Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Counting in a Different Way

A couple of weeks ago I was on a panel at the annual meeting of the Deans and Directors of Admission for the Council of Independent Colleges in Virginia.  During the Q and A, a Director of Admission wondered if any of the school counselors on the panel were seeing a trend of students applying to fewer colleges, as applications were down 9% at his institution. 

I gave him a three-part answer.  First, I don’t see any evidence that my students are applying to more or fewer colleges, but it is also the case that my office has worked hard to encourage students to apply more thoughtfully rather than just applying more.  Second, I’m not convinced that having fewer applications is necessarily a bad thing.  Third, and perhaps most significant, he is one of only a handful of college admission reps in my 30 year career to have, or at least admit, anything other than a record admissions year.

Within a couple of days came the news that two more colleges, York College of Pennsylvania and the University of Mary Hardin-Baylor in Texas, had been moved into the “Unranked” category in the U.S. News college rankings due to having submitted inflated data.  I have previously written ad nauseum about misreporting data and also recommended that U.S. News place all colleges in the Unranked category, but one piece of the story caught my eye.

According to both U.S. News and, Mary Hardin-Baylor corrected data it had previously submitted regarding both the number of applicants and the number of students admitted for the 2011 entering class.  The corrected numbers change the percentage of applicants admitted from 27.4 to 89.1.

That is not a misprint.  Mary Hardin-Baylor’s acceptance rate was more than three times higher than originally reported, meaning that the university is closer to open enrollment than highly-selective. That’s hardly a slight adjustment or miscalculation, and there’s bound to be an interesting story there.  Unfortunately I don’t what it is, because Mary Hardin-Baylor did not respond to my questions, but I can only imagine the turmoil within the university community when the error was discovered. 

According to the Insidehighered story, a spokesman for Mary Hardin-Baylor stated that there was no intentional misrepresentation and that the university was “counting its applications in a different way” than that required by U.S. News, which relies on the Common Data Set definitions.

The phrase “counting its applications in a different way” is intriguing. I assume that means Mary Hardin-Baylor was counting inquiries as applications, because the only other possible explanation is that it was adopting the creative accounting made famous by another Texas institution, Enron.

I don’t believe for a second that Mary Hardin-Baylor is the only college or university “counting its applications in a different way.”  Several years ago my office received a request for a transcript in February from a college for one of my seniors whose application was incomplete.  We hadn’t sent a transcript because we didn’t know he had applied—and, as it turned out, neither did he.  He had visited the school in question the previous summer and filled out a card during an information session, and obviously the school was considering that an application.

It doesn’t take much sleuthing to find other potential examples of “counting in a different way.”  The most recent editions I have of U.S. News’s “America’s Best Colleges” are from 2012 and 2009, and I looked at those issues to check Mary Hardin-Baylor’s numbers.  The 2009 book shows UMHB with 1258 applications and 962 acceptances, while 2012 shows 8323 applications and 3114 acceptances.  Either Mary Hardin-Baylor experienced a 600% increase in apps over that span or it started counting differently.

Even more interesting was that I found two other institutions “counting in a different way.”  I won’t name them, but both are rural regional institutions, and so I was surprised that one accepted only 10% of applicants and the other 7%.  One of them has a long history of being unbelievably selective, and from looking at its enrollment and its admission numbers it is clear that it is counting acceptances “in a different way,” such that only students who enroll receive acceptances.  If a cursory glance at those numbers arouses my suspicions, I wonder why they don’t arouse U.S. News’s.  Is it too trusting or too lazy to verify?

The bigger question is, Is more better?  That could easily be a topic for one of the ads featuring an adult asking four children about whether bigger and faster is better.  I remember the ads but have no idea what they’re selling.  Is having more applications better?

The conventional wisdom has been yes.  One of the unexamined myths of college admissions is that selectivity=quality, and that is why so many colleges go to great lengths to increase application numbers.  Several years ago a friend of mine became the Vice President and Dean of Enrollment at a small liberal-arts college, the kind of place that is the backbone of America’s higher-education system, a solid school academically that admitted 75-80% of its applicants.  The first thing he did was move to a two-part application, with the first part being basic information (and the application fee).  Part 2, which includes the more substantial information, is sent once Part 1 is received.  The first part  counts as the application, and because many students never complete the second part, within a year the institution’s acceptance rate was cut nearly in half.  But is it a better (or even different) institution?  The same argument can be made with colleges that have adopted “snap” (or a word that rhymes with snap) apps to increase numbers.  Is there a difference between increasing number of apps and increasing number of serious applicants?

It is important to affirm and recognize those who are attempting to maintain sanity in the admissions process, and earlier this year the Association of College Counselors in Independent Schools (ACCIS) sent a letter of commendation to John Mahoney and his staff at Boston College.  Concerned about rising numbers of applications, BC added a supplemental essay last year.  The topics are substantive and require both thought and serious interest, and they support the belief that applying to college should be a Goldilocks process—neither too easy nor too hard.  The supplemental essay had more impact than expected, with applications dropping 26%, and there was undoubtedly consternation among those who measure success by rising application numbers, but I applaud BC and other institutions that are fighting the prevailing wisdom about increasing application numbers.  It’s time to count (measure success) in a different way.

Thursday, May 16, 2013


If you want to get my blood boiling (and, as a bonus, get an essay answer to a short answer question), ask me how I’m keeping busy now that May 1 is past and my seniors have made their final college choices.  I’ll try to avoid boring you with a rant about how my time in the spring is consumed more working with juniors than with seniors, but all bets are off once the topic of Wait Lists comes up.

A colleague and close friend stopped by my office yesterday for a venting/counseling session, one of three different conversations I had about Wait Lists during the day. Just when his daughter had come to peace with her college choice, her counselor has asked her cryptic questions along the lines of “would you say yes if asked to go to the dance?” about the school that was her first choice and where she was Wait Listed.  Are the counselor’s questions a signal that she might get a call?  Will a Wait List offer come with sufficient financial aid?  Should the family get its hopes up or stick with the existing situation?  Do they have time and energy to think about all this in the midst of AP exams and her sister’s college graduation this weekend?

I told him he had “appropriate anxiety.”  Just as you’re not paranoid when the thing you’re afraid of is real, angst and frustration are perfectly normal responses to being on a Wait List.

Of course it is not only students and parents (and school counselors) who feel anxiety regarding Wait Lists.  Several years ago I talked with the Dean of Admissions at College X.  There were rumors that University Y might be going to its Wait List.  If they went, there would be a chain reaction.  When Harvard itches, everyone scratches.  She needed to pull the trigger on her Wait List first, she said.

Wait Lists are the admissions equivalent of limbo (the theological state, not the dance).  Students on a Wait List are caught in a netherworld between the known and unknown, between reality and possibility.  The view is always shrouded by fog and the rules are unclear.  It’s not a place you would choose to take a vacation. 

Wait Lists have become a regular part of the admissions process, such that I expect that 10-20% of my senior class will ‘upgrade” and end up at their final destination off a Wait List.  The use of Wait Lists may be the least transparent part of the college admissions process—and that’s saying something. 

The lack of clear rules regarding use of Wait Lists and the impression that Wait List procedures have become the “Wild West” of college admissions led Jake Talmage, the Director of College Counseling at St. Paul’s School for Boys in Baltimore, to ask NACAC to study Wait List procedures in a motion to the NACAC Assembly two years ago in New Orleans.  Jake’s motion resulted in two changes to the Best Practices section of the Statement of Principles of Good Practice regarding Wait Lists.  One asks colleges to utilize written or electronic communication in offering admission off a Wait List.  The other change gives students 72 hours to respond to an institution’s offer.  That provision generated considerable debate, with some colleges arguing that institutional needs dictated moving more quickly down the Wait List.

Those are positive steps but don’t begin to address the larger issues.  Primary among those is the classic question of how large a Wait List should be and what being on a Wait List should signify.  A recent Washington Post article named several institutions that Wait Listed more students than they admitted. At first glance that seems absurd, but I think it’s a more complex issue than it appears.

I learned that after my own professional Black Monday back in 2000.  Over the weekend the decisions from the University of Virginia had been mailed, and as I walked in to chapel that morning there was a buzz in the air.  Six seniors that I thought would be in the gray area between admit and Wait List had been denied.  My instincts aren’t usually that far off, and so I called the late Jack Blackburn and made an appointment to meet with him.  When I got to his office he showed me the folders, and each of the students had been Wait Listed at one point and then moved into the deny pile.  He explained that every spring there was an internal debate within his office about the Wait List.  Some thought being on the Wait List should be a message that a student was qualified for admission but space not available.  That might lead to 2000 students being placed on the Wait List.  The opposing school of thought was that few of the students on the Wait List had a legitimate shot at getting off and that it wasn’t fair to give them false hope.  That spring the smaller Wait List advocates won the day.

One of the incidents that triggered Jake Talmage’s concern about Wait List procedures was seeing a student Wait Listed in December by a rolling admission school, told the Wait List would be reviewed in May.  I see that as a twist on the classic understanding that being Wait Listed is a sign that a student is qualified but there is no room at the inn.  The institution, it seems to me, is saying that the student is someone they don’t want to admit, but might have to.  That might be cruel, but I’m not sure it’s unethical, as long as the practice is transparent.

What has changed is that Wait Lists are no longer used as a safety net but as a calculated enrollment management strategy.  It has been described as “Early Decision 3,” with a number of schools planning to admit the last 10-15% of the class off the Wait List to keep the acceptance rate low and yield high.

The ethical issues raised by use of ED-3 and Wait Lists in general are the same issues raised in all parts of the college admissions process.  Does it serve students, or just the institution?  Is it transparent? Do students know how decisions are made and what they can do to improve their chances?  What role do demonstrated interest, academic merit, and institutional needs play?  Is it equitable? Does it squeeze out students with financial need? Does it advantage the already privileged with access to savvy college counseling?

A veteran admissions dean once told me that the perfect admissions process would be to Wait List all acceptable candidates and admit those who most want to come.  I’m not sure that’s any crazier than the system we have in place.  If Samuel Beckett were to return from the dead and write a modern sequel to his most famous absurdist play, he could do worse than call it “Waiting List for Godot.”    

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Being Yourself

Nearly twenty years ago I served as chair of the Professional Development Committee for the Virginia Association of Independent Schools.  The committee’s primary job was putting together the program for the annual VAIS Professional Day Conference, and one year during my term we brought Alfie Kohn to the conference as keynote speaker. 

Kohn is one of the original “edutainers” who has made a career of writing and lecturing about education without actually working in a school.  His keynote address was a critique of grades and other external rewards, and it produced widely varying reviews.  A number of teachers found his presentation refreshing and inspirational, the best keynote in years. Others gave it the lowest rating possible on conference evaluations, and some even commented that VAIS should take his message to heart and show its opposition to rewards by refusing to pay him.

I considered the strong sentiments a sign of success.  The job of a keynote speaker is to provoke thinking, and people were clearly provoked. 

If being provocative is also the job of an op-ed writer, then Suzy Lee Weiss is wise (or Weiss) beyond her years. Weiss is the Pittsburgh high school senior who wrote an op-ed for the March 30 edition of the Wall Street Journal titled, “To (All) the Colleges That Rejected Me.”  In the article, which she characterized as a satire during a Today Show appearance, Weiss argued that selective colleges lie to prospective students when they tell them to “be yourself.”

Weiss’s article drew widespread attention and criticism.  Many were offended by the tone of the piece, finding her references to diversity mean-spirited and insensitive.  I was surprised by the visceral reaction to the piece among a number of colleagues on both sides of the desk who are sick and tired of media coverage of the college admissions process that focuses almost entirely on students who don’t get into the Ivies and, like Groucho Marx, don’t want to be a member of any club (or college) that would have students like them. There were also responses from current students at Ivy League schools suggesting that clearly she must not have had the sterling qualifications that students admitted to those schools obviously possess.

I wasn’t offended by the article.  I thought Weiss failed the first rule of satire—if you use humor or satire, make sure it’s funny—but I have been guilty of the same offense too many times.  I also don’t feel sorry for her (she is apparently attending Michigan). But I think the piece touches on interesting questions about the current state of college admission, the messages we send to students and parents, and the changing nature of the work we do.

First and foremost is the question she indirectly poses.  Do we mislead or do a disservice to kids when we tell them to “be yourself,” as if “be someone else” is an option?

That begs larger questions. Is the college search process a journey of self-discovery or about obtaining membership in a club with a secret handshake? Should college be a product of who you are and what you’ve accomplished or a be-all, end-all goal? Which is more important, the name on the diploma or the college experience itself? As Eric Hoover observes in his article about College Confidential in today’s Chronicle of Higher Education, the article of faith underlying that site is that your life is defined by where you go to college. I wish media coverage of college admissions didn’t accept that premise so uncritically.

College counseling is a tightrope walk fraught with danger.  It is my job to support my students in pursuing their dreams and at the same time ensure that they are grounded in reality, and the changing admissions landscape makes that hard.  I don’t know Ms. Weiss’s credentials, but I feel her pain.  This year I had five or six seniors with stellar grades and course loads, SAT scores around 1500, and the kind of character and leadership qualities that schools like mine hope to produce.  All would have Ivy League admits 10-15 years, but none got in.  All have good college options, so I don’t feel sorry for them, but I share their disappointment.

I remember talking to Fred Hargadon shortly before his retirement as Dean of Admissions at Princeton.  “Anyone who thinks we’re doing anything other than splitting hairs has no idea,” he lamented.  He talked about spending three hours in committee deliberating over 50 applications, ultimately admitting five, then the next morning not being able to remember why they picked those five. 

It’s far worse today in the age of 30000 applications and 5-6% acceptance rates.  Colleges and universities don’t add staff to match the increase in apps, reading time is decreased, and holistic review may become “half-istic.”  In such a climate, are certain kinds of applicants advantaged and others disadvantaged?

Last week at a professional conference, I had a conversation with a colleague about Susan Cain’s book, Quiet.  The book makes an argument that introverts are underappreciated in our culture, but have important intellectual and leadership strengths.  My colleague wondered if introverted kids who are hesitant to blow their own horns are at a disadvantage in the selective college admissions process.  The corollary is whether the process rewards kids who are savvy about packaging themselves.

How does one maintain sanity and a sense of purpose as college counseling becomes more complex and challenging? My answer is the same one Suzy Lee Weiss finds wanting—“Be Yourself.”  Our work should be a reflection of who we are and what we believe.  So while it makes me feel on far too many days that I am a dinosaur, I will continue to preach that the college search journey is more important than the destination, that the search and application processes should measure a student’s readiness for college itself, and that what one does in college is more important than where one goes.


P.S.  My cynical, tongue-firmly-in-cheek self wonders—Now that Suzy Lee Weiss has been published in the Wall Street Journal and interviewed on the Today Show, should she appeal her denials on the grounds that she has new information to add to her file?