LOS ANGELES -- As college presidents went to the White House Thursday to talk about new efforts to attract more low-income students to higher education, admissions leaders gathered here and talked about how they define merit. Who is admitted? Who gets aid? When spots and the aid budget are limited, who gets priority status?
Speakers turned to definitions (from dictionaries, Latin and Greek) and to philosophy, and generally agreed that merit in higher education must mean more than having the highest grades and test scores. But beyond that, things get complicated.
Recruiting a more socioeconomically diverse class is a great thing, everyone seemed to agree at the annual conference of the Center for Enrollment Research Policy and Practice of the University of Southern California.
But is that still the case if your rankings slip and your SAT average drops a smidge? Nancy Cantor, who spoke here, was described as heroic by many for doing that at Syracuse University. But Cantor has left Syracuse and her successor seems much more interested in rankings than she was. 
And for institutions that compete for students, decisions that might be applauded here as ethical can be quite difficult. A case study was presented by Jenny Rickard, vice president for enrollment at the University of Puget Sound. She described how Puget Sound, between the 1970s and today, evolved from a local commuter college to a national liberal arts college, attracting increasingly competitive students.
But last year, the college discovered just how quickly a gain in one college goal can lead to a loss elsewhere. Like many private colleges, Puget Sound feared that its discount rate had been rising too fast during the economic downturn, so it decided to loosen criteria for some non-need-based aid in the hope of building a good class without spending as much on all aid.
The plan worked in part: The discount rate fell from 43 to 38 percent. The class size was right on target (670). But as more of a limited aid budget went to be sure the class targets were met, there was less money for needy students. The percentage of first-generation students in the class dropped from 17 percent to 8 percent.
"This is a classic illustration of the tradeoffs that are made," Rickard said.
Puget Sound is not accepting those results as a new status quo. The college is reviewing all of its admissions and financial aid policies with a goal of making the discount rate sustainable, but making sure that other values -- such as economic diversity -- don't suffer. Some tweaks are already being made, even as a full study continues.
Rickard was hardly the only admissions leader here trying to decide on the relative merits of students of varying ability to pay -- and doing so with a limited budget. (Puget Sound's $280 million endowment is larger than that of many colleges, but leaves the institution depending on tuition revenue for operating support.)
Costs and Benefits
Marianne H. Begemann, dean of strategic planning and academic resources at Vassar College, said that with commitment, colleges can do the right thing. Vassar returned to need-blind admissions in 2007,  shortly after Catharine B. Hill became president. And the college has stayed need blind, even though the decision came shortly before the economy tanked in 2008.
Since making the shift, the college's discount rate has increased from about 35 to about 50 percent -- significant and expensive growth. But the share of students who are from minority groups has grown from 20 to 35 percent. Begemann said that such policies require a strong presidential and board commitment or they don't happen.
Some focus on these policies in terms of their cost. But Begemann said that she believes it is better to talk about "foregone revenue," since the choice really is not to admit more students who could pay. "We need to stop talking about everything only in terms of an expense," she said.
She said that the question -- when looking at need-blind admissions -- should be (in non-financial terms): "Can we afford not to have this policy?"
Begemann was one of several speakers to talk about how to talk about admissions policies.
Georgia Nugent, president emerita of Kenyon College and a senior fellow at the Council of Independent Colleges, who has campaigned against the use of non-need-based aid, said it was time to stop calling such awards "merit aid."
When colleges say "merit aid," in this context, they mean "a student or family with sufficient means to pay for college education but they want to get a good deal and they want bragging rights," she said. "So-called merit aid is awarded neither because the student has earned it nor because we are meeting the objectives of our colleges."
Another term Nugent attacked: "need-sensitive." Colleges that do not practice need-blind admissions use the term to refer to policies under which, at some point in the admissions process, they only accept students who can afford to pay their own way. Nugent said that when she first became a college president, "foolishly I thought the term meant sensitive to the needs of our students," adding that "I learned it meant the opposite."
Nugent -- a classicist by training -- said these phrases matter. "When the language we use is disordered, it’s often a clue that our practices are less than admirable," she said.
Many here responded privately that they agree with her (and others here who called for a more idealistic definitions of merit in college admissions) but that they can't be expected to win over presidents and trustees worried about balancing budgets. Nugent tried to inspire them by discussing The Honor Code,  a book by Kwame Anthony Appiah, a professor of philosophy and law at New York University. The book explores how longstanding social practices -- dueling, foot-binding and slavery -- were defeated.
Nugent said that the moral arguments against these practices were well known for years, but that -- at a certain point -- people took courageous stands, built alliances and made changes -- sometimes at risk to themselves.
Many speakers talked about frustrations with the current system of admissions, noting the many advantages wealthier applicants have -- from birth on -- and how their "merit" was determined in part by things over which their fortunate birth circumstances were the deciding factor.
Donald E. Heller, dean of the College of Education at Michigan State University, in prepared remarks for later in the conference, reviewed the way, for example, there is a strong correlation between family income and standardized test scores. And he talked about how rising college costs deter many families from higher education. In this environment, he posed the following as a "thought experiment" to get people to rethink merit.
"Take any one of our selective institutions, and look at the scholarship athlete, or legacy, or for that matter, any student who was admitted and had the lowest academic credentials, however you want to choose to measure those credentials. I'll assert that this is a decision to establish a floor at which the institution has determined any student can succeed. Right? If we admit the student, then we're making a statement that the student can succeed at our institution," he said.
"Now that we have that floor, let's take all the students who applied and who had credentials above this floor, and run a lottery for admission. The number of lottery slots would equal the number of admitted students we believe we need to meet our class target, given our expected yield.... How differently would our selective institutions look if we did admissions this way? Would they look any different at all, or would they still be pretty much how they look today?"
Heller was not the only one to talk about the possibility that a lottery could be more fair than the status quo.
Totally New Definitions of Merit
Harry Brighouse, professor of philosophy and education policy studies at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, didn't suggest a lottery, but throwing traditional measures of merit out and replacing them with others. He said that, at elite colleges, merit is defined by "the English way," in the tradition that there is some measurable level of intelligence and achievement that sorts students. American faculty members, Brighouse said, love this system because it produces student bodies of intelligent people who use a college's resources to learn. "These are students the faculty don't have to teach," he said.
A better system, he said, would define applicants as meritorious in this way: “It means possession of traits that predict a student will gain more from a spot [than another would] and that they will contribute more to the social good than a rival candidate would." In this system, students would still need to demonstrate the ability to do the work, but slot would be awarded in completely different ways.
Brighouse offered a series of educational programs an undergraduate might pursue -- philosophy, pre-med, social work, early childhood education, pre-law, political science and others. The university's contribution to society, he argued, isn't just educating students, but training professionals in fields that will reach those who aren't headed to elite higher education. He said, for example, that the potential of many of the poorest children can be changed by the intervention of one caring social worker or educator. Regardless of whom an elite institution admits, if it is training great professionals in such areas, he said, it is doing good. Pre-law? Not so much. Brighouse said he will only write law school recommendations these days after asking students for a real answer to the question "why?" and that many don't have such an answer.
When the university fails to think about merit in terms of societal contributions, he said, it distorts its entire mission. He read an email from a student of his who has discussed her interests with faculty members. “While I am an ambitious person who wants to take on a challenging career and succeed, I also know that what I am passionate about is something involving children and helping people and families" and feedback from faculty members leaves her "feeling guilty and somewhat unambitious regarding my career choice."
A college with the proper values, Brighouse suggested, would not only seek to admit such students but to nurture them.
No one here rushed to announce the replacement of current admissions criteria with a focus on contributions to society. But many cheered Brighouse, saying that he was pointing to the problems with current system. Youlonda Copeland-Morgan, associate vice chancellor for enrollment management at the University of California at Los Angeles, said she worried that current reform efforts in higher education won't go far enough. It's great to find new ways to recruit some more disadvantaged students, she said, but she compared it to "peeing in the ocean" in that these efforts "just don't make a big difference."
When, she asked, will more colleges be willing to "take real risk in terms of letting some of the traditional measures of merit fall?" While some say such changes would devalue merit, she said that competitive colleges today can't be satisfied with all the students they decide not to educate. "All of us reject a lot of students who could do well," she said.