job training. The personal computers at the time were extremely limited in their capabilities. There was no broadband networking with the wealth of information and learning aids that one can find online in 2022. To learn about computers in 1982, you pretty much had to go to a place that had good computers, which meant mainframes and minicomputers, and Cornell fit that bill. Today, many more computer professionals are self-taught, in whole or in part, and there are other educational alternatives such as online courses and bootcamps. Companies are also much more willing in 2022 to hire someone who did not earn a bachelor’s degree in a field of study related to computers. Given all of today’s alternatives, and that I already had a job in computers when I was deciding on attending college, I might have pursued a different path than I did in 1982.

Finally there’s the COVID-19 issue, which has dramatically worsened student life at places like Cornell due to the mitigations implemented. To spend all that money to receive a subpar college experience changes an already bad cost/benefit ratio for the worse. I feel really bad for all students, at all levels, who have seen the educational experience they were expecting to receive obliterated. It’s an entirely rational decision to opt out of the educational system while it is unable to deliver what it once did.

Looking back forty years, it was a no-brainer decision for me to attend Cornell. In 2022, it is much harder to see myself doing so. If I did go to college in 2022, I would probably attend a lower cost state university.

Related post: College admissions game theory

Related post: Choosing the wrong college