ECA Mentioned in Inside Higher Ed

The most recent ECA post  (the one dealing with Fisher v. Texas as sequel, not the correction) was selected yesterday by Inside Higher Ed as one of its two “Around the Web” selections, the 11th time a post from this blog has been selected.


In 2015 highlighted ECA eight times, four times from April to June (more than any other site during that period) and four times from October to December (second to only one other site).


We are grateful for the recognition.

Correction: It's Abigail Fisher, Not Sarah

A reader of the blog who is obviously more vigilant than I am (which apparently doesn't take much) has pointed out that the plaintiff in Fisher v. Texas is Abigail Fisher, not Sarah Fisher as identified by me in yesterday's post. 

I don't like making careless errors, and so appreciate the mistake being pointed out.  It did make me wonder where I got "Sarah" from.  A quick Google search revealed two possible candidates. One is a race car driver who used to race in the IndyCar series and has competed in the Indianapolis 500. The other is a young actress and singer who was a cast member in Degrassi: The Next Generation.  Not only have I never seen the show, but I was also unaware that there was a previous generation.  As far as I know, neither Sarah Fisher has been involved in any case before the Supreme Court.  I apologize to them and I apologize to you.

Fisher v. Texas, the Sequel

I am not a fan of movie sequels, and don’t get me started on remakes.  Do we really need a new version of Point Break without Keanu Reeves and Patrick Swayze (and did we need the version with them)?  Apparently there is talk about remaking a different Swayze movie, Roadhouse, where he plays a Ph.D. in Philosophy who utilizes his philosophical training as a bar bouncer.  It’s my favorite bad movie.


While cinema scholars may choose to differ, I have never seen a movie sequel that is better than the original.  The one sequel that could have broken that rule never got made, for reasons that may seem obvious.  The 1980’s movie Flashdance was about a welder who dreamed of being a ballet dancer.  If Flashdance 2 had been about a dancer who dreams of becoming a welder, that’s a movie I would pay to see.


Are Supreme Court case sequels any better than movie sequels?  Apparently not, based on comments made by Justice Anthony Kennedy during the recent oral arguments for the Court’s rehearing of the affirmative action case Fisher v. Texas.  “We’re just arguing the same case,” complained Kennedy, generally considered the swing vote.


Kennedy is right that the arguments presented by both sides during the oral arguments on December 9 seem reheated rather than freshly prepared.  The lawyers for plaintiff Sarah Fisher argue that the University’s use of affirmative action damaged her by denying her a place in the student body and that the affirmative action program does not meet the “Strict Scrutiny” test the Supreme Court laid out in the previous hearing of the case. The lawyers for Texas answer that she wouldn’t have been admitted even without the affirmative action program, that a lower court has upheld the constitutionality (by a 2-1 margin) of the holistic program, and that the program is necessary to achieve a critical mass of diversity down to the individual classroom.  One of Kennedy’s frustrations was that Texas had not done additional research or fact-finding to support that contention.


The case involves a program the University of Texas uses to supplement the state law that mandates that the University admit students who rank in the top 10% of their high school class.  The top 10% rule, which fills 75% of the class at UT-Austin, is not being challenged in Fisher. Lawyers for the University argue that the top 10% rule produces diversity, but only from lower socioeconomic groups who attend weaker high schools.


The University fills the final 25% using holistic admission. Most of the students admitted are white, but the University argues that it should be allowed to take race into account to supplement the diversity produced by the 10% rule.  When Fisher was last argued before the Supreme Court, it appeared that Texas was arguing that diversity required that some middle and upper class minority students with weaker academic records be admitted.


If the arguments are familiar, so are the broader questions.  Should universities have discretion to decide whom to admit based on their missions and strategic goals, or does the Court have a legitimate interest in how that is done?  How important is diversity, and is it a means to an educational end or an end in itself?  If racial preferences are wrong, aren’t they wrong even when used for the best of intentions?  If affirmative action is necessary, when will it no longer be necessary?


I am assuming that I will weigh on some of those issues in the future, and one of the projects I have in the back of my mind is a series of posts on the history of affirmative action in college admission, so here are several observations and questions that arise out of the oral arguments for Fisher, the sequel.


In a perfect world, there would be no need for race-conscious admissions practices, but we don’t live in a perfect world. Over the past couple of years it has been become clear in places like Ferguson and Baltimore that we haven’t made as much progress in overcoming our history with regard to race as I wish was the case.  It is hard for me to judge whether some of the recent campus protests with regard to diversity reflect real divisions on campuses or a new generation of students flexing their political muscle.  I am disappointed by the defense of affirmative action in Fisher, I’m not sure that race-conscious admission policies are ultimately defensible philosophically, and yet declaring affirmative action unconstitutional is probably not good public policy right now.


The biggest news story coming out of the Fisher oral arguments was a comment by Justice Antonin Scalia about African-American students being better off going to a “less-advanced” or “slower track” school where they would make better grades than at a place like UT-Austin.   That comment is insensitive at best, but it also provides a glimpse into a question that underlies some of the discussion about Fisher.  Does the value of a college education lie in the name on the diploma or in the experience one has in college?


Scalia’s assumption is that students admitted under affirmative action struggle in college, an issue that has come to be known as “mismatching.”  The evidence is far from conclusive, and which study you accept is probably influenced by what you want to believe.  The point of access is success.  Scalia is arguing, I think, that success is more important than access, and I would agree with him on that (which makes me very uncomfortable).  The student who goes to Texas-El Paso and excels is probably better off than he or she would be going to UT-Austin and struggling, but if a student can do the work and graduate it doesn’t matter.  A doctor who graduates at the bottom of a medical school class is still a doctor.  What is worrisome about the mismatching argument is that it is similar to the arguments made back in the 1950s for separate but equal schools.


Sarah Fisher’s argument also turns on the question of name on diploma vs. experience in college, but in a way that puts her in conflict with Scalia.  Fisher argues that she has been damaged because she wasn’t admitted to UT-Austin.  But has she been damaged because she graduated from LSU rather than UT-Austin?  She may have had to pay more in out-of-state tuition, but was she damaged by having to attend a different flagship public university?  Those of us who revel in irony can take great satisfaction in the fact that Fisher’s argument flies in the face of the assumption articulated by her greatest advocate on the Court.


Is Fisher v. Texas a challenge not only to affirmative action but also to holistic admission?  I don’t think so, but it does demonstrate that holistic admission can serve as a shroud making the admissions process mysterious.  It is hard to critique a decision that is holistic, and holistic admission could mean that each candidate is admitted for a different reason, whether it be transcript, test scores, leadership, ability to pay, or race.


There is a different issue that has thus far escaped scrutiny.  In the oral arguments, U.S. Solicitor General defends Texas by stating that “everybody competes against everybody else.”  That doesn’t square with my experience of how selective admission actually works.  At a time when classes are crafted or engineered to produce a class full of differences and meet an institution’s strategic goals, it is not the case that every applicant is competing for every place in the class. Students without a “hook”—most commonly athletic recruit, diversity, or legacy—are at a disadvantage, and 75-90% of applicants are competing for 10% of the places.


Will we see another sequel to Fisher?  It depends on the reviews to this one.  Stay tuned, and happy holidays.






Distributive Justice and Random Selection

The last post dealt with fairness in the college admissions process.  In that post I talked about selective college admission as an example of Distributive Justice, a kind of ethical dilemma where the challenge is to devise a fair means of distributing a scarce resource or opportunity. 

I also mentioned an article I wrote for the Chronicle of Higher Education back in 1988 where I argued that the fairest way to fill a freshman class in a highly selective admissions environment is to use random selection from among those identified as being qualified for admission.  It was my first article about college admission, and it is old enough that it does not exist in the Chronicle archives, but my tech person at school (who also happens to be my son) helped me scan it and convert it so I could reprint it as a blog post.  You will note that I was even more verbose back then than now.

You will also note that ECA has a new home.  That is also at the urging of my son the tech guru (read the previous phrase by channeling your favorite Jewish mother character from television or the movies).  He has been encouraging me to develop a website to house the blog and other work, and so here we go.  We hope to add content and features in the coming months.

I’m also hoping to adapt the blog somewhat, or at least return to my original vision from its founding three years ago.  At the time I planned for a mixture of long and short posts, a mixture of news notes and opinion pieces, but the blog has become more about the longer opinion pieces (sermonettes).  I am going to try to post more regularly with a mixture.  On Monday I’ll try to post a summary of this week's oral arguments on affirmative action before the Supreme Court in the return of Fisher v. Texas.

Thanks as always to all of you who read and comment on Ethical College Admissions. 

The Only Fair Way for Elite Colleges to Choose Their Freshman Classes Is by Random Selection

EVERY SPRING, thousands of high-school seniors across the country anxiously watch the mail for a letter from the admission office of one or more of the so-called selective colleges and universities, the contents of which will profoundly affect the course of the recipient's life, The fortunate minority receive a thick letter of acceptance, opening the door to an exclusive club and all the privileges of membership. The rest receive a thin letter of rejection and, along with it, a lesson in the disappointments of adulthood.

It can be a hard lesson to swallow. As a college-admission counselor at a high school l spend a lot of time trying to console talented young people who have suddenly discovered, after four years of outstanding performance in their school work and extracurricular activities, that they are not good enough. I try to persuade them not to take the rejection personally, to convince them that they are simply victims of a process that is essentially unfair. To understand that, they have to know about how college admission works and what it is that makes an institution "selective." For all colleges, l tell them, admission is first and foremost a numbers game. Each institution seeks to enroll a certain number of freshmen. To reach that goal, admission offices must send out more acceptances than there are places, since not every accepted applicant will enroll. For the selective colleges the difference between the two numbers is relatively small.

An institution is defined as "selective" if qualified applicants always outnumber the spaces it has available and it routinely has to reject some candidates who fully meet its standards for admission. The competition for admission to the 50 or so truly selective institutions in this country is intense: a handful of those colleges admit fewer than a quarter of the students who apply.

Most applicants for admission at selective institutions are not just qualified; they are superbly qualified, with high-schooI grades and Scholastic Aptitude Test scores at the top of the scale. In 1982, Princeton accepted only one-third of the high-school valedictorians who applied, and barely half of the applicants with S.A.T. scores in the 750-800 range. In 1984, the mean score on the verbal section of the S.A.T. for the 2,492 students accepted at Georgetown was 628. Last year, Stanford turned down 60 per cent of the applicants who had all A's on their high-school transcripts, and 70 per cent of those whose S.A.T. scores were above 700, To choose a freshman class from a large group of exceptional applicants, admission committees must subject them all to rigorous and exhaustive scrutiny. At most selective colleges, anywhere from two to five people read each application and evaluate the candidate's grades, courses, activities, test scores, essays, and recommendations. Being a superb student isn't enough, Personal qualities are also considered, and applicants are given both academic and non-academic ratings.

lN PUTTING TOGETHER A CLASS, the committee gives major consideration to "diversity," not only to assure students a broad educational experience but also to achieve other goals, ranging from increasing minority enrollment to satisfying the demands of alumni. No one can deny that the process is thorough, but is it fair? The huge gap between the number of highly qualified applicants and the spaces available forces admission committees to make fine (and usually subjective) distinctions among applicants with almost identical credentials. It is part of admissions mythology that individual merit is the yardstick by which candidates are judged.

The problem is that little agreement exists on what constitutes merit, how it can be measured, or how to compare applicants of diverse background and interests. The admission process should be an exercise in just distribution, in finding a fair means of allocating a scarce resource--places at an elite institution--among too many qualified candidates.

To be fair, selection must be based on clearly defined objectives and relevant, easily measured criteria, and the judges must accord due process and equal consideration to each applicant. By those standards, the process as presently conducted is far from fair--institutions rarely, if ever. spell out their objectives; special preference is customarily given to certain candidates; and the judgments underlying admission decisions are mostly subjective and arbitrary.

Is the purpose of the process to identify and select the applicants most likely to succeed academically, or those most likely to benefit from the educational opportunity? Or is it simply to reward past performance? The answer is None of the above. The real purpose is to admit the candidates who can best help a particular institution achieve the goals (which in most cases are more political than educational) hidden behind the concept of diversity. To reach those goals, the committee may give candidates in certain categories special preference, with the effect that those candidates compete only among themselves rather than with all applicants.

For example, if the institution's goal is a champion football team, and a fullback is the missing link, the fullbacks will compete for admission only against other fullbacks. If the goal is to maintain balanced proportions of men and women in the student body, then candidates of the sex that predominates will find it more difficult than the rest to gain admission. If the goal is to increase the number of students from certain minority groups, then applicants from those groups will have the edge. And because all institutions have fundraising goals, children of alumni and of the rich and famous will usually get preference.

Diversity is clearly a laudable objective, particularly given the history of minorities' limited access to higher education, but should it be achieved at the expense of fair, equal consideration for all applicants? In the name of diversity, the likes of Brooke Shields, Patrick Ewing, and the Kennedy kids get the chance to receive their education at elite universities, while other talented young people, with equal or superior credentials, do not.

The way in which selective colleges guarantee the diverse make-up of their entering classes is only one of the factors compromising the fairness of the process. Another is the unlimited discretion the colleges exercise in deciding whom to admit. Obviously, the more subjective and arbitrary the decision, the less fair it is.

One reason for such subjectivity is that grades and test scores, the objective measurements most commonly used to predict success in college, are of little use in making close distinctions among the superior students who apply to selective institutions. Their grades and test scores predict success for all of them.

Unfortunately, not all can be admitted, and, because the differences are statistically insignificant, it is impossible to predict which applicants will be most successful.  Another reason is the committees' lack of accountability. Selective colleges have far more qualified applicants than they can admit. Without objective information with which to make fine distinctions, the committee is free to decide arbitrarily. It has the luxury of knowing it will choose a superb freshman class, no matter how it decides. The undeniable fact that there are always too many applicants for too few places provides immunity from criticism of its choices.

The excess of qualified candidates also distorts the way in which applications are evaluated. Because many well-qualified applicants must be turned down, admission committees are put in the position of looking not for reasons to admit but rather for reasons to exclude. Numbers are of overriding importance. Every year, quite a few applicants on the accepted list end up being cut, because of concern that more on the list will enroll than there is room for. They are rejected at the last minute, never knowing how close they came to getting in.

The only fair way to choose a freshman class from among too many qualified applicants is by some type of random selection. One way would be to have the qualified applicants draw lots. Another would be to accept candidates when their credentials are complete and they are judged qualified, until the class is full. A third, which an admission officer of my acquaintance has long recommended, would be to put every qualified applicant on a "waiting list" and admit the ones who respond first.

Random selection has several clear advantages. It would guarantee equal consideration, and it would make rejection easier to take, since not getting in would be due to bad luck rather than to personal failure. It would also be easier on admission committees. Not only would it save a great deal of the time and money currently spent splitting hairs to select a freshman class, but it would also restore the committees to their proper function of determining who is qualified, rather than who among the qualified should be admitted, Despite the advantages, however, random selection is probably not an idea whose time has come. The benefit to selective colleges of being able to use discretion in choosing a freshman class is too great. Also, many admission professionals actually believe it's possible to make informed choices among equally qualified candidates and, ironically, so do some students.

It can be argued, of course, that admission to a selective college has nothing to do with just distribution, because higher education is not a scarce resource. There are over 3,000 colleges and universities in the United States, the argument goes, and no one who wants a higher education is denied the opportunity to get it. That being the case, selective colleges, particularly those that are privately owned, should be free to admit whomever they wish.
Such reasoning ignores the fact that the elite institutions occupy a special place in American society.

Therefore, they have a special obligation to uphold the national ideals of fairness, equality of opportunity, and due process in allotting the coveted places in their freshman classes. Unless they do so by instituting a means for just distribution of places, the qualified candidates who get thin envelopes will have to continue either to accept the rejection as an authoritative judgment of their worth (and perhaps allow it to ruin their lives) or take it as a challenge to go out and prove through their accomplishments that the admission committees blew it.

Original Article

Is College Admission Fair?

Is the college admissions process fair?  Asking that question brings to mind an old joke about television.  The joke, credited to comedian Fred Allen (among others), asks, “Why do they call television a medium?”  The punch line?  “Because it’s neither rare nor well done.”

Like the joke, asking if the college admissions process is fair relies on a potential double-entendre.  By “fair,” do we mean “just” or do we mean “not that good”?

Last month in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Eric Hoover and Beckie Supiano wrote a fascinating piece on the concept of fairness in college admission.  I was quoted rather extensively in the article, so I’m not exactly objective, but they did a great job of examining the various dimensions of a principle that’s hard to argue against and even harder to define.

No one in his or her right mind would argue that the admissions process should be intentionally unfair, but what does fairness in college admissions look like? Even if we agree that “fair” equals “just,” that raises more questions than answers (which regular ECA readers know we are perfectly comfortable with).  Does a just admissions process reward past performance or predict future accomplishment?  Is fairness about equal treatment or equal consideration?  Is it fair for an institution to admit based on institutional interest and priorities? Is an admissions process based on merit fair, given that much of what passes for merit is really privilege in disguise?  

Fairness lies in the eyes of the beholder.  I learned that first hand a number of years ago when my parents divorced after thirty years of marriage. I was in graduate school at the time, and as I watched them go through that experience I had three “a-ha” moments.  The first was an odd role reversal where I found myself the adult and them the children.  The second was that each of them was happier after the divorce than I had ever seen them together.  The third had to do with the concept of fairness.  Each of them said to me in separate conversations, “All I want is what’s fair,” but they had very different conceptions of fair. 

Fairness in college admission is challenging even when focusing on a single variable.  Take SAT scores for example.  We know that they have a high correlation with family income.  If two applicants have identical scores, one from an affluent suburban school and the other from a rural high school where 10% of graduates go to college, do those scores mean the same thing?  Should a set of scores earned after spending hundreds of dollars on test prep count the same as those for a student from an inner-city environment who takes the test cold? 

The same is true for things like GPA.  Is it fair to consider a transcript without context?  Students from the same high school with the same GPA may have very different schedules, and different high schools have very different grading scales, and even more important, different grade distributions.  What’s more fair, admitting the student who earns a certain GPA without breaking a sweat, or the student who earns the same GPA in the same courses through hard work that maximizes ability?

Both of those examples make the case for a holistic admissions process as best and maybe fairest.  But making fine distinctions among hundreds or thousands of superbly qualified applicants requires either a complex calculus or the use of professional judgment that is largely subjective.

The very first article I ever wrote on college admissions was an article for the Chronicle of Higher Education back in 1988.  In the article I argued that selective college admission is a textbook example of Distributive Justice, a type of ethical dilemma where the challenge is to find a fair way of allocating a scarce resource.  I also posited that the fairest way to allocate scarce spaces in freshman classes was using random selection once admissions officers had identified those who were qualified for admission.

It was an idea whose time had not come.  For months I heard reports of my name being cursed in admissions circles, and some close friends thought I must be joking, writing a satire akin to Jonathan Swift’s proposal to eat children.  The most interesting feedback was from students who wrote letters to the Chronicle.  They were opposed to random selection, wanting to believe they were admitted because they were better than other applicants.   The article was ultimately reprinted in several venues, including a textbook on logic.  I never figured out if it was seen as an example of good logic or poor logic.  I may reprint that article in a subsequent post.

Perhaps the appropriate question is not “Is college admission fair?” but “Should college admission be fair?”  Do highly-selective colleges and universities worry about fairness in the admissions process?  At some level, yes, in that they strive for decisions that make sense within a school group, for instance.  At another level, they worry more about what’s fair for the institution.  I have heard a legendary admissions dean say that “The admissions process is rational, but not necessarily fair.”  Another well-known dean put it a different way, “I work for … university.  My job is to bring in the best, most interesting freshman class to help the university achieve its strategic goals.  It’s not my job to be fair to students or schools.”

There is probably a disconnect between what the public expects from the college admissions process with regard to fairness and the reality of the process.  Just because fairness isn’t easy to define doesn’t mean that it isn’t worth aspiring to.  If college admission serves not just institutional interest, but the public interest, then the public deserves a process that is as fair as possible.  The alternative is that we lose public confidence and trust in our profession.

The next time someone describes college admission as fair, let’s make sure they mean "just" and not "just okay."

Restricted Early Action

This edition of Ethical College Admissions will tackle two issues that are unrelated except for a tenuous connection to the November 1 Early Decision/Early Action deadline. WARNING: This post may serve as evidence that I am suffering from PNSD (Post-November 1 Stress Disorder) after surviving the two most hectic, stressful two weeks of my entire career.

Topic #1:  Is it time to rethink the counselor recommendation letter as a meaningful part of the college admissions process?

I’ve been thinking about that question on a daily basis through October as I tried to find time and energy to write the largest number of recommendations for Early Decision and Early Action applications of any year in my entire career.  This time of year is always a challenge, and I can remember Halloween nights when my children were little when I would take them trick-or-treating and then return home to write last minute recs, but this is the first time I’ve had the sense that this deadline might get the best of me mentally and physically.

So what’s different?  Clearly I’m older, and the three hours it takes me to write a good letter drains me, even as I still feel great satisfaction in capturing the essence of a student and telling their story.  Part of the additional burden is having the largest class in school history, twice as big as my first class 25 years ago, and yet I know my colleagues in public schools with absurd counseling loads won’t and shouldn’t feel any sympathy.

The other changes are more global and subtle. One is that the application process has become compressed.  When I started in this profession, the application process lasted from mid-October until the end of January.  My son was born nearly thirty years ago at the beginning of February, and I have clear memories of spending the previous weekend working on rec letters for the last major deadline.  The workload used to be fairly evenly distributed throughout the process, with a wave every two weeks.  Now the November wave has become a tsunami as colleges move deadlines earlier and earlier. 

For students the message is that the early applicant gets the worm, that applying ED or EA is advantageous.  With the most selective colleges having admit rates of 5-10% and committed to crafting a class, the best (and maybe only) strategy for the unhooked student is to apply early. That coerces too many students to make application decisions before they are developmentally ready.   

The college recommendation letter is an art form, perhaps even an example of “neo-realistic American fiction.”  Its role in the college admissions process dates back to the 1920s, when colleges became more interested in producing good graduates (defined in a narrow way that resembled country club membership), than good students.  At independent schools “the letter” takes on mythic proportions, such that when I was first hired as a college counselor writing “the letter” seemed to be the entire job description. 

Is it time to rethink the rec letter?  I have talked to colleagues the past couple of weeks who are convinced that it’s time to replace the narrative letter with a paragraph or series of bullet points.  I’m not ready to go that far, or to follow in the footsteps of a predecessor whose recommendation letters consisted of either “Recommended” or “Highly Recommended,” but I worry that the quality of my letters will suffer as the quantity increases.

At a time when there is discussion about designing a new admissions process, I hope that “reform” will not mean a new application platform alone.  I hope we’ll think carefully about what we’re trying to measure, which parts of the application process provide useful information, and how the timing of the admissions process impacts not just the colleges asking for the info, but also the students, teachers and counselors that have to provide the info. 

Topic #2:  Is it time to rethink Restricted Early Action?

“How many kids do we have applying early?” is a question I commonly receive at this time of year.  It’s a question I no longer know how to answer.  “Early” now includes Early Decision, Early Action, Restricted Early Action, “priority” deadlines, and rolling admission, so any attempt to answer ends up being an essay answer to what is intended to be a short-answer question.

In a landscape full of confusing options, the one that takes the cake is Restricted Early Action.  Restricted EA might be described as a compromise between Early Decision and Early Action, with a student restricted from applying other places (with exceptions) but having until May 1 to commit, and like most legislative compromises it is deeply unsatisfying.

Restricted EA came about because several high profile institutions threatened to withdraw from NACAC if not allowed to prohibit their EA applicants from applying EA to other institutions, as allowed by the commonly agreed upon definition of Early Action.  This was one of the early skirmishes in what has become the ongoing war within college admissions between institutional autonomy and common professional standards, and the vote to allow Restrictive EA was seen by many in the profession as another victory for the privileged few.

Restricted Early Action raises some interesting ethical issues. Restricted EA came about after some highly-selective colleges saw an insane increase in applications after making the change from Early Decision to Early Action, a change made in response to criticisms that Early Decision advantages students who are already advantaged.  I understand the desire to keep EA numbers from getting out of control, but how can a college interfere with a student’s freedom to apply to other institutions? I am surprised that someone hasn’t filed a lawsuit alleging restraint of trade.  The same argument could be made about Early Decision, but I think that Early Decision is different.  ED is a contract, a moral contract to be sure, where the student agrees to declare a first choice and limit applications in exchange for an early decision from the institution.

I would argue that Restricted Early Action is really a form of Early Decision, only Early Decision that is non-binding.  When the NACAC Admission Practices Committee and Assembly developed definitions for Early Decision and Early Action back in the 1990s, they drew the line between the two as being binding vs. non-binding, defining Early Decision as binding.  That is certainly defensible, but I would argue that the line is better drawn as single-choice vs. multiple-choice, with students restricted to a single choice in ED.  Colleges with Early Decision programs should then have the option of being binding or giving students until May 1 to deposit.

I don’t know that my “modest proposal” is any less confusing, but it is more consistent philosophically.  It doesn’t address more fundamental questions about early applications, such as whether Early Decision should exist at all or whether colleges should admit more than half their classes early.  Those will have to wait for another day.

ECA is off to the nation’s capital for the College Board National Forum, looking forward to discussions about the Coalition and prior-prior along with infomercials for College Board products.

The Coalition

“Someone needs to ask questions, probably you.”  That was part of the first message I saw upon checking e-mail as soon as my transcontinental flight landed on the tarmac in San Diego on the Tuesday prior to the NACAC Conference.  The correspondent was a loyal ECA reader with a suggestion for the next post, forwarding me a NACAC Exchange discussion on the announcement the previous day that the Coalition for Access, Affordability, and Success will offer a new application platform beginning next year.

I’m not sure I’m the right person to be asking questions or that I will ask the right questions.  I am concerned rather than exercised by the existence of the Coalition, and readers of the blog know that I am far more comfortable in the clouds than in the weeds.

It is not an understatement to say that the Coalition was the major topic of conversation during NACAC.  A Saturday morning session devoted to explaining the new initiative was packed despite having moved to a larger room.  That session was not as contentious as expected, but ended with a line at each microphone hoping to comment.  I had the distinct feeling throughout the conference that folks affiliated with the Common Application were overjoyed to find themselves not the center of attention.  Within the college application platform “family,” the Common App suddenly finds itself the “good child.” 

Does college admissions need another application platform?  I can argue both sides of that question.  In a perfect world I’d like to see the application process simplified, with students able to use a single application for all schools.  But I also worry about the Common Application becoming too common, too big.  In its quest to increase membership and market share, I fear the Common App has lost its moorings, core values such as the belief in holistic admission.  The same danger exists for organizations like NACAC.  Is there a point at which membership growth compromises mission?

The Coalition, on the other hand, is smaller and more homogeneous, but runs the risk of being elitist and exclusive.  There are 125 colleges and universities that meet the Coalition’s dual criteria for membership, a six-year graduation rate of 70% and a commitment to meet full need (or, in the case of public members, affordable tuition for in-state students).  As of the conference, 83 had signed on.

I appreciate the Coalition’s expressed goal of increasing access, but I am not alone in feeling that the access piece feels like an add-on.  The Coalition began as a reaction to the technology problems encountered by students and colleges two years ago after the Common App introduced a new technology infrastructure.  That debacle opened a lot of eyes to how easily the college admissions process could ground to a halt as a result of the power concentrated in a few players (Common App, College Board, Hobsons).

I applaud the Coalition’s desire to refocus the college process away from being transactional and toward “reflection and self-discovery.”  I like the idea of replacing the personal essay with writing that is more reflective.  But given that some Coalition member schools will accept the Common App as well as the new application, I have visions of answering whether students are better off writing the essay for the Common App or submitting materials through the Coalition’s Virtual Locker portfolio feature.   On that note, is it my imagination or were 75% of the vendors at NACAC highlighting their portfolio “products”?

What I find most worrisome about the Virtual Locker is the underlying assumption, that admissions frenzy is caused by the short window of time in which the process takes place.  I’m not sure that’s correct.  Will having the ability to begin collecting admission materials as early as ninth grade abate the frenzy or accelerate it?  Will it give an additional edge to the already privileged, and will it lead to a new admissions-related industry, the Virtual Locker Monitor/Consultant (“We Unlock Your Future”)?  The Coalition has announced that it will delay the start of the Virtual Locker until next summer, and that seems like a smart move.

The broader question is whether starting the college search process earlier is desirable, or even possible.  The acceleration of the application process into the early fall rather than the winter has already compromised much of the educational and developmental value of the senior year in high school.  How early do we want kids obsessing about college?  Should college admission be the primary goal of a high school education or the product, the natural next step?

I am probably ultra sensitive about this issue because I work with boys.  My students are bright and motivated, but the X factor in their intellectual growth and development is maturity.  Each spring when I meet with juniors, I ask, “Has it hit you yet that next year at this time you will be getting ready to go someplace else?”  Over the course of the spring I can see the consciousness of the junior class change.  The students I meet with in February or March, who are the first to make appointments and presumably the most ready to think about college, almost universally answer “No.”  By April, the answer is “It’s starting to,” and in May the answer is “Yes.”  Several years ago I was in a Board committee meeting where a Lower School parent asked whether waiting until the junior year to talk about college was too late.  Before I could respond, a university professor who was the father of two boys already in college spoke up.  “Yes it is, “ he said.  “But any earlier is too early.”

I hope the Coalition will help us have a conversation about whether we have a college admissions process that serves the public interest.  Do the college search and application processes measure readiness for college?  Should the college admissions process be a bridge from adolescence to adulthood?  Are we measuring/valuing the right things and are we asking the right questions?

Perhaps most important, are we sending the right messages?  The Coalition includes many of the nation’s leading public and private colleges and universities, and as a result has the opportunity to shape discussion within the profession and to educate the public.  I would love to see the Coalition make a strong statement asserting that applying to college is about self-discovery rather than just getting in somewhere, that authenticity is more important than resume-building and gamesmanship, and that the value of college lies in the experience one has in college rather than where one is admitted.


Late Post Card From San Diego

I just finished my first day back at work on the East Coast after five wonderful days with 7500 of my closest friends in San Diego.  Here are some updates and observations from the NACAC Conference:

          ---The big issue in San Diego was last Monday’s announcement of the creation of the Coalition for Access, Affordability, and Success consisting of 83 elite private and public colleges and universities.  The Coalition will introduce a new application platform next year as an alternative to the Common Application, and there are a lot of questions and concerns about how it will impact college admissions.  When I landed in San Diego last Tuesday and turned on my phone, the first e-mail I saw was from a loyal reader of this blog.  He forwarded me part of an e-mail discussion on the NACAC Exchange, and commented that “someone (you?) needs to ask some questions.”  I plan to comment on the Coalition and the issues it raises, but need time to process and to catch up on all the work that piled up at school while I was away.

2      ---Another friend of this blog, Bill Dingledine, received the Gayle Wilson Award for extraordinary service to the profession during the conference opening session.  Bill was the first person to post a comment when ECA started three years ago.

        ---On Saturday the NACAC Assembly amended the Statement of Principles of Good Practice to prohibit colleges from asking applicants or secondary schools to list or rank order their college or university preferences.  I have written about this issue, both with regard to the Common App adding a question and the Federal Government proposing ending the listing of other colleges on the FAFSA.  Not everyone on the college side is happy with the change, and in fact I saw a college admissions dean walking around the exhibit hall with a home-made sandwich board urging delegates to vote against the proposal.  I understand that having rank order information is helpful to colleges, but its misuse, even if only by a few schools, is wrong.  I applaud Todd Rinehart and the Admission Practices committee for their willingness to take on this issue.  Todd has been a great AP Chair, and I hope there might be more NACAC leadership in his future.  His AP shoes won’t be easy to fill, but the new Chair, Lou Hirsh, is a superb choice as Todd’s successor.

        ----The current issue of The Chronicle of Higher Education contains an interesting article by Eric Hoover and Beckie Supiano examining the concept of fairness in college admissions.  It’s a thoughtful and well-written treatment of a challenging topic (I am quoted in the article so may not be totally objective).  I plan to write a follow-up post on the subject, and may even reprint a 1988 essay I wrote for the Chronicle arguing that random selection is the only fair way for elite colleges to admit students.  It was the first article I ever wrote about college admissions, and it was also an idea whose had not (and has not) come.

        ---Finally, the previous post was featured by Inside Higher Ed in its “Around the Web” section last Tuesday, the 7th time that has happened.

Last week was enjoyable, even if I’ll pay for it the rest of the month.  Thanks to everyone who went out of your way to mention that you read and/or appreciate ECA.   The interest and support means a lot.

College Counseling or College Placement

Last week I was part of a four-person team (two college admissions deans, two independent school counselors) invited to evaluate the College Advising office at a good Mid-Atlantic boarding school. I have participated in this sort of thing or been part of accreditation teams a handful of times, and there are three constants. It is always educational and eye-opening to be on another campus, the visitors get more from the experience than the institution being evaluated, and it is amazing how much you learn about the culture of a place in a short period of time.

A couple of things during the visit inspired this post.  First, the person who at most schools would have the title of Director of Admissions is instead the Director of Enrollment Management.  Enrollment Management has become common enough in higher education that I have suggested (only half in jest) that NACAC might rebrand itself as NACACEM, but it is the first time I have seen a secondary school use that term.

I have no problem with that.  Enrollment Management is a controversial, misunderstood, and hot button term for many in the college admissions world.  It is easy to label many of the unsavory practices in college admissions under the umbrella of Enrollment Management (and I was correctly called out by Jon Boeckenstedt for being guilty of that in a post a couple of years ago), but Enrollment Management is a neutral concept, and on my own campus I have said that our admissions office should be thinking strategically about Enrollment Management rather than just filling spaces.

I’m not nearly as accepting of the other hot button term I encountered during the visit. While the office we were evaluating is the College Advising office, we learned that the Board committee overseeing that area of the school is the Admissions and College Placement committee (why it isn’t the Enrollment Management and College Placement committee I’m not sure).

The term “College Placement” produces a visceral response deep within my being, at least when used as a verb rather than a noun.  It also brings back memories.  Twenty-five years ago, soon after starting my job at St. Christopher’s, the school went through a strategic planning process.  I argued passionately that my job is college counseling rather than college placement, but my argument fell on deaf ears among the Board members overseeing the plan.  I lost the battle but ultimately won the war, but I am not foolish enough to believe that everyone in the school community believes in the gospel of college counseling.

College placement is the secondary school version of the view that college admissions is about sales rather than counseling.  It is particularly present in independent schools, whose customers may believe (and may be promised) that the investment in time and tuition will pay off with a prestigious college sticker on the BMW.

One of the most destructive suburban legends about the college admissions process is the metaphor of the college counselor as Hollywood agent.  This view sees college counselors as negotiators, cutting deals for students.  That is grounded in the assumption that college admission is about who you know more than what you know, that an independent school college counselor can pick up the phone and call his buddy in the admissions office at Brown or Pomona and call in a favor.  The psychologist Michael Thompson refers to it as "The 'Special Relationship' Delusion" in an excellent article entitled "Fenced In By Delusions."

If I have that power (which would actually be a superpower) I’m not aware of it.  I have the ability to serve as an advocate and get a close or even a second look for a student, but that is grounded not in relationships but in credibility and professionalism.  It is worth noting, however, that when I surveyed counselors for a NACAC pre-conference workshop several years ago, several commented that they suspected or feared the existence of a college counseling secret society with powers they weren’t privy to.

The emphasis on college placement rather than college counseling is misguided, seeing the destination as more important than the journey.  It is also unfair to students.  When I was young I wanted my students to get in to college because of my efforts, but as I have matured I have realized how foolish that was.  Our job is not to get students in, but rather to help them get in.  We are trail guides, providing knowledge, wisdom, and support during a process that can be mysterious and stressful.

The general public may believe that college placement (the noun, as exemplified by the college “list”) is a metric of school quality, of value added, and schools don’t go out of their way to disabuse them of that notion.  But good college counseling is the real gift, the real added value that a school can provide its students and parents.  The college search process should be transformational just as college is transformational, and college counseling that understands the developmental importance of the college process, helps the student look within to understand his or her true self, and provides guidance and wisdom to help a family navigate the complex and often-confusing admissions and financial aid processes is worth its weight in gold, or at least tuition dollars.


This summer those of us who qualify as “college admissions geeks” had the opportunity to experience our very own “FAFSA-fest,” as the U.S. Department of Education made two major announcements regarding changes to the Free Application for Federal Student Aid.   The addition of a third FAFSA-related announcement from the White House earlier this week turned it into a “FAFSA-palooza.”

In late July the U.S. Department of Education announced that it will take over the web domain as part of a negotiated settlement with its previous owner, Student Financial Aid Services, Inc.  Student Financial Aid Services, Inc. is a for-profit company providing services such as FAFSA form preparation for a fee, and the settlement with the Department of Education coincided with a separate complaint filed against Student Financial Aid Services by another Federal agency, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, for illegally billing more than 100,000 consumers.

I first encountered this issue during my tenure as President of NACAC.  A Board member had done a Google search for the FAFSA during one of our meetings, and all of us were disturbed to learn that the first search result was rather than, the official site to access the FAFSA. On families were offered help in completing the FAFSA but had to pay a fee to do so (if the form isn’t free, doesn’t that make it the “AFSA”?).  The services appeared legit, but I was troubled by the fact that families (and counselors) who were unsophisticated or just not paying close scrutiny could easily believe they were on the official FAFSA site and spend money unnecessarily.

I applaud the Department of Education for taking over the web domain.  Not only does the decision serve the public interest, but this issue provides a counterpoint for those who believe that there should be no Federal presence in education and that the Department should be abolished. 

Abolishing FAFSA Order

In August the Department of Education announced proposed changes to the 2016-17 FAFSA. The most substantive of those changes is that colleges receiving a student’s FAFSA will no longer see the list of other colleges to which the student is sending the FAFSA.  Currently a student may send the FAFSA to up to ten colleges, and those colleges know the other colleges on the list.

The proposed change is in response to concerns about how that information is being used.  The FAFSA form does not explicitly instruct students to list colleges in rank order, but in recognition that a number of states use FAFSA order to disburse state grants, the instructions state, “For state aid, you may wish to list your preferred college first.”

But how do colleges use the order listed by students on the FAFSA?  Both NACAC and have reported that at least some admission offices and consultants on enrollment and financial aid are trolling the data to judge a student’s interest in a given institution, and may make admissions and financial aid decisions based on a student’s FAFSA order.   Several studies suggest that 55-70% of students enroll at the school listed first on the FAFSA, and examples of how FAFSA order is used include leveraging financial aid, offering less institutional aid to a student who lists a school as number one and is therefore presumably likely to enroll, or protecting yield by wait listing a student who is qualified for admission but lists the institution lower on the FAFSA.  The latter practice could be a violation of federal law, which prohibits the use of FAFSA information for any purpose other than awarding financial aid.

So what are the ethical issues involved here?  The NACAC Statement of Principles of Good Practice prohibits colleges from asking students to rank their order of interest.  That’s not the case here, but the only thing worse than asking is making assumptions about interest based on a student’s FAFSA order when the student isn’t aware it’s being used that way.  That would be less of an issue if a student provides the order voluntarily, with full awareness of how it may be used. 

There are also ethical issues related to the leveraging of financial aid.  Is it ethical to offer less financial aid to a student because he or she is more likely to enroll, or more financial aid to a student who is less likely to enroll?  Those practices may serve an institution’s interest, but they also have the potential to harm public trust in the college admissions process.

I have seen suggestions that colleges knowing FAFSA order may benefit students, but I am unclear what those benefits might be, and invite readers to weigh in on potential positives for students and or institutions.

When my children were little, they had a hard time understanding the difference between want and need.  My son used “need” as a synonym for “want,” whereas my daughter added a third category, “really want,” as if really wanting something imposed an enhanced obligation on me to provide it.  I get that colleges want, and maybe even really want, the information they get from a student’s FAFSA order, but I question whether they need it.

The Department of Education is soliciting comments from the public until October 13.

Earlier FAFSA Timeline

Late Breaking News:  On Monday the White House announced that as of October 1, 2016 students will be able to complete the FAFSA using previous year tax information rather than having to wait until the end of the tax year. 

On the surface, that seems like a good move, but it’s too early to know.  I believe in the Law of Unanticipated Consequences, and as Jon Boeckenstedt points out in article on the Chronicle of Higher Education website this morning, this change could have major reverberations for college admissions and higher education.  Stay tuned.

Harvard Complaint Dismissed

Even though the blog is officially on summer break (and, in fact, at the beach), two quick updates, one newsworthy, one not.

The U.S. Department of Education Office of Civil Rights has dismissed a claim by more than sixty Asian-American groups that Harvard discriminates against Asian-American applicants in undergraduate admissions.  The Department of Ed dismissed the claim because a lawsuit making similar charges filed last November by Students for Fair Admissions is pending in Federal District Court.  A recent ECA post discussed the issues surrounding the charges and the lawsuit.

As mentioned at the time, that post was selected for’s “Around the Web” section.  In the past three months four ECA posts have been featured, making Ethical College Admissions the most-mentioned site.  To quote a character portrayed by famed character actor Walter Brennan in a 1960’s western series, “No Brag, Just Fact.”  Except in this case it is a brag.  

School's Out for Summer

This is the final post before ECA shuts down for the summer, featuring some news updates and brief comments.

1)    I always appreciate reader feedback, and want to respond to Nola Lynch’s comment posted on the blog yesterday.  She found a distinction I made between consultants and counselors “extraneous,” and objected to my lumping all educational consultants together, including those who are members of IECA and HECA.  The comment may have been extraneous, but I was struck by the fact that the Boston Globe story described those who advise Asian-America students to appear “less Asian” as consultants. 

What I didn’t intend at all was a comment about the independent consultant community at large.  I think of our independent colleagues as being college “counselors,” and had actually forgotten that the C in both IECA and HECA stands for consultant rather than counselor. I plead ignorance rather than malice. My issue was with those whose advice is solely about strategy and gaming the system, a danger about which all of us need to be vigilant, regardless of our title.

2)    Steve LeMenager’s comment alludes to the unhealthy obsession with prestige and branding in college admissions and in our society, and a recent Washington Post story exposes the dangers.  A student at an elite magnet school falsely reported that she had been admitted to a unique program that would allow her to spend two years at Harvard and two years at Stanford.  She also reported that Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg had personally called her to encourage her to go to Harvard.  The story received media coverage in her native Korea, referring to her as the “Genius Girl,” only to be exposed as false.  The unfortunate incident followed another Post story about a student from the same school who had earned admission to all eight Ivies.  Is that something worth celebrating or reporting as news?

3)    At the end of a monumental week of decisions by the U.S. Supreme Court, the Court announced yesterday that it will take another look at the case of Fisher v. Texas, which it considered two years ago.  At that time the Court sent the case back to the U.S. Court of Appeals Fifth Circuit asking it to consider whether the UT-Austin affirmative action plan satisfies the legal demand for “strict scrutiny.” The Fifth Circuit approved the Texas plan last year by a 2-1 margin.  Will news of the scandal where the President’s Office at UT-Austin ordered students with connections admitted influence the way the Supreme Court reconsiders Fisher?

4)    On Friday the U.S. Department of Education announced that it will back away from its plan to rate colleges.  The Department will produce a website with lots of data for consumers but will not include ratings.  Avoiding the temptation to rate colleges is a good decision.  Today the Federal government; tomorrow U.S. News?

5)    Sweet Briar College in Virginia will remain open for at least another year under the terms of a settlement brokered by Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring between the College’s Board and a group of alumnae that had filed suit arguing that the closing of the college violates the trust that established Sweet Briar.  Saving Sweet Briar, the alumnae group, will contribute $12 million under the terms of the agreement, and the college will get a new Board and administration. I wrote about Sweet Briar’s closing as a case of institutional euthanasia, and I worry that the settlement is only prolonging the college’s demise, but I admire those who have worked to keep Sweet Briar alive and wish them success.

6)    The June 6 administration of the SAT was marred by a printing error that resulted in students having five minutes less on two sections.  The College Board has since announced that neither of the two affected sections will be scored, but that the error won’t impact the validity of student scores.  The College Board and ETS are easy targets, and there are plenty of folks glad to see them squirming after a screw-up.  There have been calls for everything from giving a free summer re-test to refunding part of the test fee because of the fewer questions to cancelling scores for any student who asks. The CB has responded by offering free registration for October for any student who took the June test.

The College Board’s confident assurance that the validity of a student’s scores are unaffected by the two missing sections begs the question, Why is the test so long?  If scores are unaffected by those two sections, then why do we need those two sections to begin with? The answer may be for PR reasons.  Nearly thirty years ago an admissions dean friend who was active with the College Board told me that it had the technology to give the SAT on a computer with the ability to produce accurate scores with only three questions (how you answered the first question would determine what your next question was).  What kept them from introducing the new test were concerns that the public would lose confidence in the SAT (that would never happen).  So is making the SAT long and arduous tied to building the brand?

7)    This morning’s “Around the Web” section of lists the most recent post as one of its two selections, the sixth time ECA has been included.

ECA is headed off to summer vacation, remembering the wisdom of Alice Cooper (“School’s Out for Summer”) and Porky Pig (“That’s All, Folks”).  We’ll be back in September.

Less Asian?

“Do Asian American applicants face an unlevel playing field?” was the opening question posed to me by NPR All Things Considered weekend host Arun Rath in an interview about the “landscape” of college admissions.

It was not a question I was expecting, and for a moment I hoped I was having a version of that dream where you realize that the final exam is tomorrow and you’ve somehow forgotten to go to class for the entire semester.  The issue had come up in passing in a pre-interview the previous day with a producer from the show, but I didn’t expect it to be the focus of the interview.

I shouldn’t have been surprised.  I had somehow missed a news story a couple of days earlier that a coalition of 64 organizations filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights alleging that Harvard’s holistic admissions process deliberately discriminates against Asian-American applicants.  A lawsuit making the same claim was filed last November in federal district court by the group Students for Fair Admissions.  And within a couple of days after the NPR story ran the Boston Globe reported that college admissions “consultants” (not the same thing as college counselors) are advising Asian-American students to appear less “Asian” when applying to elite colleges.

I answered Rath’s question by explaining (but not defending) the nature of highly-selective college admissions.  In an environment where only 5% or 10% of applicants will be offered admission, there are lots of exceptionally qualified students who won’t get in. To borrow a phrase from logic, merit is necessary but not sufficient.   Selectivity, the desire to build a well-rounded class, and the belief in holistic admission all frustrate students and parents who want to understand what it takes to get in.  I also expressed my view that the hidden currency of selective admissions is uniqueness (that may not be the right word), in that the more there is of any quality or talent the less valuable it is, and vice versa.

As a college counselor (rather than a “consultant”), I sit down with every student who aspires to attend an Ivy or similarly selective college or university and explain that earning admission requires both a superb record and luck.  That is especially the case for students without a hook (recruited athlete, diversity, legacy).  The odds for unhooked applicants are much lower, probably less than 1%.  Of the thirteen students in this year’s senior class who were admitted to a national highly-selective school, only one didn’t have some combination of hooks (if you count a couple of Early Decision full pays).  All had superb credentials, but without the hooks they probably wouldn’t have been admitted.

So are Asian-American applicants intentionally discriminated against or just unhooked?  They are not currently underrepresented in the Harvard student body.  Asian-Americans make up 20% of Harvard’s student body, compared with 5% of the general population in the United States.  That doesn’t mean they’re not discriminated against, of course, if they “deserve” an even larger percentage. Affirmative action cases such as Fisher v. Texas refer to the concept of “critical mass,” an imprecise term, given that a precise numerical definition of critical mass looks a lot like a quota. Critical mass is normally thought of as a minimum number, but might it entail a maximum as well?

The plaintiff in the court challenge, Students for Fair Admissions, is an offshoot of the Project for Fair Representation, an advocacy group headed by Edward Blum devoted to ending race-conscious admission.  The group’s concern for the plight of Asian-Americans may be more a matter of convenience than conviction, as it has also filed a lawsuit against UNC-Chapel Hill with no mention of Asian-American applicants. Questionable motives do not automatically mean that the suit is without merit.

Most of the evidence of discrimination presented in the Students for Fair Admissions suit is prima facie, circumstantial in nature.  A 2009 study by Princeton professor Thomas Espenshade and Alexandra Radford concluded that Asian-Americans needed SAT scores 140 points higher than white students to get into elite colleges at the same rates.  The consistency in percentage of Harvard students from various ethnic groups over a long period of time is cited as evidence of racial balancing, as is the discrepancy in the percentage of Asian-Americans at Harvard (20%) compared with the percentage at Cal Tech (40%), which doesn’t take race into consideration in admission.

Then there is the historical argument against holistic admission.  Holistic admission, including such application staples as the personal essay, extracurricular activities, and letters of recommendation, traces its origins back to the 1920s, as documented in Jerome Karabel’s dense but fascinating history of admissions at Harvard, Yale, and Princeton, The Chosen.  Holistic admission was part of a move from the “best student” paradigm to the “best graduate” paradigm, ultimately replaced by today’s “best class” paradigm.  Karabel’s contention is that holistic admission was a tool to limit the Jewish enrollment at Harvard, and the lawsuit argues that today holistic admissions limits the number of Asian-Americans.

I don’t want to believe that holistic admission is being used to unfairly discriminate today, even if it’s clear that in the past terms such as “character” and “leadership” were defined in a narrow, even racist, way.  I believe in holistic admission and regret that the Common Application has moved away from it as a pillar of its mission, but also recognize that holistic admission can be a veil of secrecy over the admissions process.

If Asian-American applicants are being disadvantaged in the selective admissions process, it’s less due to holistic admission than other factors.  One is the increasing international nature of the student bodies at highly-selective schools.  Why admit Chinese-Americans when you can admit students from China? 

The other is the “class full of differences” paradigm, which values and rewards spike talents and compelling personal narratives rather than the superb resume pursued by many Asian-American students.  At a counselors’ breakfast I attended last fall sponsored by five highly-selective colleges, the consensus among the admissions officers present was that 90% or more of applicants were qualified, even superbly qualified, but very few were “interesting.”

I was annoyed by that attitude, because I think that a college education should help young people become “interesting,” but in this case it’s also instructive.  Asian-American applicants don’t have to be advised to be less Asian, but rather more interesting, more individual.  In the same way that independent schools had to come to grips that what might be best for a student educationally, being a well-rounded individual, was no longer the best way to earn admission to a highly-selective college or university, the path pursued by many Asian-American applicants, superb grades and scores supplemented by a menu of activities like tennis and violin, is no longer the sure path to Harvard or other schools.


P.S.  My hope is to do one more post next week before the blog goes on summer break.      

A Few Things Considered

HEADLINE:  Ethical College Admissions Mentioned on NPR All Things Considered!

Several weeks ago I was interviewed for a story on the weekend version of NPR’s signature program, All Things Considered. If you by chance missed it, you’re not alone.  It aired on Saturday, May 23, in the midst of the Memorial Day holiday weekend, meaning that the listening audience numbered around 41. Even I missed it, because I wasn’t sure if and when the story would be reported.  Anyway, here’s a link.

How did this come about?  On the previous Wednesday afternoon, I received an e-mail from a producer at NPR.  She said that they were looking to talk with someone about “the current landscape of how colleges choose their incoming class” and that she had read an article I had written a couple of years ago for Eric Hoover’s Head Count blog for the Chronicle of Higher Education asking if the college admissions process is measuring the right things.  She mentioned grit and how one assesses it and racial preferences in admission as possible topics, and that they were hoping to do the interview before the end of the week.

The timing was less than ideal.  Our seniors were graduating that Friday, and Thursday marked the beginning of what we affectionately refer to as the “24 hours of hell,” with four major events crammed into a short span.  We have our Awards Assembly at 2, the Baccalaureate service at 5, and the Athletic Banquet at 7, then have Commencement at 10 a.m. the next morning.  For those of us with responsibilities in several of those events, it is exhausting and stressful.

I therefore responded that it was a hectic time, but that I might be able to find a couple of windows either Thursday or Friday.  Within five minutes the producer e-mailed that she would call in fifteen minutes.  During that call we talked about a couple of other possible topics, including how college admissions and higher ed have become a business, and we set the interview for Thursday afternoon, meaning that I would miss Baccalaureate.

The next morning she called again to confirm that they would send a radio producer to my office to record the phone interview with Arun Rath, the weekend host for All Things Considered.  That made me wonder if this might be different from the interviews I’ve done with newspaper reporters, where a fifteen minute conversation shows up in the story as a one-line quote.  She also asked an interesting question.  How do you know anything about college admissions when you don’t work at a college?  That question, usually unstated, is not unfamiliar to those of us who work at the secondary level, and it raises an interesting larger question. Does someone who works in the admissions office at one institution understand the landscape of college admissions better than someone who deals with lots of institutions? I cringe when I think about how little I knew during my admissions days, but that may be me.  In any case, I answered by citing my years of experience, NACAC leadership, and work with the blog, but wondered if they were looking for a perspective different than I could offer.

I tried to prepare for the interview with some notes and talking points regarding the admissions landscape.  One point I especially wanted to make was that there is not a single college admissions landscape.  There are at least two landscapes in the college admissions universe.  Most media coverage of college admissions focuses on the competition for places at highly-selective colleges and universities, but that landscape includes only 10% of the institutions of higher education in this country.  The other 90% are in a landscape where any qualified student will be admitted, and I have seen statistics that 80% of students are admitted to their first-choice schools.

I never got the chance to make that point, because the interview went down a different path than I expected.  With the exception of one question about “grit,” the rest of the interview was about whether Asians are discriminated against in the college admissions process, a subject I wasn’t prepared to discuss.  To be fair, the producer had mentioned that issue in passing in our pre-interview, but not that it would be the primary focus, and I had also missed a news story several days before that a coalition of 64 organizations had filed a complaint with the U.S. Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights alleging that Harvard discriminates against Asian-American applicants in the admissions process.

So there I was, being interviewed for a national radio audience, asked to comment on Harvard’s treatment of Asian-American applicants.  I knew full-well that I was in a minefield where it would be easy to say something that might easily be misconstrued.  I saw my job as providing context about how admission works rather than defending it.  So I talked about how in my view the hidden currency of selective admissions is uniqueness, that the more of any talent or quality the less valuable it is.  I talked about holistic admission as a way to build a class and how frustrating that can be for students and parents who don’t understand why they don’t get admitted in an environment where most highly-qualified applicants are denied.  And I suggested that fairness is hard to achieve in a process where so many metrics are ultimately measures of socioeconomic privilege.

On the fairness front, one response that was edited out of the interview was my suggestion that the fairest way to admit applicants is using random selection from among those judged qualified.  I first suggested that in a Chronicle of Higher Education article in 1988, and some saw it as satire, akin to Jonathan Swift arguing for eating children.  But if selective admission is an exercise in Distributive Justice, allocating a scarce resource fairly, then random selection achieves fairness even as it prevents shaping the class.  When I originally made that proposal, neither students nor admissions officers found it compelling, and apparently the same is true for NPR.

Throughout the interview I felt off my game, and when I ended I was convinced it would never be used, especially after Arun Rath started to ask a follow-up question, then said “Never mind.”  But thankfully it didn’t sound as bad as I feared.

In the next post I will consider whether Asians are discriminated against and whether Asian students should be encouraged to look “less Asian.”


“Which college would you pick for him?” the parents of a junior asked as we wrapped up a parent conference the last week of April.  I gave my standard response, which is that it is not my job to tell a student where they should go but rather to help them figure out what is right for them.

Within a couple of days I was forced to rethink both the sanctity and the strength of that core belief when May 1 arrived with four of my seniors unable to decide where they would deposit.  That’s more than I ever remember, although it is possible I have repressed previous years in order to maintain my sanity.

I’m not sure why more students struggled this year to make a final decision.  Did the weeks I missed this spring after surgery prevent me from having the kinds of post-decision conversations I normally have?  Have we not given this generation the tools and practice in decision-making?  Or is the answer the same found in so many SAT multiple-choice questions, “None of the above”?

The four situations had little in common.  One student had a choice between an Ivy and a full scholarship at one of the nation’s best liberal-arts colleges.  A second was trying to parse the differences between the business programs at comparable institutions.  A third was trying to resolve the conflict between what his gut was telling him and what his family and friends were telling him.  And the last was mourning the reality of the choices available to him, a reality that shouldn’t have surprised him but nevertheless did.

Making the final choice is the hardest part of the college process for many students.  Up to that point it is all about possibilities and options, but on May 1 choosing one door means closing others permanently.

One of the major factors contributing to difficulty in choosing is the myth (I prefer the term “Suburban Legend”) that says a student will have that moment when they fall in love with a particular school.  That myth can be paralyzing for students who haven’t had that experience, and I am quick to point out that the “fall in love” moment is far from universal and that those blinded by love may actually make worse college decisions.

One of the negative consequences of the growth of college admissions as an industry is that we have lost focus on the college search and admissions processes as essential developmental steps in the transition from adolescence to adulthood.  Choosing where to go to college is not an end in itself, but part of a student’s journey of self-discovery.  As such how one chooses is ultimately more important than where one chooses.  College selection should be transformational in the same way that a college education should be transformational.

Deciding where to attend college might qualify as the first adult decision for many young people.  Adult decisions are important rather than trivial, and they have significant long-term consequences.  They also don’t have easy, obvious answers.  There is no perfect or obvious choice, so you make the best choice you can, weighing and balancing the pros and cons of each option.

Several years ago the Wall Street Journal ran an article with the intriguing title, “What’s Wrong With the Teenage Mind?”  What indeed?  The article argues that there is a widening gap between the onset of adolescence and the onset of adulthood, resulting in “teenage weirdness.”  The causes are complex (or else I’m not smart enough to understand them).  There are two different neural systems that interact in the development into adults, and they don’t work as well in sync as they once did.  One system has to do with emotion and motivation, and the other with judgment and control.  The first is tied to the changes that occur at puberty, while the second is tied to the development of the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain that inhibits impulses and allows long-term thinking and planning.  The key ingredient in the development of sound decision-making is experience.  It is only by practice in making decisions that one learns how to make decisions.

At one time in history children prepared for adulthood through formal and informal apprenticeships, practicing the skills they would need as adults with supervision.  Today in our zeal to protect our children, we don’t give them the opportunity to practice making decisions.  I would like to see us have a discussion about how the college search and application processes might function as preparation for the major life decisions students will make the rest of their lives.

That probably marks me as clueless—I prefer the descriptor “idealist.”  Certainly the college admissions process as currently practiced would have to change, and it is not clear that colleges see anything wrong with the current process.

That’s the meta-issue.  But how do you help a student decide when it’s May 1, a deposit is due by the end of the day, and you’ve made clear that double-depositing is not an option?

I try to focus on being an asker of questions rather than a provider of answers.  Why would you pick college A over university B?  What would prevent you from choosing it?  Is there any information that might help you make the choice?  When those fail, my default question is, Which one will you regret not choosing?  That question helped two of my four identify their leanings. 

I also use the counseling technique of reflecting back to them what I am hearing them say, either validating or challenging their perceptions.  In doing so I have to be careful not to let my own personal agenda get in the way, i.e. what is the impact on the college list (a topic I hope to address in my next post).  I tell students that there is not a bad choice to be made, but rather a choice between good and good, and sometimes even point to Robert Frost’s poem, “The Road Less Travelled,” which makes the point that the act of choice itself makes a decision right or good.

All four of my students made a choice by the end of the day, but within a week two of them had other options, one getting off a Wait List and the other successfully appealing a denial at a school which uses the appeal process like a Wait List.

Why is it that I end the college admissions year feeling like a reality-show contestant, relieved not to have been voted off the island for another episode?  Why indeed?


P.S.  The previous post was also selected by as one of two daily selections for its Around the Web feature, the fifth time that’s happened.


Where Else Are You Applying?

Last week a minor furor erupted following an announcement by The Common Application that member schools can add a question asking students to list the colleges to which they are applying.  Todd Rinehart, Associate Vice Chancellor for Enrollment and Director of Admission at the University of Denver (a Common App member) as well as Chair of the NACAC Admission Practices Committee, wrote an op-ed for last week’s NACAC Bulletin laying out his personal (rather than official) views on the topic, and a number of people, mostly from the secondary side, have posted on the NACAC Exchange regarding the decision.

It remains to be seen whether this is a minor border skirmish in the battle between institutional interest and student sovereignty or a major attack designed to further erode the principles that have guided college admission and counseling.  It also remains to be seen if this is another sign of the morphing of the Common App as it becomes a bigger player in the college admissions landscape representing a broader spectrum of member colleges.  Last fall the organization announced that it would no longer require members to use holistic review of applicants, previously one of the bedrock principles underlying the Common Application.  Is the next change the current Common App requirement that members schools be NACAC members in good standing?

The change potentially puts Common App members at odds with the Statement of Principles of Good Practice. The SPGP does not prohibit schools from asking students where else they have applied.  The Mandatory section of the document prohibits colleges from asking students to rank their preferences and also states that students may not be required to respond. The Best Practices section of the document recommends that colleges not ask.

So colleges may ask the question, but should they?  In a recent post, I wrote about the Naturalistic Fallacy, which states that just because you have ability to do something doesn’t mean you should.  This blog’s conception of what is ethical extends beyond what is or isn’t permitted by the SPGP, so let’s examine the ethical issues.

In a post a couple of years ago regarding the University of Iowa’s decision to add a question on its application tied to sexual orientation, I argued that while I applauded Iowa’s desire to send a message about its openness to the LGBT community, the application should include only questions relevant and necessary to determining an individual’s merit or fit for admission. Does the “Where else are you applying?” question meet that test? 

Unless I’m missing something (always possible), there are two possible reasons for colleges asking that question, only one of which might be related to the admissions process itself. Colleges and universities have a legitimate interest in knowing what their overlap schools are, but there are more efficient ways than asking students on the application.  The best way would be for Common App to provide that aggregate information to its members after the completion of the admissions year.  If students must be asked, survey them after decisions have been made rather than as part of the application.

The more likely reason for asking the question is yield management, and it is here that we land on shaky ethical ground.  First of all, asking a student to report where he or she is applying is an infringement of privacy.  That information is owned by the student, and is not the college’s business.  Even when the question is optional, it is still coercive. Does optional mean truly optional or NFL off-season workout “optional”?  As a counselor, I generally advise students to answer optional questions.  This one will be different.

That’s due to the potential for inappropriate use of the information.  In a post two years ago, I detailed the case of a college wanting to Wait List one of my students because “we won’t get him.”  They were aware of the other colleges on his list through an alumni interview, and falsely assumed he wasn’t seriously interested because of the other places he was applying and because he hadn’t applied for their merit scholarship, which they were obviously using as a measure of Demonstrated Interest.  In fact he had scheduled the alumni interview as a way to demonstrate interest and chose not to apply for the scholarship so that they wouldn’t assume he had no interest if he didn’t receive one.  We protested and the college relented, but not before letting us know how offended they were that we would question their judgment.

I get that yield is an important enrollment management metric, and that it is harder to predict than ever before.  What bothers me, though, is that a number of institutions are trying to predict yield not to stabilize enrollment, but as a metric of prestige, as a way to keep admit rate as low as possible.  The only thing worse than asking a student to rank their choices is to make assumptions about a student’s interest without them knowing, whether based on the application list or the student’s FAFSA rank order.  Both are unethical because they turn students into pawns in a chess game they don’t know is being played.     

There are two larger issues that this discussion identifies.  The first is a growing chasm between high schools and colleges regarding how the college admissions process should be conducted.  That is not news, but one of the things that make college admission counseling a profession rather than a business is a shared set of core values and conventions based on what is best for young people in a crucial developmental process.  I fear we are losing that.

The other issue is that the current admissions/application process has become a vicious circle that serves none of us well.  This is the time of year when we will read stories about how this is the toughest admissions year in history.  Students and parents (and counselors) respond by submitting more applications, especially given that no college wants to be a safety school.  The increase in apps makes yield hard to predict and increases use of yield tools such as Early Decision and Wait Lists.  What’s wrong with this picture?  Is it time to rethink college admission?


Report and Remembrance

I just returned from the annual Potomac and Chesapeake Association for College Admission Counseling conference.  That conference is always a highlight of my spring, and in fact when I scheduled my knee surgery (if you’re tired of references to my surgery, I’m planning for this to be the last post in which I reference it) I made sure I would be healed enough to attend.

This year’s PCACAC conference was special in that it was the organization’s 50th anniversary, and so it was held at the Homestead resort in Hot Springs, Virginia (the town is the birthplace of golf legend Sam Snead).  The anniversary meant that it was an opportunity to look back at the organization’s proud history as well as look to the future, and a number of PCACAC’s Past Presidents had featured roles during the proceedings.  I had the opportunity on Sunday afternoon to serve as moderator/participant for the opening plenary session, a panel consisting of five former PCACAC Presidents.  Three of us had also served as President of NACAC, and the other two had served or are serving on the NACAC Board.  There was a lot of experience and wisdom in the room, and it was interesting to ponder the ways in which our profession has changed and stayed the same.

The highlight of the opening dinner on Sunday night was the presentation of the Jack Blackburn Award, named for the legendary late Dean of Admissions at the University of Virginia and given to an individual for commitment to ethics, integrity, and access, all principles that Jack Blackburn personified.  The award is relatively new, but has quickly become as valued as the other top award presented by PCACAC, the Apperson Award.  I was privileged to receive the Blackburn Award a year ago, and the previous winners include Lou Hirsh, who will succeed Todd Rinehart as Chair of the national Admission Practices Committee for NACAC.  Those are big shoes to fill, but Lou is a superb replacement as chair. 

This year’s Blackburn recipient was Mildred Johnson, Associate Vice Provost for Enrollment Management and Director of Undergraduate Admissions at Virginia Tech.  I have known Mildred since we were rookie admissions roadrunners nearly 40 years ago, and she is an inspired choice.  Mildred is an old-time admissions officer in the best sense, someone for whom the essence of the job is working on the front line with students, and she has insisted on (and been allowed to) continuing to do school visits and counsel students in a way that is rare among senior members of our profession anymore.  I am always amazed at how well she knows my students despite working at a large state university.

I also did a session on Monday on “Gender and College Admission,” and will write about that in my next post (unless I decide to write first about the Common Application asking students to list where they are applying), but had to leave the conference early after I learned on Monday morning that a close friend died over the weekend and the funeral was Tuesday. 

The death was not unexpected, for my friend was 91.  She had told me in our last conversation that she wasn’t doing well, and I had been trying to her reach her by phone daily for the previous week without success.  It was nevertheless sad to see one of the most unique, special friendships of my lifetime end.  Following the funeral, my son suggested that I write about her in the blog, so here goes.

Mary Alleta Pannill was my friend for more than 40 years.  Her late husband was my advisor and philosophical mentor in college, a once-every-hundred-years professor at any institution.  When I first visited Randolph-Macon College as a prospective student, none of the admissions staff was available (they may have been at PCACAC) and he interviewed me.  He was so honest and forthright about the college’s strengths and weaknesses and such an impressive person that I’m not sure I ever gave any other college a chance, but the opportunity to study with him by itself made Randolph-Macon the right place for me.

Once I arrived on campus I became close friends with both husband and wife.  He had suffered a major heart attack the previous year and had to limit his afternoon office hours, so she maintained them when he couldn’t be there.  On many Sunday mornings I would see them out for breakfast when I went out to get a newspaper and would stop and visit. She and I engaged in a tutorial on subjects ranging from existentialism to the philosophy of William James.

Two weeks after I went off to graduate school, her husband passed away suddenly from another heart attack.  I worried about her, because she was physically frail, looked older than she was, and was devastated from losing a life partner to whom she was truly devoted.  They had no children, and our friendship developed into a new phase.  She told me at one point that her husband had always hoped that I would replace him, and I can imagine no greater compliment.  I ultimately had the opportunity to come back and do that for a year, and she served as my unofficial teaching assistant, co-hosting a reception for my students and suggesting the book that became the culmination of my Intro to Philosophy class, Tom Robbins’ Another Roadside Attraction.

Through the years we maintained a personal and intellectual friendship, visiting bookstores together and having conversations on a myriad of topics.  After she moved into a retirement home where the other residents didn’t share her intellectual interests, I tried to take her to lunch regularly.  She was a creature of habit, so we always went on Sunday, always went to the same fast food place, and I was to pick her up at 11:30.  If I hit traffic lights or had to wait for a passing train, I worried about disappointing her.  Over the past couple of years my son would join us, and she would have us look-up tidbits online to help in her scholarly pursuit of knowledge about the 19th and 20th century British Aristocracy.

In recent months I worried that each time we got together it might be the last.  She was the first person to call me after my surgery, a huge step for her because she hated to bother me.  I was desperately hoping to recuperate in time to have lunch again, but ran out of time.  The last time we talked she told me she was not doing well and said how much the friendship meant to her.  The feeling was mutual.  I was so proud of how she made a life for herself after losing her husband, and inspired by her passion for learning and for ideas.  Her death leaves a void in my life, but I am richer as an ethicist and as a person for having known her.

One last note:  The last post on the lexicon of college admissions was featured earlier this week as one of the two featured “Around the Web” articles on, the fourth time the blog has been mentioned on that site.   



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? 

Institutional Euthanasia

One of my graduate school professors told a story about his first experience teaching ethics.  He assigned a paper on the ethical issues associated with euthanasia, and to his surprise several students turned in papers that had nothing to do with end-of-life issues (euthanasia) but rather discussed the ethical challenges faced by children and teenagers in places like Vietnam and Myanmar (youth in Asia).

I was reminded of that story twice last month. When I checked into the hospital for surgery on Tuesday, March 3, one of the first questions I was asked was whether I have a living will and a DNR (Do Not Resuscitate) order.  Had I been paranoid or a member of the Tea Party I might have seen sinister motives or Obamacare Death Panels behind those questions, but chose instead to hope they were perfunctory rather than foreboding.

Later that day when my anesthesia wore off and I checked my e-mail for the first time, I saw the stunning news that Sweet Briar College had announced that it will close at the end of the school year.

The Sweet Briar family is currently going through its own stages of grief—shock, denial, finger-pointing, fund-raising, and lawsuits. Just in the past week a Chronicle of Higher Education article described the Board meeting, held not on campus but at a Washington hotel, where the conclusion was reached that Sweet Briar must close. Saving Sweet Briar, an alumnae group formed in opposition to the closure, called for the Board and President to resign and convinced the attorney for Amherst County in Virginia, where Sweet Briar is located, to file suit seeking to prevent Sweet Briar from closing.  The group has raised $3 million in pledges, far short of the $250 million the Board estimates would be required to keep the college afloat.  At the same time, a friend who is the transfer coordinator for a public university in Virginia is spending a majority of his time working with Sweet Briar students needing to transfer.

I feel for the Sweet Briar community—students, alumni, faculty and staff—and what it is dealing with in the aftermath of the announcement.  I can’t imagine what it must be like for one’s alma mater to exist no longer, and I particularly feel for an old friend who served as Dean of Admissions for many years and was a wonderful ambassador for the college.

 I described the Sweet Briar announcement as unprecedented in an interview for an Education Week blog.  I can’t remember another institution deciding to close without previous signs that it was terminally ill (if I’ve missed another example, I trust that readers will let me know). 

Several others interviewed for the same story called Sweet Briar the “canary in the coal mine,” a harbinger of other colleges that will be forced to close.  If that’s the case (which I’m not ready to concede), which mine?  Small liberal arts colleges? Women’s colleges?  Colleges located in rural areas? 

While there was no advance warning that Sweet Briar was on the brink of closing, several economic vital signs pointed to serious illness. Its enrollment had dropped to 523, its discount rate was 62%, and it was dipping into unrestricted endowment to pay its bills.

I suspect the seeds of Sweet Briar’s decline have been present for a long time.  In my first year as a high school counselor, back in the mid-1980’s, I had two girls apply there Early Decision.  Neither was a strong student, but coming from a strong independent school should have been solid candidates.  Sweet Briar ultimately admitted both, but only after acting as if it was doing a huge favor to both me and the girls.  I was young and inexperienced, but not stupid, and when I checked Sweet Briar’s admissions statistics I saw that it had turned down fewer than 80 applicants in the previous admissions cycle.  Sweet Briar was one of several Southern women’s colleges that were masterful at maintaining the illusion of selectivity and prestige.  If that was at one time a strength, it may have turned to a weakness, preventing Sweet Briar from addressing systemic, long-term issues.

That begs a more important question, which is whether there is anything Sweet Briar could have done to change its fate.  Is Sweet Briar’s situation a product of mistakes or mismanagement, or simply an instance of a product for which there is no longer a sufficient demand?

From an ethical perspective, the Sweet Briar situation is most interesting as a case of institutional euthanasia.  Is closing Sweet Briar killing the college or letting it die?  Who has the right to pull the plug on a living institution?  Which is more important, maintaining Sweet Briar’s existence at any cost or maintaining a certain quality of life?  Does a venerable institution deserve death with dignity, and what does that look like?

Such questions are difficult and even painful in the field of medical ethics.  What amount of treatment is reasonable given a patient’s condition at the end of life, and what treatments merely delay death?  Who is capable of giving informed consent in a situation that is emotional?  Should quality of life be a consideration, or is life itself sacred, regardless of quality?  These questions have scientific, theological, and public policy significance.

The questions are no less perilous when it comes to closing a college.  Sweet Briar’s Board and administration have been criticized for the secretive process leading to the decision.  Certainly the suddenness of the announcement and the lack of consultation with stakeholders are unfortunate, and yet may have been unavoidable. 

The Board has also been criticized for failure to execute its duty of stewardship by not turning over every leaf to keep the college in operation.  From everything I’ve read, though, it is clear that Sweet Briar is not just ill, but terminally ill. Sweet Briar might be able to stay open for several more years of decline or could perhaps follow the path that other struggling colleges have taken by targeting a different clientele and changing its mission.  But does Sweet Briar best honor its proud history by fighting to the bitter end or by choosing death with dignity?



My last post, dealing with President’s Office interference in the admissions process at the University of Texas at Austin, was written under duress.  “Duress” might be too strong a word, because no one was holding a gun to my head or threatening my children.

I should also be clear that the “duress” was self-imposed.  On Tuesday, March 3, I had knee replacement surgery, and not knowing how I would feel in the aftermath, wanted to publish a post on the Texas situation the previous day.  The surgery went well, I seem to be recovering as well as or better than expected, and I’ve developed a new appreciation for the DuPont slogan, “Better Living Through Chemistry.”  But it is only now, three weeks after surgery, that I am starting to feel the urge to write.

That urge may have nothing to do with the surgery and everything to do with the biorhythms of blogging.  It’s been two and a half years since I started Ethical College Admissions, and it is almost certainly the most rewarding thing I’ve done in my professional life.  Finishing a post and finding my “take” on a subject is an endorphin rush like no other.

Long before I ever thought about joining the blogosphere (or had any idea that such a thing existed), I remember hearing my friend Jeannine Lalonde (better known as Dean J, author of the Notes From Peabody blog for the admissions office at the University of Virginia) talk about how blogging had changed her life, such that the first thing she does each morning is check her two blogs (she also writes one on design).  I couldn’t do a daily blog, as I struggle to carve out time to think and write, but if I go two weeks without posting I start to feel the way I do when I go too long without chocolate.

Jeannine talked about seeing a blog as a conversation with readers.  That, of course, assumes that there are people reading the blog (if a blog post falls in the forest and no one reads it, does it make any impact?). When I began writing I had no idea if I had anything worth saying, if I could discipline myself to write on a regular basis, or if anyone would care.  I was shocked the first time someone mentioned that they had read and liked the blog, and it is gratifying to know that there are a number of people out there who care about the same issues I do.  According to the ClustrMaps analytic tool, the last post drew the 20,000th visitor to the site.

I am particularly appreciative of those ECA readers who reach out either to express support or to challenge my thinking.  After the Texas post there were two I want to highlight who supported my overall position but challenged me on specific points.

Steve LeMenager’s comment took issue with a point I made regarding the principle of fairness.  The Kroll report indicates that the students admitted to UT-Austin by the President’s Office over the objections of the Admissions Office did not take the place of an already admitted applicant but increased the size of the freshman class, and I suggested that was, if not “better” and “more fair,” at least not as ethically objectionable.  Steve suggests that both the report and I might be naïve (my word, not his).  He correctly points out that admissions in a “hyper-selective” (his word, not mine) institution are zero-sum, that any decision to admit one student is by necessity a decision not to admit other students, and that thinking of admissions slots as finite helps an institution focus on its priorities.  Steve worked at Princeton, so he has experience and perspective that I don’t have.  He allows that it might be different at a public university, but I think he is right and that my thinking was sloppy.  I’m also encouraged to know that hyper-selective institutions struggle over the fairness piece involved with admitting a class.

The other communication was an e-mail from Jon Boeckenstedt at DePaul.  Jon is someone whose voice and perspective I value, and I am particularly envious of his ability to organize and analyze data (here’s a link to Jon’s blog).  Jon quibbled (his word) with a statement I made that was almost a throwaway. 

One of the things that struck me when reading the Kroll report was the impact of the Texas law that guarantees admission to students in the top 10% of their class in Texas high schools.  75% of the spaces in the freshman class at UT-Austin come through the Top 10% program, including most of the spaces in certain academic programs.  The Kroll report suggests that UT-Austin would like to be holistic in admissions but that the 10% law prevents its ability to do so because of the legal mandate to put emphasis on a single factor, class rank.  The report also suggests that the 10% law results in students admitted who are less qualified and less likely to succeed, a claim I repeated.

Jon called me out on that point, citing a study published by a conservative think tank, the National Bureau of Economic Research, that shows that students who benefit from the Top 10% law perform and graduate no differently than students with similar credentials who are just outside the top 10% of their high school classes.  Jon further points out that the real culprit is that too many of us accept uncritically the notion that students with higher SAT scores are more “qualified” for college. Jon’s point is a good one, and I plead guilty to leaping to that conclusion. 

There is a more interesting philosophical question here.  How much does it matter what admissions criteria we use?  The argument for holistic admission review is that it allows an institution to take into consideration and value a broader spectrum of qualities, thereby producing a “better” class.  But better than what?  If the Texas Top 10% rule produces a student body that is just as successful in terms of GPA and graduation, does holistic review add any value other than the flexibility and discretion to admit students the university wants to admit for other reasons? 

During the Bakke case, the first Supreme Court case involving the use of affirmative action in college admissions, a major argument put forth by foes of affirmative action was that affirmative action programs admitted less qualified applicants.  But if a student is admitted to medical school and then successfully graduates and becomes a doctor, does it ultimately matter how they were admitted? 

Part of me says yes and part of me says no.  If the point of medical school is to produce doctors and the admissions process admits a student who completes the curriculum and practices medicine, then the student is qualified and the admissions process has accomplished its mission.  But in a hyper-selective admissions environment where admission is a zero-sum process, fairness requires that the criteria used for admission be relevant and predictive for every applicant.

I would like to argue that the sloppy thinking pointed out by Steve and Jon were caused by the duress of my upcoming surgery, but the truth is that it comes from the duress found inside my head on a daily basis.