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.

1 comment:

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