I’ve been thinking that it might be time to retire a couple of phrases/concepts from the lexicon of college admissions.  The two I have in mind are arguably outdated, confusing, and potentially harmful to students and parents trying to understand college admissions.

I returned to work on Tuesday after being out for six weeks recovering from knee replacement surgery.  To prepare for being back in the office, I went through my own form of “spring training” on Monday, meeting with the parents of one of my juniors at a local Starbucks.  I am not a coffee drinker, so I don’t generally hang out at Starbucks, but they’re ubiquitous and a perfect neutral place to meet.

The combination of warm Spring weather, the Frappuccino ™, and being back in college-counseling mode was intoxicating, and it helped that the barista didn’t ask us to solve America’s race issues. We talked about engineering, D3 soccer, and costs, and it was a good meeting until they made the mistake of asking about merit scholarships, discovering the hard way that one of my weaknesses is a tendency to give essay answers to short-answer questions.

I responded that the term “merit scholarship” is a misnomer, neither a scholarship nor about merit, at least in the way that parents and students think about merit.  With some exceptions, merit scholarships are more accurately strategic discounts, given not to reward merit but rather to induce a student to enroll.  Colleges use merit aid to attract students they wouldn’t normally appeal to, and as a result a student is most likely to receive merit aid at schools several levels of selectivity below the schools they might aspire to. (Let me be clear that I don’t buy the “you should go to the most selective/prestigious college you can get into” suburban legend.)

That is not necessarily a message that families want to hear, as I discovered in my own household when my daughter was a senior in high school.  My wife got angry at me when I told her that our daughter was likely to be admitted to most of the schools on her list, but wasn’t a candidate for a merit scholarship at those schools.  The only thing that made her angrier was that I turned out to be right.

I returned from my Starbucks meeting to discover that Jon Boeckenstadt had published a piece on his blog with the title, “The Death of ‘Merit Aid’.”  As always, his analysis is worth reading and better than mine.  Jon has a similar piece for the back-page “Hall Pass” column in the brand new issue of the Journal of College Admission (I was honored to write the Hall Pass column for the previous issue) where he includes “Need Blind” as a term that may deserve scrapping.

My candidate for removal from the lexicon is “Demonstrated Interest.”  I wrote about this topic last spring, arguing that Demonstrated Interest is no longer about interest but rather a student’s likelihood of enrolling and that demonstrating interest is no longer a simple concept.  Once upon a time, visiting campus was a sufficient demonstration of interest (for that matter, once upon a time submitting an application was a demonstration of interest) but it seems that many private institutions are attempting to manage acceptance rate and yield by attempting to measure a student’s likelihood of enrolling through multiple metrics.

A recent e-mail exchange on the ACCIS (Association of College Counselors in Independent Schools) e-list highlighted the brave new world of which Demonstrated Interest is an integral part and the challenges involved in how to counsel students properly.  Several horror stories were cited, including a highly-qualified student Wait Listed because she failed to respond to one e-mail, an admissions officer making a comment that a student responding to an e-mail on a smart phone is not as serious as responding on the computer, and another admissions officer responding to a counselor pointing out that the student had visited the campus and loved the college, “Some students visit twice.”

Several years ago I visited a selective mid-Atlantic university and was told that it was tracking demonstrated interest by whether the student had clicked on the applicant portal.  In the same breath I was told that the university had discovered that few of its diversity applicants clicked on the portal.  They received a pass because they were in high demand.

I don’t think there is anything wrong with a college or university taking interest into account in enrolling a freshman class.  If I was an admissions dean, I would want a class including students who wanted to be at my school.  The ethical issue is not the use of interest, but how interest is measured and how the importance of interest is communicated to students.

If clicking on e-mails (and attachments within an e-mail) is important, then it is incumbent on an institution to be transparent about that.  Students have a right to know the rules of the game that the college is playing and what demonstrates interest and how much interest needs to be demonstrated.  But the deeper issue is whether some of the measures being used really measure interest or likelihood to yield, and whether using those measures demonstrates a lack of understanding as well as a lack of interest in teenagers and how they think.  My students don’t see clicking on an applicant portal as having any connection to the interest they have in a school.  The danger for a college in measuring interest using those measures is that you will end up with a student body full of kids who are good at playing games or strategizing.  I’m not sure I’d want that student body.

Demonstrated Interest and Merit Aid are connected in that they reflect the increasing influence of big data on the college admissions process.  Colleges hire consultants to determine how much aid will maximize a student’s likelihood of enrolling, and technology has given colleges the ability to track information and contacts in a way that hasn’t been possible until recently.  A long-established principle in ethics with regard to science and technology is the “naturalistic fallacy,” which states that just because you have the ability to do something doesn’t mean you should do it.   

If interest deserves to be a more compelling factor in college admissions, we ultimately need a larger discussion of whether the admissions process needs to change significantly.  Do we want even more emphasis on Early Decision, or more use of Wait Lists rewarding interest at the end of the process?  Are there admissions criteria that are no longer as important in an interest-driven climate?  Let’s have that discussion before we penalize kids for not showing “interest” they don’t know they should be showing.  
Are there other phrases or concepts that it's time to abolish?