Friday, April 11, 2014

The Price is Right

I am not good at, nor do I care for, haggling over price.  That may be why I look forward to buying a car the way I look forward to going to the dentist.  I know that I will leave the dealership with a new vehicle but also a clear suspicion that I have been taken advantage of.

There is only one time when I bought a new car that I knew I had gotten a good deal.  It was the end of the month, and the salesman needed to sell a car more than I needed to buy one.  I wasn’t trading in my car, I was focused on the bottom line rather than the monthly payment, and I negotiated to the point where my wife, who is far more a bargain hunter than am I, was kicking me under the table.  Our “final” offers were within $125, at which point I suggested we split the difference, and we made the deal, after which the salesman told me they were ready to let me walk.  What convinced me that I had done a good job, though, was that my sister and her husband had bought the exact same model from the same dealer several months before and paid $1000 more, and I had gotten air conditioning included.

Recently the mother of a senior called to ask whether we had sent transcripts to two colleges.  The answer was no, because we weren’t aware he was applying to those schools.  That in itself wasn’t surprising. Strother Martin’s quote from the movie Cool Hand Luke, “What we’ve got here is failure to communicate” certainly applies to many families, and anyone who thinks gender differences aren’t real need only to observe mothers and sons going through the college process together—and separately.  There is a Ph.D dissertation waiting to be written on that subject.

What was surprising was that the son had already told us that he had been accepted and deposited at his first-choice school.  In following up we learned that the parents wanted him to apply to the other schools as a negotiating strategy so they might get more financial aid from the first-choice.  We suspected the strategy was futile, given that the other two institutions were similar in cost and student profile.

I have always discouraged parents from asking for additional financial aid unless there is a compelling change in circumstances. A recent New York Times article, though, suggested that many private colleges give additional aid to more than half the families who appeal their financial aid package.   So is my advice outdated, and what are the ethics and etiquette of appealing financial aid awards in 2014?

The answer, I suspect, is that the landscape is changing similar to other changes in the way college admissions and counseling are conducted.  That’s true for all parties.  I have seen finances be a bigger factor in the final college choices made by my students and their families in the past two years than ever before, and if it’s happening in my population it reflects a much larger trend. 

I saw a statistic several years ago that suggested that college tuitions have risen faster over the past quarter century than health care costs.  Ever since the beginning of my career, 35 years ago, there have been predictions that there is a limit to how high college tuitions can go before the public balks, and it hasn’t happened yet.  But is the template of raising tuition and providing more tuition discounts sustainable? With families taking on more student loan debt, without the guarantee that the investment in higher education will pay off with the kind of jobs that have traditionally been available to graduates, have we reached the threshold where the cost of higher education has exceeded the perceived value of higher education?

A related issue is the psychological impact of the increase in the use of “merit” aid.  Several years ago, one of my students attended an accepted student program at a university he was very interested in attending.  During an information session, he and his parents learned that 90% of the students admitted to the university received merit aid.  Unfortunately he was one of the 10% who didn’t.  His parents returned upset because my office hadn’t secured a merit scholarship for him, something he and they had never identified as important in his search process.  It had become important not because he needed the money, but because he wanted to feel wanted.  How meaningful is “merit” when everyone has it, and at what point do merit scholarships become entitlement scholarships?

My advice against trying to negotiate financial aid offers is predicated on the assumption that the financial aid analysis process is rational and fair, but that train may have left the station long ago.  It is true that any need analysis methodology rewards certain things and penalizes others, but financial aid has become less about need or ability to pay and more about willingness to pay.  Today colleges and universities hire consultants who employ a sophisticated calculus to determine what combination of price points will fill the class and maximize revenue.  In such a business environment is there anything wrong with advising consumers to haggle over price?

I don’t want my students and their families to think that appealing aid offers should be common practice, but there are three circumstances where I think it’s a mistake not to appeal.  A family should appeal if there has been a major change in their financial circumstances since they applied for aid, they are justified in appealing if they have an offer from another institution with a more generous interpretation of their financial need, and if finances are an impediment in a student’s attending his or her first-choice college, I would want the college to know that, understanding that the college may be unable or unwilling to sweeten the aid offer.

I hope that choosing a college never resembles buying a car.  But given the cost of a college education and the fact that student loan debt may impact an individual’s ability to make other important life choices ranging from choosing a career to getting married to buying a house,  price is likely to become a greater consideration.  Bob Barker would be proud.

Monday, March 31, 2014

New and Improved

Each semester I spend a day in my Public Speaking class talking about critical thinking through the lens of advertising claims.  I point out that it is against the law for advertisers to lie, but that they are allowed to make claims that lead us to make incorrect assumptions. 

What advertisers don’t say may be far more meaningful and significant than what they do say.  Back in the 1970s the now-defunct National Airlines was a leading carrier to Florida, and ran ads touting the fact that no other airline flew to Miami/Fort Lauderdale for less than National.  What they didn’t say was that all fares were the same, because the Federal government regulated airline fares. When Folgers coffee claims that it’s “mountain grown,” what isn’t said is that all coffee is in some sense mountain grown (Arabica beans are grown at higher elevations than Robusta beans).  When products like shampoo and toothpaste highlight some special ingredient, what they fail to mention is that their competitors have the same ingredient.

Evaluating advertising claims requires knowing the right question to ask.  When Trident chewing gum reports that 4 out of 5 dentists surveyed recommend sugarless gum (for their patients who chew gum), the logical question is “What would I expect the results to be?”  I would expect 100% of dentists to prefer sugarless, making the statistic not that impressive.  When an actor washing his hair with ten times as much shampoo as needed claims to know that Denorex is working because it tingles, the relevant question is “Do you need your shampoo to tingle?”  When products are “new and improved,” the question becomes, "Is that really an acknowledgement that the old product was flawed?"

I thought about that upon learning a couple of weeks ago that there will be a “new and improved” SAT beginning in 2016.  Within minutes of the announcement, I was being asked what I thought by parents and colleagues, and my answer is that I’m not sure.  I like a lot of what I’ve heard.  I like the idea that the test might be more closely aligned with what students study in high school.  I like abandoning the 2400 scale, because it is still odd every time I hear someone talk about having gotten a 1950 on the test. I like the fact that the SAT will become less a test of stamina now that the Writing section will be optional, and being able to guess your way to success without penalty seems to reflect some back corner of the American Dream.  But I am also by nature a skeptic, especially when it comes to the College Board, and there are still a number of questions to be answered.

Foremost among those questions is whether the changes are motivated by philosophy or economics.  I would like to believe that the changes were in response to the thoughtful work done by the NACAC Commission on Testing, but that seems unlikely given how quickly the College Board was to dismiss and ignore the Commission report.

There is an ongoing internal battle for the soul of the College Board—membership organization or corporate entity, .org or .com?  In recent years the corporate forces seem to be winning the war. 

College Board meetings too often feel like infomercials for College Board products, and when I attended the business meeting at a National Forum several years ago, the treasurer reported a “non-profit” of $95 million, a figure that many businesses would envy.  That wealth, much of it generated by SAT fees, allows the College Board to do a lot of good, but it also leads to suspicion that most College Board decisions are based on how they impact the bottom line.   Is the new test an attempt to better measure the skills and knowledge students need in the 21st century, a reaction to the fact that the SAT has lost market share to the ACT, or a strategic first step to position the College Board to become the primary provider of assessments of the new Common Core standards (partly written and developed by new College Board President David Coleman)?

Those questions are particularly relevant given the fact that the “new and improved” SAT reverses the miracle ingredient from the last iteration of the SAT, the Writing section.  At the time, the addition of the Writing section seemed designed to keep the University of California system as clients, and almost immediately critics such as MIT’s Les Perelman argued that the 25-minute essay and prompts were lousy measures of a student’s ability to write, especially when the scoring rubric did not penalize a student for writing that the War of 1812 started in 1944.

The other significant piece to the recent announcement is the College Board’s collaboration with Khan Academy to produce free test prep materials.  That seems like a good attempt to reestablish the SAT as a tool for college access rather than a test that measures and rewards privilege.  I have always been a skeptic when it comes to the test-prep industry, believing that it is one of the marketing success stories of our time and that the benefits of test prep are far more modest than generally assumed (but that may be the naïve dinosaur within me speaking), and it bothered me that several media reports about the new SAT took for granted that scoring well on the SAT is purely a function of test prep rather than economic advantage.  Whatever the reality, it hurts the credibility of the College Board and the college admissions profession if it is possible, or perceived to be possible, to game the test and the admissions process.

That leads to the final question.  What does the SAT measure, and is it measuring the right things?  It was originally designed to predict freshman year performance in conjunction with high school grades.  Grade inflation makes such a tool necessary, but studies such as that recently done by former Bates Dean of Admission Bill Hiss on the long-term impact of test optional policies raise questions about how much added predictive value SAT scores provide.   More importantly, neither the SAT, ACT, or any other test adequately measure personal qualities such as motivation, work ethic, and “grit” that may be the best predictors of success.  A test that could measure those would truly qualify as “new and improved.”

Monday, March 10, 2014

May 1 and Housing

A post on the NACAC Exchange a week or so ago caught my eye (of course, they all do).  An independent counselor asked a question about the housing application fees required by many large universities (in this case the University of Florida). 

Two of her clients have just been accepted to Florida.  Immediately after applying they were contacted by the university and urged to submit a non-refundable $25 housing deposit in order to reserve the possibility of on-campus housing, with their place in the housing selection queue determined by the date the deposit was paid. They did so, and are now being asked to pay a non-refundable $175 “Advance Rent Payment” by March 11 to complete the housing contract. Failure to submit by the deadline could result in the students losing their place on the room selection list, and late payment will put them at the bottom of the list.  The families want to wait for their other admissions decisions before deciding whether to enroll in Florida and are wondering how the University can ask for a housing deposit so far in advance of the May 1 reply date. 

The query only received a couple of responses, but they captured both ends of the spectrum of opinion on this issue.  A friend of mine suggested that the university be reported to the regional Admission Practices Committee for possible violation of the NACAC Statement of Principles of Good Practice (SPGP), while another friend responded that this is standard operating procedure at large universities and that they have a legitimate need to manage the complex process of assigning housing.

It can certainly be argued that this is neither an ethical issue nor an issue related to college admissions, but readers of this blog know that has never stopped us from weighing in, so let’s try to sort through the issues.

Does the SPGP apply to housing deposits?  I certainly remember the issue coming up during my time as a NACAC Assembly Delegate.  The May 1 Candidates’ Reply Date is one of the ethical foundations of our profession, a convention designed to protect the ethical principle that students should be able to make a college choice freely and without coercion, knowing all of their options.  But do colleges have a need and a right to ask for commitments and deposits prior to May 1 for things like scholarships and housing?  On one hand, membership in NACAC is institutional, such that a college or university, not just the admissions office, agrees to abide by the SPGP.  On the other, the reality is that in large institutions, things like housing fall outside the purview of the admissions office, and the housing process is sufficiently complex that it may not match up with the admissions calendar.

ACUHO (Association of College and University Housing Officers) does not address deadlines and fees in its code of ethics, other than stating that housing fees should not be used as a revenue stream for parts of the university unrelated to housing (it is presumably okay for a university housing office to use fees to help balance its own budget).  The two documents have a markedly different tone, with the ACUHO document broad and general and the SPGP specific and prescriptive.  The difference is predicated on the fact that NACAC is one of only a few professional associations that attempt to enforce ethical standards.  As a result the SPGP tends to be amended in response to specific practices that push the boundaries of accepted ethical professional practice.  

There are two references to housing in the SPGP, both Mandatory Practices.  Section II. A. 1 mentions housing in conjunction with a requirement for transparency in requirements, deadlines, and refund procedures.  I think the University of Florida is clearly in compliance on this point.

The other mention is in Section II. B. 5, which requires post-secondary members to “work with their institutions’ senior administrative offices to ensure that financial aid and housing options are not used to manipulate commitments prior to May 1.”  That speaks to the heart of the concerns raised by the independent counselor and her clients.  Are the housing deposits coercive, either directly or indirectly?

The $25 fee seems perfectly reasonable, both in timing and amount.  It is akin to the admissions application fee and serves dual purposes, covering the cost of processing the application for housing and also establishing an order for housing selection.

The $175 “Advance Rent Payment” is more problematic, on several fronts.  Both the more substantial financial commitment and the early (pre-May 1) deadline could (emphasis on could) be interpreted as an attempt to manipulate an enrollment commitment, as does the threat to lose one’s place in the housing queue if the payment is late.  Let me be clear that I am not accusing the university of doing anything deliberately manipulative.  For all I know there may be good reasons why the housing office needs to know who actually plans to enroll in university housing prior to May 1.  I also know that it is not unheard of for bureaucrats to establish deadlines and procedures that meet their needs without being aware of how they inconvenience others.  I’m sure there are housing administrators with no clue that a student might apply to more than one college. 

What is most questionable ethically is the non-refundable nature of the deposit.  That is not equally true for all segments of the applicant pool.  If Florida is my first choice and there’s no question that I will enroll (which may be true for a large number of applicants at any flagship university), neither the deadline nor the fee is unreasonable.  If I voluntarily make an enrollment deposit to an institution in February or March, I don’t have a right to expect a refund if I change my mind before May 1 (if I make early deposit because I have been led to believe that will give me a better housing option, that’s different).

For other segments the deadline and non-refundable nature of the fee are indefensible.  The fee is to complete the housing contract, and the use of the word “contract” implies that the student will receive housing.  If I pay the fee and then decide not to attend Florida, I should receive a refund because I am not receiving the benefit.  The same is true if the university is unable to offer me housing.  If I decide to attend Florida and pay the fee but later decide I want to live off-campus, it’s not as clear that the university has any obligation.

The University of Florida housing office does have an appeal process in place for students who want to be released from the housing contract they have signed.  In the case of those who have been asked to pay the $175 fee prior to May 1 to complete the housing contract, they shouldn’t have to ask.  If the earlier deadline is necessary, then the fee should be refunded to any student who doesn’t end up attending the university.       

Friday, February 21, 2014

Deja Vu All Over Again

“It’s like déjà vu all over again.”  That is not only my favorite quote from the renowned American philosopher Yogi Berra (followed closely by “You can observe a lot just by watching” and “If you come to a fork in the road, take it”), but also my reaction when I learned that a senior admissions officer at Flagler College has stepped down after admitting to manipulating admissions data between 2010 and 2013.

Yes, once again we have a college or university admitting that its admissions statistics are inflated.  The list of miscreants—Claremont McKenna, Emory, GW, Bucknell, Mary Hardin-Baylor—reads like a list of battles from the Civil or Revolutionary Wars, and in fact it is difficult to know whether they are isolated incidents (well, not that isolated) or battles in a war for the soul of college admissions—business vs. profession, education vs. marketing/branding, good vs. evil (that might be overly dramatic).

I have posted on this topic several times before, and worry even more than usual that I will repeat myself, but the news connects to several issues I’ve been thinking about lately.

First of all, I’m sad to see another senior member of our profession forced to step down in disgrace, even as I recognize that misconduct by any of us reflects badly on all of us and damages the trust and credibility that is at the heart of our ability to serve the public good effectively.  I don’t know Marc Williar, the Flagler VP who stepped down, but after more than twenty years of service to Flagler and our profession, I hate to see his service end suddenly and ignominiously.

It makes me worry about the future of our profession.  After my last post, remembering the late Fred Hargadon, a regular correspondent wrote that admission deans like Fred Hargadon and Charlie Deacon at Georgetown (mercifully still with us) are an endangered species, that the generation of admissions officers to follow will not have the admissions-as- counseling mindset or the institutional support to practice student-centered college admissions that many of us entered the profession believing in. 

Several years ago I was contacted by a search consultant looking to fill the Admissions Dean position at a college I know well.  I happened to recommend the person who ultimately got the job, but in the course of the conversation the consultant asked if I knew of younger admissions professionals ready to step up to being a Dean or VP.  I responded that I knew a number of young professionals who were very good Assistant Deans, but I wasn’t sure they would make great Deans.  Among my friends who are independent school counselors, I have often wondered if the next generation will be as committed/neurotic about the job as our schools have counted on us being.

Of course, that may be a concern that every generation has about succeeding generations (and therefore further confirmation that I have become old and crotchety).  I’m guessing that plenty of folks had their doubts about me (and may still). And while I worry about the ethical common ground within our profession suffering from erosion in future generations, the reality is that those who have been guilty of falsifying data have been experienced professionals who are my peers.

That raises the question, How and why does this occur?  The easy answer is to place blame on the rogue admissions officer who manipulates data to make his institution and himself look better, and Mark Williar at Flagler accepted full responsibility in an interview with the St. Augustine Record.  I suspect the truth is more nuanced.

In the Flagler case, as in most of the other cases, the manipulation occurred in response to a one-year drop in profile numbers, specifically SAT scores, in the midst of long-term improvement.  We know there is intense pressure on admissions offices to increase applications, raise SAT scores, increase diversity, and lower the discount rate, all at the same time. Being successful just raises expectations.  Is it any wonder that an individual would buckle under the pressure and fudge the numbers in response?  The most insidious part of the “business-fication” college admissions is the assumption that if you’re not improving, you’re falling behind. Does a ten-point decrease in average SAT score really mean that an institution is markedly different? At what point is a drop in numbers truly meaningful?  Metrics are supposed to help measure progress in achieving goals, not become the goals.

I don’t know Flagler well (but am aware that the founder had connections to Richmond), but for many years it has been one of a handful of colleges and universities that claimed to have an acceptance rate much lower than I would have expected.  In 1992 Flagler reported to U.S. News an acceptance rate of 31%, lower that year than MIT, Duke, and Penn, among others. What raised eyebrows was that its average SAT scores were 300-400 points lower than other institutions with similarly low acceptance rates. That didn’t add up.  Either Flagler was an incredibly unique institution or it was playing games to keep the acceptance rate low.  I have had other counselors describe some of those games, but I won’t comment given that I have no personal knowledge. 

If I, a casual reader of the U.S. News rankings, noticed that disconnect, it makes me wonder why the folks at U.S. News didn’t pick up on it.  That leads to my final point.  The federal government is currently trying to develop a rankings-like system to evaluate colleges and universities in areas such as access, affordability, and outcomes.  I will devote a subsequent post to PIRS (Postsecondary Institution Ratings System), but two weeks ago the U.S. Department of Education hosted a technical symposium inviting experts to weigh in on what metrics the new “rankings” should include.  One of those experts was Bob Morse of U.S. News, described in a Washington Post article as the “guru of college rankings.”  Morse urged the government to ensure that colleges do not misreport data.  Perhaps U.S. News will share its verification system, given that it always responds to revelations of data misrepresentation expressing confidence that the misrepresentation is isolated and not common practice.  That confidence is at odds with a survey of admissions directors conducted by Inside Higher Ed.  That survey indicated that 90% believe that other institutions misrepresent data, and only 7% believe that those who rank have reliable systems in place to prevent falsifying data.

On this issue, I’ve had enough “déjà vu all over again.”

Thursday, February 13, 2014


One of my goals for the second year of this blog was to intersperse some shorter posts among my usual long-winded (800-1200 word) entries.  It was an admirable goal, but up to now unachievable.  If anything my posts have become longer.  So here’s a change of pace.

On Monday ECA was mentioned, and I was quoted, in a column by Liz Weston on  Her column had to do with need-aware admission, and I believe she had seen my blog post regarding George Washington University’s admission that it is need-aware that was reprinted by Valerie Strauss in her “Answer Sheet” column in the Washington Post  back in October.

Friday, January 31, 2014

Splitting Hairs

Learning of the death of legendary former Stanford and Princeton Dean of Admissions Fred Hargadon made me think back to my one conversation with him, shortly before the end of his tenure as Princeton.  We sat next to each other at lunch at a conference, and he reflected on what the public didn’t understand about selective college admissions.

“Anyone who thinks we’re doing anything other than splitting hairs has no clue,” he observed.  “I can spend an entire afternoon in committee, ultimately admitting four of fifty applicants, and the next morning I can’t remember why we picked the four we did, because the others look just as good.”

He also talked about how being an admissions dean at a place like Stanford or Princeton had gotten more complicated.  At Stanford he had the flexibility to admit a deserving kid who had gotten shut out of acceptances to an Ivy caliber school.  That was no longer possible at Princeton, due to increases in application numbers and selectivity.

There is even more hair-splitting and less flexibility today, when admission rates have dropped to single digits, as cold and unpleasant as the temperatures in last week’s “Arctic Vortex”.  The increased number of applications and competition for admission to the most selective schools also increases the likelihood that kids with stellar credentials will find themselves, in the words of Vanderbilt Dean of Admissions Doug Christiansen, “superbly qualified but not competitive.”

Is that a good thing?  It depends on whom you ask (my friend Chris Gruber at Davidson says that “It depends” is the proper answer to any question about college admissions). It’s certainly good for colleges, as having a scarcity of invitations to “join the club” has proven a brilliant marketing strategy. Mirroring the economy as a whole, among colleges and universities the gap between the 1% and the 99% is widening.  Higher education writers can phone in right now their stories for April about how the Ivies and near-Ivies have had record admission years.

It is not as good for college counselors on the secondary side, especially those of us in independent schools where the marketing strategy, sometimes overt and sometimes subtle, is the promise of “better” college options.  I used to have a good sense of what an Ivy League candidate looked like; not any more. 

Earlier this week my public speaking students turned in their list of colleges for the informative speech I use as a way to get them to think about and research the things that are unique and distinctive about a college’s personality and culture.  The lists were ambitious, and I found myself conflicted, excited to see them setting their sights high but also wondering how many will end up disappointed by the realities of selective admissions.  I also wonder how it will change my job as my career winds down.  Will I be pressured to become a strategist rather than a counselor?  Will I be the college counseling equivalent of Jimmy Carter explaining why $1 per gallon gasoline is a thing of the past?  Will it shorten my career, and will I have any say in that?

And what about the impact on the public?  While it is true that many highly selective institutions are private and have the right to admit whomever they choose, there is also an implied social contract that higher education has with students and parents. That contract promises that a college education is a pathway to the American Dream, serving the public interest, and that investing in a college education will pay off with economic success and personal happiness.   If college graduates, especially those who have gone into debt, find that their degrees don’t lead to employment, trust in the system is eroded.  Trust will also be eroded if the other promise contained in the contract, that students will find an appropriate fit, is no longer true at the top end.

Today admissions committees at highly-selective institutions are splitting hairs even more finely than in Fred Hargadon’s day, with many admitting that they could fill their freshman class three times over with qualified candidates. The application numbers provide immunity to criticism and also allow institutions to engineer a class that meets numerous and complex institutional goals.  But does splitting hairs produce a better educational environment, and is it a good use of admission officers’ time and energy?

Today many college counselors compare earning admission to a highly-selective college or university to winning the lottery. More than 25 years ago, in my first published article dealing with college admissions, I took the lottery analogy one step further.  I argued in a Chronicle of Higher Education back-page op-ed that selective colleges should admit their freshman classes using random selection from among the pool of candidates identified as qualified for admission.  My premise was that selective admission is an example of distributive justice, where the ethical imperative is finding a fair means of distributing a scarce good or service.  Rather than splitting hairs, making fine distinctions among highly-qualified applicants, admissions committees should determine which candidates are qualified for admission, then award places randomly from among all those who are deemed qualified.

You will not be surprised that it was an idea whose time had not (and has not) come.  The article garnered lots of attention, including being republished in the Parents League of New York Review and a textbook of rhetoric and logic (I couldn’t figure out if it was seen as an example of good or bad logic).  It was reported to me that my name taken in vain in admissions offices across the nation, referred to in terms beginning with “ass” and ending with “hole.”  Most interesting was the fact that the Chronicle received several letters from students who wanted to believe that they had been admitted to the Ivy League because they were better and more deserving, not because they were fortunate and even lucky.

I am not foolish enough to make the same argument today.  I understand the argument for admissions officers having the professional expertise to measure merit and predict potential among similar candidates, and would make that same argument if I worked on the admissions side, but the truth is that I don’t really believe I could split hairs in a way that’s meaningful rather than arbitrary.  I understand that selectivity and social engineering is in the self-interest of institutions, but given the increase in application numbers without corresponding increase in staff,  I wonder whether the current system produces better results, better classes, than random selection.  I doubt we’ll ever find out.

Friday, January 17, 2014

Ethics and Self-interest

Soon after I assumed my duties at St. Christopher’s nearly 25 years ago, I received a call from the Dean of Admissions at one of the colleges most sought after by our students.  He called with congratulations and a request.  “Can you please do something about that ranking system?” (There may have been an unprintable adjective before “ranking system.”)

“That ranking system” was the way my predecessor calculated class rank, back in the days before many schools stopped officially ranking.  As I recall, he calculated GPA out to two decimal places, deemed any students with GPA’s within .05 as being tied, and did a kind of creative accounting for the first fifteen ranks in the class where if three students were tied for first in the class, the next highest GPA was ranked not #4, but #2.  The great benefit of the ranking system was that it resulted in 75% of seniors being ranked in the top half of the class.

I am not passing judgment on my predecessor, especially because I later discovered that the same ranking system was used by the National French Exam, which explained why so many of my students scored in the top ten in the state.  He was trying to balance accuracy with putting students in the best light for college admission.  Those are treacherous ethical waters to try to navigate, and all of us who work in schools need to be vigilant that we are not focusing on the second at the expense of the first, lest we fall into the same trap that snared colleges misrepresenting admissions statistics.

I thought about that in light of my last post, dealing with schools and school systems changing their grading scale.  The hidden (and perhaps unexamined) assumption is that changing to a ten-point grading scale will put more students in the best light and pay off in better college admissions results.  But is that the case?

Following publication of the last post, I received an interesting e-mail from a colleague who works in a prominent school system which has recently moved to the ten-point grading scale.  Here are some early results from the change:

            --The GPA’s for top of the class students have moved from 4.25 to 4.5;

            --Because of that jump having a 4.0 GPA is not as impressive as parents and students assume.  Some high schools have 30% of seniors with GPA’s above 4.0, and it is now possible to have a weighted 4.0 without a single A on the transcript.  An annual rite of spring is complaints from parents and media reports about students with a 4.0 GPA who are turned down by the leading state public universities;

            --There is a widening GPA gap between AP/IB/Honors students and those in standard level courses;

            --There is a slight increase in the number of students choosing to take an Honors class rather than an AP course when both options are available;

            --There has been no significant change in the numbers of students accepted at most colleges.

The colleague observed that when the school system was considering making the change, none of the school districts it contacted would share how changing the grading scale had impacted either college admission or scholarship results, and yet that was the big public selling point for making the change.


Another regular reader/correspondent made the point that those who push for changing grading scales are usually motivated primarily by what will benefit them (or their children).  Acting in your own best interest is an ethical theory known as ethical egoism.  Ethical egoism is based on psychological egoism, the view that humans are capable of acting only out of self-interest, but there are enough examples of altruistic behavior to question whether acting in self-interest is inevitable.  Of course, as I’ll discuss in a minute, there is a larger question to be asked about whether acting in one’s self-interest in consistent with ethical behavior as most of us understand it.

Ethical egoism is a consequentialist theory, in that an individual should determine what the right thing to do is in a given case by calculating the consequences.  The most widely-accepted ethical theory, utilitarianism, is also a consequentialist theory.  Ethical egoism is simpler, in that all you have to calculate what is good for you, whereas utilitarianism tries to calculate what produces the maximum amount of good for everyone.  The problems with consequentialist theories include how you define good.  Many philosophers equate good with happiness, leading to the objection that there are lots of things that make us happy that aren’t good for us.  The other problem with consequentialism is the Law of Unintended Consequences.  We’re not particularly good at anticipating all the consequences of our actions.

The other approach to ethical theory argues that what is right or good is independent of the consequences it produces.  Certainly good acts produce good consequences, but the consequences are good because the act is good, not the other way around.  The best-known advocate of this point of view is the German philosopher Immanuel Kant, and the example he cites is telling the truth.  Kant argues that telling the truth is a moral imperative even if telling the truth produces bad consequences.  That doesn’t mean that you might not choose to lie because another moral imperative (such as saving innocent lives) outweighs telling the truth in a particular case, but telling the truth is morally right independent of the consequences it produces.

When I was in graduate school one of my professors made reference to my “Kantian tendencies,”  tendencies I wasn’t aware of.  One of my favorite quotes about ethics is supposedly from Kant, “Ethics begins where self-interest ends.”  I say “supposedly” because as NACAC President I used that quote several times.  About a year ago I was giving a speech and decided to look up the exact formulation.  When I googled it I found one result—an article quoting not Kant, but me.  Now I’m wondering if I made it up. In any case I think it’s true to Kant and it captures my view about what is ethical.