Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Where Else Are You Applying?

Last week a minor furor erupted following an announcement by The Common Application that member schools can add a question asking students to list the colleges to which they are applying.  Todd Rinehart, Associate Vice Chancellor for Enrollment and Director of Admission at the University of Denver (a Common App member) as well as Chair of the NACAC Admission Practices Committee, wrote an op-ed for last week’s NACAC Bulletin laying out his personal (rather than official) views on the topic, and a number of people, mostly from the secondary side, have posted on the NACAC Exchange regarding the decision.

It remains to be seen whether this is a minor border skirmish in the battle between institutional interest and student sovereignty or a major attack designed to further erode the principles that have guided college admission and counseling.  It also remains to be seen if this is another sign of the morphing of the Common App as it becomes a bigger player in the college admissions landscape representing a broader spectrum of member colleges.  Last fall the organization announced that it would no longer require members to use holistic review of applicants, previously one of the bedrock principles underlying the Common Application.  Is the next change the current Common App requirement that members schools be NACAC members in good standing?

The change potentially puts Common App members at odds with the Statement of Principles of Good Practice. The SPGP does not prohibit schools from asking students where else they have applied.  The Mandatory section of the document prohibits colleges from asking students to rank their preferences and also states that students may not be required to respond. The Best Practices section of the document recommends that colleges not ask.

So colleges may ask the question, but should they?  In a recent post, I wrote about the Naturalistic Fallacy, which states that just because you have ability to do something doesn’t mean you should.  This blog’s conception of what is ethical extends beyond what is or isn’t permitted by the SPGP, so let’s examine the ethical issues.

In a post a couple of years ago regarding the University of Iowa’s decision to add a question on its application tied to sexual orientation, I argued that while I applauded Iowa’s desire to send a message about its openness to the LGBT community, the application should include only questions relevant and necessary to determining an individual’s merit or fit for admission. Does the “Where else are you applying?” question meet that test? 

Unless I’m missing something (always possible), there are two possible reasons for colleges asking that question, only one of which might be related to the admissions process itself. Colleges and universities have a legitimate interest in knowing what their overlap schools are, but there are more efficient ways than asking students on the application.  The best way would be for Common App to provide that aggregate information to its members after the completion of the admissions year.  If students must be asked, survey them after decisions have been made rather than as part of the application.

The more likely reason for asking the question is yield management, and it is here that we land on shaky ethical ground.  First of all, asking a student to report where he or she is applying is an infringement of privacy.  That information is owned by the student, and is not the college’s business.  Even when the question is optional, it is still coercive. Does optional mean truly optional or NFL off-season workout “optional”?  As a counselor, I generally advise students to answer optional questions.  This one will be different.

That’s due to the potential for inappropriate use of the information.  In a post two years ago, I detailed the case of a college wanting to Wait List one of my students because “we won’t get him.”  They were aware of the other colleges on his list through an alumni interview, and falsely assumed he wasn’t seriously interested because of the other places he was applying and because he hadn’t applied for their merit scholarship, which they were obviously using as a measure of Demonstrated Interest.  In fact he had scheduled the alumni interview as a way to demonstrate interest and chose not to apply for the scholarship so that they wouldn’t assume he had no interest if he didn’t receive one.  We protested and the college relented, but not before letting us know how offended they were that we would question their judgment.

I get that yield is an important enrollment management metric, and that it is harder to predict than ever before.  What bothers me, though, is that a number of institutions are trying to predict yield not to stabilize enrollment, but as a metric of prestige, as a way to keep admit rate as low as possible.  The only thing worse than asking a student to rank their choices is to make assumptions about a student’s interest without them knowing, whether based on the application list or the student’s FAFSA rank order.  Both are unethical because they turn students into pawns in a chess game they don’t know is being played.     

There are two larger issues that this discussion identifies.  The first is a growing chasm between high schools and colleges regarding how the college admissions process should be conducted.  That is not news, but one of the things that make college admission counseling a profession rather than a business is a shared set of core values and conventions based on what is best for young people in a crucial developmental process.  I fear we are losing that.

The other issue is that the current admissions/application process has become a vicious circle that serves none of us well.  This is the time of year when we will read stories about how this is the toughest admissions year in history.  Students and parents (and counselors) respond by submitting more applications, especially given that no college wants to be a safety school.  The increase in apps makes yield hard to predict and increases use of yield tools such as Early Decision and Wait Lists.  What’s wrong with this picture?  Is it time to rethink college admission?


Friday, April 24, 2015

Report and Remembrance

I just returned from the annual Potomac and Chesapeake Association for College Admission Counseling conference.  That conference is always a highlight of my spring, and in fact when I scheduled my knee surgery (if you’re tired of references to my surgery, I’m planning for this to be the last post in which I reference it) I made sure I would be healed enough to attend.

This year’s PCACAC conference was special in that it was the organization’s 50th anniversary, and so it was held at the Homestead resort in Hot Springs, Virginia (the town is the birthplace of golf legend Sam Snead).  The anniversary meant that it was an opportunity to look back at the organization’s proud history as well as look to the future, and a number of PCACAC’s Past Presidents had featured roles during the proceedings.  I had the opportunity on Sunday afternoon to serve as moderator/participant for the opening plenary session, a panel consisting of five former PCACAC Presidents.  Three of us had also served as President of NACAC, and the other two had served or are serving on the NACAC Board.  There was a lot of experience and wisdom in the room, and it was interesting to ponder the ways in which our profession has changed and stayed the same.

The highlight of the opening dinner on Sunday night was the presentation of the Jack Blackburn Award, named for the legendary late Dean of Admissions at the University of Virginia and given to an individual for commitment to ethics, integrity, and access, all principles that Jack Blackburn personified.  The award is relatively new, but has quickly become as valued as the other top award presented by PCACAC, the Apperson Award.  I was privileged to receive the Blackburn Award a year ago, and the previous winners include Lou Hirsh, who will succeed Todd Rinehart as Chair of the national Admission Practices Committee for NACAC.  Those are big shoes to fill, but Lou is a superb replacement as chair. 

This year’s Blackburn recipient was Mildred Johnson, Associate Vice Provost for Enrollment Management and Director of Undergraduate Admissions at Virginia Tech.  I have known Mildred since we were rookie admissions roadrunners nearly 40 years ago, and she is an inspired choice.  Mildred is an old-time admissions officer in the best sense, someone for whom the essence of the job is working on the front line with students, and she has insisted on (and been allowed to) continuing to do school visits and counsel students in a way that is rare among senior members of our profession anymore.  I am always amazed at how well she knows my students despite working at a large state university.

I also did a session on Monday on “Gender and College Admission,” and will write about that in my next post (unless I decide to write first about the Common Application asking students to list where they are applying), but had to leave the conference early after I learned on Monday morning that a close friend died over the weekend and the funeral was Tuesday. 

The death was not unexpected, for my friend was 91.  She had told me in our last conversation that she wasn’t doing well, and I had been trying to her reach her by phone daily for the previous week without success.  It was nevertheless sad to see one of the most unique, special friendships of my lifetime end.  Following the funeral, my son suggested that I write about her in the blog, so here goes.

Mary Alleta Pannill was my friend for more than 40 years.  Her late husband was my advisor and philosophical mentor in college, a once-every-hundred-years professor at any institution.  When I first visited Randolph-Macon College as a prospective student, none of the admissions staff was available (they may have been at PCACAC) and he interviewed me.  He was so honest and forthright about the college’s strengths and weaknesses and such an impressive person that I’m not sure I ever gave any other college a chance, but the opportunity to study with him by itself made Randolph-Macon the right place for me.

Once I arrived on campus I became close friends with both husband and wife.  He had suffered a major heart attack the previous year and had to limit his afternoon office hours, so she maintained them when he couldn’t be there.  On many Sunday mornings I would see them out for breakfast when I went out to get a newspaper and would stop and visit. She and I engaged in a tutorial on subjects ranging from existentialism to the philosophy of William James.

Two weeks after I went off to graduate school, her husband passed away suddenly from another heart attack.  I worried about her, because she was physically frail, looked older than she was, and was devastated from losing a life partner to whom she was truly devoted.  They had no children, and our friendship developed into a new phase.  She told me at one point that her husband had always hoped that I would replace him, and I can imagine no greater compliment.  I ultimately had the opportunity to come back and do that for a year, and she served as my unofficial teaching assistant, co-hosting a reception for my students and suggesting the book that became the culmination of my Intro to Philosophy class, Tom Robbins’ Another Roadside Attraction.

Through the years we maintained a personal and intellectual friendship, visiting bookstores together and having conversations on a myriad of topics.  After she moved into a retirement home where the other residents didn’t share her intellectual interests, I tried to take her to lunch regularly.  She was a creature of habit, so we always went on Sunday, always went to the same fast food place, and I was to pick her up at 11:30.  If I hit traffic lights or had to wait for a passing train, I worried about disappointing her.  Over the past couple of years my son would join us, and she would have us look-up tidbits online to help in her scholarly pursuit of knowledge about the 19th and 20th century British Aristocracy.

In recent months I worried that each time we got together it might be the last.  She was the first person to call me after my surgery, a huge step for her because she hated to bother me.  I was desperately hoping to recuperate in time to have lunch again, but ran out of time.  The last time we talked she told me she was not doing well and said how much the friendship meant to her.  The feeling was mutual.  I was so proud of how she made a life for herself after losing her husband, and inspired by her passion for learning and for ideas.  Her death leaves a void in my life, but I am richer as an ethicist and as a person for having known her.

One last note:  The last post on the lexicon of college admissions was featured earlier this week as one of the two featured “Around the Web” articles on Insidehighered.com, the fourth time the blog has been mentioned on that site.   


Friday, April 17, 2015


I’ve been thinking that it might be time to retire a couple of phrases/concepts from the lexicon of college admissions.  The two I have in mind are arguably outdated, confusing, and potentially harmful to students and parents trying to understand college admissions.

I returned to work on Tuesday after being out for six weeks recovering from knee replacement surgery.  To prepare for being back in the office, I went through my own form of “spring training” on Monday, meeting with the parents of one of my juniors at a local Starbucks.  I am not a coffee drinker, so I don’t generally hang out at Starbucks, but they’re ubiquitous and a perfect neutral place to meet.

The combination of warm Spring weather, the Frappuccino ™, and being back in college-counseling mode was intoxicating, and it helped that the barista didn’t ask us to solve America’s race issues. We talked about engineering, D3 soccer, and costs, and it was a good meeting until they made the mistake of asking about merit scholarships, discovering the hard way that one of my weaknesses is a tendency to give essay answers to short-answer questions.

I responded that the term “merit scholarship” is a misnomer, neither a scholarship nor about merit, at least in the way that parents and students think about merit.  With some exceptions, merit scholarships are more accurately strategic discounts, given not to reward merit but rather to induce a student to enroll.  Colleges use merit aid to attract students they wouldn’t normally appeal to, and as a result a student is most likely to receive merit aid at schools several levels of selectivity below the schools they might aspire to. (Let me be clear that I don’t buy the “you should go to the most selective/prestigious college you can get into” suburban legend.)

That is not necessarily a message that families want to hear, as I discovered in my own household when my daughter was a senior in high school.  My wife got angry at me when I told her that our daughter was likely to be admitted to most of the schools on her list, but wasn’t a candidate for a merit scholarship at those schools.  The only thing that made her angrier was that I turned out to be right.

I returned from my Starbucks meeting to discover that Jon Boeckenstadt had published a piece on his blog with the title, “The Death of ‘Merit Aid’.”  As always, his analysis is worth reading and better than mine.  Jon has a similar piece for the back-page “Hall Pass” column in the brand new issue of the Journal of College Admission (I was honored to write the Hall Pass column for the previous issue) where he includes “Need Blind” as a term that may deserve scrapping.

My candidate for removal from the lexicon is “Demonstrated Interest.”  I wrote about this topic last spring, arguing that Demonstrated Interest is no longer about interest but rather a student’s likelihood of enrolling and that demonstrating interest is no longer a simple concept.  Once upon a time, visiting campus was a sufficient demonstration of interest (for that matter, once upon a time submitting an application was a demonstration of interest) but it seems that many private institutions are attempting to manage acceptance rate and yield by attempting to measure a student’s likelihood of enrolling through multiple metrics.

A recent e-mail exchange on the ACCIS (Association of College Counselors in Independent Schools) e-list highlighted the brave new world of which Demonstrated Interest is an integral part and the challenges involved in how to counsel students properly.  Several horror stories were cited, including a highly-qualified student Wait Listed because she failed to respond to one e-mail, an admissions officer making a comment that a student responding to an e-mail on a smart phone is not as serious as responding on the computer, and another admissions officer responding to a counselor pointing out that the student had visited the campus and loved the college, “Some students visit twice.”

Several years ago I visited a selective mid-Atlantic university and was told that it was tracking demonstrated interest by whether the student had clicked on the applicant portal.  In the same breath I was told that the university had discovered that few of its diversity applicants clicked on the portal.  They received a pass because they were in high demand.

I don’t think there is anything wrong with a college or university taking interest into account in enrolling a freshman class.  If I was an admissions dean, I would want a class including students who wanted to be at my school.  The ethical issue is not the use of interest, but how interest is measured and how the importance of interest is communicated to students.

If clicking on e-mails (and attachments within an e-mail) is important, then it is incumbent on an institution to be transparent about that.  Students have a right to know the rules of the game that the college is playing and what demonstrates interest and how much interest needs to be demonstrated.  But the deeper issue is whether some of the measures being used really measure interest or likelihood to yield, and whether using those measures demonstrates a lack of understanding as well as a lack of interest in teenagers and how they think.  My students don’t see clicking on an applicant portal as having any connection to the interest they have in a school.  The danger for a college in measuring interest using those measures is that you will end up with a student body full of kids who are good at playing games or strategizing.  I’m not sure I’d want that student body.

Demonstrated Interest and Merit Aid are connected in that they reflect the increasing influence of big data on the college admissions process.  Colleges hire consultants to determine how much aid will maximize a student’s likelihood of enrolling, and technology has given colleges the ability to track information and contacts in a way that hasn’t been possible until recently.  A long-established principle in ethics with regard to science and technology is the “naturalistic fallacy,” which states that just because you have the ability to do something doesn’t mean you should do it.   

If interest deserves to be a more compelling factor in college admissions, we ultimately need a larger discussion of whether the admissions process needs to change significantly.  Do we want even more emphasis on Early Decision, or more use of Wait Lists rewarding interest at the end of the process?  Are there admissions criteria that are no longer as important in an interest-driven climate?  Let’s have that discussion before we penalize kids for not showing “interest” they don’t know they should be showing.  
Are there other phrases or concepts that it's time to abolish? 

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Institutional Euthanasia

One of my graduate school professors told a story about his first experience teaching ethics.  He assigned a paper on the ethical issues associated with euthanasia, and to his surprise several students turned in papers that had nothing to do with end-of-life issues (euthanasia) but rather discussed the ethical challenges faced by children and teenagers in places like Vietnam and Myanmar (youth in Asia).

I was reminded of that story twice last month. When I checked into the hospital for surgery on Tuesday, March 3, one of the first questions I was asked was whether I have a living will and a DNR (Do Not Resuscitate) order.  Had I been paranoid or a member of the Tea Party I might have seen sinister motives or Obamacare Death Panels behind those questions, but chose instead to hope they were perfunctory rather than foreboding.

Later that day when my anesthesia wore off and I checked my e-mail for the first time, I saw the stunning news that Sweet Briar College had announced that it will close at the end of the school year.

The Sweet Briar family is currently going through its own stages of grief—shock, denial, finger-pointing, fund-raising, and lawsuits. Just in the past week a Chronicle of Higher Education article described the Board meeting, held not on campus but at a Washington hotel, where the conclusion was reached that Sweet Briar must close. Saving Sweet Briar, an alumnae group formed in opposition to the closure, called for the Board and President to resign and convinced the attorney for Amherst County in Virginia, where Sweet Briar is located, to file suit seeking to prevent Sweet Briar from closing.  The group has raised $3 million in pledges, far short of the $250 million the Board estimates would be required to keep the college afloat.  At the same time, a friend who is the transfer coordinator for a public university in Virginia is spending a majority of his time working with Sweet Briar students needing to transfer.

I feel for the Sweet Briar community—students, alumni, faculty and staff—and what it is dealing with in the aftermath of the announcement.  I can’t imagine what it must be like for one’s alma mater to exist no longer, and I particularly feel for an old friend who served as Dean of Admissions for many years and was a wonderful ambassador for the college.

 I described the Sweet Briar announcement as unprecedented in an interview for an Education Week blog.  I can’t remember another institution deciding to close without previous signs that it was terminally ill (if I’ve missed another example, I trust that readers will let me know). 

Several others interviewed for the same story called Sweet Briar the “canary in the coal mine,” a harbinger of other colleges that will be forced to close.  If that’s the case (which I’m not ready to concede), which mine?  Small liberal arts colleges? Women’s colleges?  Colleges located in rural areas? 

While there was no advance warning that Sweet Briar was on the brink of closing, several economic vital signs pointed to serious illness. Its enrollment had dropped to 523, its discount rate was 62%, and it was dipping into unrestricted endowment to pay its bills.

I suspect the seeds of Sweet Briar’s decline have been present for a long time.  In my first year as a high school counselor, back in the mid-1980’s, I had two girls apply there Early Decision.  Neither was a strong student, but coming from a strong independent school should have been solid candidates.  Sweet Briar ultimately admitted both, but only after acting as if it was doing a huge favor to both me and the girls.  I was young and inexperienced, but not stupid, and when I checked Sweet Briar’s admissions statistics I saw that it had turned down fewer than 80 applicants in the previous admissions cycle.  Sweet Briar was one of several Southern women’s colleges that were masterful at maintaining the illusion of selectivity and prestige.  If that was at one time a strength, it may have turned to a weakness, preventing Sweet Briar from addressing systemic, long-term issues.

That begs a more important question, which is whether there is anything Sweet Briar could have done to change its fate.  Is Sweet Briar’s situation a product of mistakes or mismanagement, or simply an instance of a product for which there is no longer a sufficient demand?

From an ethical perspective, the Sweet Briar situation is most interesting as a case of institutional euthanasia.  Is closing Sweet Briar killing the college or letting it die?  Who has the right to pull the plug on a living institution?  Which is more important, maintaining Sweet Briar’s existence at any cost or maintaining a certain quality of life?  Does a venerable institution deserve death with dignity, and what does that look like?

Such questions are difficult and even painful in the field of medical ethics.  What amount of treatment is reasonable given a patient’s condition at the end of life, and what treatments merely delay death?  Who is capable of giving informed consent in a situation that is emotional?  Should quality of life be a consideration, or is life itself sacred, regardless of quality?  These questions have scientific, theological, and public policy significance.

The questions are no less perilous when it comes to closing a college.  Sweet Briar’s Board and administration have been criticized for the secretive process leading to the decision.  Certainly the suddenness of the announcement and the lack of consultation with stakeholders are unfortunate, and yet may have been unavoidable. 

The Board has also been criticized for failure to execute its duty of stewardship by not turning over every leaf to keep the college in operation.  From everything I’ve read, though, it is clear that Sweet Briar is not just ill, but terminally ill. Sweet Briar might be able to stay open for several more years of decline or could perhaps follow the path that other struggling colleges have taken by targeting a different clientele and changing its mission.  But does Sweet Briar best honor its proud history by fighting to the bitter end or by choosing death with dignity?