Reclaiming the Mission of College Admissions

Meredith Twombly describes how Hampshire College rejected conventional wisdom and reshaped its policies.

August 21, 2017
 
Hampshire College

It’s been three years since Hampshire College renewed its commitment to “mission-driven admissions.” In the years just prior, we had given in to the pressure to chase more applicants and log higher college rankings and student test scores, relying on expensive vendor consultants adept at “leveraging” aid funds to meet these goals.

To their shock, in 2014, we chose to fire the consultants and abandon the rankings race. And they’re probably just as surprised now to learn that three years later, although we still have a way to go, we’ve improved our diversity, yield and ability to meet financial need without sacrificing retention.

In truth, for years we had been on that arms-race path, the one that prioritizes rankings, test scores and a student’s ability to pay to the detriment of the college’s mission, its students and its community. But we were also feeling pressure to shift financial aid from students who were most needy to those with high grade point averages and test scores.

We heard from enrollment management consultants that we should try to appear more “normal” or “traditional” in our marketing materials, which had played up our nontraditional approach to education, in which students have significant responsibility for designing their curriculum. It’s no surprise that we started to have the wrong students enrolling for the wrong reasons and were rejecting those who really belonged at our school.

After years of recruiting students who didn’t fully appreciate Hampshire’s unique academic and social mission, everything suffered, from first-year retention and the classroom experience to faculty and staff morale. By 2013, we were experiencing all of these side effects and realized we needed to make dramatic changes.

In 2014, following months of strategic planning and deep-diving into opportunities and challenges, we set out to align our admissions practice with our institutional mission. Recognizing that ours is an uncommon college for an uncommon student, we set out to build an admissions practice that would attract those with the maturity, curiosity, passion and compassion to thrive in a student-directed program, one in which initiative, perseverance and maturity far outweigh traditional markers of aptitude such as standardized testing skills.

We started by eliminating the use of SAT and ACT scores, going beyond the increasingly popular policy of simply making them optional for applicants to submit. We are the only selective liberal arts college in the nation that will not look at these scores, whether or not a student wants us to.

Hampshire has always operated on the notion that scores and grades don’t capture the nuances of an individual’s goals and learning process, and can sometimes inhibit both. And they’re biased against test takers from lower-income families. We also discovered they’re terrible predictors of success here, and high school students were spending way too much time worrying about scores. The test-blind decision led to our removal from the U.S. News & World Report college rankings, which we expected.

Then, against the advice of multiple financial aid consultants, we began to direct more financial aid to students with higher demonstrated need and reduced our average non-need, merit award by 33 percent. And we weren’t finished.

We added more essays to our application, even though common practice suggested this move would reduce the number of applicants. We were determined, however, to attract the right ones. In one of these questions, we asked them to describe a self-designed interdisciplinary project that they would like to carry out. In another we asked them to write a self-evaluation for a class they took in the last year. Both of the topics speak to the core of a Hampshire education, where interdisciplinary connections and capacity for self-reflection are critical.

Then we stopped using vendors to manage our student search and marketing campaigns. (With all the aforementioned changes, they seemed to think we had lost our minds anyway.) By the way, in vendor fees alone, we saved more than $200,000 annually.

Now we are more diverse than ever; our incoming class is expected to be 35 percent domestic students of color and 27 percent first-generation college students, compared to 20 percent and 12 percent, respectively, four years ago. We are meeting more demonstrated financial need: on average, 95 percent of need is now met, compared to 86 percent three years ago.

We reversed a 10-year downward trend in yield, presently enrolling 25 percent of our admitted students as opposed to 19 percent three years ago. Although the skeptics will assume this gain is the result of meeting more financial need, they should know that our yield is up across all income levels. So far, our retention remains the same, but we are losing fewer students for academic and financial reasons.

In short, we discovered that much of the conventional wisdom was false. We learned that:

  • Casting a wider net to increase numbers of applicants can provide diminishing returns, especially when the goal is to identify a specific type of student. When we added essays, our applicant pool declined, yet because of large gains in yield, we slightly overenrolled our class.
  • Declining yields are not inevitable.
  • Colleges can reliably evaluate candidates without test scores.

I’m proud of what Hampshire has already accomplished, but I’m not satisfied, because aligning mission with admissions is just the first step. We have started down a path to more focus on and equity for students in the admissions process and greater diversity in our student body. With those changes comes a new set of challenges, such as how to support an increasingly diverse student body. We need to look at not only how we build community, but also how we define community in a period of rapid cultural change.

We need to support students coming from a greater range of high school experiences, bringing with them different goals, needs and expectations. And just as important, we need to re-examine our economic models. To be clear, we must openly recognize the tension between what our changing student body can realistically afford and what it takes to run a residential liberal arts college as we approach the year 2020.

These problems will not be solved easily or quickly, and many colleges will close if they are not sufficiently nimble to adapt. But the next 10 years at Hampshire and elsewhere will be about just that: adapting to rapidly shifting imperatives. Just a few years ago, college presidents at tuition-dependent institutions sought enrollment managers adept at growing the top of the funnel and leveraging financial aid to increase enrollment of affluent students. But the number of traditional-age high school graduates is declining in many regions, and the proportion of them who can afford full tuition is falling everywhere.

The next decade demands college leaders who can manage change and reinterpret their school’s mission -- they must be change leaders, able to integrate their institution’s goals into a strategic plan unafraid of the risk inherent in transformation. Just as important, they must be backed by resolute trustees who will enable them to lead their institution into the future. What we were able to accomplish at Hampshire was possible only because our president and the Board of Trustees understood the problems, embraced the changes and accepted the risks. Moreover, they were and still are committed -- unequivocally -- to the college’s founding principles and its future.

Institutions of higher education need leaders who will address the cost-of-college issue head-on to avoid the economic storm that’s building on numerous campuses right now. Many colleges have bought themselves time by increasing the use of adjuncts, enrolling larger classes at higher discount rates, increasing financial aid gapping and feverishly looking for soft money to plug persistent holes in the operating budget.

These tactics only sidestep the depth of the problem. They mask the growing chasm between the struggling, tuition-dependent colleges that can’t seem to find their next class of paying students and the hundreds of thousands of potential college students sitting on the sidelines because they can’t find an affordable path to a degree.

The fact is that chairs and beds are going empty as aspiring students are delaying college entrance or dropping out because they can’t afford it. Our next generation of college leaders must focus on fixing this broken economic model. There are already some trailblazing presidents, such as Michael Crow at Arizona State University and Michael Sorrell at Paul Quinn College: both have led transformational change, increasing affordability and access to unprecedented levels and at the same time improving student outcomes and financial stability. Their institutions are vastly different in terms of size, scale, prestige and mission, but each president understood the concrete challenges of cost and access -- and made it their job to face them.

In 10 years, innovators like them must become the norm.

Bio

Meredith Twombly was dean of enrollment and retention at Hampshire College from 2014 to 2017. She is currently an independent research consultant and adviser to the college.

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