The Scientology Of College Admissions

My 13-year-old son Zev loves doing magic tricks. He can take a deck with cards shuffled face-up and face-down, wave his hand, and – voila! – suddenly all the cards are face down except for your card. After we took him to L.A.’s famous Magic Castle, he began experimenting with cups, making balls jump from cup to cup. He’s also something of a perfectionist. Before he performs a trick, he practices a dozen times to make sure it works; he tells me he can make a card “float a little bit,” although not yet for public consumption. But not all would-be magicians are so careful. Like L. Ron Hubbard, the founder of Scientology.

In 1950, after a middling career as a science fiction writer, Hubbard filled L.A.’s Shrine Auditorium promising to reveal the world’s first “Clear” – a woman who, thanks to his new science of Dianetics, had freed herself of neuroses and psychological ailments and therefore could remember every moment of her life. After a lecture on Dianetics, Hubbard brought the woman on stage. Then the audience began to ask very specific questions:

What did you have for breakfast on October 3, 1942?

What’s on page 122 of the Dianetics book?

Not surprisingly, the woman didn’t know. Hubbard tried again, turning his back and asking about the color of his tie. Again, no idea. The audience began shouting, then leaving. Hubbard’s first magic show went up in flames.

Of course, this setback – along with Hubbard’s paranoia, lavish spending, bigamy, a report from the American Psychological Association criticizing Dianetics for lacking empirical evidence, and a lawsuit from an early benefactor that resulted in losing the copyright to Dianetics (hence the “discovery” of Scientology) – didn’t stop him and his followers from building Scientology into an international religion-like enterprise worth billions. While Scientology’s core beliefs come straight out of bad science fiction – we are all immortal beings who gain bodies and lose memories of past lives at high-voltage laser beam implant stations situated around the universe (Hubbard subsequently added an origin story involving Xenu, fearsome leader of an ancient galactic confederacy) – the allure of regaining the spiritual freedom of our immortal selves coupled with Hubbard’s prolific pulp-fiction output yielded a system with over 30 different levels, represented on an insane eye-chart called The Bridge to Total Freedom. Over 100,000 people have attempted to “go Clear” by completing one or more levels, which speaks to our unquenchable search for happiness, and perhaps our unquenchable love for science fiction. Beware: it may be harmful to learn the truth about Xenu until you’ve reached Operating Thetan Level III.

According to the chart, there are nine different ways to gain admission to Scientology’s first level – including the Life Improvement Course Route, the Personal Efficiency Route, the Anatomy of the Human Mind Route, and the Hubbard Key to Life Course Route – from whence acolytes can start on 30+ levels. And perhaps not coincidentally, there are now six different ways to gain admission to college from whence students can start on 30+ credits.


If you haven’t tried to navigate the college admissions maze recently, here’s a map.

1. Early Decision
Over 100 private colleges currently offer the opportunity for an early decision by committing to attend if accepted; students apply by November and typically hear back in December. The drawbacks are you can only choose one (high schools won’t allow students to submit multiple Early Decision applications) and the commitment is made ahead of any insight into financial aid, which tends to make Early Decision a route for the rich.

2. Early Action
About 250 private and public institutions welcome Early Action applications in November. Early Action is not binding. It just means you get a decision sooner, often in December. And because it’s not binding, students can submit as many Early Action applications as they like.

3. Restrictive Early Action
Because Early Action applications don’t mean what they used to, some colleges allow students to apply Restrictive Early Action – a non-binding application like Early Action, but where students (and high schools) promise they’re not submitting other Early Decision or Early Action applications. (Some Restrictive Early Action programs bar all other early applications while others allow other early applications to public universities.)

4. Early Decision 2
With a January application deadline after early decisions are received, ED2 provides another opportunity for students to make a binding commitment and hear back in February. Most Early Decision schools have an ED2 option.

5. Regular Decision
Non-binding application with deadline in January or February – probably the way you applied back in the day.

6. “Secret” Early Decision 3
About 30 private colleges will switch a Regular Decision application to a binding ED2 application if they’re notified in time.

Getting into college has become eerily similar to getting into Scientology. Neither is free: college applications cost $70 while Scientology gateway courses like Personal Efficiency run around $50. Scientology also has secret levels: Operating Thetan levels are supposedly confidential, especially those above OT XVII where, according to former Scientologist Mike Rinder “you will find out who you really are.” Or would, if these levels existed (which they don’t, apparently).

The Xenu-size question, though, is why applying to college has become as disorientingly complicated as Scientology. One possibility is that complexity makes it seem elusive and exclusive, or perhaps so dizzying that you just say yes. Another is to foster the illusion of agency when there’s but one destination: 30 credits or levels. A third is to draw you in before you have a full picture of the cost. But the most likely answer is to maximize yield for reasons of rankings and raw dollars; neither college nor the Church of L. Ron Hubbard wants to spend money recruiting you if you’re not going to start climbing the ladder.

Demonstrating the centrality of yield management to college admissions, University of Miami recently added another secret level to its process, sending the following email to Early Action applicants on December 21, 2023:

I am pleased to inform you that based on your superior academic record and myriad personal achievements, the Office of Undergraduate Admission has named you a finalist for a Premier Scholarship… cover[ing] the full cost of tuition for four years of undergraduate study at the University of Miami. As a finalist, we request that you write a short essay. Submit your 250-word response to the following prompt no later than January 1, 2024… Finalists who fail to submit an essay response by the deadline will likely not be admitted to the University of Miami due to lack of demonstrated engagement.

With a ten-day deadline over the holiday – a period when, as Jeff Selingo adroitly pointed out, attempts to reach the University of Miami admissions office were met with an out-of-the-office-until-January-2-auto-response – as one commentator noted, “that’s some ‘you may already be a winner’ bullcrap.” Either that or a yield-management scheme worthy of L. Ron Hubbard.

Because make no mistake, the money isn’t in the application fees or gateway courses; the money’s in the ladder. With selective colleges now routinely exceeding $80K per year for tuition, room, and board, four-year degrees can approach $350K, providing ample room for discounts or “merit scholarships” to convince students to place their foot on the first rung. Perhaps not by chance, $350K is about what it costs to reach the OT VIII level. College can get even more expensive if students are required to take extra credits by repeating courses – not uncommon because schools can be persnickety about transfer credits – or because required classes are often capacity constrained. Likewise, Scientology frequently updates course material, requiring re-dos and additional spending.


College admissions is increasingly a Scientology-like scam. But it doesn’t have to be. Colleges could reverse the trend by committing to a single application and deadline – likely in the name of equity, but also simplicity. Simple is elegant. Simple doesn’t seem like a scam.

A more fundamental fix is to scale enrollment and help supply keep up with demand. This could allow selective schools to dramatically simplify the process to something like direct admission where qualified students are informed they’ve met requirements and will be admitted if they apply.

L. Ron Hubbard once tried to sell bachelor’s degrees in Scientology, but even in his addled state, he knew that was a bridge too far. Whether through simplification or scaling, something’s got to give. Higher education leaders must recognize that the cult of college is on shaky ground. And that college admissions needs to go Clear.