Writing About What’s Wrong and What’s Right in Admission

First, some interesting news this morning: Goucher College in Baltimore, a fine liberal-arts college, has announced it will no longer require a transcript for admission purposes.  Instead, students have the option of submitting some writing samples along with a short application and a self-made video of up to two minutes in length.

Predictably, comments on Higher Ed websites have equated this decision with all sorts of societal ills, some suggesting this is a sign of the downfall of civilization. More predictably, many people appear not to have read the news release or watched the video that explained it all, preferring instead to react to a headline suggesting a video was all it took to get admitted, or that you couldn’t still apply the old-fashioned way.  Of course, there is the usual selection of cynical comments (hey, I’m cynical, and these people have nothing on me…): Goucher is desperate, this is a publicity stunt, they’re open admissions anyway (because their admit rate is over 25%, apparently).  And of course, the famous, “This is to game the USNWR ratings,” a favorite of non-thinking people everywhere.

I’ve written before, both here and here and here  (and many other places) that there is a lot wrong with the way we do college admissions.  The system needs a good shakeup, at least in process, and perhaps, ala Goucher, in concept.

It’s no secret that, although we can tell with some degree of certainty who’s going to be able to pass academic muster in our universities based on an admissions file, we have very little capacity to predict which student is going to be the superstar and who’s going to just scrape by. The transcript is the best we have, but it’s far from perfect and it’s far from complete. It’s like minor league batting average and major league performance; yes, there is some connection, but it’s far from predictable. Or Heisman Trophy winners and NFL careers.  Or NBA draft picks. Despite all the science and numbers that go evaluation of future professional athletes, there are human elements that defy description, measure, and interpretation.  We should try, whenever possible, to get at that information, and try new approaches.

It’s curious how vested some people seem to be in what happens at colleges they don’t know much about.  As one commenter on one of the sites said, the only one with real skin in the game is Goucher; they’re taking all the risk, and this makes outside criticism very strange indeed.

Having gone through the crap of uninformed critics when we went test-optional at DePaul, I wish Goucher the best.  And I encourage others to take bold steps in this direction.  Higher Education is cursed with incremental change that lags behind society’s pace.  Something like this is exciting.

Onto the bad stuff: Flagler College recently released a report detailing the investigation and findings of the mis-reporting of admissions data over several years, and puts the blame solely at the foot of the former VP for Enrollment Management.  A hat tip to Jim Jump, former NACAC President, for posting this on the NACAC list today.

It points out all that is bad about admissions, and, to a lesser extent, the society in which admissions operates.  Extreme pressure in EM is not rare, and it often comes from boards or presidents or provosts who are driven by those input measures of prestige the industry is so focused on.  As is often the case, no one seemed to be able to tell that the numbers had been inflated for several years: No one said, “You know, this class doesn’t seem like a class with an average ACT of 24…I’d say it’s more like a 22.9.”  One professor did notice at the student-level that some of his students had in-class performance inconsistent with reported test scores, and the smoking gun was an audit trail in which the former VP actually edited student records to get the numbers, rather than just changing the averages, as seems to have been the case at most places.

Jim Jump discounts the conclusion of the lone gunman, and I do too, as I did in the Claremont-McKenna case.  But regardless, it’s clear that cheating happens because it gets rewarded.  And it gets rewarded because people who have a lot to say frequently don’t understand our business.  None of which excuses it, of course.

If you think about it, these responses are two sides of the same coin: In both instances, someone is responding to an admissions process that just doesn’t serve anyone except the ones it’s always served very well. And it’s a great lesson in how you respond to problems: Do you curse the darkness, or light a candle?

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