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.