Admissions / registrar

Changes in admissions could create great confusion (essay)

This year’s admissions headlines covered selectivity rates, surviving the process, getting into the dream school and Costco. On the whole, the headlines were fairly predictable. But next year?

A look into the future suggests next year will be uncertain and even chaotic for students, families and most colleges during the admissions process. The emergence of the new application and portfolio system of the Coalition for Access, Affordability and Success, along with the National Association of College Admissions Counselors’ reassessment of the Statement of Principles and Good Practices, are the smallest of disruptions in comparison to what is on the horizon.

As an enrollment manager, I have been wishing for change to the system in the same way a parent awaits good news of the healthy birth of a child. But can so many changes be good for families sending a child off to college?

In the coming year, we will see changes in standardized testing, use of prior-prior year tax information in applying for financial aid, elimination of colleges’ access to the selected institution list on the Free Application for Federal Student Aid and the likely expansion of Simplified Needs Testing resulting from Medicaid expansion. These and other factors like demographic shifts, ability to pay and public support for higher education represent unprecedented changes to the world of college admissions.

Not every college has to worry: the wealthiest and most selective will continue on their tried and true paths, and open-access institutions will serve out their missions in the way they always have. But most colleges are working desperately to navigate the changes in a way that is not harmful to them and genuinely benefits students, especially those with the greatest need.

Presumably, the SAT and FAFSA changes were introduced for students’ benefit, but will they actually have that intended benefit? Or will the introduction of multiple changes simultaneously simply confuse families and institutions? And what is the colleges’ role in minimizing the chaos? Let’s take a look at each and consider consequences.

Standardized testing. I received an invitation from the College Board to attend a webcast about the newly revamped SAT. In the body of the invite was this phrase: “The early feedback from the student survey is positive, and data from the first administration will be sent to your campus soon.”

While I am pleased to hear student feedback about a test is positive, the number of colleges adopting test-optional admissions policies in recent months may indicate that colleges are not as positive. Admissions professionals in states like Illinois and Colorado -- which traditionally have relied on the ACT but recently switched to the SAT presumably because the latter was less expensive for them -- were startled by the change and the consequences.

There has been little if any genuine engagement on the part of public policy makers with the colleges and universities who serve the students impacted by this change. And while we will adjust, choosing an exam because it’s cheaper doesn’t seem like good public policy.

Furthermore, the significant changes to existing exams have created their own uncertainty for families and school counselors who want clarification about new scores, which versions of exams will be accepted and how each college across America is going to approach this new world. Maybe this big change will be good for students, but I am not sure yet.

Prior-Prior Year. One of my colleagues recently described PPY and its implications as “somewhere between ho-hum and this changes everything.” Most institutions are probably closer to “this changes everything.”

PPY will allow students to apply for financial aid in October of the senior year rather than January and to use finalized tax information rather than current-year data. There are plenty of good intentions behind PPY, like transparency about net price earlier in the process and more accurate data due to expanded use of the IRS data-retrieval tool.

But there will be additional consequences, like acceleration of the financial aid application timetable and a greatly elongated yield season. In addition, we in college admissions will have to enter the unknown territory of fulfilling the expectations of students who believe this will provide them earlier information about net price -- when, in fact, that will not be a universal outcome because not all colleges will be equipped to provide earlier awards.

One of the most significant consequences for my college will be a priority financial aid application advisory date of Nov. 1. To try to ensure all students have maximum access to financial aid, we will encourage submitting the FAFSA well before applying for admission. Why? In the state of Illinois, the agency that administers the state grant program traditionally suspends eligibility for the grant program 40 to 60 days after the FAFSA becomes available. Since colleges have not yet received guidance about agency practice with PPY, we are left to our devices to try to protect students’ eligibility for aid.

And while PPY is deemed beneficial for students, submitting the FAFSA before applying for admission will generate form-tracking issues for colleges. It will also create concerns about making aid commitments prior to seeing academic credentials that could influence the composition of aid packages.

Elimination of access to the FAFSA position. Last fall, the U.S. Department of Education was pressured into eliminating colleges’ ability to see where a student listed their college when submitting the FAFSA. An institution’s knowledge of its position on this list helped it and aid agencies to predict enrollment patterns.

Eliminating colleges’ access to their FAFSA position was misguided and overall a bad idea. The consequences, now becoming clearer, are embedded in a conversation I overheard recently. A colleague was describing a presentation at an agency that administers a state grant program, in which an administrator lamented elimination of the FAFSA position, as it had been used to project the expense associated with the grant program in that state. School counselors who attended the presentation were shocked that this change could actually have a negative consequence for students. The agency that had used FAFSA position now will need to find an alternative and possibly more draconian method of dispensing and projecting needed aid -- all within an environment of shrinking resources.

We’ve seen an uptick in the number of colleges introducing early admissions programs and other ways to test demonstrated interest in the way FAFSA position once did. While designed to benefit students -- that is, remove FAFSA position so colleges could not use that information to prioritize students during the recruitment cycle -- the resultant rise in early programs and new, unpredictable methods of rationing state funds will likely work against the very students whom the policy was designed to help.

Simplified Needs Testing. A proposed rule change for the 2017-18 FAFSA will expand SNT to all students eligible for Medicaid. It’s hard to argue with this change, which will benefit the truly needy. But given the vast expansion of Medicaid in the last five years, I fear it will force public policy makers to develop a system of rationing financial aid at the national level.

I spend sleepless nights, as you might, wondering what the national criteria would be, how closely it might be associated with the College Scorecard and what impact it will have on my college and our students. Again, expanding SNT is aimed at benefiting students, but rationing aid at the national level seems an inevitable result. How could that help in the long run?

What Can We Do to Minimize the Chaos?

I want these changes to help students and to improve a complicated process. But I don’t think students will fully benefit without enrollment professionals doing the following:

  • Communicate clearly with students, parents and school counselors. As deadlines, practices and programs change to accommodate all these changes, we must overcommunicate about what we are doing. There is no such thing as too much communication about deadlines, rationale and benefits. People need to know that big changes are in store and that what an applicant experienced this year will be nothing like what future students will experience. We’ve already shared our new time frame with juniors visiting campus and have a mailing ready to go to high school counselors.
  • Inform internal stakeholders about how things are changing. Whether a coach, faculty member, provost or president, enrollment management and admissions are not those individuals’ primary jobs. While many people on your campus are aware of these changes, it is safe to assume they don’t have full understanding of them and the impact on recruitment and enrollment. At my institution, we put together a white paper about the impact of PPY and have held a number of “lunch and learns” to discuss the implications of these significant changes.
  • Become more involved in the public policy discussion. We all, but especially those of us in enrollment work, need to be more engaged in the public debate about important policy issues. While it may feel hopeless at times (remember, my college is in Illinois), we must make our voices heard. We can no longer rely on associations and lobbyists.

On top of all this, we continue to hear presidential candidates talk about free higher education, creating an expectation among stakeholders. It seems possible that after next year, all of these new concerns could be replaced with an altogether different and greater set.

Public policy makers and higher education pundits have longed for disruption, and it’s here. So let’s make sure we do our part to help students and mitigate the confusion and angst that will accompany changes to an already stress-ridden process.

W. Kent Barnds is vice president of enrollment, communications and planning at Augustana College.

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Elite colleges should not penalize Asian applicants (essay)

Any day now the U.S. Supreme Court will rule on Fisher v. University of Texas. The case concerns a lawsuit filed by Abigail Fisher, a white applicant who was denied admission to UT. Fisher argues that her race played a role in the admissions decision, and this, she claims, constituted a violation of her rights.

The higher education community is waiting apprehensively for the Supreme Court’s verdict. Many worry that the decision could drastically limit the ability of colleges and universities to be racially diverse.

Yet one feature of modern college admissions practices in the United States that can often be overlooked in this discussion is that white applicants receive a significant boost relative to Asian-Americans. This is among the findings of a major study by Princeton sociologists Thomas J. Epenshade and Alexandria Walton Radford, who also observe that Hispanic and African-American applicants receive a boost relative to whites.

According to the authors’ models, an Asian-American applicant must score 140 points more on the SAT out of 1600 than her white counterpart, all other things equal, to stand a comparable chance of admission at an elite institution.

The finding here is not just that the average admitted Asian student has a higher SAT score than her white counterpart. If that were all the data showed, then it wouldn’t support the inference that whites receive a boost relative to Asians, for the data would then be consistent with the hypothesis that despite having lower SAT scores, the average white applicant has better credentials in other areas.

On the contrary, what the data shows is this. Consider two applicants, Claudia and Alice, who have very similar applications for the most part. They both come from equally good high schools, have the same GPA, neither of them is a legacy or an athlete, and so on. However, Claudia is white and Alice is Asian-American. In light of this, Alice will have to score 140 points more than Claudia if she is to stand an equal chance of getting into an institution like Harvard or Yale Universities. And if their SAT scores are equal, then Alice’s application better be much more impressive than Claudia’s in some other respect(s).

Many see these statistics as a consequence of elite institutions using implicit quotas to limit the number of Asian students on campus. This charge forms the basis of an ongoing lawsuit filed against Harvard by Students for Fair Admissions, an anti-affirmative action group. The Education Department’s Office of Civil Rights recently cleared Princeton University of a similar charge. Notably, some Asian-American civil rights groups -- including Asian Americans Advancing Justice, Chinese for Affirmative Action and others -- have opposed these challenges, writing in an open letter, “Our universities should reflect our diverse democracy and expand opportunities for those students who have overcome significant barriers.”

Regardless of whether elite universities make use of an implicit quota system, it is still important to consider whether the boost given to white applicants relative to Asians is justified. Is the admissions process fair to applicants like Alice in the example above?

One prominent defense of preferential admissions appeals to historic injustice. If a group has historically faced unjust barriers to higher education, or other forms of systematic discrimination, then perhaps society has a reparations-based duty to correct for this. One way of doing so might involve taking reasonable steps to reduce underrepresentation of the said group in higher education.

It’s difficult to see, however, why this would apply to white Americans when contrasted with Asians. If anything, considerations of historical injustice militate in the opposite direction. America has a long history of explicitly discriminating against Asians. For example, the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, which arose as a result of anti-Chinese agitation, incorporated strict regulations to reduce immigration from China, and made it near impossible for resident Chinese laborers to obtain American citizenship. This policy continued in one form or the other until around World War II. Japanese-Americans have also had to suffer from policies directed against them, the most blatant of which was the directive to place large portions of the population into internment camps during WWII. Reparations-based justifications for white applicants are thus extremely hard to sustain in light of these and other historical facts.

A second justification for preferential admissions policies appeals to ongoing discrimination or implicit biases. If a particular group suffers from demonstrated implicit biases, then society presumably has a duty to correct for these biases -- a key part of which might involve preferential admissions to elite institutions. However, while studies report, for example, that African-Americans continue to face significant implicit biases in various contexts, it’s again hard to believe that American whites suffer from harmful biases relative to Asian-Americans.

Indeed, a major recent study suggests the exact opposite. Researchers sent emails to more than 65,000 professors at 250 highly ranked colleges and universities pretending to be students interested in their work. The results show that emails with Indian or Chinese names were much less likely to get responses. Moreover, the biases were found to be stronger in more lucrative fields, particularly in business academe.

The third, and possibly the most elusive, justification for preferential admission in this context appeals to the ideal of promoting diversity. If white applications were not given a boost in admissions decisions, one might argue, the campus would look too Asian. This outcome would be bad, and thus elite institutions should take steps to avoid it.

This argument raises an important question: How should we define “diversity” for the purposes of college admissions? There are many, many ways of dividing up a student body. Hence, we can think of a population as being diverse along many dimensions, including socioeconomic diversity, ideological diversity, religious diversity and so on. Why prioritize racial diversity?

Indeed, we don’t seem to care about a number of dimensions of diversity, and rightly so. Thus, suppose it turns out that men with beards, or Republicans, or heavy metal enthusiasts, are underrepresented in the Ivy League. That shouldn’t bother us. Why? Because plausibly, there is no duty based on considerations of social justice to “correct” for this underrepresentation.

In contrast, social institutions might have good reasons to prioritize racial diversity as such, if this is a necessary means of correcting past injustices or ongoing biases. If a racial group has suffered from discrimination in the past or continues to suffer from harmful biases, it is reasonable to argue that seeking to rectify underrepresentation of that group is a matter of social justice.

Often, the rationale behind seeking to correct for under- or overrepresentation of particular groups has to do with promoting equality of opportunity. However, as brought up earlier, the claim that whites in America are systematically disadvantaged relative to Asians is not very plausible.

Moreover, Epenshade and Radford find that if admissions policies were designed to give a boost to applicants coming from backgrounds of low socioeconomic status, without consideration of race, the number of admitted Asian students would rise substantially. This further undermines the notion that employing more demanding admissions criteria when it comes to Asian applicants promotes the goal of ensuring equal opportunity.

Regardless of the outcome in the case between Fisher and UT, the issue of whether preferential admissions policies based on race are justified in their current form merits further examination. While adequate justification may well be available in other cases, it is hard to see how giving a boost to white applicants relative to Asians is defensible in light of America’s historical and cultural context. And if no justification is forthcoming, social justice demands that these policies be significantly reformed.

Hrishikesh Joshi is a Ph.D. candidate at Princeton University, focusing on ethics and political philosophy. Follow on Twitter @RoundSqrCupola.

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