The Admissions Industry Owes Students an Apology

Or maybe I should say a second apology.  And there will probably be more to come.

I had previously written an apology about how well-meaning admissions officers of my era contributed to the collective angst of a generation by using and repeating the phrase “choosing a college is one of the most important choices you’ll ever make.”  It sounds nice, and may wake up a kid or two, but it’s really not true.  Certainly choosing a college will affect friends, relationships, jobs, and untold other things; but there is no way to tell which choice is the best, no way to tell how things might have been if you’d chosen otherwise, and no reason to agonize over it at age 17.

But in the past few weeks  a couple of things happened.  Kent Barnds at Augustana wrote a blog post that talked about college admissions and big data and compared recent coverage of the NSA issue to college admissions.  In that post was a comment about how colleges can use FAFSA data to determine what college in a student’s list is “top of mind” based on the order the student or parent lists the colleges.

On a Facebook group for College Admissions Officers and Counselors and the NACAC e-list, Independent College Consultant Nancy Griesemer objected strongly.  I responded with a reminder that this is not new (it’s at least 30 years old and probably older) and that it can only be used against students at 50 or so colleges, although they are the 50 or so everyone obsesses over.  Still, I can see that it might add to student and parent stress.

Then, the Chronicle of Higher Education posted an excellent piece about measuring merit in college admissions, and referenced the term “black box” of selective college admission.  The Chronicl article is worth a read: I’ve long believed that the basis of much of our legal difficulty lies in the premise that “Qualified for Admission” means just GPA and test scores.

And finally I was asked to speak to the Common Application Board of Directors about issues in College Admission, and offered a few opinions about how they might make things better for colleges and applicants at the same time.  It’s a good group of thoughtful, future-focused people, and I had a nice time.  If I were King of Admissions, I said, we’d have a central application clearing house.  Every high school would have the same transcript and profile.  And we’d have the Coca-Cola National College Fairs, because for-profit companies know how to get messages to poor kids better than we do.

But during my talk, I uttered an off-the-cuff comment: “We all have to admit that complexity in our profession is good for business. A lot of people would be unemployed if college admission were more transparent and easier to understand and less stressful.”

There you have it.  As much as people like to complain about the stress and strain the complexity of the admissions process imposes on students, it’s a form of job security.  And this is true for admissions officers at colleges, high school counselors, and independent counselors as well.  It’s true for people who write about it; true for people who run websites to commiserate about the process.   Things are unlikely to change from inside the profession: As Upton Sinclair once said, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his job depends on not understanding it.”

So, students, if you want change, I fear it might have to start with you.  I’m sorry about the reality, and sorry about having to be the one to break it to you.  But maybe one of you or some of you will be at the forefront of change in how we think about and do college admissions.


What I Learned by Writing for the CHE

I like to write, and I especially like to tweet and blog, because I can dash off some thoughts without too much concern about getting it just perfect.  Most of what I put here is essentially a first draft, sometimes with a quick review for grammar, spelling, parallel construction, dangling  antecedents and other obvious mistakes.  It’s not a living, just a hobby.

But a while ago, I was contacted by the Chronicle of Higher Education, and asked to do a piece on my idea for a National  Clearinghouse  for undergraduate admissions.  Admittedly flattered, and eager for people in higher education and the admissions profession to engage in thoughtful discussion about some of our challenges, I accepted.  I went over the alloted word count by at least 40%, but the people at the Chronicle squeezed it in, and even deemed it worthy of their print version.

I spent a lot of time on it, yet there is a lot I’d change; sentences seem too short or too long, I see periods that should be semicolons, and in some areas, it doesn’t  sound like I sound in my head.  It seems the longer I spend on a piece, the worse it gets.  Reason #1 I don’t write for a living.

But the biggest surprise to me was the reaction online.  On The Facebook page for College Admissions Professionals, the feedback was positive: 25 likes and some good comments.  This is to be expected, of course, as no one wants to make an ass of himself in front of colleagues.  I also got some good replies from the NACAC Exchange list, as well as personal messages from people I knew.  Same thing; positive for the most part.  High School counselors seemed enamored of the line about the lottery. I was also glad to get a few respectful and thoughtful dissents, which I think are actually more helpful than agreements.  And I got a lot of people interested in how we make this all happen.  Some of them had financial interest in doing so.

On the Chronicle site, however, the comments were odd, to say the least: They centered on bias against Asians, how admissions can’t be humanized with databases, how everyone should not go to college, how this is really about how we should not participate in USNWR rankings, and how I put our rankings on our website.  (I don’t put things on the DePaul website, by the way.) There was also some banter about how all private colleges are evil because some used to have Jewish quotas, and how the UK system could never work here, and how kids are too pampered today.

Only a few actually seemed to be comments about what I wrote.  As a still-abstract idea, I obviously think it has some merit. I also think there would be some problems, not the least of which would be that the entities with financial interest in the current system would almost certainly spend a lot of money to make sure they had financial interests in the new system.  I would have hoped people could have commented on that.  I would have hoped for some real, thoughtful, passionate disagreement. I guess this is reason #2 I don’t write for a living; I don’t seem to make my point very well. (All this presumes, of course, that I have talent enough to write for a living; and as I learned from old Perry Mason reruns, you can’t submit into evidence assumptions not proved.)

I get that this is how the Internet works.  But at the same time, this is the Chronicle of Higher Education; in order to post on the site, you need to have a subscription to the Chronicle of Higher Education, which, I hope, means you have some real interest in the topic.  Yet the article simply became an opportunity for people to post their prepackaged issues in public.

I have often bemoaned the tendency of admissions people to avoid abstract conversations because they might cause some disagreement.  I’ve even been told publicly by the NACAC President that I was wrong to encourage some difficult discussions in the name of collegiality.

But I still believe it’s important for people in higher education today to challenge assumptions, to adapt to change, and to make things better for the students we serve.  They’re presumably why we’re here.  That’s the right reason.  The wrong reason is that if we don’t engage in these discussions, people from the outside–people with legitimate interests but no experience–will pick up the reigns and do it to us.



Random Thoughts on May 1

Have you heard?  It’s the end of April, which means it’s almost May 1.  If you don’t know what that means, or why it’s so important to people like me, you’re not in admissions or enrollment management or financial aid.  We all know.  And it has nothing to do with dancing around poles with streamers.

May 1 is the traditional “National Candidates (sic) reply date,” a very silly name given to the date we ask students admitted to the freshman class to respond to our offer of admission.  And yet, in reality, it means very little at all to almost everyone involved in admissions.

May 1 is one of those things that might best fall under the term “Collusion.”  Of the 7,000 or so post-secondary institutions in the United States, only about 1,700 are members of NACAC, the organization has the National Candidates (sic) Reply Date embedded in its Statement of Principles of Good Practice.  They’re probably the first 1,700 you’d name, however. And by nature of our membership, we collectively agree to give students the chance to wait until May 1 to respond.  Isn’t that kind of us?

(In the old days, there were tremendous and long-standing debates about whether May 1 meant the check had to be in the admissions office on May 1, or whether it had to be in the hands of the USPS by May 1.  When I learned that the IRS didn’t even start checking postmarks on Income Tax returns until about a week after April 15, something that always seemed silly to me seemed suddenly sillier.)

Many in admissions who claim to have a student-centered view of the universe suggest that the May 1 deadline exists for the benefit of students; that it allows them ample time after admission notification arrives (sometimes as late as April 15) to make an informed decision.  The implication is clear: You should know where you want to go, and when your options come in, well, damn it, make a decision already will you?  No, it’s not hard; no, you and your parents should have talked about money long ago; no, you can’t have an extension.  And no, we cannot, under any circumstances, accelerate the reading of applications to get you your decision earlier.  (This is despite the fact that a professor at one of the Ivy League Institutions–yes, that one–that happens to run a summer program on admissions once said at this summer program in which I was in attendance that  he could pick 90% of the freshmen with a math equation.)

In reality, I opine, May 1 exists because the visible and most prestigious colleges and universities operate admissions functions that maintain long wait lists of candidates.  And anything later than May 1 means they might not fill their classes with the pick of the litter students.  But it’s ironic that the same colleges that take months to decide whether a student is worthy somehow think the student should be perfectly capable of deciding in a couple weeks.

I’ll say it again: May 1 is for the most selective colleges.  Most of us don’t fall into that category. It may, by accident, work for students at the brand-name prep schools who have been on the glide path to college forever.  It probably works fine for kids who don’t need to worry about financial aid. It certainly works for the super-selective institutions who want to be done with another cycle and take the summer off. It’s self-interest, really.

To be clear, I have nothing against self-interest.  Without it, we might not exist.  And I have nothing against powerful members of a cartel getting the cartel to codify and legislate self-interest; I work in Chicago, and that’s the Chicago way.

I do, however, object to making it seem like it’s about students.  And I react, as I almost always do, to overwrought drama that surrounds it every year.

May 1 is especially meaningless because a) most colleges and universities will consider a good candidate who applies late into the summer, and b) most of them don’t have wait lists in the first place.  But at the same time, many are afraid to even indicate this on the NACAC “Space Availability Survey” that comes out every year.  It’s sort of like the pool of kids who didn’t get a prom date coming together in a parking lot to try to hook up at the last minute; you really want to go to prom, but you don’t want to be associated with some of the desperate losers there.  (Even among kids who don’t have prom dates, there’s a pecking order, you see).

And it’s also mostly meaningless because the freshman who enters college right after high school and stays four years is the decided minority: Maybe as little as 15% of all students.  Maybe 40% of all college students are over 25; and 9% of all college students in the US attend a California Community College.  May 1 comes and goes for these people without a second thought.

For me, May 1 means I’ll be watching numbers like everyone else.  We’ve been lucky; our dance card has been full the last couple of years, but past is not necessarily prologue.  But I wish it were not the case.

And for me, May 1 marks firing season: When good colleagues lose their jobs because not enough 17 year-olds, or not enough of the right kind of 17 year-olds end up enrolling at their college.  Demographics and uncontrollable things be damned; expectations are expectations.

That count is already at four, and it’s just the ones I know about; as we all know, the number will rise over the next few days.  And it will go all summer long.  When it comes to making those decisions, there is no deadline.

The Best Way to Deal with College Rejection

I promised myself at a very young age I was not going to turn into my father.  That promise now lies tattered and torn along the primrose path of my youth and middle age.

Admissions has its cycles,  most days somewhat less dramatic than The Great Circle of Life featured in the Lion King.  Or so we’d like to think.  But this current annual part of the cycle is the one that strikes at me the most: The cycle of hand-wringing and wailing and gnashing of teeth over the rejection season.

You know the cycle: It’s April, so the most selective institutions in the country have fulfilled their destiny by slaughtering larger and larger percentages of the young lambs who dared approach their altar.  And no matter how high the slaughtered number gets, more and more lambs, somehow believing they are the chosen ones, the ones who will survive, line up for the ritual next year.  And our fascination with the rejected continues to grow, despite the fact that, as I wrote earlier, of all degree-granting, four-year colleges in the country, only about 1% of students attend one of the institutions that accepts less than 13% of applicants; 3.5% attend a college that admits less than a quarter of applicants.  And this is before we think about the community colleges in California, that enroll at 9% of all college students in the nation.

And have no doubt: The rejection stings.  That’s intrinsically true of any rejection of course, but because my generation has played up the importance of getting into the “right” college, and further advanced the collective belief that “choosing a college is the most important decision you’ll ever make,” it’s harder than it needs to be.

My first professional conference was in 1985 at AACRAO in Cincinnati, remembered mostly for two things: The only time I’ve had a pizza I didn’t like, and a presentation by Fred Hargadon, who was at the time the former Dean of Admissions at Stanford, but had not yet taken the job at Princeton.  He was asked to fill in at the last minute for someone else, so although his words were unscripted and unrehearsed, they will stay with me forever.  He said, “In all my years of doing this, I’ve only learned two things: First, that the block on which you are born determines more about where you end up in life more than anything else; and second, that if we had to choose the worst age to force someone to choose a college, it would be 17.”  He was right, on both accounts.

So, this is not about the students feeling the sting.  It’s about us.  And about my father, who believed that allowing kids to make their own mistakes, to suffer a little from them, and to learn lessons later on actually made them better people. That extended beyond mistakes, though, to all of life’s experiences: What happened to you made you who you were; a little adversity and difficulty are good things.  (By the way, thanks for that, dad, wherever you are.)

Every time I hear about the collective angst over rejected teenagers, or every time I hear adults devising ways to help them cope with the sting, I think of this:  The 200,000 kids who enlisted in WWII before their 18th birthday, many of whom fought at Iwo Jima, Guadalcanal, The Battle of Anzio, or Omaha Beach.   And I’m not even one of those flag-waving patriots who chokes up at the National Anthem.

Those kids had it tough.  Many didn’t come back, and didn’t get a chance to attend their third-choice institution.

Let’s put our arm around the shoulders of kids who got rejected.  Tell them to keep their chins up, to move on, and to realize that in the end, this will probably be considered a minor setback.  And then, let’s do the same for ourselves.

Let’s agree to knock it off, already

Admissions people, far and wide, it’s time to cool it.

In the last couple days the heat on Suzie Lee Weiss seems to have turned up.  I even got into it with a blog post about her a couple of days ago, implying, but not saying that she was a “spoiled, vapid teenager.”  My point was that the piece was really about our national obsession with the most selective colleges in the country, and she had missed an opportunity to focus on some of the many other places where she could have been happy. Since then, I’ve re-read her essay, and I think a bit differently about it.

It seems a 17 year-old kid was offered a chance through some connections (her sister was a former editor at the Wall Street Journal) to take a swing at writing to the colleges who rejected her, a sort of “screw you” piece directed at both them and the industry of admissions.  Can you blame her for trying?  I can’t.

Can we agree she failed as a writer of satire?  I think so.

Can we understand how the WSJ might have used her because a) a lot of people at the WSJ, a symbol of white economic power and entitlement, are probably  more obsessed with selective college admissions than most, and b) many of their readers are right behind?  Probably.

It is interesting to note, though: It’s pretty clear that this essay was probably edited far less, and by fewer people, than many of the essays that got kids admitted to the places that rejected Suzy.  In short, it reads like it was written by a 17-year old kid whose cerebral cortex is not yet fully developed.  Which, I’ll remind you, is perfectly normal.

Under less-than-brilliant writing, here are some points I think she makes:

  • There is no room for regular, run-of-the-mill kids at the Super Selectives.  Anyone want to argue?
  • The admissions industry tells kids to be themselves, and encourages them to apply, but kids like Suzy who might not be stellar outside the classroom really don’t stand a snowball’s chance.  Dissent?  Didn’t think so.
  • Bringing some kind of diversity to the application seems to be a “hook” in the process.  If there is even a single high school or guidance counselor who hasn’t used this exact term, please let me know.  I will write you an apology.
  • The admissions industry lies to kids.  This stings.  But I know of places that “recruit to deny” because they want to lower an admit rate ; and we all know of places that have admitted to “data reporting irregularities  over the past few years, including some big name institutions.  This is before we count Fast Apps, Snap Apps, VIP apps, and super scoring tests.  But some people hear this, and although they know it’s true, still attack Suzy’s character.
  • Finally, Suzy implies that we expect the 17 year-old kids who come to the application process to be fully actualized adults.  And the reaction of some of my peers has been proof positive that she’s right.

On a national list serve I’m on, I made some of these points.  And the response changed: She’s racist.  She’s homophobic.

I disagree, but it is easy and quick to slap a label on a kid who makes a mistake.  She said she brought no diversity to the application.  And she made a comment about coming out of the closet wearing a headdress.  I don’t know how wearing a headdress makes a young woman a lesbian, or even hints at it, and I think the association is contrived.

However, let’s just say, merely for the sake of argument, that she’s both those things.  She needs some education, and I seem to recall that we’re in the education business.  The fans of liberal arts colleges seem to forget that the Latin root of “liberal” is liberare, to free, as in freeing of the mind.

I’m glad no one asked me to put my opinions in the Wall Street Journal when I was 17.  I would have been labeled a dumb ass by Red Forman, and he would have been right.

Call off the dogs, folks.  Give the kid a break.

To All the Colleges Suzy Lee Weiss Rejected

You’ve undoubtedly heard by now about Suzy Lee Weiss, the young woman who wrote To All the Colleges That Rejected Me in the Wall Street Journal. The privileged Ms. Weiss, it seems, felt bruised and battered by the college admissions process.  Or did she?  She’s now suggesting that her article was intended as satire; indeed most people who cite it never make it to the last paragraph, in which she attempts to show that she’s just another spoiled, vapid teenager while attempting to satirize other spoiled, vapid teenagers.

Don’t worry, Suzy, Greater writers than you have had their attempts at satire misunderstood.

The reactions have come from all corners: Those who got it and complained; those who got it and applauded; those who didn’t get it and complained; and, most troubling, of course, those who didn’t get it and liked it.  If you’d like to see the full gamut of reaction, head over to College Confidential and browse the 49 pages of comments.  Or, just consider the words of former HuffPo intern Hannah Orenstein, who, acting WAY older and wiser than her presumed young age would suggest writes: “I understand that your piece was meant as satire, but it comes off as entitled and rude. No one will hand you a list of hobbies or an Ivy League acceptance letter on a platter… or anything else, for that matter. You might as well learn that lesson now or college — wherever you choose to go — will be a rude awakening. “

Easy to say for someone who doesn’t even GO to an Ivy.

Amid the noise, you all might have missed the uber-point: Why does any of this matter?  Whence comes this obsession?

Part of it, of course, is what I’ve written about before: College Admissions and the Kardashian Effect, where the process of applying to, and being accepted by the right colleges has become more important than what comes after a student enrolls.  It’s the education, stupid.  Or it should be, except we, like the Kardashians, spend more time and attention on the plans for the wedding, it seems, than on the marriage that results from it.

In some sense, I get it.  Groucho Marx once said that he wouldn’t belong to any club that would have him as a member, and it seems to be true for Ms. Weiss as well.  Based on what we know about her GPA and test scores and parental affluence, I’m guessing she would have been a shoe-in at almost all of the  more than 4,000 colleges she chose not to apply to.  Some of these colleges are probably sad, and should write a letter to her, asking her to think about choosing one of them.

Oh, wait.  They probably did. One way or another. She rejected thousands–yes, thousands–of colleges that would have loved to have her, and where she probably could have thrived and become a better writer, with a deeper appreciation about how to do satire.  And to all those colleges, I offer condolences and congratulations. I won’t name names; you know who you are.

But as is my obsession (yours, Suzy, is getting into college; mine is data visualization), I looked at 2011 IPEDS data, to see if, and how, misplaced your and our national obsession is with these name brand college.  This is what I came up with.  The image below is just a screenshot.  If you want to go to the interactive visualization, click  here.

ScreenHunter_01 Apr. 06 11.27

What you’ll see is about 1600 four-year, public and private degree-granting institutions in the US broken out by 2011 freshman admission rate.  At the far left is the 15–yes, 15–colleges that admitted less than 12.5% of freshman applicants in 2011.  Then, selectivity is broken out in bands increasing by 12.5% increments, all the way up to (gasp) 100%.

The subsequent charts show the total number of freshman applications the colleges in those bands received, how many students they enroll, what percent of the universe shown (which is not every college, of course) and then a running percentage. This is, then, what we choose to get hysterical over: 1%  of institutions, enrolling less than 1% of all undergraduates.

I’m not stupid.  I get it.  The students enrolled at these places are considered to be the best, brightest, and most motivated.  They also happen to be the wealthiest.

So, to all the colleges Suzy Lee Weiss rejected, don’t feel bad.  Perhaps some day you too will be able to lower your admission rate to the point that the Suzy Lees of the world will pursue you. Until then, hang in there.  I hear that a young healthy child well nursed is at a year old a most delicious, nourishing, and wholesome food, whether stewed, roasted, baked, or boiled.  You’ll survive.

Education and Goodhart’s Law

I don’t remember when I first heard about Goodhart’s Law, but it was probably several years ago.  But as I think about the higher education in general, and admissions specifically, it seems to be more and more relevant to our daily lives.

Goodhart’s Law was first articulated by Charles Goodhart in a 1975 paper, as “As soon as the government attempts to regulate any particular set of financial assets, these become unreliable as indicators of economic trends.”  This might have been the end of it, but Dame Ann Marilyn Strathurn (as women are wont to do) put it in clearer and more concise terms by saying,  “When a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure.”

There is a good example of the practical application of this outside higher education (ambulance response time) here.  Or, as Phil Ebersole says elegantly, “The aim is evidence-based policy.  The result is policy-based evidence.”

It used to be, of course, that admission rate was just a number; the total number of admits divided by the total number of applications.  As soon as it took on the mantel of proxy for educational quality, it became a target: Institutions believed they would be better if their admission rate was lower, so guess what?  They started to admit a lower percentage of applicants, but in a surreptitious way: Pumping fake applications into the denominator to change that measure of selectivity.

Other institutions super score ACT or SAT scores, not because it changes the quality of the class, but because people look at average test scores as important.  We could raise the average ACT of our freshman class by 1.25 points if we reported super-scores, but we don’t.  Alternatively, some colleges require submission of every set of scores the student has in her record, but only report the best ones.  Many have raising the mean test score in the freshman class as an objective.  And we see what happens when people have these goals explicitly stated: They meet them, come hell or high water.  Several high-profile institutions have admitted to “reporting irregularities.”

This happens at the trustee level, as well, where people use the discipline of accounting, a reporting function, to manage expectations going forward.  Thus, a discount rate, which is an appropriately acceptable way to measure  past performance, now becomes the target going forward, even though it’s foolish to try to keep the discount level while increasing tuition much faster than inflation and trying to increase or stabilize enrollment. (Note: This is far more complex than the slideshow suggests, but the math simply shows the folly of the attempt.)

And of course, it happens at the high school, where NCLB mandates tests to measure learning, but the learning becomes subservient to mastering the test.  The problem with us chasing our tail, of course, is that we really know no other way: How do we measure something so nebulous and so personal as learning in a standardized way?  And how do we assure taxpayers and other stakeholders that they’re getting what they pay for?

You tell me.