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Moving Ahead on Admissions Reforms

Moving Ahead on Admissions Reforms
June 20, 2006

No manifesto emerged. But the man behind a meeting last week to consider bold changes in competitive college admissions said Monday that there was wide support for identifying ways to reform the system.

Lloyd Thacker founded the Education Conservancy two years ago out of the belief that the admissions system is out of control and that obsessions over rankings, money, prestige and testing are hurting students. While Thacker almost immediately attracted fans in the admissions world, last week's meeting marked a shift in his reform movement as many of the participants were presidents of elite liberal arts colleges. The meeting was held at New York University's Steinhardt Institute for Higher Education Policy.

The meeting was private and Thacker said that participants agreed not to reveal too much about it. But in an interview, Thacker said that some participants formed small groups that will be focusing on certain issues that came up, to try to identify paths to change. While he declined to say which issues they were focusing on, he said that there was discussion at the meeting of such topics as early decision, the SAT, rankings, merit financial aid, and the messages colleges send during the admissions process.

On a more practical level, Thacker said that topics discussed included the role of trustees, presidential leadership and news media coverage of admissions issues. There was considerable discussion, he said, about how to move forward -- and on the question of "what we can do collectively." He said that participants were aware of the Justice Department's challenge in the early 1990s to the practice of Ivy League and other institutions jointly arriving at financial aid packages for students admitted to more than one institution. He said college officials believed that they could find ways to reform admissions without inviting new legal difficulties.

Thacker said that those attending had "a real interest in seeing how far we can go" in changing policies. He also said that participants -- who come from elite private colleges -- are interested in involving public colleges and universities in their effort.

Many admissions experts have been watching Thacker for a few years now, hoping he would build momentum for the kinds of education-centered reforms he has been talking about. A key obstacle has been the need to gain high-level support on campuses, so last week's meeting was viewed by some as a key breakthrough. Privately, some questioned whether he could gain support from less competitive colleges, where there is more pressure to do whatever is necessary to fill dormitories and classrooms.

Some experts, however, predicted that Thacker might now position himself to attract support from a broad range of institutions.

Barmak Nassirian, associate executive director of the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers, said he did not know Thacker, but thought his ideas are "worth discussing" and reflect the concerns of many admissions officials. He also said that it was key that Thacker was now working with presidents.

"I think there is an undercurrent right now of feeling the need for reform, but the problem has been that the admissions crowd is not the arbiter of how this is going to be done," he said.

Sheldon E. Steinbach, vice president and general counsel at the American Council on Education, said it was essential that the colleges involved get good legal advice on the antitrust issues. While many in higher education -- Steinbach among them -- have argued that college admissions isn't an appropriate area for antitrust enforcement, he noted that the Justice Department had rejected that point of view.

 

 

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