Over the past decade, Syracuse University has seen the percentage of its students who are eligible for Pell Grants grow to 26 percent from 14 percent. These days most private colleges boast about large percentages of their students receiving financial aid, but with much of that aid not based on financial need, Syracuse's gains in Pell-eligible students (a good proxy for those from low-income backgrounds) stand out.
But not everyone at Syracuse is celebrating. The past few years have also seen an increase in Syracuse's admission rate from the mid-50s to 60 percent -- and the idea that well over half of applicants are being admitted doesn't sit well with some faculty members and students. While colleges like to boast about their placement on various U.S. News & World Report lists, many at Syracuse say that they are embarrassed to find the institution on the magazine's compilation of "A+ options"  for students "with less than stellar test scores or so-so grade-point averages." (As that list notes, Syracuse students' SAT scores' 25th/75th percentile averages are 1050 to 1270.)
An editorial in The Daily Orange,  the student newspaper, expressed fear about the implications of the rising admit rate.
"The chancellor and her top officials moved SU's recruitment strategy in a direction focusing more on inclusiveness, ultimately diminishing selectivity and perhaps prestige. Ivy Leagues pride themselves on miniscule acceptance rates of less than 10 percent. The shift in recruitment strategy and subsequent rise in the acceptance rate could devalue the SU diploma, cause larger freshman classes and affect the quality of an SU education," says the editorial. It adds: "The acceptance rate has increased so dramatically students are watching their diploma lose value even before graduating."
Syracuse is by no means backing away from its efforts to attract low-income students. Nancy Cantor, the chancellor and president of the university and a longstanding proponent of increased diversity in higher education, fired off a response  in which she questioned the significance of the admission rate and argued that reaching out to a more diverse socioeconomic group of potential students enhances the university. "With all the changes and challenges our nation and world are experiencing, more and more a great university will be defined by whom it reaches, not whom it rejects," she wrote.
The deans of the university's various academic units sent off their own letter, questioning the assumption that a rising admission rate is necessarily a bad thing. "The admission enterprise is complex. While it is true that Harvard and Princeton accept 10 percent or less of applicants, each will also aver that about half of the students who apply to those institutions qualify for admission," the deans write.  "In fact, having 50 to 60 percent of applicants qualified for admission at Syracuse can be a strength, not a weakness. The way to reduce our acceptance rate is to attract even more qualified applicants. Sounds strange, but that's the algebra."
Donald A. Saleh, vice president for enrollment management at Syracuse, said that the discussions there show the complexities of admissions strategies and the mixed messages of society with regard to what colleges are supposed to do. Many education experts would cheer Syracuse for its success in attracting more low-income students, but U.S. News and most rankings do in fact reward colleges for high rejection rates.
Saleh makes no apologies for the strategies used at Syracuse -- even if he is quick to note that critics don't understand the significance of all the numbers. For example, he notes that low-income students who are accepted are more likely to enroll than are wealthier applicants. That's because the wealthier applicants tend to apply to many more colleges -- so Saleh said that attracting more low-income applicants actually minimizes the admission rate because there is less fear of those admitted turning down Syracuse.
How has Syracuse attracted more low-income students? Saleh said that it's part outreach and part philosophy. "Syracuse has always been a place that has attracted students from middle-income and lower-income families," he said. In recent years, the university has expanded various recruitment efforts in New York City high schools to other high schools in New York State, and to high schools in cities such as Atlanta, Los Angeles and Miami. The effort has resulted not only in more students who are Pell-eligible, but also in more who are not white. During the last decade, the percentage of minority students has increased to 30 percent from 16 percent. Most of the minority students are black and Latino.
Saleh said that Syracuse has been willing to focus on grades more than standardized test scores, and that such a commitment is essential to recruit low-income students in large numbers. "If you are test-score driven, you will skew to high-income students," he said.
Concerns about the increasing admission rate, he said, might be more valid if the university had a steady or decreasing applicant pool, but the opposite is the case, with total applications topping 25,000 this year -- double the level of a decade ago.
David H. Bennett, a professor of history at Syracuse, raised questions about the Syracuse admissions strategy at a recent University Senate meeting, and said he was struck by the hesitation of university administrators to engage on the issue. Bennett stressed in an interview that he thought the admissions philosophy at the university was "honorable and noble," and had been developed with the best of intentions. But he asked if there might be downsides to it as well.
Bennett said that Syracuse has long been a place that has "celebrated diversity," and he wouldn't argue against that. But he questioned whether Syracuse "is moving to become the leader -- almost the leader among all national universities -- in reaching out to a more inclusive group" of applicants. He said that reaching a 60 percent admissions rate (even if Syracuse officials point out that, until recent years, the rate was even higher) is a matter of concern.
"I think many faculty would like to see a lower figure," he said. "If you try to become more inclusive, it does affect your selectivity."
Bennett said he did not feel that there had been any erosion in the quality of the students he sees, or seen statistical evidence of concern beyond the change in the admit rate. But he said he feared that the future could see deterioration. Further, he said that even if Syracuse officials believe a rising admission rate doesn't matter, many of the prospective applicants do think that way.
"Many gifted students and their loved ones look at such things when thinking about a pricey, private institution," he said.
Saleh, while not agreeing, said that Bennett's views reflect those of some other faculty members and some students, too, and that the debate at Syracuse mirrors one many colleges face.
"There is this tension in higher education between the old ways in which colleges described the quality of their class -- test scores and G.P.A. and rank in class, and the new metric, which will be much more along the lines of what we are talking about -- the socioeconomic diversity, the percentage of students who are first-generation in college, and for students from the Northeast in particular, the geographic diversity of their class," Saleh said. "Some of our faculty members are locked into the old metrics. Our president, our provost and the deans and my area of enrollment management are focused on the new metrics. And students are split."