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.

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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.

Why the NFL has nothing to do with Higher Education

I like provocative, abstract, conceptual ideas as much as anybody.  Even absurd comparisons can sometimes be instructive.  I think this has to do with my appreciation for what Samuel Johnson called the “Metaphysical Poets,” like John Donne and Andrew Marvel.  The poets shared a flair for something Johnson called “discordia concors” or finding similarities in things that seem at first to be dissimilar.

So, I appreciate the effort Jerry Lucido at USC put forth in his paper “Lessons from the NFL for Managing College Enrollment.” A pdf version can be found here.

In case you don’t know, the NFL operates very differently from most businesses: In Hamel and Prahalad’s uber-famous article “Strategic Intent,” for instance, we learn the strategy of Komatsu was a simple, two word phrase: Encircle Caterpillar.  Canon’s objective? Beat Xerox.  In this context, “beating” means putting the other player out of business, not winning a game.  The goal of business is maximizing shareholder value, pure and simple; it’s easier to do if you have fewer competitors, or better yet, none at all.

But you can’t play football without another team to play against.  And you can’t play the same team every week without the audience losing interest, so the NFL ensures that all its teams are on sound footing by–in some very real way–limiting competition.  There is a salary cap, for one thing.  A limit to the number of players on your team, and even the practice squads.  New England Patriot haters might also remind you it’s not permitted to videotape other teams as they practice.  And most important, the NFL has revenue sharing, which means much of the money that comes to the NFL via television contracts, endorsements, and merchandising, is split equally among the teams.  The Cowboys and the Jaguars and all the other teams split that pot of money into identical shares, regardless of how well they do in any given year.

Lucido’s thoughts about  limiting competition among colleges and universities by ensuring accurate data, measuring outputs in the same way, and standardizing reply dates is noble.  I’ve written about it before, but I have a different approach to do so.  However, these are really not about the league called the NFL (to extend the analogy); they’re about the game of football.

It’s neither possible, feasible, nor even desirable to limit competition in higher education other ways, especially not in the form of rigid financial aid eligibility calculations and elimination of merit aid.  Why?  Price competition is good for students, unless you believe (and a lot of people in higher education seem to) that every college should cost the same.  The downside of price competition is that sometimes a student has to pay more for a top choice, and can’t or won’t.  The upside is that the student chooses from five or six different places that are all very different at five or six different prices.  This, as we adults have come to understand, is life in America.

But there are other reasons an NFL-type structure won’t work:

  • Each year, every NFL team tries to win the SuperBowl.  The NFL limits competition only to ensure there are games to play, money is made, and the the franchise is a good investment.  But competition within the fixed and closed system continues, and ticket sales increase when teams are more equally matched.  The league does so to maximize profits, which was the goal of Pete Rozelle’s parity principle. And this article headline sums it up pretty well.
  • There is a limit to success in the NFL: The best you can do is win the SuperBowl every year.  It’s like a 300 game in bowling; nothing is better. In higher education, there are no limits, and we’re far more than just teaching institutions.  Society benefits from the scholarship and research and other things universities do.  It can all get better, almost without limits.
  • Competition is an essential element of the NFL; without competition, there is no league.  In higher education, competition is accidental element; we don’t exist to compete, but competition is an outgrowth of trying to get better.  Unlike football, if there were only one university left, it could go on.
  • There is no NFL for higher education, and if there were, who would reap the benefits?  You could argue that the benefits are societal, and you’d be right.  But after a while, the benefits from a stagnant and moribund ecosystem decline rapidly, I think.
  • Most important, every NFL team plays the exact same game.  The 3,000 colleges and universities in the US are all playing different games, based on mission, location, resources, degree offerings, institutional resources, and aspirations.  This wide range of institutions is good for the country and the choice is good for students.

So, as I said, Dr. Lucido’s idea is an interesting and compelling one.  It would have been fun to toss around over a few beers after a long day in the trenches.  But the premise does not hold up to deeper scrutiny.

So, if you agree or if you don’t, let me know.  And if you want to read about an idea that I think is worthy of further discussion, and is in fact much more “out there” than this one, try this. (This link will only work for five days, unless you have a subscription.)

Grinnell to Poor Kids: Dance Backwards

“Ginger Rogers did everything Fred Astaire did, just backwards and in high heels.”

–Frank and Ernest

As I checked my Twitter feed this morning, the tweets came fast and furious: Grinnell College will stay need blind, but will think about raising loan caps and will try to recruit more wealthy students.

Read it again.

I’m normally contrarian, of course, but even I hardly know where to begin. (Time for full disclosure: I used to work at Grinnell, as Associate Director of Admissions from 1990 to 1993; I know how hard it is to recruit nationally to the middle of Iowa.)

The term “need-blind.”

First, to summarize my frequent rants about this stuff:  There is no such thing as need blind admissions.  It may be true that admissions officers don’t see the FAFSA results in their deliberations.  That’s not need blind, for the simple reason that you can still easily see:

  • How (and if) the parents are employed.  Nurse, plumber, teacher, lawyer, neurosurgeon, warehouse inventory manager, corporate acquisition specialist.  All the same?
  • The school the student attends: Garfield, New Trier, Madame Curie, Choate-Rosemary, Minneapolis South, Harvard-Westlake: All the same?  Visit the websites, and even if you’ve never heard of those schools, you’ll see pretty quickly.
  • Free time: Captain of the lacrosse team, 25 hours a week at Subway.  Equal?

You see the point.  When colleges say they think test scores are important (and they often do, right there in the strategic plan where they say they want to raise them), they favor wealthier students who can take them four times and pay for expensive prep courses.  When colleges say curricular rigor is important, they favor wealthy high schools with better facilities and dozens of AP courses, which the wealthy parents demand.  When an essay is a part of the evaluation, you favor kids who have been crafting them since sophomore year, often with the help of consultants or college-educated adults, over the kids who don’t even understand why or how much an essay matters. If a college considers teacher or counselor recommendations critical, guess who does those better: a) Prep Schools where a counselor might have a college-counseling caseload of 50, b) Better-resourced public schools, where counselors might have 400 or more students to work with on college between all the other things counselors do, or c) An under-resourced urban school where few attend college and there might (I stress “might” ) be one counselor for 1,500 students?  How about demonstrated interest?  I hope you get the point, and I hope journalists stop using the term “need-blind admissions.”  And I really have nothing against wealthy people or wealthier school districts.  My kids attend one.

Essentially, the very belief that we have “need-blind admissions” perpetuates the problem: We think of poverty as financial, rather than cultural: Poor kids meet different people, they have different opportunities, they watch different TV shows, and they may not hear about going to college around the dinner table.  It makes a difference, and it shows up: The wealthiest, weakest students go to college at the same rate as the smartest, poorest students.  But that noble phrase allows us to feel good while we’re asking poor students to dance backwards in high heels.

The zero-sum game:

I presume that Grinnell, a residential liberal-arts college, has a somewhat fixed capacity; they did when I was there.  In a zero-sum game, when  someone wins, someone loses.  If they want to enroll more wealthy students (and, by the way, why hasn’t anyone thought of that brilliant idea before?…I’m not even going to give that its own section) it means they’ll have fewer poor students.  And thus, it’s no longer enough to dance backwards and in high heels.  Now you have to go all Lil Buck on them.  Although I don’t think he wears high heels.

The money angle:

Grinnell has an endowment of, depending on the day, about $1.5 billion.  Assuming a very conservative draw down of 4% per year, that means $60,000,000 annually.  For ever.  That could run a lot of small liberal arts colleges (hell, it could run 10% of DePaul, with 16 times more students) without charging tuition.  But the great thing about Grinnell is that there is almost no student need that goes unmet; that’s expensive.  The bad thing about Grinnell is it’s obsessive about money, and it sometimes, I think, causes bad decisions.  (I fondly tell people that after my first recruiting trip for Grinnell in 1990, my expense reimbursement check was docked about a dollar because I over-tipped by that amount.)

If you don’t know Guidestar.org you really should; register and get an account today.  It compiles the tax forms 990 for almost all not-for profit institutions (all not-for-profits are required to make this document public).  Take a look at the 2011 Form 990 for Grinnell: Part XII shows $224 Million in unrealized gains on investments.  While it may be true that $1.5 billion in endowment isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, I think the “we’re poorer than people think” argument only goes so far.

What do you think?  If Grinnell can’t afford to guarantee it will stay need blind, is the rest of higher education totally screwed?