Even before Lloyd Thacker quit his job as a counselor in 2004, he had become something of a legend in the world of college admissions. His talks at meetings of deans and the rank and file of college admissions drew packed houses -- and standing ovations -- for his assaults on standardized testing, admissions consultants for students, enrollment consultants for colleges, early decision hysteria and just about every other trend in college admissions.
Admissions officers bought his book, cheered Thacker on, and donated to his new nonprofit group, but they quietly doubted he'd have much impact. He'll run out of money, they predicted. He'll never get any presidents to back him. He's absolutely right about the issues, but the odds are stacked against him.
All of the sudden, however, there are signs that Thacker's quest to reform college admissions just might have legs. Increasingly, he's appearing not just before admissions officials, but presidents. And a number of them -- along with foundation officials -- are gathering in New York City tomorrow to talk about how the admissions process, particularly at competitive private colleges, might be changed. Among those scheduled to participate are the presidents of Amherst, Barnard, Bates, Earlham, Grinnell, Pitzer, Reed, Swarthmore and Williams Colleges and Drew University. Officials from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the Christian A. Johnson Foundation, and the Spencer Foundation are also involved in the effort.
The discussions will be private and no manifesto is expected to emerge. But participants say that they anticipate discussion about such topics as moving away from standardized testing, resistance to the rankings of colleges, and the creation of a code of ethics that might discourage such popular tactics as "leveraging" financial aid.
"I think this is the right initiative at the right time," says Douglas C. Bennett, Earlham's president. "A lot of us feel like we are in a little bit of a swamp in the admissions world right now and we're trying to get to a place where there are ethical practices guiding admissions," he said.
Michael McPherson, president of the Spencer Foundation and former president of Macalester College, says he always believed that Thacker's "concerns were very real ones," but that he had a "skeptical reaction" initially on whether Thacker could bring about change in the "competitive world" of admissions.
Now, McPherson says he thinks that Thacker has traction in part because the problems have become so bad. "There really is a kind of pathological situation, with students from good suburban high schools and prep schools and the admissions operations at top academic institutions where they are combining to make each other crazy," he says. Even if the worst problem in admissions is "the failure of so many poor kids to go to college at all," there is a sense that the hysteria at the top end is bad and diverting attention and needs to change.
At the center of the effort is Thacker, who until two years ago was a counselor at Jesuit High School, in Portland, Ore. Earlier in his career he worked in admissions at Pacific University and the University of Southern California. Thacker left his job (and income) to start the Education Conservancy and to publish College Unranked: Ending the College Admissions Frenzy. Both the book and his organization are dedicated to the idea that businesses and competition have taken over the admissions process, destroying what should be an educational experience. While the abuses are greatest among wealthy students applying to competitive colleges, Thacker argues that the hype and hysteria generated in that sector of higher education is having an impact (a negative one) everywhere.
He wants colleges to stop obsessing over what enrollment consultants tell them to do. He wants standardized tests de-emphasized. He wants students to resist taking a test more than twice. He wants students to spend more time in high school learning and enjoying life and less at test-prep centers. He wants students to apply to no more than six colleges. And on and on and on. The irony of the Thacker phenomenon is that the same admissions officers who cheer him on also engage in most of the practices he abhors. They've been able to do so until now by saying that they have no choice -- their competitors do these things, and their presidents want them to. Thacker and others say that this week's meeting could mark a turning point.
"I think a lot of people who are smarter than I am have been thinking that no one school is able to act as a moral agent singularly," says Thacker. "If real change is going to happen, then it's going to take benevolent collusion among several who can afford to take the risk among them."
While the presidents and others differ on what colleges should do (and how closely they can work together), there is general agreement that presidents will do more if they see colleagues moving as well. And there is a sense that people may be willing to step back from the competition.
Russel K. Osgood, president of Grinnell, said he's "not sure" if there are enough people involved to promote dramatic change, but he says that the environment about such discussions has evolved in the last year or so. "There's an honest discussion about admissions now, and there wasn't a few years ago."
Osgood -- like a number of those involved -- was recruited for the effort by his admissions dean. But Osgood says that this goes beyond admissions strategy. "We need to focus more on achieving our goals and worry less about the market," he says. "Our goal isn't to admit x people with merit aid and y people through a need-blind system, but to have people have a fantastic educational experience and then have meaningful lives," he says.
To those presidents fearful that any tinkering with admissions practices could hurt a college, he says: "We admit one class at a time. You can always correct things."
One difficulty facing the presidents and others is that cooperation is a double-edged sword. Some say that colleges will be emboldened to abandon certain practices if they know that their competitors are doing so as well. But others remember well the Justice Department's antitrust investigation of Ivy League and other elite colleges in the early 1990s -- a probe that eventually led to the abandonment of the practice of comparing the aid packages being offered to students admitted to more than one participating institution.
"We're going to have to very cautiously work around the antitrust issues," Bennett says. But he adds that colleges are willing to do so -- a group of Midwestern colleges recently got legal advice on what they could and couldn't talk about to promote improvements in the admissions process without running afoul of the law, he says.
The college presidents involved don't necessarily have to agree on the various measures they would take -- and there is a mix among those attending, for example, in opinions about merit aid (some are almost always against it, while others favor it in moderation) and the SAT (most say it is overused, but some would go further and eliminate its use in admissions). Some of the issues some presidents hope to discuss include the following:
No more leveraging: In leveraging, colleges try to figure out how likely applicants are to actually enroll in their institutions and make admissions decisions and financial aid offers accordingly. So students are being judged not on their financial need or academic merit, but their likely impact on a college's SAT average or how much wealth a family might bring to the table. Likewise, colleges use leveraging to negotiate -- deciding when to make counteroffers, and so forth. Bennett says he hopes colleges abandon leveraging -- even though they constantly hear from consultants about how to do it better. One model to move away from leveraging might be Earlham's policy of making the first aid offer the best possible aid offer, with no negotiations.
No more rankings boasts: Bennett says that just about all educators agree that college rankings are of minimal value in helping students select colleges, but he says he is regularly surprised to find presidents who feel passionately about the issue in one setting boasting about their U.S. News ranks on their Web sites. Bennett says he'd like to see more colleges just announce that they won't boast about rankings that they don't think are valid.
Limiting merit aid: Participants in the discussion include institutions that award aid based only on need and those that use merit as well, although some -- like Grinnell -- are trying to use merit aid more sparingly. Osgood says he'd like to see more colleges push in that direction. "I think some have gone too far down the merit aid road and without even intending it have destabilized the admissions process and turned it into a bidding war," he says. It's one thing to use merit aid to "signal to certain students that we're really interested in you," but it's another to try to go after students for the sake of going after students.
Limiting early decision: Several participants say that the push by colleges to fill larger and larger shares of their classes early adds to pressure and places a disadvantage on low-income and minority students, who need to be able to compare aid packages and may not know as much going in about the application process.
Admissions tests: Many liberal arts colleges have been moving away from requiring the SAT -- and experiencing significant application and enrollment increases as a result. Even some colleges that still require the SAT or ACT are openly wondering if they add anything to admissions decisions -- or add enough to justify the hours spent by students prepping for them or feeling anxiety about them. Bennett of Earlham says officials there have seen the value of standardized tests, but that with applications rising, abandoning the requirement is "on the table."
Laura Skandera Trombley, president of Pitzer, says that moving away from the SAT reflects much more than just questioning the value of the test. (Pitzer is among the competitive liberal arts colleges that no longer requires it.)
"We have felt for some years that this was becoming far too numbers oriented, in terms not just of the emphasis on the SAT, but the ways in which colleges are interpreting and reporting back data to succeed with the various rankings," she says. Moving away from the SAT is moving away from focusing on numbers, not students, she says. The numbers also make college admission seem like "a survival contest," she says, rather than an educational process.
Trombley was so moved by Thacker's book that she asked all of her cabinet members to read it and she recommended it to her trustees as well. One reason for her reaction, she says, is that her public speeches have shown her that parents are deeply frustrated by the system -- and she wants to change it. The reaction from parents also resonates with her because she feels it as a parent herself, and sees parents as allies. Her 10-year-old son told her that some of his friends are receiving PSAT books and training sessions to work on this summer, Trombley says, with more than a little outrage -- not at the parents, but the entire system.
"Whenever I give a talk on this, I hear from parents. They have this enormous worry. We try to be the best parents we can be, and yet there is an emptiness about this process. We buy the SAT kits. We send the kids to SAT camp. We hire essay tutors. We want our kids to get in. But where is the meaning in all of this?" she asks.
Parents should start lobbying colleges to abandon the SAT, so that students can stop worrying about the SAT and focus on really learning in high school and also experiencing being young people, she says. "Think how much money we all spend on tutoring services -- what if we spent it on educational experiences?" she says.
In such a world, she says, 10-year-olds like her son would not be hearing from their friends about prepping for the PSAT. What's he doing this summer? Among other activities, Trombley says, "he's going fishing."