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?

Looking Back on 32 Years in the Business

On May 1, 2015, I’m doing a panel at IACAC on changes I’ve seen in college admissions. This is a summary of my talk there.

Sometime in early December, I’ll mark 32 years of working in college admissions and enrollment management.  I don’t remember the exact date, but it was the 1st or 2nd or maybe the 5th.  It’s interesting to see how things have changed over that time.

What’s most remarkable to me, I suppose, is that I ended up doing admissions work in the first place. When I graduated from college in December, 1982, the economy was in pretty bad shape, and jobs were not abundant.  I took my first job out of college several months after I graduated because my student loans were going to be coming due: The $3,500 I had borrowed came to $52.79 per month for seven years. Funny the things you remember.

That job was perhaps the worst thing I could have imagined for myself: Selling cable TV door-to-door in my hometown, a city where everyone had cable because of the hills and the distance to broadcast stations. In 1983, when cable was still new in most places, my town had been wired for over 25 years.  So my job was not just to get new subscribers (although there were always a few holdouts on the west side of town who could manage with just an antenna) but to get people to upgrade to the new services, HBO and Showtime among them.

On the MBTI scale, I’m an overwhelming introvert (an INTJ, if you must know), so initiating conversations with total strangers, acting artificially enthusiastic about a product I didn’t really care about, and persuading people to spend more than they’d like to spend was not my bag.  I was always relieved when no one answered the door.

One day I figured that if I wasn’t suited for the job, I could make the job suit me.  I drove past apartment buildings in low-lying areas, wrote down the addresses, and headed back to the office to look them up. I noticed that the majority of units didn’t have cable.  This made sense, because the installers hated disconnecting service when people moved out, because they just assumed the new tenants would call for cable, and they’d have to hook it up again.

But of course, many of them didn’t bother to subscribe with “free cable TV” in the apartment.

So I just took the list, went door to door, and found most people watching cable TV when they answered the door.  I told them we had not cut it off, but would in the next few days unless they signed up.  Most felt guilty and did so right away, buying expensive packages. A few did not, but called back when they were cut off.

And I was salesman of the month. Twice.  Me, the guy who’d do anything other than talk to people. But it still wasn’t my bag.  One day I read a want ad for an admissions counselor at Mount Mercy College in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.  I knew instantly that I would like the job, even though it involved being social and talking to people, because I had learned that I could make any job suit me.

I got lucky.  The low salary ($11,000) coupled with the timing of an off-cycle opening in admissions worked for me and I started the job.  My first trip was to Red Wing, Minnesota, and I remember the first student I met on the job; her name was Renee (I remember her last name, too, but printing it would be creepy, I think), and she did not enroll in my college. The trip back to Mason City, Iowa to overnight in the Clear Lake Lodge (not far from where Buddy Holly was killed) was in a blinding blizzard. I watched Best Friends with Goldie Hawn and Burt Reynolds on HBO and then Quest for Fire while eating a delivery pizza.  And I remember my first visit the next morning at Clear Lake High School, but not much more than that.  After about 1,300 nights in hotels, you tend to forget a lot of them.

I did the same thing in my admissions jobs that I had done in my cable TV job; overcoming my (lack of) personality by focusing on doing the things I could do well.  And that meant a lot of research (if I had to talk to people, I wanted to talk to those who were interested) and a lot of letter writing.  To this day, it still bugs me when I see a letter to one of my kids that says, “…if you have not visited campus,” because I think they should know that and not be so lazy as to not customize the letter.

I liked the travel of admissions, mostly the long hours spent in the car by myself, punctuated with some human interaction and an occasional reunion with people I’d met at college fairs. Along the way I learned a little bit about how computers worked, and fought a losing battle to input high school codes instead of free-form texts into our computer system, so that when the time came to run a list (overnight, so you had better get it right), you could pull on a precise field.  Most important, I did something called a funnel analysis: With index cards, pencils, green bar paper, and a calculator.  And as I read those cards, scribbled the numbers into columns, added, divided, and manually cross tabbed the data, patterns emerged.  Patterns that could help me do my job better.  And that learning made all the difference in my career, I think.

I took my skills to other jobs (cue the LeBron James tape): The University of Dallas; Grinnell, and St. Bonaventure, along with a consulting stop where I learned most admissions people don’t like data and most don’t like someone telling them they should like data.  I also learned people that hire consultants are usually the ones least capable of accepting advice. Or maybe it was just me.  I am not always the most patient person in the world.

And now, for the last 12 years, DePaul. It seems like a long time, and it also has flown by quickly.

What’s changed?  A lot, of course.  There are some obvious things:

  • We traveled with maps, not GPS.  In small towns on my beat in Northwestern Iowa, you found the high school by looking for the football stadium lights, and you found the front door by looking for the flagpole.  You learned most people who had lived in a town all their lives couldn’t really tell you how to get to the high school.
  • We did it without cell phones; you had an ATT card to make calls from the office, and when you did call in, it was usually to get one or two messages.  No email, of course, but even if there were, there would have been no way to get it from the road
  • When it came time to eat, you’d likely end up at Jim’s Steakhouse, or Ma’s Diner.  As recently as 25 years ago, chain restaurants were not always in the cities where you were.  No Panera.  And McDonald’s did not and could not print a receipt.

But those things are not changes in admission; they’re changes in society.  Admissions has changed, too, in a lot of ways.

  • It used to be the admissions rep and the high school counselor were acting like parents in the best interests of the student.  Now, it seems, it’s a three-way game, and parents are more a part of the equation.  If we used to pride ourselves on cooperation, we still do, but the balance has shifted slightly–maybe more than slightly–toward adversarial.
  • We’re learning more about the role of standardized tests not just in admissions, but in society, and how they affect our schools and our children.  One Chicago public school teacher I know said he spends 15% of his time giving or prepping students for tests mandated by the state.  People who’ve never taught don’t trust people who do, anymore, and they demand accountability, regardless of what the tests predict or fail to predict.
  • Colleges are far more aware of the needs of students, and appreciative of how diversity makes for a better educational experience.  In 1983, few students would dare ask about a college’s treatment of gay and lesbian students; the idea of multi-racial had not become a part of common conversation; and unfortunately, I’m afraid a lot of students with learning disabilities were overlooked because we just didn’t understand what we were dealing with.
  • We have become a nation obsessed by prestige, due, I think, to a misunderstanding of cause and effect: It’s not that a super selective college turns out successful people; it’s that people who, by accident of birth or some genetic advantage, gain admission to the most selective institutions.  Those colleges do a fine job of making a silk purse out of silk when they’re not fighting each other over the small pool of elite students.
  • We’re also far less trusting that we used to be; information is now abundant, but it’s less reliable.  The internet has no editors, and yet it has millions.  Someone is always there to argue your point, and if you’re part of the established institutions of society, the pressure is higher than it’s ever been on you to be truthful, and especially, completely truthful.
  • We’ve also become a victim of our own rhetoric.  College probably isn’t the most important choice a young person makes.  We were just sort of trying to make a point.
  • The colleges are not in control of anything any more.  In 1983, if you wanted information about a college, you could either a) talk to someone you knew personally, or b) contact the admissions office to get it.  Now, of course, you can go on one of a hundred or more sites where opinions are plentiful, if insight is not.  You can watch YouTube videos produced by the colleges (slick and pretty) or a kid from Kansas on tour (neither, yet perhaps more believable.) You can browse the college’s own site and get biased takes on the value of education.
  • Everything is instant. Except the things most students really want or need, like how much college will cost, or whether they’ll be admitted.
  • Data is more important than ever, and we haven’t changed who we hire.  We attract, young eager, warm, fuzzy people people who enjoy working one-on-one with students; but then we wonder why they leave as career progression requires strategy, systems-thinking, and data analysis.
  • Most important, I think, is that people now pay attention to higher education.  When I used to tell people at parties I worked in admissions, they’d sort of nod and try to sell me insurance.  Now, they want to know the angles, how we work, what we do, and the insider secrets.  I remember taking a Wall Street Journal survey in the late 1990s and telling them they should have an “industry section” on higher education.  I don’t know if I’m the reason, but the media now pays a lot of attention to us.  And of course, the media doesn’t report that no planes crashed yesterday, and they don’t report that the average college student in the US pays under $10,000 a year for tuition.  A COA of $60,000 generates more clicks, more ad revenue, and more attention.

What hasn’t changed, I think, is the value of a college degree despite the focus of the pundits who are questioning it.  My most popular post on this blog is still this one, where John Ciardi’s lesson from over 60 years ago still holds true.

My wish for us is that we take control of the future that awaits us, and think about what happens to us and the college admissions process if we don’t.



A little admission would help admissions

Fair warning: This is an intellectual exercise in which you may have to throw out some of your most long-held beliefs.  Be careful!  Stop now if you’re unwilling to consider this modest proposal.

I’m a novice when it comes to the study of game theory.  It’s always been very interesting to me, although even in its moderately advanced forms, it goes over my head in a hurry.  Shakespeare said that all the world’s a stage; but the more I think about it, the more I believe that all the world is a game: An interaction between players attempting to get to the best outcome for themselves.  Game theory studies these game interactions.

A most simple definition of game theory is “a study of mathematical models of conflict and cooperation between intelligent and rational decision makers.”  Every interaction that can be studied like this is a game. It can be football, or chess, or parcheesi, or dating, or trying to figure out whom you should ask to the prom.  You have to decide what moves to make to get to your desired outcome, and you have to weigh the tradeoffs of each choice you make.

When I call college admissions a game, lots of people get upset, because they think it borders on the sacrilegious to compare something so important to something so trivial, like Monopoly or Clue. But it’s clear we have at least two, and maybe three or more, sides engaged in attempting to either win the game, or since admissions is really millions of games in one system, maximize the outcome of the games.

So, a simple admission that admissions is a game could go a long way toward fixing it, at least where it needs fixing, namely at our most selective institutions, where admissions rates are in the single digits and each admissions year leaves egos of previously perfect students fractured. It would also help at most other colleges and universities, too, however, even where the game is already pretty fair: The overwhelming majority of colleges admit well over half of their applicants, and yield about the right number to come close to making their class every year. Let me explain why an admission could fix admissions almost everywhere.

Two things happened this week that caused me to think about this.  The first is the announcement by the Common Application that they would allow members to ask applicants to list the other schools to which they are applying.  This set off an explosion of discussion on the NACAC e-list (from which I’ve now unsubscribed…I just can’t take the drama any more) and even in a Facebook group for college admissions people.

Those opposed to asking the question think it should be none of the college’s business, and that answering the question poses undue stress on students about “how to answer it.”  (The answer to that last question would be, “truthfully,” in my humble opinion.)  The overwrought reaction to one question on an application that some colleges ask seemed out of proportion, especially in light of some of the other things going on in the admissions process.  But essentially, people are saying, “The rules of the game are unfair, and since I don’t understand them, I would like them changed.”  And that’s understandable, albeit a tacit admission that admissions is, in fact, a game.

The second is an article posted on a Facebook group in which it was revealed that seniors at a Camden, New Jersey charter school averaged 45 applications each. One student applied to 70.  Everyone thinks that’s way too many, but if kids believe their chances are slim, I don’t blame them one bit. They’re just playing the game, and attempting to get to the best outcome for them.  Of course, now that the school has revealed their strategy, one has to wonder how the other players will react next year.  I think they’ve made a mistake in this particular game by revealing this publicly.

So, I thought, how could understanding this game allow us to change the rules to benefit both sides.  What if each side gave something up to get something it wanted more: Could the game be made better?

Consider: What if the question, “To which other schools are you applying?” was mandatory, or what if the information was available to colleges?  At first, some people might think this is travesty, but play the game forward:  If everyone provided, and all colleges collected this information, the ones who become advantaged are the ones are making more serious applications to fewer places; the ones who become disadvantaged are the ones who are applying all over the place, or those who are “trophy hunting,”  theoretically taking slots away from those who want and perhaps deserve it more. Most colleges would be able to admit many more of the students who are serious about their college, while denying greater numbers of those who are not. (Harvard could probably not take any more, because their yield rate is already extraordinarily high.  Others, even Stanford, perhaps could).

Maybe, just maybe, the annoying-to-everyone-who-doesn’t-use-them Fast Apps might go away, as they are no longer advantageous for colleges.  And what if, a few years in, we do the research and determine that students optimize their chances for admission to a top choice when they apply to five or fewer colleges when cross application information is shared?  Admit rates go up, which makes students happy.  Yield rates go up, which makes colleges happy.  It’s a better game.

In a game, both sides have the opportunity to play better with better information.  Admissions is a special game, in which we try to get to the best outcome for all parties involved, while individual agents attempt to produce a maximum outcome.  It can’t always work for every single student, or every single college, of course.  But I think it could be better.

What do you think?

The Death of “Merit Aid?”

No, don’t worry.  Merit aid is probably not going away.

But perhaps–maybe–the term “merit aid” could go away.

For years, journalists and other self-proclaimed higher ed wonks have bemoaned the growth in non-need based aid, somehow thinking that financial aid was a pot of money from which dollars were extracted. These types have become fond of leaping to the conclusion that a dollar spent on aid to “someone who doesn’t need it” represented a dollar less to give to someone who “needed it” and have concluded that this is why poor kids don’t go to college. And thus, all non-need based aid was labeled merit aid.

If you don’t work in higher education, you could be forgiven for thinking this.

In fact, with a few exceptions for the endowed scholarship funds that represent a tiny fraction of total institutional aid awarded, financial aid is a contra revenue.  You can’t “spend” it unless it’s backed up by a revenue transaction coming in. When your tuition is $40,000 and you offer a $10,000 scholarship, it just means you’ve agreed to educate that student for $30,000, usually because you have reason to believe she won’t enroll at $40,000.  In other words, 75% of something is better than 100% of nothing, assuming you have capacity, and enrollment on the margin doesn’t kick off additional expenditures greater than the incremental revenue.

Before tuition started increasing rapidly at the same time family incomes started falling (be sure to set the year filter on this visualization to about 2000), a lot more families could afford college.  Those who couldn’t had to fill out a fairly simple form to determine EFC, or Expected Family Contribution.  The gap between the cost of college and your EFC was how much financial aid you “needed.”  Only one problem, though: The thing right in the middle of the equation, that EFC figure, is pretty meaningless, or perhaps just not very precise. Like the “Peacekeeper Missile,” EFC was a label slapped on to deceive. In fact, it never really meant “Expected Family Contribution;” it was always simply a government index number designed to predict and control federal expenditures.

For years, this was perpetuated by the Overlap Group, a collection of colleges that shared information about applicants in an attempt to determine a common EFC for need calculations. This noble effort, they claimed, was intended to level the playing field and allow students to choose based on the “right fit” rather than costs.  Many people, including me and attorneys in the Justice Department thought it was price fixing, designed to eliminate competition. It no longer exists in its old form.

But if the group has had any lingering effects (other than the 568 Group) it’s that people believe “need” is intelligently and fairly codified. It’s not.  As I’ve written about on my data blog, the federal formula seems logical in its overall pattern, but is nothing short of bizarre in the details.  On average, if you make $185,000 per year and have one student in college, you have no “need,” and the first dollar of financial aid is often characterized as “merit aid.”  To most families who have incomes in this range, the idea is absurd, and they often believe the “merit aid” is what they “need” to make a private college affordable.

Thus, Stanford’s new policy of no tuition for families who make under $125,000 per year is interesting, as are the similar policies at Harvard and other super-selective institutions.  I want to be clear that I applaud these initiatives, and while students from these families may not get the same breaks in the admissions process as wealthier students, it’s hard to argue that this doesn’t make sense, even though someone has tried.

But if you scratch the surface just a bit, you see something interesting: In acknowledging that families cannot afford Stanford or Harvard despite what the EFC (or the Profile) formula says, these two institutions, always leading the charge of institutions who proudly proclaimed they only awarded aid based on “need” have done us all a favor.  (You could, of course, be cynical and argue that these policies are simply designed to grow applications from the bottom 80% of family incomes, in order to get even more selective, and that the arms race hurts us all, but for once, I’m going non-cynical here.)

Two institutions that matter, two institutions who get attention, have, by the classic definition, started awarding aid based on something other than need.  Historically, that’s been called “merit aid.”

In an upcoming Journal of College Admission, I write about Terms of Endearment, and include references to both need- and merit aid. I hope they go away.  And perhaps this is what we need to make it happen.  Keep your fingers crossed.