Thursday, January 15, 2015

Ratings, Not Rankings

As I was driving to work on the Friday that Christmas break began, I heard on the radio that the U.S. Department of Education was releasing its plan for federal college ratings that day.  I had two immediate reactions reflecting different parts of my DNA.

Putting my blogging hat on, my initial thought was that I needed to write a post analyzing the plan for Monday publication, but then I came to my senses and realized that no one would have the time or interest to read about federal college ratings (or any other issue I might write about) three days before Christmas.

The cynic/conspiracy theorist within me noted that a common government tactic is to “hide” bad news by releasing late on a Friday afternoon when the media and public are not paying attention.  How bad must the plan be to justify “dropping” it on the Friday before Christmas?

I have read the plan and realize there was no sinister intent.  The Obama administration had promised release of the plan in fall of 2014, and the following Sunday happened to be the first day of winter.

There’s also no plan. A Chronicle of Higher Education article describes it as “heavy on possibilities and light on details.”  That assessment is generous.  At this point the Department of Education has only a vague idea of what the final version might look like.  The release describes it as a college ratings “framework.”  It might be more accurately described as a skeleton, only with enough bones missing that a casual observer would be hard-pressed to identify the animal.

The goal of measuring access and affordability is laudable.  So is the decision to “avoid rankings and false precision” and focus on outcomes rather than input factors.  The question is how easy it is to actually measure those things.

The easiest way to measure an institution’s commitment to access is the percentage of enrolled students receiving Pell Grants, but how good a measure is that? I have previously written about the danger of confusing measuring what we value with valuing what we can easily measure. Does the current threshold for Pell eligibility capture all the students for whom access to higher education is limited economically? Another potential metric, the number or percentage of first generation students, is complicated by lack of a consistent definition for what constitutes a first gen student.

With regard to affordability, what do metrics like “average net price” and “average loan debt” tell us, and what are their limitations? The Department of Education acknowledges that current net price data is incomplete, including only students receiving aid (which might be okay).  In addition, public institutions only report average net price data for in-state students.  At this time, average federal loan debt is not being considered in the proposed ratings, and the Education Department recognizes that using that data could lead some institutions to encourage students to take out more expensive private loans rather than federal loans in order to game the ratings.

The proposed ratings are on shakiest ground when it comes to measuring outcomes.  Should degree completion be measured over four years or six years?  Should four-year institutions be penalized for students who transfer to another four-year school?  And how meaningful is data on earnings?  Those numbers are more heavily influenced by what a student majors in than from where he or she graduates.  Should we measure earnings five years beyond graduation or over a lifetime?  And is a school that produces lots of investment bankers and lawyers “better” than one which produces teachers and those with non-profit service careers?

Another issue to be determined is how institutions will be grouped for meaningful comparison given differing missions and student populations.  In Virginia, the College of William and Mary and Virginia State University are both four-year public institutions, but have little else in common.  Should they be compared?

Far more interesting are several larger philosophical questions.  What’s the purpose of the ratings?  Is it to provide information to consumers, or is it to hold institutions accountable?  Is it possible to design a rating system that does both?

Are ratings preferable to rankings?  The Department of Education plans to place schools in three categories for each metric—“high-performing,” “low-performing,” and those in the middle.  Those categories would seem to have been developed in consultation with Goldilocks and the three bears.  A year ago two analysts at the American Enterprise Institute crunched the numbers using three thresholds—25% Pell recipients, 50% graduation rate, and net price under $10,000.  They concluded that only a few institutions are terrible in all three areas (access, affordability, outcomes), but only 19 four-year institutions exceed all three thresholds.

That would seem to answer a question raised in the Department of Education draft, about whether consumers would find it easier to see only a single comprehensive rating.  A single rating would probably be easier, but easier is not better when it leads to the “false precision” that so many of us find troubling in attempts to rank colleges.  Back in February, Bob Morse, U.S. News’s guru of false precision, gave advice and asked questions at a symposium on the technical issues underlying federal college ratings.  That’s like Wyle E. Coyote serving as an expert witness at a conference devoted to Roadrunner protection.

The ultimate question is whether rating colleges is a legitimate function of the federal government.  The answer to that question may depend on one’s political leanings about the role of government, but you don’t need to be a member of the Tea Party to question whether the Department of Education should be rating colleges.  At the same March meeting where Bob Morse spoke, another speaker suggested that the government should develop a database and leave it to others to figure out how to use it.   

A lot depends on whether this is comparable to the gainful employment rules put into place with regard to for-profits, and I don’t think it is.  In that case, the federal government had a legitimate interest in protecting taxpayers from fraud, because a number of for-profits were operating an economic model where a huge amount of revenue was coming from federal financial aid for an “education” that was leaving students unprepared for employment and in debt.  A fundamental principle of ethics is “treat like cases alike,” and this doesn’t seem to fit.  In any case, there’s a lot of work to be done and questions to be answered before federal college ratings will make sense.     

Monday, December 22, 2014

Happy Holidays

I toyed with writing a quick post about Friday’s release of the federal Department of Education’s “framework” for college ratings based on access, affordability, and outcomes, but decided that no one will have time or interest in reading this close to Christmas.  I’ll work on it for publication next year.

That leaves one item of business and holiday greetings.

The business (or, more accurately, shameless self-promotion):  the previous post regarding the Wainstein report about the academic fraud scandal at UNC-Chapel Hill was one of two selections last Monday in the “Around the Web” section of, the third time ECA has been mentioned on that website.

The greetings:  ECA wishes “Happy holidays” to all of our readers, whether you celebrate Christmas, Chanukah, Kwanzaa, Festivus or just time away from writing college recommendations and reading college applications.  

In the last school chapel service before Christmas break, our chaplain did a sermon about the theological lessons found in classic cartoon Christmas specials like “Frosty the Snowman,”  “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” and “A Charley Brown Christmas.”  I was hurt that she left out my all-time favorite, “Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol.” In the spirit of that show and the immortal words of Tiny Tim (the Dickens character, not the ukulele-playing 1960s singer), “God bless us, every one.”

Friday, December 12, 2014

Carolina Blue(s)

I have read that airplane crashes rarely have a simple cause, but are usually the product of a series of malfunctions and/or errors.  For example, in the case of Air France 447, which crashed into the Atlantic Ocean in 2009 on a flight from Rio de Janeiro to Paris, ice crystals apparently produced a faulty airspeed reading. That caused the autopilot to disconnect, and the flight crew, all of whom had gotten little to no sleep the previous night, proceeded to make a series of bad decisions, leading to a stall that resulted in the plane plunging into the Atlantic.

I was reminded of that story when I read the recently released Wainstein report into the academic fraud at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.  The report, officially titled “Investigation of Irregular Classes in the Department of African and Afro-American Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill,” is the most recent and thorough investigation into the scandal where over an 18-year period more than 3000 students, nearly half of them athletes, took “paper” classes that never met, required only a paper, and were supervised and graded by a department secretary.  Compared with a previous investigation headed by former North Carolina Governor James Martin, the independent team led by former federal prosecutor Kenneth Wainstein had access to more than one million e-mails and cooperation from both the secretary and department chair at the center of the fraud.

Just like airplane crashes, the scandal did not have a simple cause.  Debby Crowder, the secretary in the Department of African and Afro-American Studies who set up and oversaw the phony classes, was a UNC graduate who is described in the report as a caring, compassionate advocate for struggling students.  That compassion, combined with a love for Carolina athletics, led her to cut corners to help struggling student-athletes make grades that would keep them eligible and allow them to earn degrees.  That was enabled by the hands-off leadership of department chair Julius Nyang’oro. 

Beyond the department, a combination of factors allowed the fraud to occur unchecked.  The tradition of academic autonomy within higher education meant that professors from other departments would not question or criticize practices within a different department. Academic administrators ignored evidence of the fraud, such as the fact that Professor Nyang’oro was supposedly teaching 300 independent study courses at one time.  And the biggest factor was an abiding but na├»ve faith throughout the university community that an academic scandal of such proportions simply couldn’t happen at a place as good as UNC-Chapel Hill.

Of course the elephant in the report is the role that big-time intercollegiate athletics plays at places like UNC-Chapel Hill.  There is at best a tension, and more commonly a chasm, between the educational purpose of a university and the reality of Division One athletic programs. The Wainstein report makes clear that the primary purpose of the paper courses at UNC was not to help athletes make progress toward a degree or receive any semblance of an education, but rather to keep them eligible to play.

That disconnect between education and athletics is not new, but has existed since the earliest days of colleges entering the sports entertainment business.  I recently read Dave Revsine’s book, The Opening Kickoff, about the early years of college football, and it is clear that there was never a time when college sports and higher education weren’t at odds.  From the very beginning college football was the “Wild West,” with abuses far beyond anything found today.  One of the biggest culprits in the early part of the twentieth century was the University of Chicago and its legendary coach, Amos Alonzo Stagg.

Given that the purview of this blog is college admissions rather than college athletics, I read the Wainstein report to see if and how admissions issues were mentioned within the report.  Steve Farmer, the Vice Provost for Enrollment and Undergraduate Admissions at UNC-Chapel Hill (who is both a friend and someone I respect greatly) is listed as one of those interviewed as part of the investigation, and there is a short discussion on pages 46-47 of the report related to admission of athletes.

“Academically elite universities like Chapel Hill often feel a tension between their high academic standards and the effort to build a strong athletic program.  One symptom of this tension is that academically selective schools often feel it necessary to admit academically under-prepared athletes in order to field competitive teams…This is a perfectly legitimate and laudable approach to admissions, and it has resulted in countless success stories where such student-athletes have excelled both on the field and in the classroom.  At the same time, the admission of under-prepared student-athletes presents universities with difficult challenges, as many require intensive academic support and remedial instruction.”

The report states that assessing the viability of admissions standards for athletes at UNC is beyond the scope of the investigation.  It also points out that UNC’s practices with regard to admission of under-prepared athletes fall within the mainstream, but clearly a contributing factor to the scandal was admission of students not capable of doing the work at UNC.  Former UNC academic advisor Mary Willingham has reported that she was aware of athletes at UNC who were reading at an elementary school level.

There is nothing inherently wrong with admitting students who are academic risks, as long as you have a program in place that will give them a chance to be successful.  Obviously giving grades for courses that never meet doesn’t meet that standard.

During my days as an independent school admissions director I was in a situation where I had to take some risks.  I learned from experience that half of them would work out and half not, but I couldn’t predict which ones would fall in which category.  (I also learned that kids I admitted with behavior concerns would invariably be hanging out with each other by the end of the first day of school.)  I learned that I was more likely to make mistakes with my heart rather than my head.  I admitted a young African-American male with a single mother and low test scores because I wanted him to be successful, and felt guilty when it predictably didn’t turn out.  Thankfully I ran into him a number of years later and learned that he is a successful graphic designer.

The UNC scandal is partly a mistake of the heart, because Debby Crowder’s fraud originated in compassion for struggling students, but the end doesn’t justify the means.  More troubling is the loss of vision, failure to see that while wins and national championships are nice and revenue-producing, the purpose of a university is first and foremost to provide young people with an education.  UNC is one of the finest public universities in America, but in this case deserves an F.     

Monday, November 24, 2014

All the News That Fits--Another View

On Friday I received a thoughtful e-mail from Jon Reider shortly after the publication of my post about media coverage of college admissions.  Jon is a regular reader of the blog and correspondent as well as someone whose opinion I value, and I asked him if he would consider adapting his e-mail as a guest post.  Here it is:


I have mused a lot over the years about the best way to speak to the media.  (I do get called from time to time, so my ego is OK.)   The best reporters like Eric Hoover and Janet Lorin can often quote at more length, perhaps because their space constraints are less severe than the daily press.  I too have winced at seeing a half hour chat turn into a half-sentence bite.  I sometimes try to say something like, "This is the key point."   But that wouldn't always work, and I doubt reporters want to be instructed in their trade, any more than you and I do.  So, yes, we have to live with it and hope that the important stuff gets through, as it does in the second half of the article.

 We can remember the adage that "Dog bites man" is not news, but the reverse is.   Occasionally, reporters call trolling for a story: what is new this year?  What trends are you seeing?  That sort of thing.   They are looking for the "Man bites dog" story.   The problem, as we know, is that the daily grind of advising, editing, writing, waiting, and then either celebrating or consoling is much the same year after year.   The real news is slow and cumulative: more early applications, more test optional schools, more demonstrated interest schools, more selectivity.    Fine for Jim Fallows and the Atlantic Monthly, or Andrew Delbanco writing a book, but not of much value for a daily newspaper.

 What amuses me is the phenomenon itself, that Ms. Kaminer's hyper-sophisticated editors consider this front-page Sunday stuff (below the fold, to be sure).   The early emphasis on the ridiculous excesses plays into that, of course, just as the tale of the Cadillac-driving welfare queen made good fodder for Ronald Reagan way back when.  The extremes drive the noise machine.  One of these days, I hope to address the broader question of why elite college admissions has become a fetishized commodity (in Marx's sense), which is presumed to have magical value, akin to a Mercedes or Rolex.  In addition to spawning all the parasitic industries like test prep, organized community service ventures, independent counselors, and maybe even our own livelihoods, it has infiltrated late bourgeois culture with an array of popular books, movies, TV shows, in addition to the regular coverage in the Times, WSJ, and elsewhere.  College admissions has become a "myth" in the anthropological sense of a motivating and framing narrative through which a culture makes sense of itself.   How and why this has happened is worth exploring.

Jon Reider

Director of College Counseling

San Francisco University High School

I am thankful to Jon for his willingness to contribute, and as we approach a much-needed Thanksgiving break, I am thankful to all of you who read the blog and share your thoughts.  It is good to know that there are many colleagues who share core values about college counseling and admissions.

Friday, November 21, 2014

News That's Fit to Print

On Sunday The New York Times ran a front page story about the increasing number of applications students around the country seem to be submitting.  I was one of a handful of counselors interviewed and quoted, something good for my school and not so good for my ego and humility.

Since the article appeared I talked with a friend who was also quoted in the article.  He was bemused (I think) because a good thirty-minute conversation with reporter Ariel Kaminer showed up in the article as a five-word quote.  That’s the reality when dealing with the press, I suppose.  No matter how eloquent you might be and how much depth you might provide, a reporter has an angle and a limited number of words, and chances are you’ll end up on the cutting floor.

I actually originally learned that lesson as a writer myself.  This past weekend was the annual football game between Randolph-Macon and Hampden-Sydney colleges in Virginia, the oldest small-college football rivalry in the South.  It’s a great example of Division 3 athletics at its best, unlike the headlines and scandals produced at athletic powerhouses like UNC-Chapel Hill (which I’ll deal with in my next post), and I have been told (but haven’t confirmed) that Southern Living recently declared the rivalry the South’s greatest, beating out Alabama-Auburn, among others.

I’d like to think I had a little, very little, to do with that.  I know both schools well.  I graduated from and coached and taught at Randolph-Macon, and Hampden-Sydney Admissions Dean Anita Garland is my oldest and closest college admissions friend.  Nearly thirty years ago I wrote an article for Southern Living about the Randolph-Macon vs. Hampden-Sydney rivalry as exemplifying “The Game” which is more important than the rest of the season.  It was the first article I ever sold at a time when I thought I might pursue a free-lance writing career, and it was a big deal because Southern Living published one feature article a year in its “All-South Football Section” and that article was usually written by established writers such as Pat Conroy and Willie Morris.

My article nearly never saw the light of day.  The magazine accepted the article, sent a photographer, paid me, and my wife told everyone we knew, but on the day the issue hit the newsstands I rushed out, opened the magazine, and—no article.  I immediately understood how actors feel when their one scene in a movie is edited out.  Are you a published author when you’ve been paid but the article isn’t published?

I contacted my editor at Southern Living and learned that the magazine had lost advertising pages at the last minute, causing the article to be cut.  The good news was that they still planned to publish it twelve months later and wanted me to update it.  In particular they wanted me to get some quotes from the then-President of Hampden-Sydney, a colorful character.  When I called his office to set up a phone interview I was told that he was too busy because he was a finalist for another job and had to keep the phone lines open for the call from the search committee.  I completed the article sans quotes and it was ultimately published, and just after submitting the revised version I saw in the newspaper that the institution he was waiting on had announced its new President—not him.

The Times article illustrates the dilemma faced by those of us who have devoted our lives to counseling young people about a decision that is an important, even essential, developmental step in the transition from adolescence to adulthood.  On the one hand, it affirms the importance of our work when an article about college admissions is on the front page of The New York Times. At the same time, as a professional I find myself troubled by the messages (usually subtle, occasionally overt) sent to the public by media coverage of the college admissions process.

I talked twice with reporter Ariel Kaminer, who wrote the article and covers higher education for the Times, and she is clearly a pro who understands the issues.  She quoted me fairly and accurately, and I thank her for not making me look stupid, my biggest fear any time I talk to a reporter.  She chose not to quote what I thought was my most significant point.  I told her that I was not necessarily seeing the trend in my school, but that I emphasize to students that the increased competition at the top of the college food chain does not mean that they should apply to more colleges, but that they should apply more thoughtfully, knowing why each and every school is on their list.   

The second half of the article makes that point and that most college counselors think filing more than a reasonable number of applications (we can disagree about what that number is, but it is far lower than 30 or 56 or 86, all actual numbers from the article) is stupid and counterproductive.  The problem is the first half, which describes the alarming trend, and particularly the headline (which is written by someone other than the writer of the article).  A quick skim of the headline and article could very easily convince already crazed students and parents that applying to lots and lots of colleges is now the norm.

 It is easy to bemoan the fact that the media contribute to college admissions-related hype and anxiety, but I also don’t know that we should expect the media to promote our agenda.  What makes that harder is that I’m not sure our profession is agreed on what messages we should be sending to students and parents and the public.  Is college about fit or about prestige?  Is the admissions process a journey of self-discovery or a game?  Does the process reward substance or packaging?

There is too much mythology and too little accurate information about how college admission works.  If that bothers us (and it’s not clear that it does), it might be time for those of us on the front lines at colleges and on the other side of the desk to think about what the public needs to know and develop a vision statement for how and why the college search and admissions processes are essential in the growth of the student and in making our country better.  That kind of manifesto might just be what the New York Times considers “news that’s fit to print.”

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

If You Can't Say Something Nice

It was the first day of Christmas break, and I had stopped by the office for a couple of minutes on my way to do frantic, last-minute shopping.  As I was walking out the door, the phone rang.  Don’t answer, advised an internal voice to which I have since learned to pay heed.  But answer it I did.

On the other end of the line was the Director of Admissions at a large public university located outside Virginia.  He explained that on his desk was the application folder for one of my students.  I cringed when he named the student, whose record was, to put it politely, undistinguished (or perhaps distinguished by his lack of achievement).  On the student’s folder was a one-word note from the Associate Director—“Why?”  But, the Director continued, he had read my recommendation and there was something telling him he should give the student a chance.

I stayed silent, waiting for the other shoe to drop.  Finally he said, “I’m sorry, the best I can do is offer him summer school admission.”  As I was doing a celebratory dance (which you should be thankful you didn’t have to see), I responded that I thought that was fair.  As we said our goodbyes, he asked one final question, “Have you ever thought about becoming a creative writer?”

Describing the recommendation letter as creative writing does not mean that it is fiction, only that it is an art form. I’ve spent most of the past month thinking only about writing recommendations, but now that I seem to have survived November 1, I thought I would take a moment to reflect on the art of the recommendation.

We are about halfway through what my children used to call “recommendation” season, the time of year when I was grumpier than usual.  I am envious of colleagues who are able to get the bulk of their rec letters written during the summer.  I’ve never been able to do that, and might be too old to start now.  As a result, the rhythm of the fall is dictated by the next deadline and the number of letters that need to be written.  I wish I were as organized and disciplined in every part of my life as I am during recommendation season.

In the independent school world the value and impact of “the letter” may be overrated.  When I was first hired as a college counselor thirty years ago, it seemed that the ability to write was the only skill anyone was concerned about.  Today I suspect that rec letters from teachers have higher value, seen as more likely to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.

The counselor recommendation letter serves several purposes.  It is part legal brief, making the case for the student and laying out evidence.  It is part character study, bringing the application and transcript to life.  It can also serve the function that footnotes serve in big, scholarly non-fiction books.  If the transcript is the primary text, the rec letter provides the footnotes.

In his book, The Call of Stories, the psychiatrist Robert Coles says that each person has a unique story and that the purpose of psychiatry is to discern that story.  In a perfect world, the job of a college counselor in writing a recommendation is to tell the student’s story.  Of course, we don’t live in a perfect world.  Our public school colleagues who are faced with ridiculous counseling loads and myriad other duties that push college counseling onto the back burner would need super powers to tell their students’ stories in any more than a superficial way.

I think there are four types of stories (if I’m missing others, I’d love to know):

            --The story of accomplishment

            --The story of growth

            --The story of adversity overcome

            --The story of potential

Obviously some of these are easier to tell than others.

How long should a recommendation letter be?  The prevailing wisdom is one page, that admissions officers have neither the time nor the interest in reading more.  I get that, but it will be no surprise to regular readers of this blog that brevity is a challenge for me and my letters are usually longer.  My thinking is that I have one opportunity to say what I need to say on the student’s behalf. I have friends at other schools that have moved to a bullet-point format in their letters, but I’m not ready to move in that direction.  The change I made several years ago is to frontload my letters so that the opening paragraph makes the argument in brief for a reader who chooses not to read the entire letter.

I have always believed that recommendation letters are read negatively, that if you don’t say something it is assumed that you can’t.  If you highlight how diligent a student is, it may be read as evidence that the student lacks ability.  A rec letter is an opportunity to put a student’s record in context, to explain a grade or a class or a teacher or life circumstances that are relevant in understanding the student’s journey.

Recommendation writers are like politicians, always looking for the perfect euphemism, the sufficiently vague phrase that is open to interpretation, preferably faulty.  Many years ago, Robert Thornton, an economics professor at Lehigh, developed the Lexicon of Inconspicuously Ambiguous Recommendations, or LIAR.  His examples were oriented toward job recommendations, and were meaningful for what they didn’t say rather than what they did.  The phrase “You will be fortunate to get this person to work for you” could be high praise or might be missing the important information (no one else has been able to get them to work).  In a college recommendation, describing a student as “entrepreneurial” could mean they sell drugs to all their friends, while “he hopes to become an engineer” might be missing the all-important (but he better learn to drive a train).  And should the statement, “I would place him in a class by himself” be interpreted figuratively or literally?

The biggest ethical issue attached to recommendation writing is what information to include and what to leave out.  I see my job as being an advocate for the student, presenting the best case I can for them, without compromising my credibility.  I have therefore never written a recommendation intended to be negative.  I try to follow my grandmother’s advice—“If you can’t say something nice, say nothing at all.”

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.