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  The two I have in mind are arguably outdated, confusing, and potentially harmful to students and parents trying to understand college admissions.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?


Wednesday, March 25, 2015


My last post, dealing with President’s Office interference in the admissions process at the University of Texas at Austin, was written under duress.  “Duress” might be too strong a word, because no one was holding a gun to my head or threatening my children.

I should also be clear that the “duress” was self-imposed.  On Tuesday, March 3, I had knee replacement surgery, and not knowing how I would feel in the aftermath, wanted to publish a post on the Texas situation the previous day.  The surgery went well, I seem to be recovering as well as or better than expected, and I’ve developed a new appreciation for the DuPont slogan, “Better Living Through Chemistry.”  But it is only now, three weeks after surgery, that I am starting to feel the urge to write.

That urge may have nothing to do with the surgery and everything to do with the biorhythms of blogging.  It’s been two and a half years since I started Ethical College Admissions, and it is almost certainly the most rewarding thing I’ve done in my professional life.  Finishing a post and finding my “take” on a subject is an endorphin rush like no other.

Long before I ever thought about joining the blogosphere (or had any idea that such a thing existed), I remember hearing my friend Jeannine Lalonde (better known as Dean J, author of the Notes From Peabody blog for the admissions office at the University of Virginia) talk about how blogging had changed her life, such that the first thing she does each morning is check her two blogs (she also writes one on design).  I couldn’t do a daily blog, as I struggle to carve out time to think and write, but if I go two weeks without posting I start to feel the way I do when I go too long without chocolate.

Jeannine talked about seeing a blog as a conversation with readers.  That, of course, assumes that there are people reading the blog (if a blog post falls in the forest and no one reads it, does it make any impact?). When I began writing I had no idea if I had anything worth saying, if I could discipline myself to write on a regular basis, or if anyone would care.  I was shocked the first time someone mentioned that they had read and liked the blog, and it is gratifying to know that there are a number of people out there who care about the same issues I do.  According to the ClustrMaps analytic tool, the last post drew the 20,000th visitor to the site.

I am particularly appreciative of those ECA readers who reach out either to express support or to challenge my thinking.  After the Texas post there were two I want to highlight who supported my overall position but challenged me on specific points.

Steve LeMenager’s comment took issue with a point I made regarding the principle of fairness.  The Kroll report indicates that the students admitted to UT-Austin by the President’s Office over the objections of the Admissions Office did not take the place of an already admitted applicant but increased the size of the freshman class, and I suggested that was, if not “better” and “more fair,” at least not as ethically objectionable.  Steve suggests that both the report and I might be naïve (my word, not his).  He correctly points out that admissions in a “hyper-selective” (his word, not mine) institution are zero-sum, that any decision to admit one student is by necessity a decision not to admit other students, and that thinking of admissions slots as finite helps an institution focus on its priorities.  Steve worked at Princeton, so he has experience and perspective that I don’t have.  He allows that it might be different at a public university, but I think he is right and that my thinking was sloppy.  I’m also encouraged to know that hyper-selective institutions struggle over the fairness piece involved with admitting a class.

The other communication was an e-mail from Jon Boeckenstedt at DePaul.  Jon is someone whose voice and perspective I value, and I am particularly envious of his ability to organize and analyze data (here’s a link to Jon’s blog).  Jon quibbled (his word) with a statement I made that was almost a throwaway. 

One of the things that struck me when reading the Kroll report was the impact of the Texas law that guarantees admission to students in the top 10% of their class in Texas high schools.  75% of the spaces in the freshman class at UT-Austin come through the Top 10% program, including most of the spaces in certain academic programs.  The Kroll report suggests that UT-Austin would like to be holistic in admissions but that the 10% law prevents its ability to do so because of the legal mandate to put emphasis on a single factor, class rank.  The report also suggests that the 10% law results in students admitted who are less qualified and less likely to succeed, a claim I repeated.

Jon called me out on that point, citing a study published by a conservative think tank, the National Bureau of Economic Research, that shows that students who benefit from the Top 10% law perform and graduate no differently than students with similar credentials who are just outside the top 10% of their high school classes.  Jon further points out that the real culprit is that too many of us accept uncritically the notion that students with higher SAT scores are more “qualified” for college. Jon’s point is a good one, and I plead guilty to leaping to that conclusion. 

There is a more interesting philosophical question here.  How much does it matter what admissions criteria we use?  The argument for holistic admission review is that it allows an institution to take into consideration and value a broader spectrum of qualities, thereby producing a “better” class.  But better than what?  If the Texas Top 10% rule produces a student body that is just as successful in terms of GPA and graduation, does holistic review add any value other than the flexibility and discretion to admit students the university wants to admit for other reasons? 

During the Bakke case, the first Supreme Court case involving the use of affirmative action in college admissions, a major argument put forth by foes of affirmative action was that affirmative action programs admitted less qualified applicants.  But if a student is admitted to medical school and then successfully graduates and becomes a doctor, does it ultimately matter how they were admitted? 

Part of me says yes and part of me says no.  If the point of medical school is to produce doctors and the admissions process admits a student who completes the curriculum and practices medicine, then the student is qualified and the admissions process has accomplished its mission.  But in a hyper-selective admissions environment where admission is a zero-sum process, fairness requires that the criteria used for admission be relevant and predictive for every applicant.

I would like to argue that the sloppy thinking pointed out by Steve and Jon were caused by the duress of my upcoming surgery, but the truth is that it comes from the duress found inside my head on a daily basis.



Monday, March 2, 2015


A number of years ago one of my students was surprisingly admitted to a prominent public university.  He wasn’t unqualified, but classmates with stronger credentials were Wait Listed or Denied.  I told the Dean of Admissions that I assumed that he was a political admit, and my boss at the time was shocked that I would openly use the “p” word with the Dean.

I eventually learned the story.  Apparently the boy was the very last admit to the freshman class, and a prominent state legislator who headed the Appropriations Committee had conditioned his continued support for the university budget on the student’s admission.  Fortunately or unfortunately, the boy never ended up enrolling.  During the summer, he was involved in an alcohol-fueled incident where he vandalized fifteen cars, and he had to meet with the Dean of Admissions and the university psychologist.  When he claimed he didn’t remember the vandalism because he was drunk, the psychologist responded with a Law and Order moment (J.K. Simmons, not B.D. Wong), concluding that he would have remembered after the fifth car.

I thought back to that situation when I read a couple of weeks ago that an independent investigation had concluded that the President of the University of Texas had overruled the University’s Admissions Office and ordered underqualified applicants, most of them with wealthy parents, to be admitted.

It would be easy to react to the Texas story with shock and outrage, especially when that is how one feels, but it would also be as disingenuous as the gendarme in Casablanca who discovers that there is gambling taking place in Rick’s Café.  Is there anyone naïve enough to believe that the University of Texas is unique among colleges and universities, both public and private, in admitting candidates who get in because of who they know rather than who they are?

I have read the Kroll report, and here are the facts regarding undergraduate admission (the investigation also covered admission to the UT Law School and MBA program).  The UT admissions process included a practice of putting “holds” on any application where the President’s Office received a letter or inquiry from a “person of influence”—generally a member of the Legislature or Board of Regents.  The original justification for “holds” was to ensure that the person of influence was notified prior to a negative decision.

A number of the holds were admitted on their own merit, and the majority of the up to 300 holds in any given year were competitive for admission, but 72% of holds were admitted compared with 40% admitted overall. 82% of the holds were Texas residents. The number of holds has increased in recent years, partly because technology allows for computerized tracking and also because admission to UT has become more competitive, with nearly 40000 applications for just over 7000 spaces.  The other changing dynamic is that President William Powers and his chief of staff, Nancy Brazzil, have been less collaborative than previous presidents, more willing to order certain students admitted over the objections of the Admissions Office.  The report found no evidence of any quid pro quo, but President Powers justified the interventions as being in the best interest of the University. 

Kroll found that there were only 73 enrolled students in the six-year period from 2009 to 2014 with grades and SAT scores a full standard deviation below the average admitted student.  Some of the exceptions demonstrate influence, some a commitment to ethnic and racial diversity, and in a few cases a reward for legacy status, despite the fact that Texas law prohibits legacy preference in admissions.

So what are we to make of all this?  First of all, as already stated, I have a hard time calling this a scandal, but it certainly doesn’t reflect well on the University of Texas at a time when it has already received significant judicial and public scrutiny for its affirmative action program.  One may certainly question the use of affirmative action to achieve diversity as described in Fisher v. Texas, but the goal is at least laudable.  The practices described in the Kroll report constitute affirmative action for those who are already privileged, and there is no possible defense for that.

The culprit tying together both of those is Texas Education Code Section 51.803, better known as the “Top 10% Law.”  That law, which requires UT-Austin to admit automatically applicants who rank in the top 10% of their high school class, has had the impact of diversifying the student body at the expense of holistic admission review, admitting students who are not as prepared or qualified for success.  The original law was amended to limit top 10% admission to 75% of the student body at UT-Austin, but it places great stress on the institution’s ability to value other important qualities, especially at a time when application numbers are surging.

 There are two relevant ethical principles at stake here.  One is transparency. The Kroll Report notes that nowhere in any public description of the admissions process at UT is there reference to the system of holds, and saves its strongest criticism for the President and Chief of Staff’s failure to reveal the existence of holds and end-of-cycle meetings between the President’s Office and Admissions during a previous internal review, saying that they “appear to have answered the specific questions asked of them with technical precision” and “failed to speak with the candor and forthrightness expected of people in their respective positions of trust and leadership.”  (Kroll Report, p. 14)

The other issue is fairness. Should any institution have a “side-door” admissions policy available to only to the few connected enough or savvy enough to know about it?  And is the use of political influence in the admissions process particularly egregious at a public flagship university with responsibility to all the citizens of the state?  President Powers may have acted in what he believed were the best interests of the University, but were those the best interests of the state of Texas?  To be fair, the students admitted by order of the President over the objections of the Admissions Office did not take the place of an already-admitted student but increased the size of the freshman class.

As a counselor I have never been comfortable with the politics of college admissions.  I tell students and parents that I don’t understand the politics on a particular campus and don’t want to.  At the same time it is my responsibility to advise my students about the realities of college admission. 

It is not uncommon for a student or parent to contact me and tell me that they know someone who has influence and can help them gain admission.  When they tell me that the individual with connections wants to know to whom they should address the letter, I know they don’t have the hoped-for influence, because the person with influence would already know the person to contact and would do so by phone call rather than letter.  Based on that I suspect the Kroll Report may have underestimated the level of influence in the process at UT-Austin, because its review of the folders of the 73 enrolled outliers and its recommendations focused on letters of recommendation.  I’m betting the most powerful behind-the-scenes lobbying for individual candidates didn’t involve a letter.  

Saturday, February 14, 2015


There is the act, and there is the explanation.  And sometimes the explanation is the more problematic of the two.

A number of years ago one of my seniors got in trouble for having a beer in his car during the junior-senior formal dance.  It wasn’t a big deal, but he was suspended for a day and required to inform the colleges to which he had applied.  Unfortunately, he took his sweet time informing his first-choice college, where he was on the Wait List, despite the fact that the college’s application clearly stated that the student was obligated to report all disciplinary infractions occurring after the application had been submitted.

By the time he reported the suspension he had been admitted off the Wait List. The Dean of Admissions, curious about the delay, required him to come to campus for a meeting.  At the meeting the student’s explanation raised more red flags than the offense.  He explained the beer in the car by saying he hadn’t planned to go to the dance.  “Didn’t you look out of place without a tux?” the Dean asked.  The student responded that he was wearing a tux.  “So you drive around the West End of Richmond on Friday nights wearing a tux?” the Dean asked incredulously.  The disciplinary offense wasn’t serious enough to rescind the acceptance, but the explanation certainly gave the Dean second thoughts.

Several weeks ago Virginia Commonwealth University became the newest member of the test-optional club, those colleges and universities (more than 850, according to the National Center for Fair and Open Testing) that allow at least some applicants to forego submitting standardized test scores.  The change in policy was announced by President Michael Rao during his State of the University address.

VCU will no longer require applicants with a high school GPA of 3.3 or above to submit SAT scores.  All applicants to some programs, including engineering, will be required to submit test scores, as will candidates for university scholarships.  In announcing the changed policy, President Rao said that students will no longer have to “pass” a test that he described as “fundamentally flawed.”  According to VCU’s Vice Provost for Strategic Enrollment Management, the change means that VCU will be able to admit 300 students who wouldn’t have made the cut a year ago.

I applaud VCU and other institutions that have become test-optional.  The frenzy over standardized testing in the college admissions process is not healthy for anyone (except perhaps the test prep industry), and I’m glad that there are institutions that are questioning how much value is added by test scores in predicting student success.  A 2014 study of 33 test-optional colleges and universities by Bill Hiss, long-time Dean of Admissions at Bates College (which became test-optional in 1984, the first school in my memory) showed few significant differences in graduation rates and cumulative GPAs between submitters and non-submitters.  VCU’s decision seems to have been grounded in its own institutional research showing that high school GPA is the most useful predictor of success at VCU, and I believe that VCU is one of the institutions that has done significant work in looking at non-cognitive assessment in the admissions process.

It’s VCU’s explanation for the decision that I find curious.

President Rao’s doesn’t give any explanation for his declaration that the SAT is “fundamentally flawed.” (I’m also not sure what he means by “passing” the SAT.)  I have never been accused of being an apologist for the College Board (see previous post), but I don’t consider the test fundamentally flawed.  Like many things in college admissions, it may measure privilege rather than merit, but in my experience it is not the case that SAT scores are random.  With rare exceptions, my best students score well and my weakest students don’t.  The College Board is certainly open for criticism on many fronts, whether it be changing SAT from standing for Scholastic Aptitude Test to standing for…well, SAT or its about-face on test prep from claiming one couldn’t prepare to advertising itself as the SAT-prep experts, but I don’t consider the test itself as invalid.  What is fundamentally flawed is the way test scores are used rather than the test itself.

I’m also curious about VCU’s decision to continue to require the SAT for some applicants. Is the SAT not fundamentally flawed for engineering applicants, merit scholarship candidates, and students with a GPA below 3.2?  That raises a broader philosophical question.  Can an institution be partially test-optional, or is being partially test-optional like being partially pregnant?

Finally, I wonder about the claim that being test-optional will allow VCU to admit 300 applicants it wouldn’t have admitted a year ago, especially in light of the fact that in the same interview the Vice Provost stated that VCU doesn’t have an SAT cutoff score and that the university claims to do holistic admission.  Holistic admission means that a college or university has the ability to ignore factors that aren’t relevant for a student’s admission, including low test scores, so VCU could have admitted those 300 students.  That would suggest that VCU, like other institutions, has become test-optional for profile protection/enhancement reasons rather than philosophical reasons.  

Thursday, January 29, 2015

4 or More

“Is it just me, or is this simply a stupid idea?”  That was the question posed in a post on the NACAC Exchange a week or so ago. 

I was immediately intrigued.  I am drawn to college-admissions-related stupidity the way a moth is drawn to a flame or a dog to a fire hydrant.  Like Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart and pornography, I may not be able to define it, but I sure know it when I see it, and it is one of the things that keep this blog in business.

I was even more intrigued when I saw that the “stupid idea” in question was a product of the College Board.  I certainly have my issues with the College Board, which I have described tongue-partly-in-cheek as America’s Most Profitable Non-Profit Organization. It has chosen to be a corporate entity rather than a membership organization, a .com rather than a .org, and College Board meetings often feel more like infomercials than professional conferences.  I suspect every policy decision made by the College Board is grounded in cost-benefit analysis, in profit rather than principle, so it may be calculating, but never stupid.

The “stupid idea” in question is the Apply to 4 or More™ program.  I was not familiar with that name, but in looking at the section of the College Board website devoted to the program I recognized it as one of the Board’s programs to increase access to higher education and particularly an attempt to deal with the issue of “undermatching” as described by professors Caroline Hoxby at Stanford and Christopher Avery at Harvard, where students from economically-disadvantaged backgrounds apply to less selective colleges than their credentials might allow them to earn admission.

The College Board website describes Apply to 4 or More ™ as “a national movement to encourage all students—but primarily low-income, college-ready students—to apply to at least four colleges.”  Students are identified for the program based on having received a fee waiver for the SAT or SAT subject tests, or in some cases based on Census data.  They receive a packet of information including a personalized cover letter, a college application timeline, and in some cases fee waivers.

The goal of increasing access to higher education for low income students is laudable, and in fact needs to be a national priority.  Is Apply to 4 or More a better way to accomplish that than President Obama’s “free community college” initiative?  I’m not sure they address the same population or the same issue, but I give the College Board credit for trying to do something.

I am more interested in the messages sent by and the assumptions underlying Apply to 4 or More.  To what extent does the program provide understanding about the college admissions process and good college counseling?

One of those assumptions has to do with “undermatching.” The embedded assumption is that the student could “do better,” with better=more prestigious=more selective.  I recognize that many students who come from homes without financial resources and lack good college counseling may be unaware of places that might be good options, but undermatching is not automatically negative. I believe that the value of college lies in the educational experience rather than the name on the diploma. A student who attends a less selective school where he or she is a top student may have a better college experience and better educational opportunities.

I don’t find the advice offered in Apply to 4 or More “stupid,” but I do find it quaint.  It’s the kind of advice that a guidance counselor might have provided back in the days when “guidance counselor,” not “school counselor,” was the operative term.  It’s exactly the kind of college counseling I would expect to find if there was a college counseling office on Main Street USA at Disneyland.

Take, for example, the advice to “Build a Diverse College List,” including 1 “Safety,” 2 “Good Fits,” and 1 “Reach.”  Back in the fall there was discussion on the NACAC Exchange about whether the term “safety school” is pejorative.  Certainly no college wants to be seen as a safety school, with its connotation as a place where you’ll go if all else fails.  Apply to 4 or more defines “safety” as “a college you’re confident you can get into.”  There are students who have a unique self-esteem problem, in that they have far too much self-esteem, and are more confident than they should be about where they’ll get in.

As a college counselor I have never liked the term “safety,” although I think it will be unfortunate if we get to a point where students and counselors can no longer predict admission likelihood. I tell students that I want them to apply to at least one school that they know, and more important that I know, they’ll get in. I also don’t believe that every student must apply to a reach.  The notion of “ good fit,” which to its credit Apply to 4 or More emphasizes, is more about finding places that offer a program and culture that meets the student’s needs and values, and a thoughtful college search can result in a good fit even when a student applies to one or two places.

The Apply to 4 or more student website states that applying to four or more colleges increases your chances of being admitted.  I find that to be terrible advice.  Admission has more to do with the quality of applications and options rather than the quantity.  If your credentials make you a long shot for the Ivy League, applying to all eight rather than two doesn’t increase your chances of getting into one but rather your chances of getting rejected by eight rather than two.  And if applying to four is better than two, is applying to 30 even better?  I do accept the argument that students for whom financial aid is important may benefit from being able to compare offers, but doesn’t the Net-Price Calculator allow that without having to apply? (If I am showing my ignorance or naivete on that point, feel free to correct me.)

The first rule of ethics is “Do no harm.” Apply to 4 or More ™ meets that test, but I’m not sure it provides students with the kind of information and advice they need to apply to college in 2015.  I’d love to see a conversation about what information we should be providing, what advice we should giving, and how best to do that.


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.