High School Counselors, It’s Your Turn

You might be surprised to learn that Harvard doesn’t care what I think.  No one at Cal Tech consults me before making decisions.  And no one at the University of Chicago–our neighbor on the south side of Chicago–has ever called and asked me to lunch.

This is my influence on higher education in the US.

But as I thought about all the buzz surrounding The Coalition for Access, Affordability and Success, the recently launched initiative by 83 colleges and universities, and the collective angst it’s generated, I recall an oft-repeated discussion on several versions of the old NACAC e-list.  It would go something like this:

  • A high school counselor would send a message, asking why colleges send letters (yes, back when this started, it was letters) to students at the point of application, saying the application was incomplete, even before checking the files to see if it really was incomplete.
  • A discussion would go on for a few days
  • I’d finally jump in and say something like this: “If just ten of you from large high schools near these offending colleges would write a letter (yes, a letter) to the dean of admissions, and say this process annoyed you, and that you find it harder to be enthusiastic about her college with your students, it would stop.  And if it didn’t, you could write the president, and then it would stop.”
  • The discussion would grind to a halt
  • No one would write the letter
  • Next year, the same discussion would happen

There are lots of reasons people might think The Coalition is a bad idea: I have a few of my own thoughts I put into a piece for the Washington Post yesterday.  Mostly, the label of “Access” is just a ribbon on a lump of coal in a pretty box, I think; but beyond that, I cannot understand how a more fractured application process is good for low-income kids.  I’m willing to admit I’m wrong if that proves to be the case and someone can make sense of it for me.

Counselors who work with high school students have other reasons, not the least of which concerns the questions they’ll get about an untested product and process, and the burden this will put on the mechanical systems associated with college guidance.

My concerns don’t matter much to The Coalition, I think.  If you’re a high school counselor, yours might.  Especially if you’re a public high school counselor, the group whose students The Coalition claims to want to serve better.  So it’s time.

First, I’m sorry to say, we in colleges, and probably independent counselors (whom I’m told are often treated like pariahs at the most selective colleges) can’t do much.  It’s all on you, high school people.  But there is a lot you can do:

  • Send an email to the chief admissions officer.  If you can’t find his or her real email, send it to the admissions account
  • Do the same to the president or provost
  • Share this post to your state or regional ACAC list serve (actually, anyone can do this)
  • Send it directly to high school counselors, being sure to include large, under-resourced public schools.  Ask them to write

Just a week after the launch, I sense this discussion is already grinding to a halt, which is what happens when no one on the other side is talking publicly about this.  It’s a brilliant move.  The question is whether you’ll let it succeed.

Colleague Rafael Figueroa at Albuquerque Academy reminded us of the old Turkish proverb: No matter how far you have gone on the wrong road, turn back. I think this is advice The Coalition needs to hear.  From you.

It’s your turn.  Princeton is not returning my calls.

At NACAC, some thoughts about The Coalition

A few days ago–probably not coincidentally just before the annual NACAC conference–we got a first look at the long-rumored Coalition for Access, Affordability, and Success.  Presumably, this group of about 80 high-profile private and large public institutions was founded to improve access, affordability, and success for populations traditionally underserved by our current admissions process.  Or, perhaps it would be better to say, “traditionally underserved by the institutions in ‘The Coalition for Access, Affordability, and Success’.”

According to this story in Inside Higher Education, the requirements for membership are a 70% graduation rate for all institutions; for public members, “affordable tuition along with need-based financial aid for in-state residents,” and for private institutions, a commitment to “provide sufficient financial aid to meet the full, demonstrated financial need of every domestic student they admit.”

So already, we’re in a sort of Alice and Wonderland mode.  Where to begin?

  • Several of these institutions are need-aware in admissions (and despite the rhetoric, I believe none of them are need-blind, a very nice sounding term that belies reality).  So if you’re poor, you don’t have an equal shot in the first place
  • Second, many of these institutions show graduation rates for Pell Grant students as much as 15 points lower than for non-Pell students, and sometimes as low as 58% for those students.  Shouldn’t the Pell Graduation rate be the measuring stick?  I’d think so.
  • Third, these places are among the very worst offenders when it comes to enrolling low-income students, according to their own data.  It’s not surprising that they are also the most selective (at least the privates.) But if they’re among the most selective, don’t you think they could find some low-income kids or first generation students among those they’re already rejecting? I would suspect so.  However, one of the admissions deans at one of these institutions implied–in public–that there just were not enough poor kids who were smart enough to do the work at her institution.  So maybe not. (Note: this visualization shows 2012 data instead of the most-recently available 2013 data because I was in a hurry and didn’t have time to start from scratch, so I reused an older visualization. I will update this when the 2014 data comes out this month.)
  • About a quarter of the public institutions have net prices of over $12,000 for students with family incomes under $30,000.  That’s a pretty big chunk of family incomes.  It’ seems to be inconsistent with affordable.
  • Finally, “meeting 100% of demonstrated need” might be a quibbling point for many.  Most of the private institutions in this group use Profile to collect additional financial information over and above what the federal form the FAFSA does, and while some students may get more aid after filing Profile, most get less.  Some colleges require a contribution of $5,000 from summer work for all students (even those who don’t make $5,000 in the summer), and others use large loans “to meet need.”  Need, of course, is an entirely silly construct, as I’ve written before.

To be fair, many of these institutions don’t have to share any of their wealth with poor students if they don’t think it’s in their mission to do so, so even 6% of freshmen with Pell might be viewed as altruistic beyond what is necessary.

So there’s that.

But these colleges also want to keep applications up and admit rates down, and offering poor kids the lottery ticket seems like a good way to do so.  If colleges told everyone they had to pay the $60,000 out of your own pocket, apps would probably plummet, or maybe increase dramatically from wealthier, but less qualified, students.  Thus, the expenditure on even a little bit of aid might seem like a good investment, or the cost of doing business in the higher education industry.

But there are a lot of other questions that might be asked, too.

For instance, one of the things The Coalition will be offering is an online suite of college planning tools, including a portfolio service to allow students to being assembling application support materials as early as the 9th grade.  This is not unlike what I recommended a while ago when I suggested Google might be a good way to manage college apps.  The difference is I was recommending it for everyone, not just applicants to these institutions.  You have to wonder, though: Who is most likely to jump on this service: Poorer kids with non-college-educated parents who attend under-resourced schools, or wealthier kids with college-focused parents who are already driving their college planning with counselors, test-prep, essay editing, and opportunities in “better” schools?  I’ll give you a moment to ponder that.  Along this line, one counselor said The Coalition should rename itself the “Independent College Counselor Full Employment Act of 2015.”

Do The Coaltion members plan to review all the portfolios of all the applicants or just those whom this initiative is intended to help?  I think this should be clear before many kids start this process.

What’s most puzzling in all this, at least to me, is the creation of a new Coalition Application students will be able to use to apply to the Coalition Colleges.  How will this application be different?  And, as it’s being built by College Net, a company that sued Common Application, and since the discussion of The Coalition appeared to surface after huge Common App problems in Fall of 2013 associated with roll out of a new platform, is this just a big “screw you,” to Common App?  Or is is a reaction to the Common App becoming, well, more common (in the pejorative sense of the word one might associate with wealth, prestige, and status)?

In that light, what about data sharing?  Will this be an opportunity for member institutions to share data on applicants, or will applicant privacy be respected as it is on the Common App?  Will the content in portfolios be reserved for member institutions, or will it be shared with other, non-Coalition schools?

Inquiring minds want to know.  And I’ve spoken to a lot of them today.  In fact, when there is an issue like this, and I’m the one serving as gadfly, I often do so alone.  This is unlike anything I’ve seen; I could not find a single person who thought it was good idea, or that it made sense.  That doesn’t mean there aren’t any, of course.  This appeared today.

Ultimately, I have a couple of big concerns:

  • First, the use of the name “Access” when there are many, many colleges who provide way more access to underserved kids.  True, we’re not the extraordinarily selective institutions, but still, thinking that you must go to a selective institution is part of the big college admissions problem this country already faces.
  • Second, the big question: How does a more fragmented application process help poor kids who are already intimidated by the complexity of the admission process?  I’m scratching my head on that one; I just don’t see it, and neither does a single high school counselor I’ve spoken to today.
  • The concern–like I have with the 568 Group–that this is a price-fixing scheme.  Will there be common needs analysis, or will competition (which only helps the student, despite what many tell you) reign supreme?
  • Finally, my feeling that this is mostly a public relations ploy by institutions who have come under some heat lately for not enrolling low-income students in great numbers.  In fact, the initial press release, coming from a public relations consultant, rather than one of the members only adds to my suspicion.

In my presentation yesterday, during which I touched briefly on a few of these points, I mentioned this group was acting more like a cartel (designed to limit competition and fix price) than a coalition.

I might be 100% wrong about all of this, of course.  But I’d like to see something other than aphorisms before admitting it.

When Harvard becomes a purple giraffe

One of the very first posts I put on my other blog–the one focused on higher education data–was about the Claremont McKenna test score reporting scandal.  You can take a look at it here if you’d like a summary of the data.  At the time, I thought the difference between the actual scores (which many colleges would love to be able to report) and the reported scores (which even more would want to report) was pretty tiny.  Hardly worth it.

But I think one of the reasons people obsess over things like average test scores and admission rates is precisely because they have something Robert Sternberg has called, “The illusion of precision.”  This gets exacerbated when, in the case of CMC, for instance, the perception that tiny changes in the numbers can cause you to fall out of the top 10 into the god-forsaken land of 11 or 12.

It’s just one of the things that adds to confusion and, probably, stress, among everyone associated with college admissions.  That includes parents, students, admissions officers, and high school and independent counselors.

What’s really interesting, though, is that we’re doing it all wrong, at least in the case of test scores.  This is not a post about the value of standardized testing in admissions; I’ve already expressed my opinion about that.  Instead, this is a little bit about numbers, and the types of numbers used in research as variables. You may remember these as nominal, ordinal, interval, and ratio.

A nominal variable is not really a number: It just looks like one.  Mickey Mantle’s 7, or ZIP Code 90210.  You can’t really do anything with these “numbers.”  For instance, if the Cubs infielders word 10, 11, 18, and 14 (Santo, Kessinger, Beckert, and Banks), you can’t really say the average infielder wore number 13.25. And if you had a million records in a census file, trying to average ZIP codes might give you a number, but it wouldn’t mean anything: ZIP codes are just labels that look like numbers.

Then, there are ordinal numbers, used to rank things.  “The Cubs finished 4th in the Division.”  “Mary was the (1st) tallest girl in the class.”

 

People get into trouble all the time using ordinal numbers, because there is some sense to them.  A team that finishes first is better than one who finishes third.  In a room of 19 men, the tallest man in the room is taller than the fourth-tallest man in the room.  But if you try to average 1st, 2nd, 3rd….19th, you’ll always get 10.  And it doesn’t matter if you have the Chicago Bulls in one room and the Wizard of Oz Munchkins in another.  The average of ranks will always be 10 in a room of 19.

This also happens with survey data.  Suppose you ask two questions, and ask people to respond on a scale of 1-to-5, where 1 means “not at all,” and 5 means “a whole lot.” :

  • How much do you like cupcakes?
  • How much do you like sardines?

You might find that the average response is 4.8 for cupcakes and 2.4 for sardines.  But despite those results, it does not mean that people like cupcakes twice as much as sardines. The numbers are just ordinal, essentially meaningless for precise comparisons (it is safe to say, however, that people would, in this example, like cupcakes more than sardines.  I know I do.)

Interval variables and ratio variables are more like the numbers you think of all the time.  Getting four hits in a baseball game means you had four times the number of hits of the guy who got one; it also means you have three more hits than he got.  Buying six bananas means you bought twice as many as the person who bought three.

 

Here’s the shocker, though: People average test scores all the time, even though they’re ordinal values.

Go to this link and look at the table.  These are percentile scores for each possible composite score.  You’ll see that a 30 represents a score in the 95th percentile, which means 95% of all test takers scored at or below 30.  And that a 20 represents a score in the 49th percentile, and so on.  If you average the 30 and the 20, you get 25, which is the 79th percentile, not the average of the 95th and the 49th percentile (which would be 72.5).

The point, of course, is that a 30 has a higher score than a 20, but that it’s meaningless to say it’s “10 better.”  And moving your score from a 19 to a 29 is a much bigger percentile gain than from a 25 to a 35.  They’re numbers we expect to make sense as numbers, but they don’t.

What does all this mean? In short, colleges and students are focused on numbers that are not nearly as meaningful as we might think they are.  The same can be said of admission rates, which can be manipulated in a variety of ways, so much so that people obsess over differences that are essentially meaningless.

Could we have a simple solution? Maybe (assuming you can’t wave a magic wand to make the crazy go away.)

What if test score ranges and admit rates were renamed and grouped into categories?  We could name the categories by letter, animal, color, or anything, even a number if we wanted to.  So Harvard is now a Green on Test Scores and an A on selectivity; DePaul is now a Blue on test scores and a G on selectivity; or Lafayette is a Purple D; Columbia College (there are a lot of Columbia Colleges, so no one’s going to get mad at me here) is a Yellow M.

We’d still have a hierarchy, of course, because that isn’t going away any time soon.  And colleges who are right on the cusp of moving up or down are probably still going to focus on attempting to move up or avoiding moving down.  Of course, the obsessive will always be with us, and will want to know whether your admission rate was 9.8% or 10.1%.  But possibly, some of the bad stuff will go away, or least begin to be less important in the larger educational context.

But if we change some of our language, if we admit that these numbers are not as precise as they seem, we might make a small step toward a more rational, reasonable, discussion of ranking colleges and universities.

What do you think?

 

On Undermatching

About July 28th, I was asked to participate on an August 4th panel at The American Enterprise Institute, a think tank in DC, to react to two papers presented at their invitation-only conference, Matching all students to post secondary opportunities: How college choice is influenced by institutional, state, and federal policy.  With just a week to prepare, I juggled some schedule commitments and agreed to participate.

The premise of the conference was to move away from the traditional discussion of “undermatch,” which was made popular by a University of Chicago report on the Chicago Public Schools.  Since then, many definitions of undermatch have surfaced, but essentially the issue focuses on high-achieving, low-income students who don’t apply to, or don’t attend the most selective institutions they should consider or were admitted to, respectively.  It was hoped we could focus on a larger group, rather than just the very high-ability, very low-income student, to encompass a discussion of the fatter part of the bell curve, and to expand our focus on the undermatch problem.

College access and expanding opportunity are hard things to wrestle with and to get your head around, as I’ve written here and, in case you don’t have a subscription to the Chronicle, which I’ve expanded upon here.  But I’m always happy to engage in the discussion. I think it’s vitally important.

My conference role was to react to two papers, one written by Lindsay Page and Jennifer Iriti of the University of Pittsburgh, and one by Michael Bastedo of the University of Michigan. You can read the Bastedo paper, titled Enrollment management and the low-income student here. The Iriti/Page paper, titled On Undermatch and College Cost: A Case Study of the Pittsburgh Promise is not yet posted on the site.

I thought both papers were very good, although I’m not a researcher or an academic per se (or, per anything, actually). And, in a room where I literally (and I do mean literally) could not swing a dead cat by the tail without hitting an economist, I felt a bit like the guy who lifts his bowl and slurps his soup at a dinner with the Queen of England.

The Page/Iriti paper reports the effects of “The Pittsburgh Promise” on college attendance by students who graduate from the Pittsburgh Public Schools (PPS).  And the effect seems significant, if I may summarize: Students are both more likely to attend college, and appear to be more likely to consider and apply to “reach” schools when they know that as much as $10,000 annually is available to assist them. This is very interesting, of course, and it’s nice to have the research to back our intuition on it; I suspect at some point the costs and the economic benefits of the returns will have to be compared. Additionally, as I pointed out on the panel, this trend is even more compelling in light of the national trends that show college attendance of recent high school graduates is down over the same period.

The Bastedo paper is as good an understanding of enrollment management and the explicit trade-offs as I’ve seen from a non-practitioner. There were two critical points that were spot-on: First, that if we were suddenly able to change behavior among students–that is, if all eligible students applied to college, and especially if they applied to colleges they’re “matched” with–less will change than we think.  Capacity in higher education is generally fixed, and when it comes to enrolling poor students who need a lot of aid, it’s very constrained. It’s thus unlikely the pie is going to get bigger; that is, absent any fundamental shift in philosophy among the most selective institutions, we won’t see larger numbers of low-income or first generation students admitted to these places, as doing so to a much greater extent would not be in those college’s best interest.  Second, I was pleased to read his agreement with my long-standing belief that virtually every single factor in the admissions process is stacked against low-income students.

The format was supposed to be 5-7 minute summaries of the paper by the author, and then 5-7 minute reactions from me and the other panelist, Lesley Turner of the University of Maryland. Time has a way of getting away from people who are excited about their work, of course, and 34 minutes in, I was still waiting to go.  Needing to leave some time for Professor Turner and for questions, I ended up collapsing my remarks a bit in light of the time constraints, and in light of some excellent points made in a prior panel by Awilda Rodriguez of The University of Michigan, who had already pointed out in an earlier panel that many factors determine whether or not a student matches with the “best” institution accessible to her.

My reactions were naturally colored by my own initial thoughts about the term “undermatching,” as well as a very informal poll of fellow practitioners in college admissions, including the college, the high school, and the independent counseling fields. I started with two anecdotes: First, as the child of two parents who never even attended high school (not uncommon for people born in 1916 and 1917), let alone college, I told the story of my brother, who was being recruited in 1966-67 to play football for Dartmouth, but ended up enrolling at the West Des Moines Institute of Technology to study electronics.  So, undermatching is not a new concept in our family.  (And my brother did fine in life, despite the fact he turned into a Republican, which probably would have happened at Dartmouth anyway, so it may just be a genetic mutation.)

Then, I told the story of a dean of admissions at a prominent, super-selective university who told a conference audience that a) her college defined low-income as under $60,000 (while the median family income in the US is about $55,000 by the way), and b) that despite “spending all their time looking,” they discovered there “just were not enough low-income students in the US who could do the work at her university,” due to university demands like writing papers and working independently, which are apparently unique to this particular institution of higher education.  (The Astors threw a tea and cucumber sandwich party to feed the homeless, and none of them arrived, probably stopped short of the penthouse by the security guard, if you’re looking for a good analogy here.)

I went on to outline my conceptual problems with “undermatch.”  First, our obsession with defining colleges as “selective” and summarizing everything one presumably needs to know in that one term.  I know the Hoxby and Avery study that suggests poor kids are better off going to the most selective institution they can is the flavor of the month in this discussion, and I expect another report to come along at some point debunking it (that’s the way research works, of course). But regardless, I opined that “selective,” “high median scores,” and “high graduation rates,” are essentially the same thing, as I’ve tried to point out on my other blog.  While people with academic pedigrees see these as attractive traits that should be pursued at all costs, it’s just as likely students from low-income, first-generation families, especially those from non-majority populations, see these traits as markers of white, privileged, foreboding, exclusionary, and, of course, unwelcoming.

Further, the Hoxby and Avery study points out that poor students at highly selective colleges do well because their net cost is often very low.  Of course, highly selective colleges can afford to be generous because (think about it) they have fewer very low-income students in the first place. (I feel compelled to point out that Harvard is actually to be commended for this; I think they rise above the rest in their efforts.)

Additionally, something as simple as distance, and the cost of traveling several states away; or the perceived need to work to support the family, can all play into choice formation and final choice. Additionally,lots of anecdotal evidence suggests culture fit is just as much an issue as academic fit in happiness and graduation. Students may stay at a university because they feel their only chance is to tough it out; that does not mean they’re happy there.  Switching costs from an Ivy can be quite high.

In reality, “selective,” “high test scores,” and “high graduation rates,” combine to mean that the admissions offices at these places take virtually no risks in deciding whom they should admit.  Using test scores as a definition of intelligence or college-readiness only exacerbates this problem, as indicated by this chart of ACT scores, broken out by ethnicity and self-reported family income.  As Professor Bastedo recalled his observations of admissions officers who zeroed in on an applicant’s single application flaw and pronounced the student “incapable of doing the work here,” (based on nothing other than a whim), I thought to myself that test scores serve as the easiest, quickest, most quantitative way to justify this bias.

Some research on this topic seems to overlook these realities.  Yet almost unanimously, the practitioners I spoke to mentioned that “match” is only half the battle; that elusive, non-quantifiable quality called, “fit” is the other.  If it were not, I argued, we might as well tell students to go to prom with the most attractive person who offers; to marry the wealthiest person they can, or to buy the car with the most horsepower. We presume “the best” is measured by an input, and further assume that this will make people happy, despite our experience to the contrary.

Overlooked in all this is demonstrated by a single chart in the Page and Iriti paper: Of those whose qualifications matched them to a four-year, about 58% matched appropriately; about 7% undermatched; and about 38% did not attend college at all. The longest-standing problem, Unmatch, unable to attract much of the spotlight after all these years, doesn’t get the attention, while the new, sexier, more interesting problem with a name, Undermatch, gets the press.

Some of the proposed remedies to undermatch and unmatch focus on information channels, some on state and federal policy, some on aid allocation.

Too little, I fear, focuses on the other agent in the matching game: The colleges themselves, and the fundamentally broken admissions process that has remained unchanged in decades, and is still shrouded in mystery, especially at “the best” colleges, and especially to those who need to understand it the most if anything is to change.

I’ve suggested lots of ways to make that happen.  What do you think?

An Accidental Attack on the SAT and ACT

You may have read or heard recently that more than 60 organizations have combined to file a complaint with the federal government against Harvard University, alleging that Harvard discriminates against Asian applicants.  And this is not the first time the issue has been raised, of course; late last year a suit was filed in federal court alleging the same thing of Harvard and several other institutions.  The federal suit, however, appears to be a circuitous route to end what the plaintiffs call, “affirmative action,” all together, which was the point of several prior lawsuits going back to the 1970’s (putting aside the fact that Affirmative Action, a specific legal term used to designate programs designed to address past incidents of illegal racial bias, is different than using race as a factor in admissions.)

Interestingly enough, just this morning, the US Supreme Court agreed to hear arguments about the constitutionality of using race at all in admissions, subsequent to its early decision to send Fisher v. Texas back to the 5th Circuit Court. Thus, at the same time Harvard is being accused of ignoring test scores to deny applicants, The University of Texas (like the University of Michigan before it) is being accused of ignoring test scores to admit applicants. Beautifully ironic, isn’t it?

The arguments are similar, it seems, and boil down to one thing: The standardized test scores (usually the SAT) of applicants. Two groups are thus attacking the admissions process from different sides, and with different agendas, held together with a common linchpin: The belief that, “I was more qualified because my test scores were higher.”

See this chart, which shows the relationship between ethnicity and test scores (orange is higher).  However, the chart also shows a strong relationship between test scores and income, which may hurt the case of some of the well funded conservative think tanks behind many of the lawsuits in recent memory (the data are pretty close approximations based on extracts from the ACT EIS Program). Click the image for a larger view.

ScreenHunter_45 Jun. 29 13.59

Do you see an easy out here?  I do.  Colleges who eliminate the requirement of a standardized test eliminate one of the plaintiff’s main arguments.  Of course, then the problem becomes distinguishing between and among the very high achieving students who have perfect GPAs and lots of impressive accomplishments.  That’s clearly another problem all together, but it can make the case for holistic admissions as it’s currently done even stronger. And it’s likely to open the flood gates of applications from excellent students who never thought their scores were good enough.  The question becomes whether you want to keep your old problems or deal with newer, exciting ones.

No one would ever expect the super-selective institutions to eliminate standardized tests on their own, despite lots of research that suggests the extent to which they help a university make better decisions is negligible. The simple fact is that these institutions have too much to lose by doing so, and the risk is too large for any one of them to do it alone. But the federal government telling them they can’t do admissions the way they’ve always done it, which could set off a series of decisions all at once, just might do the trick.

What do you think?

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?