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Reasons for College Admissions: “It’s the Economics, Stupid!”

Reasons for College Admissions: “It’s the Economics, Stupid!”

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“It’s the economy, stupid!” was Bill Clinton strategist James Carville’s directive to keep his presidential campaign staffers on message during his successful 1992 run for the presidency. While I chose not to use a paraphrase of that slogan in my recent post about Caitlin Flanagan’s article stating that private schools in the U.S. have become obscene, perhaps I should have.

Inside Higher Ed co-founder and editor, Scott Jaschik, wrote an article critiquing Ms. Flanagan’s article. He writes that “in the world of college admissions, the article was something of a Rorschach test. Some see colleges making natural decisions on applicants [and] others are appalled at the percentages of private high school graduates getting into highly competitive colleges.”

On the side of private school defenders, Mr. Jaschik quotes the vice president of media for the National Association of Independent Schools (NAIS) as stating “they are students with significant accolades and high SAT scores. Many independent schools offer high-level course work that prepares students well for college. They also participate in extracurricular activities at much higher rates than students from other types of schools.”

Dartmouth, one of four schools cited in The Atlantic article for a high percentage of independent school graduates in its freshmen class, responded via email that their independent school cohort includes most of their international students, many of the college’s athletes, and many students whose parents are alumni. The email also noted that a growing number of independent school admits are the first generation in their families to attend college and that those students are attending independent schools under schools’ initiatives to increase diversity.

Brown University submitted an email as well, noting that 45 percent of the 1,756 first-year students are students of color and 14 percent are first-generation. Nearly half of those students receive need-based financial aid.

Princeton flipped the narrative by stating that 62.8 percent of its first-year students attended a public secondary school. Also, 16 percent are the first in their family to attend college, and 19.3 percent qualify for a Pell grant.

The Executive Director of the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers (AACRAO) said “students attending these particular independent schools have financial resources unavailable to most families – the average annual outlay when you include both tuition and other annual giving was staggering.”

On the side of those supporting Ms. Flanagan, Mr. Jaschik quotes the executive director of Admissions Community Cultivating Equity and Peace Today(ACCEPT), calling the statistics in the article “truly disgusting and gross.” The article made her question one of the key rules for college admissions: “Protect your relationships with high schools.” Obviously, the private schools cited are well protected, she said.

Mr. Jaschik also cites Bruce Poch, the dean of admission and college counseling at the Chadwick School in California, an independent school. Mr. Poch formerly led the admissions team at Pomona College.

Mr. Poch wrote that with the trend toward test-optional admissions requirements, he is “terrified that the advantage independent school students already have in essay reviews with counselors and lengthy references from teachers who know them well and can write brilliantly supportive recommendations, will be hugely amplified in the process without standardized markers. Wealthy kids will, once again, come out ahead.”

Mr. Poch also notes that average grade point averages (GPAs) at independent schools are just under A, something that is not happening at most public schools. The contrast between independent schools and public schools is getting worse due to the pandemic. Independent schools had the resources during the pandemic to maintain instruction and teacher-student engagement time, even if it was through Zoom.

While independent school students may be less prepared than their predecessors for college, they are likely further ahead compared to their public-school peers. Those peers may have attended schools that were unable to maintain instruction and teacher-student engagement levels matching their face-to-face time.

In a rare show of independence for a news magazine, Mr. Jaschik appears not to take sides, choosing to present arguments pro and con for the colleges’ decisions regarding admissions (note that The Atlantic article criticized independent schools more than it did the elite colleges admitting the high percentage of independent school students). At the same time, I think those supporting the high percentage of independent school graduates in the first-year classes at Yale, Princeton, Dartmouth, and Brown have several solid arguments. The strongest, I would paraphrase as “It’s the economics, stupid!”

The executive director of AACRAO made a major point when he said, “the average annual outlay when you include both tuition and other annual giving was staggering.” In Ms. Flanagan’s article, she stated that the annual tuition at Dalton was $54,000. I wrote in my blog article that “those colleges charging upwards of $70,000 per year need a source for full-pay students.”

College Navigator at the National Center for Education Statistics presents data indicating that 37 percent of Princeton’s first-year students are full-pay, and 44 percent of Brown’s first-year students are full-pay. In addition, 36 percent of Yale’s first-year students are full-pay, and 38 percent of Dartmouth’s first-year students are full-pay.

Dartmouth’s estimated expenses for tuition, room and board for an on-campus student are $80,184 in 2020-21. I suspect the overall cost at the other three schools is similar. Federal student aid funds will not even come close to covering financial aid at these four institutions, but fortunately all four have relatively large endowments.

Whichever side you may take in this debate, the fact is that this is not an “aha” moment. As I wrote “if she, or anyone else for that matter, had the ability to wave a wand and erase private schools, I don’t think the issues of education access, diversity, and inclusion would go away.”

Private schools AND private universities are not inexpensive. If the evidence is limited to the four universities cited by Ms. Flanagan, the contributions to their endowments by generous donors are enabling a substantial percentage of students to attend them, thanks to financial aid.

It’s not likely that the four universities mentioned have endowment funds that could cover all students. It’s also not likely that they would ignore the offspring of their alumni in admissions decisions, particularly if those alumni have been active donors to their alma mater.

We’re better off if we ask parents, alumni, and students at independent schools and private colleges and universities to insist that their public schools receive the funding that they need and, in return, provide accountability to their local taxpayers. Don’t ignore the problems because you were financially able to avoid it. Work together to find common understanding and solutions. Citing another famous quote: “Actions speak louder than words.”

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Wally Boston Dr. Wallace E. Boston was appointed President and Chief Executive Officer of American Public University System (APUS) and its parent company, American Public Education, Inc. (APEI) in July 2004. He joined APUS as its Executive Vice President and Chief Financial Officer in 2002. In September 2019, Dr. Boston retired as CEO of APEI and retired as APUS President in August 2020. Dr. Boston guided APUS through its successful initial accreditation with the Higher Learning Commission of the North Central Association in 2006 and ten-year reaccreditation in 2011. In November 2007, he led APEI to an initial public offering on the NASDAQ Exchange. For four years from 2009 through 2012, APEI was ranked in Forbes' Top 10 list of America's Best Small Public Companies. During his tenure as president, APUS grew to over 85,000 students, 200 degree and certificate programs, and approximately 100,000 alumni. While serving as APEI CEO and APUS President, Dr. Boston was a board member of APEI, APUS, Hondros College of Nursing, and Fidelis, Inc. Dr. Boston continues to serve as a member of the Board of Advisors of the National Institute for Learning Outcomes Assessment (NILOA), a member of the Board of Overseers of the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education, and as a member of the board of New Horizons Worldwide. He has authored and co-authored papers on the topic of online post-secondary student retention, and is a frequent speaker on the impact of technology on higher education. Dr. Boston is a past Treasurer of the Board of Trustees of the McDonogh School, a private K-12 school in Baltimore. In his career prior to APEI and APUS, Dr. Boston served as either CFO, COO, or CEO of Meridian Healthcare, Manor Healthcare, Neighborcare Pharmacies, and Sun Healthcare Group. Dr. Boston is a Certified Public Accountant, Certified Management Accountant, and Chartered Global Management Accountant. He earned an A.B. degree in History from Duke University, an MBA in Marketing and Accounting from Tulane University’s Freeman School of Business Administration, and a Doctorate in Higher Education Management from the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education. In 2008, the Board of Trustees of APUS awarded him a Doctorate in Business Administration, honoris causa, and, in April 2017, also bestowed him with the title President Emeritus. In August 2020, the Board of Trustees of APUS appointed him Trustee Emeritus. In November 2020, the Board of Trustees announced that the APUS School of Business would be renamed the Dr. Wallace E Boston School of Business in recognition of Dr. Boston's service to the university. Dr. Boston lives with his family in Austin, Texas.

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