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Last week a young woman got the college admissions world talking with an opinion-editorial she wrote in The Wall Street Journal. There have been countless tweets, retweets and posts about her essay, and many have chimed in with their two cents. I’ve heard praise and outrage about her essay, which you can read here (if you haven’t already).
Late last week a listserv associated with a professional organizations of which I am a member started to fill up with commentary about this young woman’s essay. While some posts were understanding (I won’t say complimentary), many more were quite critical of the author. In fact, I hope the author never sees the exchanges, because some even resorted to what amounted to name-calling and implying that the young woman as “homophobic” and “racist.”
I must admit to being uncomfortable with the exchange on this professional listserv, which is why I am using my personal blog as a forum to discuss this matter.
I know it may not endear me to some of this young woman’s critics, but I think her essay sounds familiar and represents something that permeates the “professional” discourse of college admissions more frequently than we might want to acknowledge.
As I read her essay, I read very clearly that this young woman is critical of practices viewed by others (we in admissions and college counseling) as being conducted with the best of intentions. I think it is this that has gotten under the skin of many; we don’t want our best intentions questioned.
While I don’t defend the examples she used (which some have described as racist and homophobic), she engaged in the sort of critique I see all the time as part of “professional” discourse. These critiques might be veiled, subtle or simply implied, but they are there all the same. The critiques are by those who don’t like something that they consider to be an objectionable practice—a practice that others are using with the best of intentions. I see this all the time. Some examples of topics that generate similar discourse include: the rankings, “crap application” programs, the role of international agents, financial aid gapping, the elimination of class rank, deemphasizing standardized testing, the College Scorecard, affirmative action, for profit college and universities, and many others. What each of these has in common is that someone, somewhere, at some time envisioned a practice or program with the best of intentions, but probably did not explain the intent very effectively to those who criticize a practice they don’t like or don’t understand.
In my view, it’s a mistake to be too critical of this young author without doing a little self-reflection about how we react (sometimes in a public forum, too) to practices we don’t understand (or like). We offer critiques in similar fashion (my guilt on this is my own reaction to the College Scorecard and the outrage that I expressed).
Again, this young author sounds a lot like us when we criticize a practice we don’t fully appreciate or understand.
However, what we do well in these situations is engage in a dialog to develop a better understanding. We don’t resort to name-calling or applying our personal lens of the world without giving a professional colleague the benefit of the doubt that they are doing something with the best of intentions.
I wish we’d offer this young author the same respect even if she has offended.
A final thought on this matter is the larger point of her essay, which I don’t believe was to whine or to satirize or to be mean-spirited or to dismiss privilege or entitlement, but was to convey a perception that admission to the most selective colleges in American is no longer based exclusively on merit. We dismiss this perception at our own peril. To ignore it is dangerous. This perception is perpetuated when we focus so much time on admissions rates, and hear (and provide) quotes about how similarly credentialed all of the applicants are, which is why it is necessary to look for distinctions among them. The process has become increasingly confusing, and misinformed perceptions have become a reality. Let’s be honest about this, these impressions of the process, which many have attributed to the author’s youth, are not limited to this particular high school student, but have been informed by adult perception of the admission process.
You get the picture, don’t you?
As professionals, we should take a moment to reflect on the big picture, rather than the small stuff around which the critiques of this young woman are centered.
This entire incident reminds of the timeless Pogo cartoon entitled “We have met the enemy and he is us.”
W. Kent Barnds a.k.a. @bowtieadmission
This blog post also appears in Huff Po College on March 25, 2013.
The coming weeks will bring gasps from students and families involved in the final phase of choosing a college—usually when they open the financial aid award letter and see their expected out-of-pocket cost. I am pretty sure these gasps are audible (like a dog whistle) to enrollment managers and deans of admissions across the country, as more and more families struggle to come to terms with the question, “How do they expect us to pay that much?”
The most frequent outrage is when a college’s financial assistance results in a “gap” between the family’s Expected Family Contribution (EFC)—an estimate provided after a family completes the FAFSA—and remaining cost to attend the college after financial assistance is considered. Often they’ve been left with the impression that through financial assistance, a college will make up the difference between EFC and cost of attendance. When this does not happen, they are confused and sometimes even angry. I understand the confusion and even the anger, and expect a family might ask, “Why do they call it an expected family contribution if they really want more?”
Generally speaking, colleges are not very good at explaining all of this to students and families. Truthfully, the EFC establishes a family’s eligibility for federal financial assistance, as opposed to what a family actually is expected to pay for college. Perhaps the following illustrations will address the issue more clearly.
Johnny Doe’s family has an EFC of $15,000, and demonstrated financial need of $30,000—to be more precise, he is eligible for financial aid up to $30,000. Johnny has been accepted to three colleges, all of which have a price of $45,000 annually. However, each college has a vastly different resource base, market position and approach to financial assistance.
College One, a very prestigious college with a huge endowment, promises to meet 100% of a student’s demonstrated financial need in grant assistance. Johnny’s award might look something like:
$30,000 in grant aid (likely a combination of scholarships, grants and other assistance that does not need to be paid back)
$5,500 Federal Stafford Loan
$9,500 Out-of-pocket cost to attend (with an EFC of $15,000)
College Two, a nationally recognized college with a moderate-sized endowment, promises to meet 100% of a student’s demonstrated financial need:
$24,500 in grant aid (a combination of scholarships, grants and other assistance that does not need to paid back)
$5,500 Federal Stafford Loan
$15,000 Out-of-pocket cost
College Three, a regionally oriented college with a small endowment, does not have the resources to meet 100% of demonstrated financial need:
$5,500 Federal Stafford Loan
$19,500 Out-of-pocket cost
I know you might be thinking: “How can there be three different costs to attend a college that has the same price for the same student?” Simply put, the different approaches are largely related to financial resources and market position.
Colleges in group one can afford to provide large grants and meet 100% of demonstrated financial need for two reasons: 1.) large endowments, and 2.) reputations that attract a large number of students who are willing (and able) to pay the full cost of attendance. These colleges enjoy the strongest market position. There probably are fewer than 100 of these colleges nationwide, and they are pretty difficult to get into.
Group two can afford to be fairly generous because they also enjoy a sizable proportion of students willing to pay the full cost of attendance. They use financial aid to support needy students and expand their market share. These are likely to be small, fairly affluent liberal arts colleges, of which there may be 150-200. These colleges are increasingly difficult to get into, and also are beginning to explore whether or not they can continue to meet 100% of demonstrated financial need.
The third group is a more complex and much larger group constantly trying to balance being affordable with being attractive to students. This group does not have the financial resources of the first two, and must make judgments about the amount of financial aid needed to enroll a student. These colleges are more likely to use merit- or talent-based scholarships to attract students who are very desirable, and then (through the gap) may ask for a greater financial commitment from students who demonstrate a greater likelihood of enrolling.
This is a dramatically different calculation than meeting a student’s demonstrated financial need, as the other groups are committed to doing. Many students who apply to colleges in this larger group will see a gap between the EFC and the cost of attendance after financial aid is applied. This gap is due to the fact that these colleges cannot afford to offer more financial assistance and cover their cost structure. This is increasingly common, and has resulted in financial aid leveraging practices that help colleges determine how much aid they can (or should) offer to enroll a student. The formulas used are based on data from prior years, and difficult for families to understand.
I don’t know that this will prevent any forthcoming gasps, but I think it’s important for students and parents to better understand how it is possible that a student with an EFC of $15,000 considering three colleges with the same price would be expected to pay $19,500 at one and $9,500 at another. For some families, the cost difference may be acceptable because of the strong perceived value in a more expensive college—ranging from prestige to specific offerings and characteristics. In other cases, the family might make a decision based primarily on cost to attend rather than the overall value of attending a college.
I suspect that most reading this will want to know why the process can’t be more predictable, and out-of-pocket costs more comparable. I don’t have a good answer, but I do think it’s critically important for students and parents to realize that the differences are dependent upon market share, resources and mission.
I posted the following during the first week of October of 2011 and again this week was startled by the number of senior level enrollment/admissions positions that are open throughout the nation.
Again, I repeat my initial question, where are all of these leaders going and do presidents and boards really understand what’s happening in the profession?
P.S. I have posted the new list of open positions (as of 1-4-2012) below the post.
From post to @bowtieadmissions from October 3, 2011
Once in a while I take a look at the jobs section of The Chronicle of Higher Education to see what’s happening and what’s happened to whom?
(Really, who in higher education doesn’t do this? It’s better than the public record in the local newspaper)
The last time I checked in I was astonished to see how many senior leadership positions in admissions and enrollment are available right now. (You can see the list below).
My astonishment led me to ask the following questions:
- Are these new positions?
- Are they newly configured positions?
- If they are not new, what happened to the person who had been there?
- Are these institutions at risk while searching for leadership?
- Are there a sufficient number of leaders to fill these positions?
- Has the pressure and responsibility of leadership in admissions and enrollment become so great that we need to brace ourselves for higher and more frequent turnover?
All of these are critical questions for our profession and for higher education.
More and more is expected of admissions/enrollment leaders than ever before and I wonder if the expectations are becoming too high?
I wonder if the talent pool is deep enough to withstand all of the shifting around (I suspect it is, but not without some pain)?
Are experienced admissions/enrollment leaders doing enough to mentor and train the next crop of leaders?
Are experienced leaders leaving the profession or just institution?
Do presidents and Boards clearly understand what’s happening in the enrollment/admissions world and the significant shifts underway?
I was once again reminded of Eric Hoover’s excellent article about the changing role of the senior admissions/enrollment leader and encourage you to take a look.
During these challenging times can institutions and higher education withstand all of this messiness in admissions and enrollment?
Is anyone else concerned about this? Is anyone talking about this on your campus?
I think we will also need to ask (for the sake of higher education) whether or not the best talent leave their current institution to take on a new challenge in a world that has become so pressurized?
What are your thoughts? For me, I have more questions than thoughts right now.
W. Kent Barnds a.k.a @bowtieadmission
Senior-level admissions/enrollment positions available as of January 4, 2012:
Vice President of Enrollment Management, Mount Mercy, Iowa
Vice President of Enrollment Management, Albion College, Michigan
Dean of Admissions, Bates College, Maine
Director of Admissions, University of Illinois-Springfield
Director of Admissions, Alaska Pacific
Vice President of Enrollment, Drew University, New Jersey
Director of Admissions, Ohio State University
Director of Admissions, University of Idaho
Vice President of Enrollment, Westminster, Utah
Vice President of Enrollment and Communication, Earlham College, Indiana
***Google the ads to check out the positions.
*This is the second post of several I will offer relative to the worth/value of higher education.
I think it is rather difficult to make the argument that a college degree, regardless of the institution where is was earned is not useful.
In fact, a recent Chronicle of Higher Education article cited Pew Research that confirms this:
“A curious thing happened when college graduates were asked about the value of their own degrees, however. In the Pew survey, 84 percent of those with degrees said college had been a good investment; only 7 percent said it had not.” (2011, Chronicle of Higher Education)
You can read the whole article here.
While I find all of this interesting and am really, really pleased that college graduates value their experience afterwards, it’s much more difficult to convince prospective students that they should look beyond a useful degree when selecting a college.
To be frank, I think it’s difficult for many to differentiate between a useful degree and a valuable degree. Some might say “big deal,” but for those of us who represent colleges priced in the top 15 percent of colleges nationwide, it is a big deal. We are challenged daily to identify those characteristics and experiences that makes us worth the price we charge.
In essence, we are challenged daily to convince prospects and parents that the degree offered by our institution is not only useful, but worth more or is more valuable than a degree offered by another college.
This is hard work!
I’ve thought about this quite a bit as the pressures mount to generate more net tuition revenue per student each year and have been attempting to frame this discussion. I’ll test some thoughts out on those of you who are reading this.
How in the world do we convince 18 year-old and their parents that the degree we offer is more valuable than the degree offered by another college?
About one year ago, Rev. Peter Marty, the senior pastor at the church I attend, delivered a sermon that got me thinking more intentionally about the differences between a useful and a valuable degree. His sermon differentiated between one’s “possessions” and “treasures.”
Pastor Marty included examples like the following:
House = possession…………..Home and family life = treasure
Job = possession……………….Having meaning/purpose in your work-life = treasure
Bank account = possession..Friends = treasure
Car = possession……………….Freedom = treasure
Religion = possession……….Faith =treasure
Calendar = possession………Time = treasure
As one could imagine, there was a compelling explanation of the subtle differences for each of these and I had several “aha” moments on that Sunday morning. I began to connect this idea of possession vs. treasure to the idea of distinguishing between a useful and a valuable college experience.
To further my premise, I developed some example that might be accessible to everyone in understanding the difference between useful and valuable.
A bicycle is a very useful mode of transportation, but it’s not particularly valuable for a long trip or in a rain or snow storm. Isn’t a motorized vehicle a more valuable mode of transportation? There is a value difference, right?
What about eyeglasses? One can pick up a pair of stock reading glasses in any pharmacy, but if you are near-sighted those glasses are not going to be very valuable, right? A customized prescrpition is needed to make a pair of glasses valuable.
There are many other examples that could be offered, but a picture of useful vs. valuable begins to emerge with this sort of story-telling about everyday items. Is it possible to do the same in higher ed? Is it possible to make the case that one experience is more valuable that another?
I believe it is possible. And, I think it’s possible without diminishing the fact that a useful degree is useful.
Let me offer two examples that we use at Augustana to try to illustrate the difference between useful and valuable.
One could study anatomy by playing the game Operation, which might be useful to get the basics. It would be better and more useful to study anatomy by using a text book and learning from a teacher. Is would be even more useful and valuable to actually be taught by the professor who authored the text book (as would be the case at Augustana because of Dr. Bob Tallitsch’s text). And, finally, wouldn’t it be worth more to not only learn about anatomy from the author of the text being used, but to have full access to hands-on learning in a cadaver lab?
There is a different between useful and valuable. Which would you choose? Which will serve you the best over the long run?
Learning about the Mississipi River and water ecology
One can learn a lot about the Mississippi River (arguably our the country’s most important water resource) by reading available books and watching documentaries about this waterway. Reading about and watching programs about the river can be useful to those who are interested in learning more. But, is reading and watching worth as much as learning on the river? How can one argue that actually being on the river conducting research with Dr. Ruben Heine is not worth more and more valuable than reading a book about the river or watching a documentary?
For those of us who believe in what our colleges do and believe we are worth the sticker price; we have a responsibility to prove our worth and demonstrate it in meaningful ways. We have to connect our value/worth with a student’s value.
If I were counseling a student, I’d encourage him or her to ask the following questions:
1. Is the academic course of study rigorous enough so that I’ll graduate with a solid body of knowledge?
2. Are the teaching practices and philosophy sound and tested?
3. Does this college have a reputation for graduates who succeed in the paths they choose?
4. Within the college’s expectations and requirements, is there flexibility so that I can follow my interests if they change?
5. Does the college offer the kinds of out-of-classroom experiences I want to broaden my horizons?
6. When I graduate, will I have a basic set of intellectual tools for my next steps, not knowing what those might be right now?
7. When I tell people I’m a graduate of (you name the college), will that help me gain their good opinion?
For those of us who are feeling the pressure to prove our worth, we’d better have great answers to these questions.
The challenge is to make sure the degree earned from your institution is perceived to be a treasure rather than solely a possession.
W. Kent Barnds
This week at Augustana College we are hosting a week of campus visit days. Each day of the week features different academic programs and disciplines and provides our visitors with an idea of what Augustana has to offer them should they choose to apply and enroll. For me, summer visit days are an eye-opener reinforcing the reality that the Class of 2015 is behind us and the work on next year’s group must begin in earnest.
It is this time of year that I begin to wonder what the next recruitment cycle will bring for Augustana and for the admissions profession as a whole? I find myself asking many questions. These are a few questions on my mind on hump-day of a week of campus visits?
How long will prospects continue to buy in to our philosophy that it takes more than one campus visit to get to know a college? Will their patience last through an open house, followed by and interview and an overnight visit? Will family finances continue to support robust visitation before a student applies? (more…)