When will we change admissions? Very soon. Or never.


In my last post, I recapped my panel presentation from this year’s IACAC Conference in May.  Most of what I wrote I said, and most of what I said, I wrote, but there were some things I left out of each.  One thing I said but did not write was that the people in admissions should prepare for a future with even more change than I’ve experienced during my time in the profession. While I got a few positive comments from people afterwards, I nonetheless sensed a strong sense of resistance to the idea that the future is going to be very different.  The unknown does that to people.

Admissions has evolved over time.  That’s both the summary and the problem.  Things that evolve slowly end up like a garden that’s never culled; new things grow, but not intentionally, and when they do, they encounter great resistance from the established plants that are competing for limited soil, sunshine, and water.  The end result is far from ideal, the product of chance and nature rather than any intentional plan.

As I’ve said many times before, if we had no college admissions process in 2015 and we had to design one from scratch, it’s certain we wouldn’t design one like the one we have today. Against a former working presumption of two sides working for one purpose (which I’m not sure ever really was as Utopian as we seem to remember), we now have lots of games being played on both sides: Colleges, driven by the perception of prestige, take measures to produce selectivity, including counting applications in funny ways, manipulating test scores to impress students, focusing on admitting only those with the most demonstrated interest to keep yield high, and “recruiting to deny” large numbers of students who don’t stand a chance in the process but still serve as grist for the machine that creates selectivity.

Students apply to far too many places, benefit from expensive test preparation, attend workshops to polish essays, do community service work that’s only designed to fill space on a resume, work with financial advisers to keep from paying more than they otherwise would, and force themselves to make a choice of an ED school to up the odds of admission.  Others double (or triple, or quadruple) deposit as a low cost hedge to make a final decision post-orientation, or after extended financial aid negotiation.

In light of current realities, all these actions are perfectly rational.  Both sides are playing a game with silly rules that focus on the wrong outcomes.

As a result, no one has the information they really need to make good decisions.  Not colleges, who are looking at an application that was sent to 75 other colleges (maybe);  and not students, who don’t have any insight into who gets admitted in the first place or how much college will cost until it’s too late (and if you think those three things are related, you’re right).  A neighbor, with whom I was talking at the request of her parents had only one question for me: What are colleges looking for? In the words of Mark Twain, I gave her the answer straight away: I said I didn’t know.

I think a national clearinghouse for undergraduate admission would go a long way toward solving these problems.  I’ve written about that here and here.

Still, despite the odd game that admissions has become, many seem resistant to wholesale change, preferring instead to allow the meandering incremental evolution that got us here in the first place. And in some sense, that’s understandable: With 7,000 or 2,200 or 1,300 or 859 colleges out there, depending on what you count, there is no incentive for anyone to take a risk: Doing well means you’ll be copied, and all the risk you took will be for naught, while failing means all the cost of failure falls on you and you alone.  Victory, JFK said, has a thousand fathers; defeat is an orphan.  It’s the Tragedy of the Commons, writ large.

Maybe ten colleges have the power, collectively, to say, “Enough is enough,” and have a real chance of pulling it off.  Maybe two or three have the power to do it on their own. Problem is, they’re the ones who benefit most from the current system.  So get back to me on that one.

I’d like to propose that admissions will only survive in anything close to its current state if we experience something called punctuated equilibrium, or PE, for short.  And our choices, I think, are pretty clear: Do it ourselves, or have someone do it to us.

PE is a theory in evolutionary studies that suggests successful evolution happens very rapidly, over (relatively) short periods of time, and then goes dormant for a long period. (If you’re an evolutionary biologist who wants to quibble, just allow me some editorial license here.)  Thus, the question is whether we take the reins and move forward fearlessly, understanding the greatest risk is to do nothing, or sit back in fear, hoping to survive.  I vote for the former.  And I think it will be fun.

College admissions is still viewed by many as a discrete process, something that starts at a certain point and ends on May 1 of the senior year in high school.  Meanwhile, students from educated, successful, and wealthy families start planning for it almost from the moment they’re born, or at least when they enter pre-school.  Imagine a process that’s more social, by allowing or encouraging Google, perhaps, to manage the process, in which we get a long view of student accomplishments, personality, and interests.

As I write that, I laugh: It’s ridiculous to think we need to allow Google to start managing the process. The fact of the matter is that if Google started a college application, it would be suicide to decide not to participate in it.  It could choke the Common App, or even the rumored new application from CollegeNet (which will only be available to the most selective colleges, who have formed a group calling itself  “The Coalition”) to death almost overnight.  And then, we’d be at the mercy of Google, an organization that disdains evil, but generally acts in ways that are good for Google.

In the old days, it might have been fine to be translucent (or worse) about what we do and how we do it. It might have been slightly more acceptable to spend more and more money to recruit fewer and fewer students, passing on the costs to the ones who enroll. Emphasis on might in both those points.

There are just two little problems: The media, which is suddenly interested in what we do, and the government, which spends a lot of money helping kids go to college each year.  Add in some history: Ask someone who went to medical school in the 1980’s if they ever could have imagined the system in which they now work, where insurance companies make many medical decisions.  Ask someone who entered teaching in the 1970’s if they ever could have imagined having so little autonomy over instructional content, and spending so much time on government-mandated tests.  Ask the owner of an old-fashioned hardware store if they could have seen the pressures on their business brought on by WalMart.

Now, flash forward 30 more years. (It’ll be here before you know it.  Trust me.)  Can you imagine what it’s going to be like?

The problem, of course, is that the good guys, thinking they’re doing good and doing it well, never take the time to imagine.  Instead, someone who wants to make money does.  But when the government spends a lot of money on your industry, when you’re viewed as a public good and a quasi-entitlement, when the media keeps shining a spotlight on you, and when someone can see profit to be made, change will happen. Perhaps we shouldn’t imagine the future. Perhaps we should create it.

When I lived in a small town in upstate New York I’d drive past an office supply store every morning and every night on my way home.  It was always closed when I passed it: It was open from 9 to 5, Monday through Friday.  I frequently thought, “Why are they punishing me for wanting or needing to shop at regular times outside of work?”  No surprise what happened to that store when Staples opened just down the road, of course.  Refusal to change meant death.

The same won’t happen to our jobs, in all probability.  Just the way we do them.  It’s time for us to say publicly that pretty much everyone thinks our process should change.  If we don’t do so soon, someone else will.

What do you imagine?

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Published by: Jon Boeckenstedt

I am currently the Associate Vice President of Enrollment Management at DePaul University in Chicago, although what you see here is solely my opinion, and does not necessarily represent the viewpoint of anyone at DePaul.

Categories General2 Comments

2 thoughts on “When will we change admissions? Very soon. Or never.”

  1. Perhaps the students can be the change agents. If they can be convinced that their college choice can be based on their specific wants and needs (academic program, student life options, and financial assistance) Then imagine what the college visit might be like. Students expecting to meet members of the faculty and sit in on classes. The Career Services office making prospective students welcome. Financial aid awarded on a combination of need and merit and student’s communication of their informed (realistic) expectations. Helping students seek, trust and use the skills needed for this process could be a game changer.

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