Monday, April 15, 2013

Demonstrated Interest

It takes a lot to get me worked up.  My wife says she has seen me excited, truly excited, only three or four times—when my children were born, when we stood in line for what we thought was the NBC studio tour only to end up sitting in the second row of the Tonight Show audience on a night when David Letterman was the guest host, and the night that the Mets won Game 6 of the 1986 World Series.  (The fact that all of those things took place more than 25 years ago is not meaningful, I hope.)

It takes a lot to get me worked up not only in my personal life, but also professionally.  There have been only three times in my career when righteous indignation led me to protest a college decision.  For a while this spring, however, I thought there might be a fourth.

What triggered my consternation was learning that a university for which St. Christopher’s has historically been a feeder school was planning to Wait List a student with credentials that were not just good, but superb.  Such a decision would have been unprecedented, and when my colleague questioned the reasoning, he was told by an admissions officer, “We don’t think we’ll get him.”  The institution made that assumption based on the other schools where the student was applying, information they had because of an alumni interview.

That explanation raised several questions.  Is it appropriate for an alumni interviewer to ask a student where else he or she is applying?  Is it appropriate for an institution to use that information in making an admissions decision?  Is likelihood-to-enroll a legitimate consideration in making admissions decisions, and how do you calculate likelihood-to enroll? 

It is the last of those questions that is most interesting and most relevant.  I have seen a huge increase in colleges utilizing demonstrated interest in the past few years (are demonstrated interest and likelihood-to-enroll the same thing?), and this year in particular it feels like a number of good private institutions are utilizing demonstrated interest at a level beyond what has been standard in previous years.  Am I alone in seeing that trend?

I have no problem with colleges using demonstrated interest as one factor in deciding whom to admit.  If I were an admissions dean I would want to enroll students who wanted to be at my institution, although I don’t know that I would Wait List more qualified students in order to achieve that.

My concern is with how demonstrated interest is measured.  Demonstrated interest has always been part of the college admissions process, but until recently the way a student demonstrated interest was by applying.  If colleges are going to be tracking and measuring demonstrated interest, they should be transparent about what counts and what doesn’t.  Students deserve to know the rules of the game they are playing.

I also wonder whether there are better and worse ways to measure demonstrated interest.  A student’s willingness to visit campus or meet with an admissions representative during a high school visit not only demonstrates interest, but also contributes to the student making a more thoughtful college choice.  Recently I visited a university where demonstrated interest is clearly more important than it was a couple of years ago.  I was told that one way the institution measures interest is whether a student logs on to the applicant portal.  I responded that I wasn’t sure that my students would log on even if interested, and learned that the institution was about to conduct a focus group during its diversity recruitment weekend because few of the top accepted diversity applicants had bothered to log on.  Apparently you don’t need to demonstrate interest if there’s enough interest in you.

In my student’s case, there were two things that particularly bothered me.  One is that he thought he had sufficiently demonstrated interest.  The institution in question is clear that demonstrated interest is important, and I have known it to wait list strong in-state applicants who don’t bother to visit campus or have an alumni interview.  My student hadn’t done a campus visit, but had an interview because he knew it was important. What he hadn’t done was apply for the institution’s merit scholarship program.  That program is effective at attracting strong applicants who might not otherwise consider the school, but I also wonder whether it is being used as a measure of demonstrated interest, on the assumption that any strong candidate who doesn’t apply for the scholarship must not be serious.  Ironically, my student hadn’t applied for the scholarship because he was concerned that the institution might assume he wouldn’t enroll if he applied for the scholarship and didn’t win it.      

The other thing that bothered me was the assumption that the school thought it had no chance of enrolling the student given the other schools to which he had applied.  On one level, I understand that, but at the same time it sends a message that the institution doesn’t believe it can compete with the Ivies or meet the needs of students considering that level of school.  It sends a message that “this student is too smart for us.”  I couldn’t assure them (and it is not my job to) that the student would choose them over another option, only that his application was sincere and serious.

The other unstated issue is that the decision to Wait List may not be about interest, but rather about yield.  Colleges use demonstrated interest and wait lists to manage enrollment and reputation by keeping the acceptance rate low and the yield rate high.  Maybe I’m dense, maybe I’ve worked too long on the high school side, or maybe I haven’t been brainwashed by Bob Morse and U.S. News and World Report, but I still don’t see how admission metrics=institutional quality.

I didn’t end up having to call or drive to meet with the Admissions Dean.  My student was admitted, he was Wait Listed or Denied at all the other schools they feared losing him to, and he is making his final decision.