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Should Colleges Be Able to Determine Who They Admit?

Should Colleges Be Able to Determine Who They Admit?

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The sequels continue as responses come in to the now-famous Atlantic article by Caitlin Flanagan about independent school graduates comprising a higher percentage of elite college admissions than their overall share of high school graduates would indicate.

In an Inside Higher Ed article, UT Austin professor Steven Mintz writes that we need to promote fairness, equity, and merit in college admissions. According to Professor Mintz, the real travesty of elite college admissions is:

  • Less than 2 percent of the nation’s students attend private schools, but 24 percent of Yale’s freshman class, 25 percent of Princeton’s freshman class, and 29 percent of Brown’s and Dartmouth’s freshman classes did.
  • The nation’s most prestigious and expensive prep schools sent extraordinary proportions of their students to Ivy League universities — about a third of the students at Dalton and Spence.
  • Of the 25 high schools that sent the most students to Princeton, just three were public schools in which at least 15 percent of the students were eligible for free or reduced-price lunch.
  • A student at Lawrenceville has nearly seven times the chance of getting into Princeton as a student from New York City’s top-ranked Stuyvesant High School.
  • Over half of the low-income Black students at elite colleges graduated from top-ranked private schools.

Mr. Mintz writes that the problem goes well beyond the children of donors or legacy (alumni) preferences or favoritism toward athletes in sports that disproportionately attract the wealthy.

I don’t know that I agree. In one of the first follow-up responses to the Atlantic article, Inside Higher Ed editor Scott Jaschik solicited responses from the universities cited in Flanagan’s article. Dartmouth’s spokesperson said via email that their independent school cohort includes most of their students from international schools, many of the college’s athletes, many students whose parents are alumni, and a growing number of students who are the first generation of their family to attend college.

Rather than unabashedly state that the problem goes well beyond the group cited by Dartmouth, I would ask these institutions to provide specific numbers supporting their email statements in the interest of transparency.

When I wrote about Scott Jaschik’s article, I wrote that economics plays a larger role in college admissions than mentioned by many people. If you want to find students whose families can afford to pay $80,000 per year in tuition, room and board, and other costs, independent schools that charge $55,000 per year are likely a source.

Do I think $80,000 per year is a reasonable cost for a year of college? Absolutely not. However, it’s the business model that the elite privates choose to follow.

My review of data from the National Center for Education Statistics indicated that 36 percent of Yale’s freshmen, 37 percent of Princeton’s freshmen, 38 percent of Dartmouth’s freshmen, and 44 percent of Brown’s freshmen are full-pay. I am willing to wager that a substantial percentage of those full-pay students are in the categories cited by the Dartmouth spokesperson.

Professor Mintz writes that “the real college admissions scandal, as Sunwoo Hwang put it, is ‘not just rich kids getting into schools they don’t deserve, it’s low-income students who can’t go to the schools they deserve’ due to a lack of support, guidance, and funding.”

I don’t disagree with Dr. Mintz, but I question why any selective college, public or private, should fund shortfalls in college preparation by the public and independent schools. On the other hand, non-selective or open enrollment four-year colleges need to be able to support students that they admit with the implicit understanding that those learners are capable of successfully completing college.

Citing an article written by Ryan Craig, Professor Mintz states that elite colleges should significantly expand their capacity or assess their applicants on distance traveled if they are serious about admitting a truly diverse class of students.

In my opinion, the expanding capacity argument is complicated, too much so to debate here. As far as evaluating candidates regarding their distance traveled, I would argue based on discussions with friends of mine who work at independent schools that many of the lower-income students admitted from independent schools may have been evaluated by the independent schools under the distance traveled assessment. It’s a worthy topic, but one that needs more analysis beyond the facts provided.

Dr. Mintz writes that elite colleges should conduct “more aggressive outreach and recruitment of low-income and underrepresented students, automatic admission for students at the top of their high school class, facilitating community college transfer, and providing more financial aid for low-income and working-class students.”

I would argue that none of these suggestions are reasonable. Based on my status as an alumnus and advisory board member of two elite institutions, there is already a substantial focus on aggressive outreach of low-income and underrepresented students by elite institutions. I believe that they admit those students who they believe are capable of completing their programs.

Automatic admission for students at the top of their high school class is a policy that only works for state-supported schools. It ignores the fact that not all schools are as successful in preparing students for enrollment at the most selective institutions.

Facilitating community college transfer is a good idea for public institutions, but the elite college business model doesn’t really allow for transfer students at all since so many students who matriculate end up graduating. That leaves fewer spots available to community college transfer students. It also ignores the fact that the elite colleges are looking for a certain percentage of full-pay, four year students.

As far as providing more financial aid, almost all of the elite colleges mentioned in all of these articles provide debt-free financial aid for students from families below a certain income level, typically $125,000-$175,000.

Professor Mintz provides other recommendations for increasing the admission of low-income students that can be applied to all institutions:

  • Simplify the process of applying for financial aid by removing roadblocks.
  • Better fund the broad-access institutions that serve most college students, allowing them to provide intensive advising and support services that are keys to student success.
  • Implement structured degree pathways of synergistic courses and supplemental instruction to bring more students to success in high-demand fields.
  • Create honors cohorts in the arts, humanities, and social and natural sciences at broad-access universities, including honors and research-focused programs for transfer students.

I agree with these last recommendations if they are applied to non-selective institutions.

The last sentence in Dr. Mintz’s article reads “it’s time to act on our professed belief that talent is broadly distributed and ensure greater access to opportunity.” I couldn’t agree more. However, we would be better off increasing support to our public schools and public colleges that educate 90 percent of our K-12 students and 80 percent of our college students, rather than focusing on elite institutions that educate a small minority of students.

Lastly, in answer to the title of this post, yes, colleges should be able to determine who they admit. At the same time, they need to be transparent about who they admit and why.

They also need to provide academic and financial support to everyone they choose to admit. Transparency in admissions will go a long way to helping those who need the most assistance.

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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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