Angst Over Admissions

Loss of control. Anxiety. Questioning of purpose. Rejection. Reviewers of college applications seem to have much in common with applicants.
November 14, 2006

On the front page of the business section of Sunday’s New York Times was a plug for a column inside: “Treat your college like a car dealer -- and haggle.”

As admissions and financial aid officials from colleges and high schools nationwide gathered for the College Board’s annual meeting in San Diego this weekend, a key question was whether in fact colleges are like car dealers. To many in attendance, nothing could be further from the truth or worse for society, and speakers expressed great frustration about the way recent trends in student and family behavior -- many times encouraged by consultants and businesses -- have changed how admissions works.

Session after session highlighted the work of high schools and colleges at their altruistic best: encouraging students to take more rigorous courses, finding money for talented students without the ability to pay for colleges themselves, diversifying the student bodies of colleges and the talent pool for professional America.

But amid all of those sessions -- and much condemnation of the admissions system that prizes rankings, prestige and money over educational values -- there were also sessions on, among other examples, how to use money to better position your college to attract more competitive students, thus raising your profile. After a lengthy discussion of why colleges shouldn’t be afraid of merit aid, for example,  a college official was asked whether his approach, in addition to being good for his institution, was good for society. He said he didn’t know, and that didn't appear to bother him. Several audience members later politely explained that the question was naïve.

Then there’s the SAT. Many critics who say admissions is too ratings obsessed place part of the blame on standardized tests like the SAT, and the way colleges use the exam. The last year has seen scoring errors, scathing criticism from New York lawmakers who believe that board wasn’t forthright in fixing the problems, and numerous liberal arts colleges dropping the test as a requirement, and finding that doing so is a sure-fire way to attract more and more diverse applicants. But public discussion of the SAT at the meeting wouldn’t have given the sense that much had happened, except for some new features like the introduction of the writing test and a few references to the last year having been difficult.

In the words of one long-time admissions official who supports the use of the SAT: “This is a membership organization, so criticizing the SAT is like criticizing ourselves.”

A Watershed Moment?

One of the more emotional sessions of the meeting was on  “College Admissions in the 21st Century.” Don Hossler, a long-time admissions official who is now a professor of education at Indiana University at Bloomington, opened by asking whether college admissions is “at a watershed,” and suggested that it may well be so. He noted the testing debate, the push against early decision programs, the critique of “enrollment management" strategies, and a growing sense among college presidents that the admissions process and the awarding of financial aid are “out of control.”

He said that there was “a convergence of issues” that opened the possibility for real change.

Robert S. Lay, dean for enrollment management at Boston College, said that he saw the trends today combining in ways such that educators have "lost control of the process.”

Lay and others cited the growth in “stealth applications” -- applications from students who prior to applying never had any official contact with anyone at the college. Such students believe they can figure out all they need to know by browsing a college’s Web site (and all the unofficial information that is present online), and they don’t want to hear from admissions offices. “There is a lack of trust students have in us,” Lay said.

One of the hot trends in admissions these days is pledging to take a “holistic” approach -- with less focus on any one statistic and more of an effort to get a sense of applicant and fit. Lay didn’t criticize the approach, but said he worried that this could add to the anxiety and skepticism many have about admissions already. “A lot of this sounds like things going on in a black box, very subjective,” he said.

Barbara A. Gill, director of undergraduate admissions at the University of Maryland at College Park, said she also saw “a loss of public trust.” She noted that issues of access for low income students do not occupy many national leaders, and that Michigan just became the third state to vote down affirmative action -- despite a wide consensus among admissions officials that affirmative action is necessary.

With all of this pressure and scrutiny, Gill also worried that admissions offices don’t have the depth they need. She noted that most applicants and parents don’t talk to admissions deans, but to rank and file admissions officers. Noting that many colleges have historically hired new graduates for those jobs, she said, “this just isn’t enough any more.”

Indeed, many at the meeting worried that their jobs have diverged from their values. John Barnhill, director of admissions and records at Florida State University, has been working in admissions for 30 years -- and recalled his pride at his first title: “admissions counselor.” His job  was counseling, not sales, he said, and success was “trying to find the best institution for the student,’ even if that meant lost applications or lost enrollment for your employer.

Now, he said, “students don’t want to be counseled,” at least not by anyone affiliated with a university admissions office.

Barnhill -- to knowing nods in a standing-room-only audience -- recalled fighting when his title was changed to “admissions officer.” And others joked about the title “enrollment management,” once viewed as the symbol of corporatization of college admissions, but now so common that many of the reformers in college admissions have “enrollment management” in their job titles, sometimes joking “I’m one of those evil enrollment management people.”

Even as Barnhill worried about lost values, he talked about the reality of functioning in admissions today. “I cower at my desk the day that U.S. News rankings come out,” he said. “If you are where your provost or president think you should be, you love the rankings,” he said, but most years at most institutions, you aren’t -- and you spend a lot of time explaining why you aren’t, defending your practices, brainstorming about how to improve.

While blasting the rankings, Barnhill also said that “you have to admire their power,” in that they focus administrators’ attention on issues they might otherwise ignore. He said, for example, that because graduation rates are one focus of many rankings, college leaders pay more attention than they used to. “Our emphasis on retention has been propelled by rankings,” he said.

Others in the audience said that the crisis was made worse by the press, with reporters’ obsessions with elite universities, alleged "frenzies” that really apply only to the wealthiest families, presidents and provosts who are disconnected from the realities of admissions work, and a public that is in the dark about college generally and admissions.

James C. Blackburn, associate director of enrollment management services for the California State University System, said that no one is aware that “we don’t have a shortage of spaces,” just “a distribution issue” in which so many students are convinced that there are only a dozen or so institutions worth attending.

While most of those doing the talking at the session were from higher ed, many worried about trends in high schools. One private university official said that far too many of the innovative programs being touted at the College Board meeting “are reaching 50 students each,” while most public high schools in low income areas are ignored by higher education.

Mabel Freeman, assistant vice president for undergraduate admissions at Ohio State University, said that the counseling role is being killed off well before students reach college. So many counseling positions are being eliminated in high schools, she said, that many high school counselors have no way to maintain the kind of contact needed to be effective. College leaders need to make this issue their own, she said, as they have historically benefited from the good work done by high school counselors.

“It does no good to give the PSAT if there’s no one around for a student to talk with about the score,” she said.

Budgets and Applicants

While some at the meeting were talking about the need for idealism and values, others explored how colleges can attract more students and dollars (while maintaining that doing so was the best way to advance their values).

One session featured a defense of merit aid, which in a way was the subject of the Times article suggesting that people treat colleges like car dealerships. While some merit aid may really reward merit, of course, plenty of it doesn’t. The Times described how consultants advise families on ways to maximize their aid packages, by -- for example -- applying to transfer to a college known for its generous aid packages so you can then take that package to the college you are currently enrolled at and -- like magic -- be told that you in fact qualify for a scholarship.

Other consultants work for colleges on their aid strategies, and officials from DePaul University and their consultant offered a defense of merit aid, which has been criticized by a series of reports as contributing to the lack of funds for low-income students.

Jon Boeckenstedt, associate vice president for enrollment management at DePaul, acknowledged at the beginning that some merit aid may be inappropriate, if not “immoral,” and that some colleges -- those with more than enough applicants and not enough space -- have no reason to offer it. But he went on to question whether anyone has high ground in the debate over merit aid.

He noted, for example, that colleges define "expected family contribution” in different ways, such that the “true subsidy” for all students isn’t clear. He also repeatedly criticized the wealthiest colleges and universities in the country -- noting that these places, which look down on merit aid, may award need-based aid generously, but enroll relatively small proportions of low income students. He called their stance one of “institutional hypocrisy.”

When colleges give out merit aid, Boeckenstedt said, there is also a misconception that it is actual money going out. Most of the time, he said, it’s just a discount on tuition. Because it isn’t the case that there is a set scholarship fund being used up, merit aid in this way doesn’t take from the poor, he said. (After the session, one dubious admissions official noted that colleges have limits on how much they can discount their tuition, so tuition discounts aren’t that different from a scholarship fund in that most colleges have a limit on how much they can give away.)

The bottom line, Boeckenstedt said, was that if a college has extra capacity -- as most do -- and can attract students who can pay some money by offering merit scholarships, everyone gains. Assisting Boeckenstedt in his presentation was Brian Zucker of Human Capital Research, a company that advises colleges on how to figure out how much merit aid to award and how to award it.

A series of slides with bubble charts showed how students are ranked on academic and financial scales, so that the most generous aid goes to those who are smart and have financial need. Boeckenstedt stressed that DePaul, founded to serve German and Irish immigrants and their children, remained deeply committed to helping new generations of students who have talent, but might not find open doors everywhere. But the bubble charts also showed plenty of generous grants going to students with no financial need, just so that they would enroll at DePaul.

Zucker did an analysis to compare what DePaul would look like if it adopted Ivy-style aid policies, eliminating aid for those who don’t need it, but providing more to those who do. DePaul’s yield would go up, from 34 to 40 percent. Within that, however, different things would happen to different groups of students. The yield for students without financial need -- some of whom are now getting nice grants -- would drop, from 24 percent to 20 percent. The yield of those with financial need would go up, from 50 percent to 70 percent.

So what would be wrong with a policy like one of those Ivy hypocrites, a policy that would make DePaul more attractive to low income students? Tuition revenue would drop -- from $36 million to $23 million. As Zucker explained, colleges that don’t have mega-endowments can’t “take a $13 million hit” and so are better off giving money to students who don’t need it -- if that will make them enroll.

Lloyd Thacker, founder of the Education Conservancy and a leading critic of merit aid, was in the audience for the presentation. After it was over, he shared his reaction: “This might be good for DePaul, but is it good for everyone? We need to compete on principles that take us in educationally desirable directions, not institutional self-interest.”

Competition does clearly matter. Boeckenstedt noted during his talk that there was someone in the audience from cross-town rival Loyola University. And when he made the customary offer at the end of the session to e-mail his PowerPoint to anyone who wanted it, he included the caveat that he’d send a version after removing proprietary information.


Back to Top