Monday, March 31, 2014

New and Improved

Each semester I spend a day in my Public Speaking class talking about critical thinking through the lens of advertising claims.  I point out that it is against the law for advertisers to lie, but that they are allowed to make claims that lead us to make incorrect assumptions. 

What advertisers don’t say may be far more meaningful and significant than what they do say.  Back in the 1970s the now-defunct National Airlines was a leading carrier to Florida, and ran ads touting the fact that no other airline flew to Miami/Fort Lauderdale for less than National.  What they didn’t say was that all fares were the same, because the Federal government regulated airline fares. When Folgers coffee claims that it’s “mountain grown,” what isn’t said is that all coffee is in some sense mountain grown (Arabica beans are grown at higher elevations than Robusta beans).  When products like shampoo and toothpaste highlight some special ingredient, what they fail to mention is that their competitors have the same ingredient.

Evaluating advertising claims requires knowing the right question to ask.  When Trident chewing gum reports that 4 out of 5 dentists surveyed recommend sugarless gum (for their patients who chew gum), the logical question is “What would I expect the results to be?”  I would expect 100% of dentists to prefer sugarless, making the statistic not that impressive.  When an actor washing his hair with ten times as much shampoo as needed claims to know that Denorex is working because it tingles, the relevant question is “Do you need your shampoo to tingle?”  When products are “new and improved,” the question becomes, "Is that really an acknowledgement that the old product was flawed?"

I thought about that upon learning a couple of weeks ago that there will be a “new and improved” SAT beginning in 2016.  Within minutes of the announcement, I was being asked what I thought by parents and colleagues, and my answer is that I’m not sure.  I like a lot of what I’ve heard.  I like the idea that the test might be more closely aligned with what students study in high school.  I like abandoning the 2400 scale, because it is still odd every time I hear someone talk about having gotten a 1950 on the test. I like the fact that the SAT will become less a test of stamina now that the Writing section will be optional, and being able to guess your way to success without penalty seems to reflect some back corner of the American Dream.  But I am also by nature a skeptic, especially when it comes to the College Board, and there are still a number of questions to be answered.

Foremost among those questions is whether the changes are motivated by philosophy or economics.  I would like to believe that the changes were in response to the thoughtful work done by the NACAC Commission on Testing, but that seems unlikely given how quickly the College Board was to dismiss and ignore the Commission report.

There is an ongoing internal battle for the soul of the College Board—membership organization or corporate entity, .org or .com?  In recent years the corporate forces seem to be winning the war. 

College Board meetings too often feel like infomercials for College Board products, and when I attended the business meeting at a National Forum several years ago, the treasurer reported a “non-profit” of $95 million, a figure that many businesses would envy.  That wealth, much of it generated by SAT fees, allows the College Board to do a lot of good, but it also leads to suspicion that most College Board decisions are based on how they impact the bottom line.   Is the new test an attempt to better measure the skills and knowledge students need in the 21st century, a reaction to the fact that the SAT has lost market share to the ACT, or a strategic first step to position the College Board to become the primary provider of assessments of the new Common Core standards (partly written and developed by new College Board President David Coleman)?

Those questions are particularly relevant given the fact that the “new and improved” SAT reverses the miracle ingredient from the last iteration of the SAT, the Writing section.  At the time, the addition of the Writing section seemed designed to keep the University of California system as clients, and almost immediately critics such as MIT’s Les Perelman argued that the 25-minute essay and prompts were lousy measures of a student’s ability to write, especially when the scoring rubric did not penalize a student for writing that the War of 1812 started in 1944.

The other significant piece to the recent announcement is the College Board’s collaboration with Khan Academy to produce free test prep materials.  That seems like a good attempt to reestablish the SAT as a tool for college access rather than a test that measures and rewards privilege.  I have always been a skeptic when it comes to the test-prep industry, believing that it is one of the marketing success stories of our time and that the benefits of test prep are far more modest than generally assumed (but that may be the na├»ve dinosaur within me speaking), and it bothered me that several media reports about the new SAT took for granted that scoring well on the SAT is purely a function of test prep rather than economic advantage.  Whatever the reality, it hurts the credibility of the College Board and the college admissions profession if it is possible, or perceived to be possible, to game the test and the admissions process.

That leads to the final question.  What does the SAT measure, and is it measuring the right things?  It was originally designed to predict freshman year performance in conjunction with high school grades.  Grade inflation makes such a tool necessary, but studies such as that recently done by former Bates Dean of Admission Bill Hiss on the long-term impact of test optional policies raise questions about how much added predictive value SAT scores provide.   More importantly, neither the SAT, ACT, or any other test adequately measure personal qualities such as motivation, work ethic, and “grit” that may be the best predictors of success.  A test that could measure those would truly qualify as “new and improved.”

Monday, March 10, 2014

May 1 and Housing

A post on the NACAC Exchange a week or so ago caught my eye (of course, they all do).  An independent counselor asked a question about the housing application fees required by many large universities (in this case the University of Florida). 

Two of her clients have just been accepted to Florida.  Immediately after applying they were contacted by the university and urged to submit a non-refundable $25 housing deposit in order to reserve the possibility of on-campus housing, with their place in the housing selection queue determined by the date the deposit was paid. They did so, and are now being asked to pay a non-refundable $175 “Advance Rent Payment” by March 11 to complete the housing contract. Failure to submit by the deadline could result in the students losing their place on the room selection list, and late payment will put them at the bottom of the list.  The families want to wait for their other admissions decisions before deciding whether to enroll in Florida and are wondering how the University can ask for a housing deposit so far in advance of the May 1 reply date. 

The query only received a couple of responses, but they captured both ends of the spectrum of opinion on this issue.  A friend of mine suggested that the university be reported to the regional Admission Practices Committee for possible violation of the NACAC Statement of Principles of Good Practice (SPGP), while another friend responded that this is standard operating procedure at large universities and that they have a legitimate need to manage the complex process of assigning housing.

It can certainly be argued that this is neither an ethical issue nor an issue related to college admissions, but readers of this blog know that has never stopped us from weighing in, so let’s try to sort through the issues.

Does the SPGP apply to housing deposits?  I certainly remember the issue coming up during my time as a NACAC Assembly Delegate.  The May 1 Candidates’ Reply Date is one of the ethical foundations of our profession, a convention designed to protect the ethical principle that students should be able to make a college choice freely and without coercion, knowing all of their options.  But do colleges have a need and a right to ask for commitments and deposits prior to May 1 for things like scholarships and housing?  On one hand, membership in NACAC is institutional, such that a college or university, not just the admissions office, agrees to abide by the SPGP.  On the other, the reality is that in large institutions, things like housing fall outside the purview of the admissions office, and the housing process is sufficiently complex that it may not match up with the admissions calendar.

ACUHO (Association of College and University Housing Officers) does not address deadlines and fees in its code of ethics, other than stating that housing fees should not be used as a revenue stream for parts of the university unrelated to housing (it is presumably okay for a university housing office to use fees to help balance its own budget).  The two documents have a markedly different tone, with the ACUHO document broad and general and the SPGP specific and prescriptive.  The difference is predicated on the fact that NACAC is one of only a few professional associations that attempt to enforce ethical standards.  As a result the SPGP tends to be amended in response to specific practices that push the boundaries of accepted ethical professional practice.  

There are two references to housing in the SPGP, both Mandatory Practices.  Section II. A. 1 mentions housing in conjunction with a requirement for transparency in requirements, deadlines, and refund procedures.  I think the University of Florida is clearly in compliance on this point.

The other mention is in Section II. B. 5, which requires post-secondary members to “work with their institutions’ senior administrative offices to ensure that financial aid and housing options are not used to manipulate commitments prior to May 1.”  That speaks to the heart of the concerns raised by the independent counselor and her clients.  Are the housing deposits coercive, either directly or indirectly?

The $25 fee seems perfectly reasonable, both in timing and amount.  It is akin to the admissions application fee and serves dual purposes, covering the cost of processing the application for housing and also establishing an order for housing selection.

The $175 “Advance Rent Payment” is more problematic, on several fronts.  Both the more substantial financial commitment and the early (pre-May 1) deadline could (emphasis on could) be interpreted as an attempt to manipulate an enrollment commitment, as does the threat to lose one’s place in the housing queue if the payment is late.  Let me be clear that I am not accusing the university of doing anything deliberately manipulative.  For all I know there may be good reasons why the housing office needs to know who actually plans to enroll in university housing prior to May 1.  I also know that it is not unheard of for bureaucrats to establish deadlines and procedures that meet their needs without being aware of how they inconvenience others.  I’m sure there are housing administrators with no clue that a student might apply to more than one college. 

What is most questionable ethically is the non-refundable nature of the deposit.  That is not equally true for all segments of the applicant pool.  If Florida is my first choice and there’s no question that I will enroll (which may be true for a large number of applicants at any flagship university), neither the deadline nor the fee is unreasonable.  If I voluntarily make an enrollment deposit to an institution in February or March, I don’t have a right to expect a refund if I change my mind before May 1 (if I make early deposit because I have been led to believe that will give me a better housing option, that’s different).

For other segments the deadline and non-refundable nature of the fee are indefensible.  The fee is to complete the housing contract, and the use of the word “contract” implies that the student will receive housing.  If I pay the fee and then decide not to attend Florida, I should receive a refund because I am not receiving the benefit.  The same is true if the university is unable to offer me housing.  If I decide to attend Florida and pay the fee but later decide I want to live off-campus, it’s not as clear that the university has any obligation.

The University of Florida housing office does have an appeal process in place for students who want to be released from the housing contract they have signed.  In the case of those who have been asked to pay the $175 fee prior to May 1 to complete the housing contract, they shouldn’t have to ask.  If the earlier deadline is necessary, then the fee should be refunded to any student who doesn’t end up attending the university.