'Selling Hope and College'

Author discusses new book about being embedded in admissions office of a non-competitive college that must fight for applicants and students.

June 5, 2017
 

Ten years ago, Creating a Class: College Admissions and the Education of Elites (Harvard University Press) provided an unusual look into the admissions process at a competitive liberal arts college. The author, Mitchell L. Stevens, an associate professor of education at Stanford University, embedded himself in the admissions office of a college. He was permitted to quote from admissions discussions but not identify the college (although Inside Higher Ed did so -- see our article here if you want to know).

The book was widely praised by admissions experts and still is cited. Indeed many of the pressures Stevens discussed remain at liberal arts colleges and have, if anything, worsened.

But very little in the book applies to the colleges most students attend -- institutions that admit most of their applicants.

Alex Posecznick is aiming to fill out the story, having used Stevens' technique at "Ravenwood College," the pseudonym for a private college that let him observe the admissions team in action for a year. (We haven't been able to figure out the college's identity.)

The result is Selling Hope and College: Merit, Markets, and Recruitment in an Unranked School (Cornell University Press). While Stevens brought training as a sociologist to his work, Posecznick brought training as an anthropologist. Posecznick manages the programs in education, culture, and society, and international education development at the University of Pennsylvania's Graduate School of Education.

Creating a Class touched on ethical issues -- the influence of coaches, for example, or the need to admit some students who could afford to pay to preserve the aid budget for those who could not do so. But the backdrop to all of those issues is that dilemmas come up in selecting candidates.

In Selling Hope and College, the dilemmas are about how to attract students: Should admissions standards be lowered to attract more students? Should faculty hiring place a priority on traditional teaching and research success or Ravenwood's traditional emphasis on social justice? Should facilities decisions focus on façades that would impress visiting potential students as opposed to teaching and learning spaces? (Spoiler alert: Most of the decisions discussed in the book are resolved in ways to maximize the number of students.)

At Ravenwood, the real threat admissions professionals felt (like many of their colleagues at non-famous private institutions today) was that if they didn't meet their targets, layoffs would likely hit some at the college. The quest for students isn't about going up in the rankings, but literally about survival.

In an interview, Posecznick said the largest ethical issue he saw at Ravenwood was about "credential inflation" and questions about how recruiters justified their pitches to potential students.

A constant refrain from recruiters to their prospects was that students could complete a bachelor's degree and even go on to graduate education -- all making for a good return on investment. But some students, Posecznick acknowledged, might well have benefited from enrolling at a community college (at far less expense) and starting there. Posecznick said that the college relied on anecdotes but didn't really have good data to show the (financial) value of enrolling at Ravenwood.

"Because they were precarious," they didn't have money to invest in institutional research. "They didn't have strong data."

Posecznick said he doesn't view this "as a horrible secret being revealed," but the reality of keeping colleges like Ravenwood running.

At the same time, he said he wants to counter the view that all that matters in admissions is colleges that reject most applicants. As he studied higher education, "part of what stood out to me is how there are so many institutions that are invisible, that aren't being noticed by the rankings system or the public eye, and yet there is so much going on."

As he surveys admissions offices, Posecznick said, "some of them spend all of their time trying to keep people out and some trying to keep people in."

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