Wednesday, October 22, 2014

News and Updates

My posts this fall have all been pretty weighty (not to mention very preachy), and given that I’m drowning in a pile of college recommendations due November 1, this post will be a change of pace, providing news and updates on four issues I’ve addressed previously.

1)      In Indianapolis, the NACAC Assembly approved a number of changes to the Statement of Principles of Good Practice (SPGP), adding language having to do with the use of international agents, the fact that a high-school transcript should include all courses attempted (rather than being edited when a student retakes a course and earns a higher grade—a possible future topic for this blog), and how the May 1 Candidates’ Reply Date applies to institutionally-affiliated financial aid and scholarships.  I applaud the NACAC Admissions Practices committee under the leadership of Todd Rinehart for their work in updating the document.


One of the issues related to the May 1 deadline involves housing (for those of you who have memorized the SPGP chapter and verse, it can be found in section II.B.5.a).  Last spring I wrote about the practice of institutions requiring a housing deposit and making it non-refundable, and I have reason to believe that post may have helped move action on that issue.   


2)      Duke has become the first Common Application member to add a question on its application about sexual orientation/gender identity since the Common app’s 2011 decision not to include that topic among the questions asked as part of the application.  Duke’s question differs from other colleges such as Elmhurst College in Illinois and the University of Iowa that have previously asked similar application questions in that it invites students to write a short, optional essay rather than check a box.


I wrote about this issue back in December, 2012 after the University of Iowa announced that it was adding a question about sexual orientation/identity to its application.  At the time I applauded Iowa for being inclusive and welcoming to the LBGT community, but thought there were better ways to communicate that stance than through the application.  I continue to believe that the application should be used only to gather information that is relevant to making an admissions decision (which did not seem to be the case at Iowa), but by asking through an optional essay rather than an optional checkbox, Duke is giving students an opportunity to communicate something that is central to who they are and how they view the world, and that would seem relevant for admissions purposes.


The problem is that the prompt is vague enough that Duke is few students will know what the essay is designed to elicit.  Here is the prompt:  “Duke University seeks a talented, engaged student body that embodies the wide range of human experience; we believe that the diversity of our students makes our community stronger.  If you’d like to share a perspective you bring or experiences you’ve had to help us understand you better—perhaps related to a community you belong to, your sexual orientation or gender identity, or your family or cultural background—we encourage you to do so.  Real people are reading your application, and we want to do our best to understand and appreciate the real people applying to Duke.”


The essay prompt is deliberately vague and open-ended, and my wonder-about is how many essays Duke will get from students other than the target group.  Just this morning, one of my students who is applying Early Decision to Duke was talking about possible answers to that question, none of which are what the question is designed to elicit.  How many Duke applicants will write about their upper class cultural background, or their suburban New Jersey community?  Will Duke welcome an essay from a straight male who writes about his gender identity or sexual orientation?


3)      Bennington College has joined Goucher in making a high school transcript optional for applicants.  Bennington has introduced the “Dimensional Application” (the term has its origins in a quote about Bennington students by poet e.e. cummings) that gives Bennington applicants the opportunity to “curate” their applications by deciding what relevant information to include—portfolios, research or experiments designed and conducted by the student, writing (reflective and/or analytical), letters of recommendation, and even transcripts.  As I wrote about several weeks ago, I’m not sold on the idea that a transcript should be optional in evaluating a student’s readiness for college, but I like the concept that a student should have some control over what their “self-portrait” looks like and what media best communicates their essence.


4)      U.S. News has announced that two colleges have submitted incorrect data for the 2015 rankings.  What is different from previous cases is that there is no intent to manipulate data for the institution’s benefit.  Rollins College underreported the number of acceptances by 550 students, changing its acceptance rate from 47.2% to 58.8%.  That change did not impact Rollins ranking.  Lindenwood College in Missouri has been moved to the “Unranked” category because it reported 12,411 alumni donors when the actual figure was 2411.  Because alumni giving rate counts 5% of the ranking, that clerical error inflated Lindenwood’s ranking.  U.S. News rankings guru Bob Morse reported both cases in his Morse Code blog, but in Lindenwood’s case doesn’t provide any insight into how much the error would have impacted its ranking (I’m sure the formula is considered proprietary or top secret, but it would be fascinating to see how a mistake like in one category changes the overall ranking—on second thought, U.S. News probably doesn’t want anyone to realize how fluid the rankings are).  I have previous posted suggesting that U.S. News would best serve the public by putting all colleges in the “Unranked” category. Two other questions, one pragmatic and one philosophical:  Didn’t U.S. News find it odd that the number of alumni donors was off by 10000, and does that suggest that there is very little analysis of the data it receives?  And who thinks that alumni giving rate shows alumni loyalty and satisfaction rather than a successful annual giving operation?


That’s all for this edition.  I’ll be back after November 1.

Friday, October 10, 2014

Admissions Gluttony

In my last post I commented on Eric Hoover’s Chronicle of Higher Education article about the pressures faced by enrollment professionals and the attrition within the profession resulting from those pressures.

That article contained several examples of respected admissions deans who have left their jobs and institutions after the arrival of a new president.  One of those was Terry Cowdrey, who left her position as Vice President and Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid at Colby College in Maine back in July.  (I have met Terry and respect her, but don’t know her well enough to describe her as a friend.)  Terry told the Chronicle that she left voluntarily, declining further comment, but others told Eric that she and Colby’s new president had different views about the college’s admissions strategy.

The article provides a glimpse into that strategy.  The new president, most recently executive vice president at the University of Chicago, said before arriving in Maine that he wanted to double the number of applications Colby receives each year.  Colby currently receives just over 5000 applications, so doubling that would be 10,000, or 1000 more applications than any other liberal arts college in the country currently receives.

Is that realistic?  A former Colby admissions officer quoted in the article answers no, but I would argue that’s actually not the right question.  Is doubling applications for a place like Colby desirable?  Would 10000 applications make Colby a better place?  What assumptions underlie such a strategy, and what hidden messages does it send?  Is more better (apparently not the same thing as mo’better)?

The conventional wisdom within higher education (and within the pages of U.S. News) is that more must be better, that increased popularity must mean increased quality.  But where’s the evidence for that assumption?  Did the University of Chicago, Colby President David Greene’s former employer, become a better place because it tripled application numbers by using the Common Application rather than its own application with the quirky essay questions?  Its “brand” may be more recognizable (although one of my students who visited last week found its reputation as “The Place Where Fun Goes to Die” still apt), and it may have more appeal for students who are prestige conscious, but has the increased popularity made it a better academic institution?  I am not arguing that it hasn’t, only that increased application numbers are not evidence of increased quality.

Does Colby need more applications?  Only if it, like my children, defines “need” as a synonym for “want.”  Colby already receives more than ten applications for every spot in the freshman class, and has an admission rate of 28%, both metrics that many very good colleges would give anything (hopefully not including their soul) to have.  There are several words that describe the condition where you have more than enough but aren’t satisfied.  When the entity in question is money, the operative word is greed.  When it’s food, the word is gluttony.  And when the motivation is keeping up with your neighbors in the NESCAC and Ivies, the description is envy.  That’s three of the Seven Deadly Sins right there.

I also wonder if there might be unanticipated consequences from setting a goal to double applications.  Increasing applications probably means also decreasing yield, because those extra applications would come mostly from students who would be adding Colby to a list including more selective/prestigious schools that they would likely choose first.  What messages does that goal send to the campus community?  In addition to implying to the admissions staff that they’ve failed by only generating ten applications for every spot in the class, it might also send a message to the current student body that the administration is embarrassed to have to admit students like them.

There are some broader issues here that apply not just to Colby, but to all highly selective institutions.  If one accepts the adage that one’s strengths can also be weaknesses, then just as being highly selective has advantages, it also has limitations.

One of those limitations is a distorted view of reality, the same distortion that political leaders who don’t ever have to buy bread or milk and see only places that have been carefully prepared to look their best.  Back in the 1980’s President Ronald Reagan visited my wife’s employer, Reynolds Metals.  Not only did the state and city create a massive traffic jam by closing major arteries so that the Presidential motorcade had smooth sailing from the airport into Richmond, but Reynolds did five years worth of painting and planned maintenance in the month leading up to Reagan’s visit.  Best of all, there was a plan to paint the grass green for the President.  It revealed a lot about how Presidents lose touch with the common man.

Something similar happens to colleges and universities with far more applicants than spots in the freshman class.  Recently I attended a breakfast meeting with representatives from five highly-selective institutions, all of which have admit rates below 20%.  They agreed that probably 90% of applicants are qualified, but that very few are “interesting.”  I understand where they’re coming from, and quite frankly would probably use the same kind of language if I were in their shoes, but I also think that the “interesting” test is regrettable.  Isn’t that what a college education should do, help make a young person “interesting” in a way they may not be in high school due to maturity or background? Shouldn’t the college experience be transformative for a young person?

Seeking to double applications is clearly aspirational, and perhaps setting goals that are seemingly unachievable is necessary for an institution to improve, but I’d like to see colleges be less driven by metrics and more driven by mission.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

War of Attrition

This past summer I had the opportunity to spend five weeks in Europe.  My wife and I rented an apartment in the small Italian city of Lucca for a month, followed by a week of travel to Paris and London.  It was an amazing experience (here’s a link to the blog I wrote during the trip), but once I returned home all it took to suck out all the inner peace and good will I brought back from Italy was one two-hour meeting at school.

I thought about that last Monday upon returning to the office after being in Indianapolis at NACAC.  I knew I would pay for being away, but didn’t anticipate how fast the pile of “stuff” (a more polite vocabulary word than I started to use) awaiting me would make NACAC seem like a distant memory.

I view the NACAC Conference as the end of “preseason” each fall.  September is about getting back into the rhythm of the school year, and as soon as I return home I know that I will be consumed by deadlines and rec letters to be written, so NACAC is a chance to renew friendships, commiserate, and recharge.  The best part about NACAC this year was the number of people who stopped me to say that they read and even enjoy this blog. Thanks—your words mean more than you can know.

The hot topic during informal conversations at NACAC was Eric Hoover’s Chronicle of Higher Education article on the admissions dean’s chair as “the hottest seat on campus.”  The article highlights the pressures faced by those professionals responsible for enrollment on the college side and a level of turnover among Deans of Admission and VPs of Enrollment that is alarming.  It didn’t take long in any conversation to hear about another senior member of our profession who is retiring, in a new job, or simply out of work.  Lest anyone think that the grass is greener on the secondary side of the desk, at NACAC I talked with a close friend, someone I consider an icon of the college counseling profession, who is likely to leave his school at the end of the year because of Board and administrative pressure to increase the number of Ivy acceptances at the expense of fit.

It is human nature to add 2+2 and get 5, to interpret a few examples as evidence of a larger trend, but I sense of level of attrition within our profession that would constitute a crisis if it occurred in a student body. If I was the melodramatic type and wanted to draw a tenuous connection to world events, I might even suggest that we are locked in an undeclared war for the soul of college admissions, a conflict of cultures between those of us who believe that admissions is about a student’s journey of self-discovery and those who believe that higher education is first and foremost a business. 

If we’re in a war, it’s a war of attrition. Our adversaries have already seized “higher” ground (Boardrooms, Presidents’ offices), and we will have lost the war when there are no longer enough of us left. Reading Eric’s article brought to mind the Jimmy Buffett song, “A Pirate Looks at 40,” which includes the line “My occupational hazard is my occupation’s just not around.”  Our occupation isn’t endangered, but our profession might be.

So what can we do about it? We need to increase our efforts on two different fronts.  The first is giving more attention to attracting good people to the profession.  The recent NACAC survey report on “Career Paths for Young Professionals” suggested that many of us stumble into this profession, and that may no longer be good enough. The future of the profession is dependent on attracting young people who understand that helping young people make decisions about their future is a noble calling, who share a vision of admissions as more than filling the class and improving the profile, and who also happen to be just as committed/neurotic as most of us are.  Once in the field, we need to keep them. The enrollment management truism that it’s easier to retain an already enrolled student than recruit and enroll a new student holds true for us as well.

The second front is even more important but also more difficult.  We need to find ways to reach out and engage in dialogue with our bosses, the new generation of college presidents and provosts (and school heads) who don’t understand (and may not care about) the values that guide the college admissions profession.  If we don’t tell our story, who will?

Some of that burden is on each of us, but there’s also a role for organizations like NACAC and the College Board to play.  When I served as President of NACAC I got irritated by those who expected NACAC to legislate every aspect of college admissions, so I fully expect that my good friends Jeff Fuller and Joyce Smith will cringe if and when they read this, but one of NACAC’s roles is representing and defending the profession, and the profession (and professionals) are under attack in ways we haven’t seen before.  Presidents and Boards have not historically been defined as stakeholders by NACAC, but they are powerful influences on our ability to do our jobs and serve students.  I would like to see NACAC think about ways to offer professional development programming about admissions and enrollment management issues for Boards and Presidents.  The College Board certainly has both the influence and the resources to aid in that effort.

Is it an uphill battle?  No question. 

Will it work? Maybe.

Can we afford not to stand up for what we believe? No.


There is one other item from Eric Hoover’s article that I want to address, but I’ll do it in my next (hopefully shorter) post.