Earlier this past summer, the U.S. Department of Education announced it would eliminate a student’s opportunity to list in rank order the colleges and universities to which he or she had submitted the Free Application for Federal Student Aid. Many in higher education, and most involved in college counseling, applauded the decision.
Then, this month, the National Association for College Admissions Counseling amended its ethical guidelines to memorialize the department’s action, and it now discourages colleges from asking applicants to list in rank order the colleges they are considering.
These recent changes will force many of us who work at colleges and universities to more directly ask students about their level of interest in our institution. Because we will no longer be able to rely on our ranked position on the FAFSA, which had very high predictive value related to a student’s prospect for enrolling, we now will have to do the asking. This will be new territory for many of us and for students, but I believe such directness can be good for colleges, admissions offices, families and students.
I suspect this shift in communication may have been unintentional on the parts of both the Education Department and NACAC. I also think their actions were the result of a “parade of horribles” -- what-ifs and speculations -- that undoubtedly will bring focus to other important strategies and tools used by many colleges in the contemporary practice of admissions.
Oft mentioned among the parade of horribles are:
the potential for admissions offices to use (“misuse” is a better term) information, like rank order, to influence admissions and financial aid decisions;
the pressure on students to develop a strategy in developing their list order to make sure to maximize their options;
the potential that first-generation students and those from underserved or underresourced areas will not understand the process.
These sound pretty awful, while the actions of the Department of Education and NACAC, designed to protect students, seem sensible. So why in the world would admissions and enrollment professionals, also presumably interested in serving and recruiting students, engage in such practices?
Let’s start with two premises.
First, there are three types of colleges: superselective institutions that have the luxury of “crafting a class,” open-access colleges that accept everyone who applies and colleges that work tirelessly all year just to make each class.
Second, one of the primary responsibilities of today’s enrollment manager or senior admissions leader is to predict who will enroll.
While my institution may be positioned between the superselective and the just-make-the-class types, my sympathies are more closely aligned with the latter, given the realities of demographic shifts, changes in ability and willingness of students and their families to pay, and the affordability advocates who tout cutbacks to areas such as marketing, administration and recruitment.
At Augustana College, where I work in admissions, one of my primary responsibilities is to offer the president and the Board of Trustees a data-informed prediction about who will enroll each year. This prediction sets in motion a budget and planning process that impacts the quality of education we offer our students and the livelihoods of the people who serve our students. Therefore, I want to have as many resources as possible to help inform that prediction.
We don’t ask students to rank order the institutions to which they’ve applied, but we do ask admitted students whether Augustana ranks first or in the top three or top five choices. We’ve done this for years, postadmission, and have found it to be very helpful in prioritizing our outreach to students and making the best use of our time as admissions professionals. We’ve used this information along with FAFSA position to help predict who will show up on our campus in the fall.
So, let me offer a few reasons -- not in any rank order -- why an admissions office might want to have a good idea about our relative standing with students in an effort to be efficient and make credible predictions.
Limited, constrained human resources. For most college admissions offices, especially at those institutions that need to work very hard to make the class, human resources must be deployed carefully, thoughtfully and with the greatest good in mind. Given the size of applicant pools, it is usually impossible to develop relationships with everyone who applies. Many admissions offices try to learn where to focus their efforts to make the most meaningful connections. Information like the ranking of colleges, and many other things that demonstrate students’ interests, can help an admissions counselor prioritize work and concentrate on the students most likely to enroll. At institutions that need 20 to 25 percent of our admitted students to enroll, being able to connect with those most likely to choose our college is quite useful.
The need to work smarter. A constant chorus on college campuses today is to “work smarter, not harder.” Data equip an admissions office to do that. I am aware of very few admissions offices that are increasing staff sizes, which means we are expected to work smarter every year in an environment of heavier workloads and shrinking resources. Lacking human resources, we need data, tools and processes that streamline and focus attention and allow us to be smart in our work.
Vital volunteer engagement. When it takes a village to make the class, ensuring that your village of volunteers has meaningful engagements with prospective students is crucial to long-term recruitment and admissions success. Most admissions offices rely on campus partners to supplement the recruitment effort and ultimately be effective. If there’s one thing I know about volunteers, it is that one bad experience can turn an enthusiastic volunteer away forever. Many admissions offices need to do an internal sort to make sure volunteers have good experiences. Data that inform an internal sort are important to maintaining valuable relationships with our volunteers, too.
Efficiency and access. Most important, good use of time means we can focus more on first-generation or underresourced students and families. One of the reasons we must prioritize is so we can spend more hours on creating access -- working with populations who are not as familiar with the college search process or our type of college. Understanding that one student is clear about choosing your college can free you up to counsel others who need more information to make a comfortable and informed decision.
Most people would agree this list does not in any way sound related to a “parade of horribles.” In the end, it may just come down to the fact that communication patterns and predictions keep changing. Perhaps in a couple of years, students, becoming more savvy by the minute, will decide once they’re admitted to tell each college or university that it is number one on their list -- thus hoping to get more attention. To get to the real truth, we will again have to change our approach to how we ask them.
Because, ultimately, we should do all we can to communicate honestly and in depth with our accepted students, and that begins with directness and an effort to truly know what they are thinking. It’s the kind of communication that should precede any commitment of this magnitude.
W. Kent Barnds is vice president of enrollment, communications and planning at Augustana College.
Over the past summer, much fanfare greeted the 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), including a reception at the White House and parades, speeches and gatherings across the country. By comparison, the anniversary of the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) -- which came into being the same year -- came and went without public recognition.
The IDEA might seem tangential to those of us involved with higher education because its legislative reach extends only through secondary school. But as my classes get underway this fall, I’m reminded of its powerful impact on the current generation of college students, disabled and able-bodied alike.
The IDEA, which replaced 1975 legislation called the Education for All Handicapped Children Act (EAHCA), mandates a “free appropriate public education” to all students from pre-K through high school. Before the passage of the EAHCA, many states had laws barring children with disabilities such as deafness, blindness, emotional disturbance and other cognitive delays from public education.
According to a research study completed in 1970, only one in five children with disabilities had received an education in school.
The 1975 law changed that by requiring schools to place them in the “least restrictive environment,” meaning, to the greatest extent possible, they would be included alongside nondisabled peers. The IDEA of 1990 expanded the age range of protected children, added measures to support families and included new provisions for adaptive equipment and services. Its new name also signaled an important shift away from “handicapped children” (which implied children were defined by their disabilities) to the people-first language of “individuals with disabilities” (which implied that disability was just one aspect of a child’s identity).
The life writing of people with disabilities tells harrowing stories of what it was like to go to school before the passage of the EAHCA. Animal scientist Temple Grandin, whose autism made it hard for her to converse socially, was teased and ostracized by her peers. The parents of Stephen Kuusisto, director of the honors program at Syracuse University, refused to enroll him in a school for the blind and sent him to a school where he received no accommodations for his low vision. Deaf scholar Brenda Brueggemann describes the awkwardness of going with classmates to movies where she was unable to hear or understand the dialogue.
Reading these accounts, I’m reminded that the students with disabilities I find in my classes are the beneficiaries of a very different system. The IDEA ensured that most of them received an inclusive education, and it required the schools they attended to provide adaptive technologies, assistants and support services that would allow them to succeed in classes with their nondisabled peers.
Less often acknowledged is the impact of the IDEA on nondisabled college students. By including larger numbers of students with disabilities in elementary and secondary schools, the IDEA changed how nondisabled kids understood the meaning of disability. It is far less common for today’s students to have attended a school where the “special” kids arrived on the stigmatized “short bus” and marched off to a separate classroom. Having those kids in class -- along with their wheelchairs, canes, adaptive communication devices and assistants -- naturalized disability in a way that would not have been possible in more segregated environments.
Many of today’s students grew up with the assumption that children with disabilities belong in the same classroom and have the same right to an education that they do. Research shows that having kids with disabilities in class teaches valuable lessons about acceptance, patience and diversity. As people with disabilities increasingly participate in the workforce, inclusive education also prepares the current generation of students for a diversity they will likely encounter in their professional lives.
In case I sound overly cheery, let me be clear that the IDEA is no panacea. I’m well aware that many schools still have special classrooms for children deemed too disabled for inclusion. New York City, where I live, is home to District 75, reserved for segregating those "special" kids from their typical peers. On the other end of the spectrum, some of my students attended exclusive private schools that are exempt from the requirements of the IDEA. Their experience of kids with disabilities is limited to the service learning projects that round out their stellar college applications. And despite the law, the families of students with disabilities are often exhausted by fighting for services they are entitled to.
That said, I’m still convinced the law provides a valuable foundation that is worth building on and that should be celebrated.
I’m never more aware of the impact of the IDEA than when I tell my students that I’m the parent of a child with Down syndrome. Because of the IDEA, my son attends second grade at an inclusive elementary school. More than one of my students has responded to this disclosure by saying, “My best friend has Down syndrome!”
In the generation before the IDEA, this scenario would have been virtually unthinkable. If they went to school at all, children with Down syndrome were tucked away in special classes where they learned life skills because nobody thought they were capable of reading and writing. Seeing them banished in this way, their typical peers learned that people with Down syndrome were not worthy of inclusion.
Certainly the world is a better place for my son: ample research shows that people with Down syndrome learn better in inclusive settings. But it is also a better place for his peers, who, thanks to the IDEA, learn to recognize him as a person deserving of respect and friendship. That recognition is high on the list of lessons I’d like my students to learn before entering college.
Rachel Adams is a professor of English and director of the Center for the Study of Social Difference at Columbia University.
We’ve all been there -- the crack of dawn, the long narrow table, people with their status shields (aka laptops) open and rattling around the table, some poor soul up front droning on about the project to which he or she just devoted the past six months. Levels of interest torn between the incoming emails and waiting for this person to just get to the point. Yes, it’s the committee meeting. And we’re using it all wrong.
First, ask yourself -- why committees? And why structure the meetings like an evil twin of the 1970s lecture theater? Gather some of the best brains in your organization, gossip/update, dim the lights, pontificate, raise the lights, get your stuff and run like hell to the next meeting. See my point?
Now, many would say, “We’re a decentralized model. We need committees to get the best people working together toward a singular purpose. They help us push forward the agendas that will make this college or university the best in the nation, making education more affordable, accessible and engaging while transitioning innovation from the classroom to the local economy.” Yeah. And when did your committee meeting do that last?
Reality? Somewhere between the august town hall meeting of the commonwealth and today’s committee meeting, we lost the script. Committees became collectibles that connote status. “Oh, are you in the digital reimagination committee? Well, I’ve just been nominated for the rock our health scholarship committee.”
Over the past few years, a lot has been written on effective corporate structures and meetings. Below are some of the nuggets colleges and universities may consider when looking to improve how they utilize their best talent. My division at Pennsylvania State University is currently employing these approaches. The most precious thing we have is our people and their brainpower. Innovation demands that we look at absolutely everything within the organization and say, “How can this be better? How can this be more sustainable? How can this be more productive? How can this be less painful?” Whereas we first got some pretty strange looks when we skirted the opportunity to create committees, we are now finding that others are taking our practices and employing them across more than just our activities.
My dear academicians -- you want change, you like working together and you are perfectly capable of getting stuff done. Let yourselves have some license to go there. (Warning, some of these thoughts are completely contrary to the way higher ed now functions.)
1. Keep it small.A recent report on the most responsive modern companies that are best at elastically meeting new demands shows the optimal size for getting work done is five to nine people -- max. Higher ed committees tend to be much larger than this in many cases, and corporate leaders are stunned that a 15-person committee in academe is a pretty normal thing. How big are your committees? Is each person in that committee carrying his or her weight? Do they come prepared, informed and ready to intelligently move your initiative forward? If there are people who aren’t doing that -- they’re not committee members. They are subject experts you should call on occasionally but not pull into a meeting room every week.
Consider: What if you shifted your mind from “committee” to “working group”? At the center is a five- to nine-person team who can reach out to the greater universe of the campus to gain consensus. I still lean heavily on the RACI principle. That’s one person responsible for the initiative, two or three approvers, consultants who can be called on if and when needed and the informed, who … well, you need to keep them in the loop.
Within the initiative itself, you should staff to win. Put in place a creative mind who will stretch the tried and true who is an expert on the audience for whom you are developing the initiative, an editor who is familiar with your system and can make your idea ironclad, an engineer who can manifest your ideas, a networker who can work through the system to get the right approvers and, finally, a monetizer who knows how to get you the funding you need and can measure all performance for further enhancement or sunsetting.
2. Meetings are for working together, not being talked at. Most of the people who are at committee meetings are there specifically because they hold veto power, a specific skill/knowledge or the purse strings. Their schedules are tough to get onto. Do you honestly want them sitting there passively at your meeting? Or would your time be much better spent working together?
Consider: What if each of your meetings had clear and concise goals and involved exercises to meet those goals and attain answers you critically need? And what if a core priority of each meeting was to gain consensus on a topic, decide a direction and appoint a small group to get it done within that quarter? Hard work framing your meeting, timing your agenda and constructing productive (and dare I say fun?) exercises is critical in designing a truly effective meeting.
Increasingly, our engaged scholarship meetings are moving from committee meetings to working meetings. Everyone now knows that when he or she comes to ELT (Engaged Leadership Team), goals of the meeting will be framed, team exercises will tackle shortlisted issues, report-outs will include rapid enhancement editing from the larger team and no one leaves the meeting until next steps and responsibilities have been assigned. Those meetings move.
3. Relaying information is best prior to discussion/activities so people have time to move from collection of information to connection of information. Meetings often go sideways when you’re trying to reach consensus among people who have varying levels of literacy on a topic. Also, we frequently forget that people have different cognitive processing. Some can scan and immediately see broad implications that they want to discuss immediately; others need time to digest the information and check the facts. I have a colleague who comes to each meeting with reams of highlighted information. She rarely talks. But when she does, you bet I listen.
Consider: How much time is spent on making flash presentations that are meant to explain complex issues in the simplest visual terms? What if we just did one-page explanations of our idea, which outlined the why, what, how much and for how long? Jeff Bezos, founder and CEO of Amazon.com, puts 30 minutes at the front end of meetings aside just for the reading of these reports. He knows “preread” often stands for “never read.” This practice allows everyone sacrosanct time to review, and the information is fresh in their minds while they are discussing during the rest of the meeting.
4. Nothing beats one-on-one, face-to-face. Some consider committees a reason to no longer have one-on-ones. Wrong. Many of the issues you’re going to deal with in your groups are contentious and political -- in short, subjects that many don’t want to first be exposed to when surrounded by their peers. Take the time to treat your team members like the flawed human beings we all are. Give them the safe, private space they need to openly discuss their issues/passions. When you give them time and respect, you’ll understand them more, and as a result they will be more open to your ideas.
Consider: Sure, one-on-one takes time. So schedule for it. Block out one day of your week just for one-on-one meetings. Be ready to listen. Do not spend the time pushing your current agenda. Find out about your members’ priorities, goals and responsibilities. Understanding what they consider to be success will help you understand the best ways to employ them to meet the goals of your institution.
When I first moved to Penn State University last October, I knew there would be many people thinking, “Oh, here comes the innovation lady. She’ll think she’s all that.” In actuality, I have absolutely no interest in force-feeding innovation to unreceptive souls, and I fully realized that, without support from others in our great institution, innovation would go nowhere. So I met with many people one-on-one. To each, I asked, “What are your goals? What is your role? What are the barriers getting in your way? How can I help?” Then I sat back and listened and took notes. Those meetings defined and continue to define my job. These one-on-ones gave me my priorities, the pains that needed to be addressed, the passions I needed to feed and foster. Everything I could never get from a committee meeting.
Let’s start with that. Give it a try. And let us know at Inside Higher Ed what you experienced. Did it work? Did it fail? What dynamics were at play? After all, life is about learning, making incremental improvements and hopefully progressing to better and better models for us all to succeed.
Rose Cameron is director of innovation, outreach and online education at Penn State University.