As we end the admissions cycle for the entering class of 2010, I have started thinking about new ways of approaching this process at the institution I lead.
Several recent factors got me focused on change: the media frenzy about the increasing competition  among the elite colleges for the best and brightest high school graduates; President Obama’s push for increased college/university completion rates by 2020 -- a goal that, by necessity, requires that more first generation students enter and succeed in higher education; the power of partnerships among institutions to encourage student graduation rates; the increasing contribution of non-elite institutions to college success and workforce enhancement; and a still-difficult economy that begs for us to reconsider how we spend the limited resources our higher education institutions have at their disposal.
Our primary current admissions approach -- one that is shared by many institutions -- resembles a funnel. We start with a vast group of potential students, including names purchased through mailing lists of prospective high school and community college graduates who meet our criteria. Then, from those students who complete applications, we select those we want to admit. Then, we work to ensure that those we have admitted pay their deposits and then register and show up for classes at the start of the semester. This process takes at least 10 months per cycle, with some overlap between the end of one cycle and the start of another.
The existing admissions process is problematic for non-elite colleges on many levels. For starters, it is expensive and labor intensive. Consider the cost of purchasing names; traveling to college and transfer fairs and guidance counselor and adviser events in a wide range of locations; reimbursing the expenses of counselors and advisers/consultants who travel to and stay on our campus; designing and printing materials to hand out or mail; organizing and running tours, Open Houses and on-the-spot admits days; sending online updates and email blasts; and creating billboards, radio and television advertising and videos. I understand, too, that these are all needed expenditures when a funnel approach is deployed.
Yet, despite all the expense and the effort, there is remarkably little certainty in two distinct but important respects. First, even with considerable data crunching, it is difficult to predict the number of new and transfer students who will actually show up on campus at the start of the academic year. That makes budgeting and planning difficult. Second, and even more importantly, it is hard to predict which deposited students will ultimately graduate, particularly among first-generation students. In a sense, the funnel method simply shifts students from their sending institution to the receiving institution without any formal, continuing links to ease the transition or provide shared ongoing student support and feedback, all of which would benefit students.
In short, the current admission process is one with few guarantees for the receiving institutions and their new students. This leaves me unsatisfied because I know there are students -- both high school graduates and those attending or graduating from community colleges -- who do not meet the qualifications of, and hence do not apply to or are not accepted to, elite colleges who would thrive at and graduate from Southern Vermont College or other similar four-year private colleges.
Many of these students are the first in their families to attend college, and these students and their parents are often unaware of these smaller institutions, many of which can be price-competitive with state colleges and offer pathways to graduation and careers.
Stated simply, we have a mismatch: There are vulnerable students who need four-year colleges where they can succeed, and there are colleges that would meet these students’ needs. The problem is there is no easy way, under the present “funnel” process, to match these students to these colleges and then create a critical, at present undeveloped, feedback loop between the sending and receiving institutions. It is in this context that it struck me: What if we redeployed and improved on an admissions strategy from decades ago that was used (and has now been largely discarded) by elite private boarding schools and elite colleges, only this time for the benefit of vulnerable students and the small private colleges they could attend?
New wine in old bottles. Let me explain.
Years ago, when young men attended private well-known boarding schools, there was a direct link between those schools and the elite colleges/universities that these students and their parents wanted them to attend. Indeed, these boarding schools were viewed as direct feeders to distinguished private colleges and universities, and whether acknowledged formally or not, slots were designated for them.
(Let’s leave the attendant discrimination issues based on race, class and religion aside for this discussion. But, for those interested, you might want to peruse Jerome Karabel’s book, The Chosen: The Hidden History of Admissions and Exclusion at Harvard, Yale and Princeton (Houghton Mifflin, 2005).)
Exeter, Andover, St. Paul’s, Choate, Deerfield, Milton -- you name the school, they had arrangements with private colleges and universities. Indeed, much of the initial matching was done by the boarding schools themselves (these two go to Princeton, these three go to Yale, this one goes to Williams).
There were some real benefits of this process -- it provided a steady pipeline of high school graduates into specific higher education institutions. The collegiate/university admissions process was way simpler and cheaper as a result. Instead of looking for prospective students from a host of disparate places (the funnel approach), these elite higher education institutions were targeting a set number of sending schools from which they knew students could succeed, and they weren’t competing necessarily for the same students, as there were more than enough privileged students from all the feeder schools to fill colleges’ entering classes. And, there was a sense that graduation from the elite colleges/universities was the ticket to success long term.
Of course, this process also meant that very few spots remained, once the matching was done, for students who did not come from the feeder institutions. The elite colleges/universities resembled, in their profile of new students, a mirror of the sending institutions. In short, as a society, we kept replicating who entered the proverbial hallowed halls. And this same group occupied the positions of power within the workplace.
With some important additions and deletions, I think this old and now-unacceptable approach, which reified privilege, can be revamped and improved on in critically important ways for use today to benefit vulnerable students and non-elite colleges. Instead of being a vehicle for homogeneity, matching first-generation students to four-year colleges can be a vehicle for opportunity and create needed synergies among high schools, community colleges and four-year institutions that may improve collegiate graduation rates.
The first step would be for non-elite colleges to identify certain pipelines that can be robust and reliable year to year -- high schools, community colleges and other institutions that could each send somewhere between 5-10 students to the identified college. The college could set the minimum admissions requirements (GPA of X and SAT combined of Y). Then, the sending school or organization would actually help pick the students who fit the requirements and give a list of possible candidates to the college. From a very narrow list of, say, 10-15 students from each sending locale, the college would select (and commit to accept) say 5-10 students. When these students were offered admission, there would be an expectation that they would attend. To be sure, there would need to be visits and some courtship, but the sending institutions would shoulder the laboring admissions oar.
The advantages for institutions like Southern Vermont College of knowing that we had a pipeline for 150 new students each year (5-10 each from 15 or 20 feeder institutions) are obvious. Consider, too, how that would shift the admissions strategies for the remaining students we seek. In addition to ongoing development of feeders, the Admissions Office could target certain previously unexplored geographic regions (both national and international) from which to find students and focus on increased diversity in all its dimensions – more students from different ethnic and racial backgrounds, and, particular to us, more male students in nursing, more female students in sports management.
A second aspect of this initiative, nonexistent in the prep-school-to-elite-college model, could be providing greater partnering among the pipeline institutions – explicit links beyond admissions. To be sure, some kinds of partnering would be easier with geographic proximity, but with technology and creativity, the possibilities are remarkable.
There could be some shared faculty development so the pipeline high schools and community colleges had better programmatic alignment with four-year institutions; there could be shared seminars in person or through Skype or interactive television. There could be joint pedagogy workshops. There could be some sharing of physical resources (classroom space, laboratories, athletic facilities) among the high school, community college and college students, which in some instances could involve overnights on weekends or vacations. Summer programs, intensive weekend programs, bridge programs, and regularized meet and greet events could be developed so personnel from the receiving institution were familiar to the progressing students. There are shared grant opportunities and co-authoring of articles. Depending on the partnership, students as young as 8th and 9th graders could participate.
The key, of course, is to identify the high schools, community colleges and organizations where this would work, institutions that are focused on helping vulnerable students enter college. Think about the KIPP Schools, charter schools in urban areas, Admissions Possible, Center for Student Opportunity, YMCA leadership programs. Add to that the community colleges.
Some pipeline construction of this sort is already underway for vulnerable students, including through articulation agreements and new partnerships between high schools and four-year colleges and between community colleges and four-year colleges.
But, there are some important differences between what is now occurring and what is proposed here. Some of the current high school programs focused on vulnerable students (i.e., The Posse Foundation, Prep for Prep) identify students who can progress to and achieve within our elite colleges and universities. The approach suggested here is for students who can and will succeed in college but who would not be qualified for or accepted into elite institutions. And, the approach now proffered empowers the sending institutions with respect to admissions decisions (as happens with The Posse Foundation) -- they are the determiners of the short list of students from which colleges choose. Of critical importance is that the connections extend beyond admissions per se; they extend to the faculty and students at these institutions, all collaborating along the educational continuum.
Now, pipeline construction work is not easy, and it takes some time and requires considerable trust. But remarkable reciprocal learning can accompany this approach -- a feature that was both unnecessary and missing when the approach only applied decades ago to those with privilege. There could be ongoing data gathering and a sharing of information and best practices between the sending schools/ organizations regarding vulnerable student success, identifying and assessing strategies that could be employed to improve graduation rates. Some of the improvements could be made within the sending institutions and some at the receiving institutions.
Another major outcome could be a robust alumni network that grows with the pipelines, creating continuity and constant reinforcement of the importance of college progression. There would be role models to stand behind the rhetoric.
Pipeline construction -- by inverting an old model -- will save both time and money (and adjust the remaining efforts within admissions offices), but its best feature is that it can both help identify and then assist those students most likely to succeed in higher education. And the key is letting those who know these students best -- who can gauge their motivation, their intellectual talents, their personal commitment -- play a critical role in their admission to and success in college.
It’s time to change how we do collegiate admissions -- for the benefit of vulnerable students who can and will succeed in graduating from non-elite four-year institutions. And perhaps it goes without saying, but in today’s world, we create leaders from a wide range of educational institutions, and robust workforce development needs non-elite institutions and their graduates to build our communities.
Bottom line: I see no harm that can come from trying new wine in an old bottle.