Oct 7, 2015

Exploring the concept of ‘public good’ in admissions

With so much attention focused on news from the Coalition for Access, Affordability and Success at the NACAC conference in San Diego, an earlier session featuring  Richard Shaw, dean of admissions and financial at Stanford University, Stuart Schmill, dean of admissions at MIT, Kendra Ishop, associate vice president for enrollment management at the University of Michigan, and John Latting, assistant vice provost for undergraduate enrollment and dean of admission at Emory University, almost slipped under the radar.

In a panel also including Ali Bhanji, director of college guidance at the Collegiate School in New York, some of the biggest names in admissions discussed a series of enrollment management practices that suggest a significant shift in priorities away from the “public good” and more toward narrowinstitutional interest” in college admissions and financial aid. 

While taking some fairly easy pot shots at deplorable behaviors in recruitment, candidate selection, data collection/ reporting, and financial aid and scholarships, the panel engaged in very little of what might be considered self-examination, ultimately leaving it up to the audience to suggest solutions to practices within an industry that all agree is wildly out of control and in need of reform.

An impassioned speech by Mr. Bhanji, in which he criticized a “marketing arms race” among institutions that have “thrived for centuries” but now appear to “need their egos propped” by increased numbers of applicants and lower selectivity failed to produce much in the way of a response from panel members, all of whom could take at least some blame for the state of college admissions.

And while the session promised to help enrollment leaders “navigate a complicated ethical landscape,” most conference-goers came away with the impression that although these folks are very much aware of what’s wrong with the industry and can articulate the problems very clearly, none of them were willing to step-up in a leadership role to fix what they know is doing harm. 

As one panel member said later when confronted with the question of why no one seemed willing to address their own part in promoting bad behavior in the industry, “I want to keep my job.”

The explanation hardly satisfied some audience members who were astonished at what they considered the hypocrisy of faulting “other” institutions without owning up to specific shortcomings in their own practices.

Nevertheless, the presentation brought home how far enrollment management has strayed from the public good. Using a clever play on LEED certification, the panel conferred various awards at Gold, Silver, Bronze, and Lead levels to convey approval or disapproval of various enrollment management practices. Here are some samples:

Gold/Best Practice:  As educators, we make sure students know their first priority is to go to college, and when they apply they should consider an array of schools—any of which will result in their satisfaction and reaching personal goals.  The goal is the match, not the name.
Silver:  As previously stated, but if students conclude that our institution meets their goals, we know it’s “mission accomplished.”  High fives all around!
Lead:  Our goal for outreach is to drive students into our applicant pool. We say whatever we need to and send whatever we need to, so that as many students as possible apply.  And we love those fast apps that are so easy to complete.

Gold/Best Practice:  We contact junior prospects not more than once a month (or even once quarter), seniors not more than once a week, and we don’t search on freshmen or sophomores.
Silver:   We don’t really keep track but make it very easy for students to opt out of our communication whenever they want.
Lead:  We make sure students eat breakfast every day with a new text message from us! “Good morning, awesome prospect.  Hope you have a nice day! [Smiley Faces]”

Early Admissions
Gold/Best Practice:  We offer accurate information about our school and process, with no deadlines, plans, or practices that require insider information to figure out.
Silver:  Our selection process favors early applicants, but we are transparent about it. We know less savvy/resourced students may be at a disadvantage, so we hold the line and still leave space for them in the regular round.
Lead:  Our priority is enrolling the class with the metrics we want, and if students can benefit from an “application strategy,” so be it.

Demonstrated Interest
Gold/Best Practice:  Likelihood to enroll is not a part of the admission file review nor a part of any committee discussion. We focus on student quality and diversity and, above all, potential for success with respect to our mission.
Silver: We try to avoid admitting students who are unlikely to enroll or who enroll without appropriate knowledge of who we are. We explain this to applicants and offer guidance on what we hope to see in demonstrations of interest.
Lead:  Given that our goal is 100% yield, don’t admit students who would even think about enrolling elsewhere.

Financial Aid
Gold/Best Practice:  There is no thought given to financial need of domestic or international applicants in our selection process, and there is no fixed financial aid budget.
Silver:  We don’t assess individual student need during the admissions process, but we do manage the selection process to an aid budget (e.g. with Early Decsion or no-need international students).
Lead:  As a “need-blind” school we don’t assess individual student need! Bud we do find that knowing the value of their homes does wonders for keeping the aid budget down…

Data Reporting
Gold/Best Practice:  We publish admit rates of applicants who have submitted all required parts of the application.
Silver: We publish the admit rate of students who have submitted their part of the application.
Bronze:  We publish the admit rate for students who submitted some part of the application.
Lead:  We regard all students visiting campus to be applicants to our university.

No names were named and no fingers were pointed. And no one thought to ask how membership in the Coalition squared with the public good (all of the institutions represented on the panel are members of the Coalition for Access, Affordability and Success).  But the session did conclude by asking the audience to consider what the admissions world would look like if that world were focused on the public good.  In the words of Dean Latting, “There must be a counterweight” or some incentive to turn institutional priorities into doing “'good' instead of just doing 'well'.”

To follow-up the discussion, a webpage (www.apply.emory.edu/NACAC) has been opened to receive comments on admissions and financial aid practices that best support public good—how to assess whether an institution is employing them and how to acknowledge those institutions choosing to do so.  A copy of the entire NACAC PowerPoint presentation is also included.

The panel welcomes your thoughts. So far, however, the conversation has fallen far short of the “thousands of responses” the panel hoped to receive.

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