Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Transcript-Optional Admission

I remember the phone call as if it were yesterday, because it was one of the few times in my life that I have been rendered speechless. 

It was the end of a long school day, and on the other end of the line was an exasperated mother.  Her son had been wait-listed at his first choice school, not unexpectedly, and she was calling either for reassurance and advice on strategy or just to vent. In any case, the call was fine until she asked a question for which I had no answer.  “Why do they have to look at his grades?”

Why indeed?  It is probably inaccurate to say that I was speechless, because it was all I could do to refrain from giving her a smart-ass answer that she clearly wouldn’t have appreciated.  Now, however, I think back to her question and realize that her son was born 25 years too soon. Today students who would prefer that colleges not look at their grades can apply to Goucher College.

Several weeks ago Goucher, a liberal-arts college located just outside Baltimore, announced a new application option whereby students can choose to submit a two-minute video instead of a transcript.  Applicants who submit a video in lieu of a transcript will also be expected to submit two pieces of high school work, but the video will be the primary factor influencing Goucher’s admissions decision.

I’ve always liked Goucher (probably mostly because years ago during my admissions days I had a crush on a female admissions staff member there), but my first response when I read the reports about the new option in the Chronicle of Higher Education and InsideHigherEd was to check my calendar to see if I had somehow turned into Rip Van Winkle and slept through seven months of the school year, such that it was already April Fools’ Day (in which case I would have been even farther behind in my rec writing). 

My reaction was not out of the mainstream.  When I told mentioned the Goucher announcement to my seniors and parents while talking about the trends in the admissions world, it was the biggest laugh line of the night.  Several colleagues have interpreted the move as a sign of desperation, and Macalester College President Brian Rosenberg broke the unwritten rule against criticizing other colleges when he wrote an opinion piece for the Chronicle awarding Goucher the prize for dumbest higher-education move.

Plenty of colleges have made submitting standardized test scores optional, but Goucher is the first selective school I’m aware of to make a transcript optional.  I’m sorry, but I don’t see transcript-optional admissions as an idea whose time has come.

That’s not to say that it may not be founded on good assumptions.  An admissions counselor at Goucher was quoted in the Chronicle as saying “Students are more than just numbers,” and I agree whole-heartedly.  I have asked the question, “Are we measuring the right things?” several times in this blog, reflecting that there are non-cognitive, non-academic predictors of success both in college and in life.  But recognizing that grades and scores may provide an incomplete picture of an individual does not mean that eliminating them gives a better picture.

Students are more than just numbers, but so are transcripts.  A transcript tells a student’s story for a discerning reader, from level of rigor to relative strengths and weaknesses (struggles in math, great history student) to upward trend both year-to-year and semester-to-semester.  Reading a transcript requires context, hopefully provided by a school profile and by the information in a letter of recommendation. 

It is one thing to recognize that students are works-in-progress and therefore give less weight to high school grades, and another thing altogether to not ask for a transcript.  There is a difference between making test scores optional and a transcript optional.  Test scores may either confirm or call into question a student’s high school performance, but test scores are supplemental information.  A transcript is essential information for a college.  How much they choose to weigh it is up to them, but there is no excuse for not requiring a transcript.  The one possible exception would be for a college that is itself abolishing grades for its students.  As President Rosenberg from Macalester asks, is Goucher prepared to have its graduates put together a video for employers and graduate schools that summarizes the value of their Goucher education in lieu of grades and transcripts?

Goucher President Jose Antonio Bowen is quoted as hoping that this innovation will increase yield, bringing in more students with “affinity” for Goucher rather than students applying to Goucher as one of many in a shotgun application approach.  He also says that the college application model is broken and maybe even “insane.” 

I think he’s right about that.  The quest for selectivity and prestige has led colleges to attempt to generate more applications, or, more accurately, more rejections.  That has resulted in a vicious circle that doesn’t serve anyone well.  Students panic when they perceive college admission getting harder and respond by applying to more schools.  That makes it harder for colleges to determine when an application is serious, leading to an increased focus on demonstrated interest and more students being placed on Wait Lists, which starts the cycle all over again.  There is an important but difficult conversation to be had about whether the college admissions process works well for students and for colleges and whether it is time for a radical revamping.

If college admissions is broken, making a high school transcript optional is in no way a fix.  Goucher’s new program has generated plenty of attention, and I hope it doesn’t backfire for them, but I don’t see transcript-optional admission as either interesting or positive.


P.S.  My last post on conflict of interest generated several thoughtful comments and questions from readers with other examples of possible of conflict of interest.  As always, I appreciate the feedback, and will do another post reflecting some of those comments.

Two milestones:  Ethical College Admissions will celebrate its second anniversary later this week, while I am in Indianapolis attending NACAC.  It’s been a rewarding journey, maybe the most rewarding thing I’ve ever done professionally.  In addition, the blog just had its 15,000th hit, far beyond my expectations and dreams two years ago.  Thanks for your support—it means a lot.


Thursday, September 11, 2014

Conflict of Interest

One of the consequences of working in college admissions or college counseling is the tendency to view the world primarily through that lens.  It has been more than thirty years since my admissions days, and yet I still find myself giving directions using high schools as landmarks.

So several weeks ago when the national media reported on the ninth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina’s devastation of New Orleans, I thought back to a very small part of that story.  In the days following Katrina, the admissions office at Tulane University relocated to my home town, Richmond, Virginia, operating out of the offices of enrollment marketing firm Royall and Company.  Tulane’s Dean of Admission and Vice President of Enrollment Management at the time, Dick Whiteside, now works for Royall.

Royall and Company received a mention in the Flagler College investigative report that was the topic of the last ECA post.  Royall had no connection to the data fraud perpetrated by Flagler’s former VP for Enrollment Management, but a second, collateral ethical issue identified in the report involves the former VP’s relationship with Royall.  In November, 2011 he doubled Flagler’s involvement with Royall without getting the required approval from either higher administrators or the Board.  What makes that problematic from an ethical perspective was that he did so at the same time he was being compensated by Royall as a consultant.

(In the interest of full disclosure, I know both Bill Royall and John Nester, the current President of Royall and Company, and consider both friends.  Bill helped establish a mentoring program for young professionals in Potomac and Chesapeake ACAC in memory of his cousin and my close friend Ann Powell, who died of cancer before being able to serve her term as PCACAC President, and her final request of me was that I oversee the development of that program.  John’s son was one of my advisees.  I know and share many of the concerns about the role played by vendors such as Royall and Company in college admissions.)

Is it ever acceptable for an admissions professional to receive compensation from a vendor with whom his or her office is doing business?  I think the answer is a clear “No.”  Even if the admissions person is providing legitimate consulting services, the potential for abuse, or even the perception of conflict of interest, is present and dangerous.

Conflict of interest is most clear and most unsavory when there is a financial arrangement involved.  One of the most troubling facets of the international agent landscape is how many agents represent multiple institutions, and even receive payment both from students and institutions.  How does a student or college employing the agent know that the agent is representing their interests, not giving advice and counsel based on what produces the most economic advantage for the agent?

The potential for conflict of interest is greatest when money is changing hands, but the reality is that all of us should be concerned about conflict of interest most of the time.  The philosopher W.D. Ross said that ethical duties arise out of relationships, and in most situations we are in multiple relationships with multiple roles and potentially multiple interests at stake.
As a college counselor, I serve my students, I serve their parents, I serve my school, and I also serve my own values as a professional and as an ethical individual.  Thankfully I am rarely placed in situations where there is a conflict in what those roles require.  When I am helping a student decide between institutions I need to be careful that I am hearing the student’s voice and not advising him based on what is best for my school’s college list.  When a parent asks me to advise the student to go to a less expensive public option, I have to navigate challenging territory.  My job is not to make the decision, but to advise and help the family come to consensus.  Serving the student’s interests and serving the parent’s interests can lead to conflict of interest when those interests don’t coincide.  It is worth stepping back in the midst of difficult situations to ask whose interests we are serving with a particular course of action.

Conflict of interest is especially dangerous because we have the amazing ability to rationalize our actions and behavior.  That became clear here in Virginia during the recent trial leading to the conviction of former Governor Bob McDonnell and his wife on federal corruption charges for accepting several hundred thousand dollars in gifts and loans from a businessman looking for their help and support with a dietary supplement his company was launching.  The trial can best be described as a soap opera, an embarrassment to the state that included a defense strategy that the couple could not be found guilty of conspiracy due to the fact that they didn’t talk to each other enough to conspire.

There is much about the case that is sad and bizarre and tragic.  I wasn’t a Bob McDonnell fan, but I don’t believe he is corrupt even if it is clear that he was guilty of the charges.  At some level he lost his conflict-of-interest compass, allowing his political ambitions (he was widely talked about as a possible running mate for Mitt Romney in 2012), his dysfunctional marriage (a huge problem for a politician who had run as a family values champion), and his personal financial woes to cloud his judgment and convince himself that he was serving the interest of his constituents by serving the interests of businessman Jonny Williams.

It is at times like these that I most appreciate the vow of poverty I unwittingly took years ago in choosing a non-profit career.  I don’t have to worry about people trying to buy me with golf outings and shopping trips, or paying me as a “consultant,” but that doesn’t mean I’m immune to conflict of interest.  It may be a footnote to the McDonnell and Flagler tragedies, but it’s an ethical issue all of us face.      

Inside Higher Ed Mentions ECA

Last week's post about Flagler College's investigative report into data fraud was mentioned and linked to by the website Inside Higher Ed on Tuesday in it "Around the Web" section.

Thursday, September 4, 2014


Back in February I wrote a post after Flagler College in Florida became the most recent college admitting that admissions statistics have been misreported.  Several weeks ago Flagler released an outside investigative report commissioned by its Board of Trustees that answers in ugly detail the question raised every time there is a new report of a college misreporting admissions data.  “How could this happen?”

The answer at Flagler is “intentional data fraud and misreporting” at the hands of a single individual, former Vice President for Enrollment Management Marc Williar.  Williar, an admissions staff member for 25 years and the VP since 2009, resigned back in February, taking full responsibility for the data fraud. According to the report, forensic accounting analysis indicates that the fraud goes back at least to 2005, much earlier than acknowledged by Williar.

What is different about the Flagler case is that the data fraud involves manipulation of individual student records, not just the freshman class profile.  The report accuses Williar of accessing the electronic database maintained by Flagler for student records to inflate and even fabricate test scores for individual students.  How widespread was the fraud?  Williar is accused of inflating test scores for 2542 students in 2012 and 2013 alone and fabricating 195 others.  The reports states that 99% of the scores entered into the database by Williar over that two-year period were inaccurate.  Apparently no one else on the Flagler campus was involved or even aware of the data manipulation.

The forensic accounting analysis during the investigation didn’t find any “formula” by which scores were manipulated, but it appears that Williar started by determining the class mean he wanted to achieve, then added 50 or 100 points to SAT subscores for individual students.  He inflated class rank statistics by omitting low class ranks.  The inflation in the SAT profile on the 1600 scale for entering Flagler classes was approximately 25 points from 2004-2007, 50 points from 2008-2010, and 85 points over the past three years.

Some takeaways, both questions and conclusions:

1)      I applaud Flagler for publicly releasing the report.  The transparency serves Flagler, the admissions profession, and the public.


2)      It is tempting to think of admissions data manipulation as a victimless crime, hurting only the credibility of U.S. News’s college rankings, but at Flagler the data fraud hurt individual students.  At least several hundred students were misplaced in courses because of the changed individual SAT scores, and in fact that was what led to discovery of the fraud, as a faculty member found discrepancies between student performance in freshman English composition classes and the SAT scores that led to their placement in those courses.

       3)  Is it appropriate to use SAT scores for placement purposes?  I suspect that practice is 
            not uncommon, and during my freshman year in college I was placed in an honors
            freshman English section made up of the students with the highest SAT verbal scores,
            but is the SAT designed to be used to place students in college courses?  I defer to those
            with more expertise in psychometrics than I have, but I wonder if that is a misuse of the


4)      We know from the report how the data fraud occurred, but less about why.  Williar told the investigators that he was trying to “help” the college, but the report concludes that he committed the fraud out of self-interest, as a way to increase both his compensation and his status at the college.  As in previous cases of data misrepresentation, once you start inflating data, additional misrepresentation is required to sustain the deception.


The report found no evidence that Williar’s actions were influenced by pressure or expectations from the Flagler administration or Board.  I don’t know Marc Williar, and his actions are indefensible, but the narrative of the rogue admissions officer doesn’t ring true.  I absolutely believe that no one in a position of authority told him to change student records or manipulate profile data, but I also suspect that his ethical lapses were encouraged by the pressures, subtle or explicit, placed on admissions offices to achieve multiple and challenging metric benchmarks.  It is no longer a successful year to bring in a full freshman class.  You must also be more selective, raise SAT scores, increase diversity, and lower the discount rate.  Those are all worthwhile goals, but an institutional climate that focuses first and foremost on those metrics is unhealthy and partly to blame when data fraud occurs.


5)      As I reported back in February, there have long been signs that Flagler was engaged in creative accounting, not with regard to test scores, but with regard to admit rate.  Back in the early 1990s Flagler was reporting to U.S. News an acceptance rate lower than that for MIT, Duke, and Penn.  I’m willing to entertain the notion that it might have actually been more selective than those places, but the cynic in me says that it was playing games in how it counted applications.  If that’s the case, the conditions that led to the manipulation of data have been present for a long time.


6)      There is one other ethical issue mentioned in the investigative report that doesn’t seem related to the data fraud, and I will discuss it in my next post.


How many isolated cases constitute evidence of an epidemic, and how do we determine whether a disease is contagious?  The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization have had to deal with those questions this year with regard to Ebola. It may be time for the college admissions profession to address those questions with regard to data fraud and misrepresentation.  Hopefully the Flagler investigation will help prevent the next outbreak.