Oh God, The College Application Process Now Begins In Ninth Grade

by Leigh Anderson
Originally Published: 
Creativa Images / Shutterstock

When I was in high school, I started thinking seriously about what colleges to apply to in the fall of my senior year. I filled out five applications, waited a couple of months, and attended the one that gave me the best financial aid package. It wasn’t exactly “no fuss, no muss,” but it certainly wasn’t the two-year marathon that kids endure today.

Er, hang on, make that a four-year marathon. A new group called the Coalition for Access, Affordability and Success, composed of 80 colleges and universities, is proposing that students not only use a common application (a fine idea, and one already enabled by the Common Application) but that they now create online portfolios of their work beginning in ninth grade. NPR reports, in an interview with the University of Florida’s vice president for enrollment management, Zina Evans, that students can upload samples of their work from as far back as ninth grade when they’re applying to colleges in the 12th. It’s a kind of digital locker for work samples.

The application process will be done via a free website, a single portal for all the participating colleges. The Huffington Post reports, “The website gives students one place to send their applications, but it also gives them tools to get started years in advance. On the site, students will be able to request advice from college admissions offices, and they can create digital portfolios with the help of their teachers and counselors.”

I appreciate that students who might not have access to college counselors—or any adults at all to help guide them through the admissions process—will now have online access to college admissions offices and guidance counselors. What I don’t appreciate is the “years in advance” part.

Aren’t we supposed to be embracing free-range parenting these days? Aren’t kids supposed to be exploring and trying new things without adults guiding them every step of the way? Aren’t students supposed to be failing?

The four years of high school is a huge chunk of childhood, a chunk of childhood that is now being turned into one long audition for college. High school, as much as preschool or elementary school, should be a place for learning and exploration—as college should be, for that matter. No student will be willing to take chances, dive into unfamiliar topics, simply enjoy learning for its own sake, if each grade and project is done with an eye towards assessment.

Even in the relatively lower-key 1980s, I was reluctant to enroll in difficult classes for fear of a bad grade. I can’t imagine that a kid today who wants to try a coding class or a figure drawing class, but doesn’t want the possible C, will want to take that risk for fear of a skimpy portfolio. Extending the audition to the beginning of ninth grade robs kids of even more time to study “free-form,” so to speak, study without fear of a low grade marring a college application.

Imagine a kid who otherwise would push herself to try new things and difficult classes in ninth and tenth grades and accepts the possibility of failure or bad grades. That kid now has an empty portfolio for those years, putting her at a disadvantage to kids who played a more conservative game early on. A four-year portfolio is one more disincentive to try hard and sometimes fail.

The other thing that bothers me: Why is the college application process so “make or break,” anyway? I understand that a college education is the ticket into the middle class, and I deeply appreciate any attempts to make it more accessible to low-income kids. But I feel like this is a jerry-rig, a Band-Aid, to try to solve much more fundamental problems, like, why is poverty so ghettoized? And sure, maybe we want poor kids to look beyond their local schools when applying, by why isn’t that local school just as good an education as a farther-away school? Finally, why are “good” colleges available to so few people in the first place?

Families like mine are acutely aware that getting into a good college is the key to financial stability. But I’d like to see efforts directed more towards making college cheaper and to making cheaper colleges better, or even (and, okay, this is a lot to ask) to making a college degree unnecessary for a middle-class life. We have a culture in which very few people are thriving financially, and that creates a trickle-down pressure for kids to claw their way into the best college possible—even if it means sacrificing a big part of their childhood.

This article was originally published on