Questions the Admissions Scandals Raise for Boards

Trustees at most institutions won't confront misconduct like we’ve seen recently but rather different problems related to student access and success, Peter Eckel writes.

April 24, 2019
 
 
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The admissions scandals coursing through higher education are drawing much public attention. I started this article with the intention of identifying the five key questions boards of the affected institutions and others like them should ask themselves stemming from those scandals. But then I stopped. That was the wrong approach for the wrong audience. The boards that are directly or indirectly affected are those of only the most selective colleges and universities.

Instead, I focus on the boards of the thousands of other institutions that are working hard to educate the American citizenry, and in many instances’ citizens of other countries, including our nation’s immigrants. These institutions include those that range from nonselective to moderately selective. The boards of these institutions, including the one on which I serve, are not likely to confront the types of admissions scandals we’ve seen recently. Instead, we face a different set of problems related to ensuring student access and success.

Here are the groups of questions that boards of those colleges and universities might ask related to whom they enroll:

Admissions. Admissions is the lifeblood of institutions. Beyond a few wealthy institutions, private nonprofit colleges and universities rarely have sufficient endowments to provide significant contributions to the financial bottom line and, therefore, rely heavily on tuition. Most moderately selective and nonselective public universities face continued downturns in state support on a per-student funding basis, often lagging the more selective flagships in the state. Boards of such universities should ask a number of questions related to admissions, different from the ones of their highly selective peers, such as:

  • To what extent are we reaching out to a wide array of high schools, community colleges, community organizations, veterans’ groups, churches and other social service agencies to identify potential talent? How broad are our admissions recruitment strategies?
  • As student populations change and become more diverse, are we correspondingly changing how we engage with admissions prospects?
  • To what extent are the messages we communicate the ones that potential students and their families need to hear rather than simply what we want to tell them?

Financial aid. As board members know, most students at moderately selective and nonselective colleges and universities pay for their education through a mix of grants and loans provided by a variety of sources, including the institution’s own financial aid resources. Many institutions have a minority of full-pay students. Financial aid is a strategic asset to which the board should attend. Boards should concern themselves not only with the amount of institutional aid appearing in the budget but also how that aid is awarded. Central is the balance between need-based aid (based on a student’s financial status) and merit-based aid, used by universities to intentionally recruit each cohort of students, and which may be awarded not only for academic ability but also for athletics, performing arts, marching band, debate and other institutional activities.

  • What is a fiscally responsible amount of institutional aid that should be budgeted each year?
  • What is a socially responsible amount of institutional aid that should be budgeted each year?
  • Given the mission and the students the institution is trying to serve, what is the right balance of merit and need-based institutional aid? How is that balance determined?
  • What are the various criteria for merit aid (e.g., baseball pitching, clarinet playing or debate prowess) and how often are these criteria discussed by the board?
  • What mechanisms and safeguards are in place to ensure that there is no abuse of institutional merit aid?

College costs. Given the economic profile of students these institutions often serve, attending to costs should be a high priority for the board. The board has a responsibility to ask about the continued efforts of administrators to keep costs low, and to do what it can encourage and hold them accountable to streamline budgets, renegotiate contracts, explore beneficial public-private partnerships and seek other cost-saving measures. They also can encourage and stress the need to pursue new revenue-generating activities.

  • To what extent is the institution doing what it can to keep costs low? How does the institution think about costs and streamlining the budget?
  • To what extent is the college or university exploring revenue-generating or growth opportunities that fit the mission of the institution?
  • To what extent is progress in these areas linked to moderating tuition increases?

Graduation rates and student debt. Boards should be concerned with not only who is admitted but what happens to them afterward. The two key elements are graduation rates and the financial burden students carry.

  • What are graduation rates of students by various groups such as low-income students, by race, ethnicity and gender? By different degree programs? Do patterns exist that cause concern? (Such as Latino men graduating at lower rates than other students.)
  • What are the debt loads of different types of students who graduate such as by race and ethnicity, income level, and degree program? Are there troubling patterns? And the patterns of debt of different types of students who do not graduate? (The latter may be a stronger board concern given such students’ likely dim employment prospects.)

Academic quality and student learning. While graduation rates are important, they are not the only indicator of institutional quality. The board has a role in ensuring that students are learning. The board’s role is not to determine appropriate outcomes but to guarantee faculty and academic administrators are confident students are learning.

  • How does the institution determine and monitor student learning? What data does it collect, from whom, and how does it use that data?
  • What information does it collect from alumni, and how might that be provided to faculty for improvement?

A Final Role for Boards

The admissions scandals at highly selective universities are generating a lot of national attention and discussion, but for the overwhelming majority of institutions that focus is either peripheral or irrelevant. This larger group of institutions accepts more students than they turn away, works hard to fill each class and seeks to provide as many opportunities to as many students as possible rather than to a very select few. Access has a very different meaning here.

The final opportunity the scandals present is for trustees to advocate on behalf of the colleges and universities they serve -- to remind the public, policy makers and others that higher education is not only the highly selective colleges and universities, even if they tend to garner most of the headlines. And that these scandals, while telling and tragic at the same time, involve only a small part of the higher education universe.

The fact is that most colleges and universities are working hard to ensure opportunities for many people rather than a select few, and they have wonderful stories of success that the world should acknowledge and celebrate. The students are committed and overcome many obstacles; the faculty and staff work hard to support them. These are the stories that should be garnering the attention. And boards should help to tell those stories.

Bio

Peter D. Eckel is a senior fellow and director of leadership at the Alliance for Higher Education and Democracy in the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education. He serves as a trustee at the University of La Verne. He is the co-author, with Cathy Trower, of Practical Wisdom: Thinking Differently About College and University Governance, recently released by Stylus Publishing.

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