Thursday, December 20, 2012


Last week I had another reminder that, as much as I would like to believe otherwise, I might not be hip.  My friends would probably say that hasn’t been true for a long time, and my children would doubt that it was ever the case.

The evidence is hard to ignore.  At least once a week I’ll see an article or a reference to some celebrity or star and realize I have no clue who that person is.  But until last week I took solace in the fact that I was professionally hip, aware of the latest trends and intrigue in the college admissions world.  What changed that was reading a post in the Chronicle of Higher Education’s “Head Count” blog that described sexual orientation as “the next hip question in admissions” and realizing that I didn’t know what the current hip question is.

Last week the University of Iowa received national attention when it became the first public institution to ask applicants about their sexual orientation on its undergraduate application for admission. Elmhurst College in Illinois became the first college or university to ask such a question in 2011.

The question on the Iowa application is optional, and doesn’t ask directly about a student’s sexual orientation.  The University has added “transgender” as an option under gender, and as one of a series of optional questions (legacy connection, parent educational background, interest in Greek life or ROTC) Iowa asks, “Do you identify with the LGBTQ Community?”

Upon seeing the story last week, I had three reactions:

1)      I was relieved to see a news story about college admissions that had nothing to do with colleges manipulating and misreporting data;

2)      I applaud the University of Iowa for its desire to be inclusive and welcoming to LGBT students, an important commitment and message for a flagship public university;

3)      I wonder if the application is the right place to send that message.

Mike Barron, Assistant Provost for Enrollment Management at Iowa, said in a Chronicle article that adding the question sends a message to LGBT students that the university is welcoming and “receptive to and sensitive to their lifestyle and their description of themselves.”  He also stated that responses will be used only to connect students with information and will play no role in admissions decisions.

I consider Mike both a friend and someone I respect greatly, but I don’t think the admissions application is the correct venue to send those (or any other) messages.  There are other ways to make students aware of student services and to communicate an institution’s commitment to welcoming various types of diversity.  The application should be reserved for asking only information that is directly relevant to determining a student’s qualifications for admission.  Any question that will play no role in admissions decisions shouldn’t be asked.

Some random questions and observations:

--CampusPride, an advocacy group working to encourage colleges to be more welcoming to LGBT students, argues colleges should ask the question on applications in order to better track admission and retention.  Shane Windmeyer, the group’s Executive Director, has described it as no different than tracking graduation rates for athletes or minorities, but there are differences. There are federal reporting requirements regarding race at this time but not regarding sexual orientation. Graduation rates for athletes, which are reported to the NCAA, are not based on information collected on admissions applications.  If tracking is desirable, which I accept, then why not gather the data from students who are enrolled than from the application?  A number of students become aware of their orientation while they are in college, making data collected during the application process flawed.  There may be symbolic value in having the question on the application, but not value for collecting accurate information.

--Is sexual orientation a form of diversity?  Do LGBT students bring a diversity of experience and viewpoint purely because of their sexual orientation?  That’s a debate worth having, but neither Iowa nor Campus Pride are making that argument (or I have missed it).  Elmhurst seemed to suggest that it is a form of diversity when it said that all applicants who answered yes to the question, “Would you consider yourself to be a member of the LGBT community?” would be considered for the institutions Enrichment Scholarship, given to underrepresented minority students.

--The Iowa question, “Do you identify (italics added) with the LGBTQ community?” is less clear than asking about a student’s sexual orientation.  I happen to be a parent of a gay child.  Do I therefore identify with the community?  Yes and no.  Does a straight student who is a member of his or her school’s Gay-Straight Alliance identify with the community?  What does a yes answer tell Iowa?  What does a no answer indicate?  What does leaving the question blank signify, given that the question is optional?

--Does not asking the question on the admissions application send a message to LGBT students?  Perhaps, but there are other ways (such as website and printed materials)   for colleges to demonstrate their commitment to inclusion and an environment that is welcoming.

--Should sexual orientation be a private matter?  The question is optional, so no one is obligated to answer, but is it the college’s business?  My daughter, who went to college having not yet determined that she is gay, says she would be hesitant to answer for fear that the information could be used to weed out LGBT students as well as welcome them. She also says that students for whom sexual orientation is central to their identity will find other places in the application to communicate that. One of her gay friends suggests that people would want to answer if they thought it gave them an advantage in the admissions process.

--Are there safeguards to protect the confidentiality of information once collected?  Early in my career, I noticed on a student’s application that he listed his parents as getting a divorce, something unknown to us at the school.  I passed on the information to our Chaplain, as was the protocol at the time.  The student was livid.  How will Iowa ensure that a student struggling with his/her identity doesn’t inadvertently get outed to parents or others through information sent to the student about services on campus?


As with most of the topics I try to address, I am much better at asking questions than providing answers.  The essence of the issue, though, is that any information gathered through an admissions application should be necessary to inform an admissions decision.

This is the final post until 2013.  If the Mayans are correct, it might be longer than that.

Friday, December 7, 2012

Goldilocks and the College Admissions Process

Last week I talked with the Director of Admissions at a public university in Virginia.  He called about another matter, but at the end of the conversation mentioned that his institution has 2000 more Early Action applications than a year ago. The Early Action numbers are half of what he had projected the total application numbers to be, and he wondered what is going on.  Are kids applying to more places, and if so, thoughtfully or indiscriminately?  Do I have any thoughts?

Do I have thoughts?  That question brings to mind an episode from my favorite childhood cartoon show, The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle.  I am enough of a Rocky and Bullwinkle fan that when the NACAC Conference was in Los Angeles in 1992 I spent an afternoon in search of the Dudley Do-Right Emporium, a store that sold Bullwinkle memorabilia owned by the widow of Jay Ward, the creator of the show.  The search was unforgettable but unfulfilling.  The cab driver had a picture of the Ayatollah Khomeini prominently displayed on the dashboard and he dropped us off in a seedy part of West Hollywood.  We found the store, open but deserted, making my companion, already paranoid from the cab ride and the neighborhood, convinced there was a salesperson dead in the back room.  We grabbed the first cab and returned to the hotel. 

In the episode from the show Boris Badenov, the inept villainous foe of Rocky and Bullwinkle, is asked by his female companion Natasha, “Boris, you have plan?”  He responds, “I always have plan.  They never work, but I always have one.”

Similar to Boris, I always have thought. They don’t always make sense, but I always have one.  My answer to the Director of Admissions was that I am not seeing any evidence among my students that they are applying to more schools, but I see forces at play that may bring about that result.  There are certainly a few students who try to collect college acceptances as if they were youth soccer trophies.  I have also known a couple of students who went on a Common Application “bender” and couldn’t remember the next morning all the places they had applied with a simple click.  But I’m guessing the increased number of Early Action applications at that university is a by-product of several current admissions practices.

First and foremost is the acceleration of the admissions process, the most significant change I have seen over the course of my career.  25 years ago I was a young college counselor and my first child was due right around February 1.  I spent the weekend before writing college recommendations, because February 1 was a big deadline and my last group of seniors were submitting their first applications.  Now I expect all applications to have been submitted by that point.  The period between Thanksgiving and Christmas used to be the most stressful time of the year in my office due to the immense wave of applications that had to be processed for January 1.  It’s still stressful, but the tsunami of applications happens much earlier in the fall. 

What has changed is not an increase in the number of traditional Early Decision and Early Action applications, but an increase in the number of public universities that now have a variety of Early Action and “priority” deadlines or “final” deadlines as early as December 1. Those earlier deadlines are too often accompanied by mixed messages that play on the anxieties of students and parents, and I suspect that the increase in Early Action applications at the institution above is a consequence of mixed messages sent by different institutions. 

Just the other day I attended a counselor lunch sponsored by a different Virginia public university.  At both that lunch and at a program for students and parents the same evening the university President announced that the institution would enroll next fall’s entire freshman class composed of only Early Decision and Early Action applicants.  That announcement raised eyebrows among the assembled counselors, given that the Early Action deadline had already passed, and the Admissions staff immediately went into spin control, announcing that the Early Action deadline had been extended due to Hurricane Sandy.  Most of us assumed that the real culprit was Tropical Storm [President’s name deleted].

Left unanswered were some broader questions.  If that is to be the university’s admissions policy, why not tell prospective students up front?  Why have regular admission at all if you have no intention of admitting students who apply regular, or why not rename “Early Action” as “regular admission” to reflect the reality of the policy?  Better still, why not become a rolling admission school and cut off admission once the class is full?  I suspect the answer is that rolling admission doesn’t sound prestigious enough.

Setting earlier and earlier deadlines probably serves colleges well.  It allows them more time to read and process applications in a time when increased application numbers are not accompanied by increases in staff.  It also reflects the reality that today colleges have to recruit students for yield not just to apply.  The earlier a student is in the applicant pool, the more time the college has to entice the student to enroll.

I don’t think it serves students nearly as well.  The acceleration of the application process forces students to make decisions before many are developmentally ready, and encourages quantity of applications at the expense of quality of application.  It also lessens the value and importance of the senior year as a time of intellectual and personal growth.

Applying to college should require investment of time, reflection, and careful thought, and the application process should measure readiness for college.   The college search and application processes should be Goldilocks processes, neither too hard nor too easy.  They also shouldn’t take place too early or too fast.

Friday, November 23, 2012


Last week U.S. News and World Report moved George Washington University to the Unranked category in the 2013 “America’s Best Colleges” rankings.  The move came in response in GW’s admission that it had misreported data regarding class rank for entering students, both on its website and to U.S. News (see previous post).

I must admit that my first response to the news was simple and without nuance. Does anyone care?  Should anyone care?  Does anyone think less of GW because it lost its U.S. News ranking (which is not the same thing as asking if anyone thinks less of GW because it misreported information)?

“Upon further review” (to borrow National Football League replay language), I realized that:

1)      “Simple and without nuance” makes for short blog posts;

2)      This incident is an opportunity for introspection not only for George Washington University but also for U.S. News and World Report.

I am hoping that the introspection is taking place at GW and guessing that it’s not at U.S. News.  I would be more than happy to have U.S. News and World Report hire me as a consultant to evaluate the methodology and assumptions underlying the rankings, but as a public service here are some questions and recommendations for consideration and introspection.


Question:  Should U.S. News rank colleges utilizing information that is unverified?

            U.S. News relies on information self-reported by colleges in compiling rankings.  The fact that there have been three incidents in 2012 alone involving reputable institutions misreporting data would suggest that the Honor System is not working.  One of the foundations of reputable journalism is fact-checking.

Recommendation:  Spend some of the considerable profit U.S. News makes from the rankings and hire an auditor to verify data.


Question:  Is it time to get rid of the peer assessment reputation survey?

            The U.S. News rankings began in 1983 as a magazine article (the rankings have outlived the magazine), and were based exclusively on a survey of college presidents.  I was a college faculty member at the time, and the joke on our campus was that no one was sure the President knew much about our campus, much less any others.  Through the years U.S. News has incorporated other data into the rankings, but the reputational survey remains the biggest component, counting 22.5%.  Provosts, admissions deans, and high school counselors (I choose not to participate) are now surveyed in addition to Presidents.  How reliable is the peer assessment?  The percentage of respondents is relatively low and has been declining, reputations may lag behind realities, and Presidents and other officials receive incentives for improving an institution’s ranking, leading to revelations of several Presidents ranking their own institution higher than Harvard, Yale, and Princeton.

Recommendation:  Get rid of the peer assessment altogether or publish it as a separate ranking, making it clear that it reflects opinion rather than fact.


Question:  Do the input measures used by U.S. News tell anything about output, a college’s success in educating students?

            U.S. News doesn’t pretend to measure educational quality, although that fact is hidden in the fine print if mentioned at all.  Output is too hard to measure, and colleges are hesitant to share publicly their results on measures such as the Collegiate Learning Assessment and the National Survey of Student Engagement. Is the assumption that selectivity=quality valid? Focusing on admission stats such as selectivity and SAT scores and other stats like Alumni Giving, all of which can be manipulated, is like ranking “America’s Best Churches” without regard for spiritual growth.

Recommendation:  Start a conversation with college and other educational leaders about metrics that might measure how much education is taking place on campus.


Question:  Do the year-to-year changes in rankings reflect actual changes in institutional quality or tweaks to the methodology to produce different rankings?

            I don’t have an answer to that question, just a suspicion.


Question:  Does U.S. News want to be in the news business or the entertainment business?

            Years ago I attended a NACAC conference session where Bob Morse, the man behind the numbers for the U.S. News rankings and author of the “Morse Code” blog, described the rankings as a “good product.”  He took umbrage when I asked him if it was good journalism.  That question is just as relevant today.  Is U.S. News reporting the news or making news?

            The plethora of stories each fall about the new rankings would suggest that U.S. News has become a newsmaker, perhaps even a trendsetter, rather than a news outlet.  In fairness to U.S. News, though, that is consistent with the direction that journalism, and particularly television journalism, has taken.  Today journalists are celebrities who socialize with those they are supposed to be covering, and career advancement is more tied to Q rating or ability as an entertainer rather than ability to sniff out news.

            I would argue that U.S. News chose entertainment over news as early as 1983, long before it became clear how closely the U.S. News brand would become tied to college rankings. The original rankings article listed only top ten lists in the National Universities and National Liberal Arts Colleges categories and ignored the real news story.  The #10 school in the National Universities category was Brown.  The fine print showed that Brown was considered one of the top ten schools by only 25% of those responding, meaning that 75% didn’t think Brown belonged in the top ten.  The real news from the survey was the diversity of quality schools in American higher education and how little agreement there is about top schools beyond the first three or four.

Recommendation:  Add a disclaimer to the rankings, either “For Entertainment Purposes Only” or “Your Results May Vary.”


Question:  Do the rankings help students and parents make more thoughtful college decisions?

            U.S. News states that “The intangibles that make up the college experience can’t be measured by a series of data points,” then proceeds to rank America’s “best” colleges based on a series of data points.  The U.S. News rankings are part of a balanced college search the way Sugar Smacks or Count Chocula are part of a balanced breakfast.  The balance comes from everything other than the product.

            There is a lot of helpful information in “America’s Best Colleges,” ranging from the topical articles to the use of Carnegie categories to divide schools.  The attempt to rank college negates most of those benefits.  College rankings provide a precision (We’re #6!) that leads students and parents away from thinking about the quality of the college experience.  They also simplify a process that should be both complex and personal.

Recommendation:  Expand the “Unranked” category to include not only George Washington University but all other colleges and universities as well.   

Friday, November 9, 2012

Data and Voice

The number 3 carries with it a power and significance that few other numbers possess.  In Christian theology there is the Trinity, and in hockey there is the hat trick.  There are three wise men, three musketeers, three tenors, three little pigs, and three stooges.  In baseball you have three strikes and three outs.

There is also an old saying that bad things happen in threes.  Those of us in the college admissions profession better hope that bad things happen only in threes after the news this morning that for the third time this year a prominent institution has admitted to inflating and misreporting admissions data.

Today’s culprit is George Washington University, which has updated the famous quote from its namesake, “I cannot tell a lie,” to “I cannot tell a lie (any longer).”  According to today’s Washington Post and the Chronicle of Higher Education, an internal investigation showed that GW has been submitting incorrect data regarding class rank.  For the current year GW reported that 78% of incoming freshman were in the top 10% of their high school classes when the actual number of 58%.  The discrepancy comes from the fact that rank was estimated for some outstanding students coming from schools that do not provide class rank.  According to the Chronicle, only 38% of GW freshmen had class rank reported.

I don’t find the revelations about GW quite as egregious as the manipulation of SAT scores reported earlier this year for Claremont McKenna and Emory.  (I will follow up this post with some thoughts about the Emory situation shortly.) I concur with my St. Christopher’s colleague Scott Mayer, who said this morning upon learning about GW, “It’s a shame that schools get into trouble for doing stupid stuff.”  Implicit in his comment is that the real shame is doing the stupid stuff in the first place.

Calling it stupid is not excusing it or lessening judgment that it’s wrong.  The estimating of class rank was not an accident but deliberate, a form of institutional cosmetic surgery designed to make GW look more attractive.  It’s also not clear whether rank was estimated for every student from schools that don’t rank, or only those likely to raise the percentage.  The latter would make the deception more ethically offensive.

The broader, recurring question for all of these cases is how meaningful these measures of institutional “quality” or “prestige” really are.  What do admit rate or yield or mean SAT scores really tell us, and is any potential meaning mitigated by how easily they can be manipulated? In the case of class rank, is there any point in reporting what percentage of freshmen are in the top 10% of the class when two-thirds of applicants come from school that don’t rank?

A year ago, at the NACAC Conference in New Orleans, I was a presenter on a panel devoted to “College Admission and Counseling in the 21st Century.”  My fellow panelists were Jerry Lucido, Executive Director of the Center for Enrollment Research, Policy, and Practice at the University of Southern California, and Lee Coffin, Dean of Undergraduate Admissions at Tufts.

Jerry’s remarks at the session referenced an article he wrote for the Chronicle of Higher Education in January, 2011.  That article called on colleges to rethink the metrics they use.  He argued that colleges and universities would be better served measuring their success in:

--educating first generation and low-income students;

--habits of mind and skills developed;

--student participation in research, international experiences, community service, and interdisciplinary study.

Lee talked about the selective admissions process, and differentiated between “data” and “voice.”  He argued that voice is far more important because so many students have strong data (grades, scores).

That’s true for institutions as well as for students.  Colleges and universities focus on making their data look impressive but ignore or fail to find their voice (or the focus on manipulating image through data reflects their voice).  The college experience, as well as the college admissions business, is far more about voice than data.


Wednesday, October 31, 2012

How Do Admission Professionals Make Decisions?

Last week NACAC members received an invitation to participate in a research survey aimed at gathering information about decision-making among college admission professionals.

The survey is being conducted by Ashley Floyd, a student in the Ph. D. program in Higher Education at the University of Alabama.  Ashley’s day job is as the Director of National and International Fellowships and Scholarships for the Honors College at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.  She moved there in September from Samford University, where she served as Associate Director of its Fellows Honors program, but began her career at Samford in admissions working under my good friend (and current NACAC Board member) Phil Kimrey.  At Samford she also taught a course on Calling and Leadership.

I met Ashley at the NACAC conference in Denver, and have taken the survey, and think her research looks promising and worthwhile.  I look forward to seeing the results, and am particularly interested in seeing what the research might show with regard to ethical reasoning in the profession.

The deadline for completing the research survey is November 8 at midnight.  It takes about 45 minutes to complete.  I urge my professional friends and colleagues to participate.   

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Critical Mass

Thirty years ago this fall I was teaching ethics at my alma mater, Randolph-Macon College.  I had a one-year appointment as a sabbatical replacement, and my classes had a freshness and electricity that come from the combination of ignorance and terror. I loved that year, and have often wondered if I could have sustained the magic in subsequent years.

One of the case studies I used for the class was Bakke, the 1978 Supreme Court case dealing with affirmative action in college admissions.  On that issue, as with others, there were two extremes that I needed to watch out for in my students. Some of them knew what they believed so passionately that they had a difficult time understanding or appreciating differing positions.  Others saw both sides of an issue too clearly and struggled to figure out what they believed.

I found myself identifying with the second group when I read the transcript of the oral arguments for Fisher v. Texas, the affirmative action case that the U.S. Supreme Court will be deciding during the current term.  As I try to sort out the complex issues associated with affirmative action, my mind is a mass of contradictions (which may explain why it’s taken me a week longer to write this than planned), with more questions than answers.

--What is the proper balance between giving every applicant fair and individual consideration in the admissions process and meeting institutional goals and needs?

--Does an individual have a right to attend a particular college or university, and when is not being admitted evidence of unfair treatment? 

--How much discretion should colleges and universities have to determine the composition of their student bodies? 

--Are admission preferences wrong even when done for the right reasons? 

--Why are those who would have found nothing wrong with racial discrimination in the 1950’s so exercised by affirmative action?

--At what point will affirmative action no longer be necessary?


In the coming months I hope to discuss in more detail some of the issues and arguments related to the Fisher case and the larger issue of affirmative action.

The most interesting thing coming out of the oral arguments in Fisher was discussion about the concept of “critical mass.” That discussion is the next step in the evolution of the affirmative action debate over the past 35 years. 

In the 1978 Bakke case, the Supreme Court issued the judicial equivalent of a boxing match split decision, declaring unconstitutional a quota system used by the medical school at the University of California at Davis whereby minority applicants competed for 16 of the 100 places in the class in a separate admissions process. The deciding vote came from Justice Lewis Powell. In an opinion joined by no other justice he recognized a compelling state interest in allowing race to be taken into consideration in admissions in a narrowly-tailored way to promote educational diversity.  That was a monumental shift; prior to that point the sole justification for affirmative action programs had been as a remedy for past discrimination.

Fast forward to 2003, when the Supreme Court heard two affirmative action cases, both involving the University of Michigan.  Gratz v. Bollinger challenged Michigan’s undergraduate admissions process that gave minority applicants bonus points in the numerical system used to determine admission, and the Court ruled it unconstitutional.  Grutter v. Bollinger (Lee Bollinger, then President at Michigan and currently President of Columbia University), challenged a law school admissions policy designed to produce critical mass in the ethnic composition of the entering class.

Grutter produced a divided court.  A five-member majority led by Justice Sandra Day O’Connor accepted the argument that a critical mass of diversity is necessary for educational reasons.  The other four justices had strong reservations, with Chief Justice Rehnquist calling critical mass “a naked effort to achieve racial balancing” and Justice Anthony Kennedy (widely seen as the swing vote in the current Court) concluding that individual evaluation of each applicant was sacrificed for the cause of diversity. 

That brings us to today. The argument for critical mass is that a diverse student body produces educational benefits, and that there must be a critical mass of students from an underrepresented group in order for individual students not to feel isolated and not to be seen as spokespersons for a single “minority” viewpoint. 

I  accept the continuing need for affirmative action and buy the critical mass argument in theory, but found much of the discussion before the court underwhelming.  Here are some observations about critical mass and the Fisher oral arguments: 

--The wrinkle in the Fisher case is that the University of Texas operates under a state law requiring that 75% of in-state admissions rank in the top 10% of their high school.  That law raises its own set of issues, but it produces diversity.  Why, then, is affirmative action needed on top of the 10% program? At one point the attorney for UT seemed to suggest that affirmative action was necessary to attract minority students from advantaged socioeconomic backgrounds, an argument Justice Samuel Alito claimed he’d never heard advanced before. 

--“Critical mass” is applied selectively by the University of Texas.  If it is so important, shouldn’t it be utilized for a whole range of minority groups, rather than a couple?

--Texas argued that achieving a critical mass was important due to “shocking isolation” in the classroom, but under questioning didn’t seem to have collected evidence to support that.

--Minority enrollment at UT is calculated based only on information self-reported by applicants.

--Critical mass is not tied to the population of a state.

--How do you define “critical mass” and how do you know when you’ve achieved it?  Sensing entrapment, both attorneys dodged that question like they were in a presidential debate.  If you answer with a fixed number, that’s a quota, outlawed by Bakke.  Grutter seemed to outlaw the setting of goals, although I would argue that what is wrong is not setting a goal, but rather manipulating the admissions process to engineer a particular result, which seems to be Justice Kennedy’s primary criticism in his Grutter dissent.

--Justice Scalia and Solicitor General Donald Verrilli agreed that the term “critical mass” assumes some sort of numerical measure that may focus the issue in an unhelpful direction.

--The multiple attempts to avoid defining “critical mass” brought to mind Justice Potter Stewart’s definition of pornography, “I know it when I see it.”

--And a final thought—this case reminds us that the most profound outcome of the Presidential election may be the opportunity to make multiple Supreme Court appointments and determine the direction of the Court for a generation.





Wednesday, October 10, 2012

National Merit-ocracy

Today’s main event at the intersection of College Admissions Boulevard and Ethics Avenue is the oral arguments before the United States Supreme Court in the affirmative action case, Fisher v. Texas.  That case, and that issue, will undoubtedly generate much discussion in the coming months, this space included. 

The court case is not the only admissions-related ethical issue deserving of attention on this day, however.  For many of us on the secondary side of the desk, today is significant as the deadline to submit National Merit applications.

The National Merit Scholarship Program is the nation’s oldest and largest merit scholarship program, dating back to the 1950’s.  The National Merit program provides nearly 50 million dollars in scholarships each year, most funded either by colleges or by corporations that fund scholarships for children of employees. 

Last fall New York University announced that it will no longer fund National Merit Scholarships.  Whenever a college breaks out of the admissions pack, everyone watches to see if it is the beginning of a movement, and at the time Bloomberg News described the NYU move as “another blow to National Merit.”  That seems a bit melodramatic, given that there is no evidence that the National Merit program is terminally ill, but two issues related to National Merit (and its parallel program, the National Achievement Program for Outstanding Negro Students) raise questions about whether they are relevant in the 21st century or relics of the 1950’s similar to the Studebaker.

The first and most objectionable is that initial eligibility for the National Merit program is based solely on a student’s performance on the PSAT taken in the junior year.  That may be an efficient way to screen candidates, but the use of a single test score as a “cutscore” is at odds with best practice for use of college admission testing.

That point was made by the NACAC Commission on the Use of Standardized Tests in Undergraduate Admission (chaired by Harvard Dean of Admission and Financial Aid Bill Fitzsimmons) in its 2008 report and in communications to NMSC and its partner in crime, the College Board. (In the interest of full disclosure, I served as President-elect of NACAC when the Testing Commission report was adopted.)  The NACAC communications fell on deaf ears.  The NMSC described the PSAT as an “optimal vehicle,” while the College Board described the PSAT as “our greatest access and equity tool” and supported the right of its client NMSC to set its own policies.

 The same point was made in 2005 by the University of California when it decided to stop funding National Merit Scholarships.  The report of the University’s Education Financing Model Steering Committee expressed concern that the PSAT was “the sole criteria for eliminating 97% of test takers from National Merit Scholarship consideration” despite the fact that “it has not been validated for predicting academic merit.”  The report also talked about “fundamental principles governing responsible use of standardized tests.”

What are those fundamental principles?  First and foremost is that test results should be used in conjunction with other factors.  That is done in later stages of the National Merit process, but you become a Semifinalist based on one test taken on one day.  Second is that any test score is far from precise.  The margin of error on any section of the SAT or PSAT is 30 points, such that a score of 600 means that the score falls with the 570-630 range.  National Merit’s use of a strict cutscore as a sole criterion is invalid because it ignores the margin of error.

The second issue is that National Merit determines Semifinalists based on a geographic quota.  The percentage of Semifinalists by state corresponds to the state’s percentage of all the high school graduates in the nation.  What that means is that the qualifying score to become a Semifinalist varies greatly depending on the state one lives in. Should merit be defined differently in Massachusetts and Mississippi?  Should a student who moves out of state after his sophomore year become a National Merit Semifinalist while a classmate with higher PSAT scores who remains doesn’t?

What constitutes merit?  Jerome Karabel, author of The Chosen, a fascinating history of college admissions at Harvard, Yale, and Princeton, identifies that as the essential question for college admissions in the 20th century, with the paradigm changing from “best student” to “best graduate” to “best class.”  The National Merit program has served America well for almost 60 years, but it is a vestige of a simpler time when African-Americans were called Negroes and the SAT was believed to measure aptitude and not economic advantage.  Is it time to change how we define and measure merit for the 21st century?

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Need-Blind Admission

Last week Grinnell College announced that it will spend several months evaluating its financial aid policies, including the slight possibility of moving away from its commitment to need-blind admission.

Grinnell becomes the second prominent liberal-arts college to question whether need-blind admission is sustainable. Wesleyan University announced this summer that it will move away from its need-blind policy as part of President Michael Roth’s plan to control costs and keep Wesleyan financially sustainable.  Wesleyan will continue to meet the full financial need of enrolled students, but once the financial aid budget is exhausted will take financial need into account in making admissions decisions, impacting up to the last 10% of those admitted.  The decision continues to be controversial at Wesleyan, with nearly 50 students attempting to gain entrance to the September meeting of the Board of Trustees to protest.

Grinnell and Wesleyan are far from the only colleges or universities concerned about rising financial aid costs.  A reference to Wesleyan’s decision showed up in e-mails between the rector and vice-rector of the Board of Visitors at the University of Virginia just days before they attempted to force the resignation of President Teresa Sullivan. The University’s AccessUVa program, initiated in 2008-09, committed $40 million per year to provide loan-free financial aid packages for low income students and cap loans for middle-class students receiving financial aid, but within two years was costing twice as much annually.

The economic challenges are obvious, part of a larger conversation about whether the current economic model for higher education is sustainable.  At a time when the job prospects for college graduates are making many families question whether the value of a college degree justifies the cost, can colleges continue to raise tuitions at a rate exceeding the rate of inflation while throwing more financial aid and tuition discounts at families unable to pay the full freight?

The relevant part of the Wesleyan story for this space is President Roth’s contention that there is an ethical dimension to ending need-blind admission.  He told that there is a “moral argument” for a college not to accept students if they can’t provide enough financial aid to meet their need.

 The ethics of need-blind admission is not a new issue.  In 1993 I took part in the debate on need-blind admission at the Assembly meeting during the NACAC Conference in Pittsburgh.  That debate came as a small number of colleges were arguing that financial realities no longer allowed them to follow the NACAC Statement of Principles of Good Practice requirement that colleges admit students without regard to financial need and also meet the full need of admitted students.  I subsequently wrote an article, “The Ethics of Need-Blind Admission,” for the Spring, 1995 issue of the Journal of College Admission.

Back in the 1990s those arguing for the necessity of being need-aware were seen as bordering on criminal, whereas today there is broad recognition that need-blind admission is an ideal that may be challenging to maintain, especially in tough economic times.  That change in perspective illustrates two important points about ethics.  The first is that ethical principles or theories are meaningless if they aren’t practical.  The second is that the ethical landscape can change as realities change, although the “changing landscape” argument too often feels like a rationalization for erosion of ethical standards.

Need-blind admission has historically been interpreted to encompass two different, though related, propositions.  One is admission decisions made without consideration of a student’s financial need.  The other is meeting full financial need for any admitted student.  The ethical dilemma occurs when it is not possible to do both.  Should a college or university admit the student and provide insufficient financial aid, or should the institution not admit the student because it can’t meet full need?

As with most ethical dilemmas, there is room for disagreement.  President Roth of Wesleyan argues that the university’s obligation to make sure that the students it admits have the best chance of succeeding outweighs admitting students without regard to need.  I understand that view, but believe that the term “need-blind admission” makes it clear that the ethical imperative has to do with admission. 

The social contract that exists between colleges and applicants is that admissions offices will render a decision based on the applicant’s qualifications. (I recognize that view may seem anachronistic or even naive in an age where crafting a class is the operating principle in selective admission, but I prefer to think of it as idealistic.)  The essence of need-blind admission is the principle that admission should not be tied to ability to pay, not that meeting financial need must be tied to admission.

 Within ethics there is a distinction between acts that are obligatory and acts that are supererogatory (virtuous or praiseworthy).  Those in the first category are moral duties, whereas those in the second go beyond the call of duty.  In the college admissions process applicants have a right to expect an admissions decision based on merit, and colleges have a corresponding obligation.  Applicants don’t have a right to expect that colleges will pay their way (although we have traditionally sent the message that financial aid is an entitlement).  It is virtuous for the college to provide financial aid, but hardly obligatory, especially if institutional funds are limited.    

Of course offering a student admission without corresponding aid presents its own problems.  Higher education continues to be the path to the American Dream, and access to education without funding is access in name only.  I am disturbed by reports of institutions admitting students with an Expected Family Contribution of $0 and gapping those students $20,000-30,000 in financial aid packaging.  I’m also not ready to conclude that being need-aware is always wrong.  Higher education is at least partly (but not only) a business, and in tough economic times factoring in ability to pay is as defensible as other kinds of preference. 

What is not defensible is denying admission to a qualified student only because they need aid. That’s paternalism at best, making a choice for the student because you know what’s best for them, and self-serving at worst, a way to protect yield.

Monday, September 24, 2012


For those who love academic soap opera the gift that keeps on giving is this summer’s forced resignation and subsequent reinstatement of University of Virginia President Teresa Sullivan. The crisis was the lead story in last week’s New York Times Magazine, several days after the Washington Post published an article about the release of hundreds of pages of additional e-mails from members of the University’s Board of Visitors.

Despite all the media coverage, a number of interesting questions remain unanswered.  Will the PR debacle have lasting impact on U.Va? Can the President, Board, and university community forgive, or even forget?  Why would Sullivan agree to return as President when she could have parlayed the drama into a book and Lifetime movie deal?

How much influence should donors at public institutions have at a time when public funding is diminishing? Was the attempt to oust Sullivan after only two years a coup perpetrated by a small circle of Board members and donors hoping to impose their business world-view on the University, or is the economic model underlying higher education fundamentally flawed and no longer sustainable?  Are strategic planning and incremental change outdated concepts?

While the issues ostensibly dividing the Board and President Sullivan were on-line education and the pace of change in higher education, two issues related to college admissions showed up on the periphery.  The string of e-mails between Board Rector Helen Dragas and Vice-Rector Mark Kington in the days leading up to Sullivan’s resignation included a reference to a June 1 article from Inside Higher Education announcing Wesleyan University’s decision to end its need-blind admissions policy.  I will discuss the need-blind issue in a separate post.

The other issue arose in an op-ed written by U.Va. alumnus Paul Tudor Jones II in the June 17 issue of the Charlottesville Daily Progress.  There has been speculation that Jones, a billionaire venture capitalist and major philanthropist for the University, was one of the behind-the-scenes players pushing for Sullivan to be replaced.  Not only was he the lead donor for U.Va.’s basketball arena (named for his father), but earlier this year he and his wife pledged $12 million for a yoga center (since repurposed as the Center for Contemplative Sciences) at U.Va.

In the op-ed Jones defended the Board’s actions as “aspiring to greatness.”  Paraphrasing Thomas Jefferson (always an effective rhetorical strategy in Charlottesville), he stated that “it is time for a revolution” and cited three “alarming facts” as evidence of the need for dramatic change at U.Va.

The alarming fact that most distressed Jones was U.Va.’s admissions yield rate.  43% of those who are admitted to Virginia choose to enroll, a figure Jones contrasted with Harvard (80%), Stanford (73%), and Yale (66%).  What he found most troubling was that UNC-Chapel Hill’s yield is 13 points higher, leading U.Va. Dean of Admissions Greg Roberts to point out that evaluating yield requires context in a Letter to the Editor a week later.

The real question is how meaningful yield is.  What, if anything, does an institution’s yield tell you?

Being able to predict yield is certainly important for admissions offices that can’t afford to under-enroll (lack of revenue) or over-enroll (lack of housing), and it is not a simple calculation.  Yield can vary greatly among different segments of the applicant pool.  Early Decision applicants have a 100% yield, one of the reasons E.D. is so appealing to colleges.  For public institutions, in-state applicants have a higher yield than out-of-state applicants.  The yield for the academically-strongest applicants is generally lower because they have more options, whereas those fortunate to be admitted from the bottom of the pool almost always enroll.

Is yield rate a measure of institutional quality, though?  Certainly many colleges act as if it is, given that many of the admissions games being played today are attempts to manipulate yield, from heavy reliance on Early Decision to measuring demonstrated interest to using Wait Lists to fill up to 10% of the class in what functions as Early Decision-3.  Ten years ago the Wall Street Journal exposed colleges that routinely Wait-listed superbly-qualified applicants because of the assumption that those applicants wouldn’t enroll.  The fact that yield is so easy to manipulate calls its value as a metric into question.

Like its cousin, acceptance rate, yield exemplifies the myth that popularity=quality.  The more students who apply (or get turned down) and the higher the percentage of those admitted who choose to enroll, the better the school must be.  There are schools with higher yield rates than U.Va., though, that wouldn’t be mentioned in the same breath academically.  Higher yield is correlated with how much competition an institution faces.  Public institutions that are the only game in town within their state will have high yield numbers, while a lower yield rate might actually be an indication that a school has moved into a higher tier of competition.

Yield may be the kind of easy-to-understand metric that Board members from corporate backgrounds love, but it’s ultimately meaningless.  Or am I missing something?

Yield sign by Carl Puentes Photography