At NACAC, some thoughts about The Coalition

A few days ago–probably not coincidentally just before the annual NACAC conference–we got a first look at the long-rumored Coalition for Access, Affordability, and Success.  Presumably, this group of about 80 high-profile private and large public institutions was founded to improve access, affordability, and success for populations traditionally underserved by our current admissions process.  Or, perhaps it would be better to say, “traditionally underserved by the institutions in ‘The Coalition for Access, Affordability, and Success’.”

According to this story in Inside Higher Education, the requirements for membership are a 70% graduation rate for all institutions; for public members, “affordable tuition along with need-based financial aid for in-state residents,” and for private institutions, a commitment to “provide sufficient financial aid to meet the full, demonstrated financial need of every domestic student they admit.”

So already, we’re in a sort of Alice and Wonderland mode.  Where to begin?

  • Several of these institutions are need-aware in admissions (and despite the rhetoric, I believe none of them are need-blind, a very nice sounding term that belies reality).  So if you’re poor, you don’t have an equal shot in the first place
  • Second, many of these institutions show graduation rates for Pell Grant students as much as 15 points lower than for non-Pell students, and sometimes as low as 58% for those students.  Shouldn’t the Pell Graduation rate be the measuring stick?  I’d think so.
  • Third, these places are among the very worst offenders when it comes to enrolling low-income students, according to their own data.  It’s not surprising that they are also the most selective (at least the privates.) But if they’re among the most selective, don’t you think they could find some low-income kids or first generation students among those they’re already rejecting? I would suspect so.  However, one of the admissions deans at one of these institutions implied–in public–that there just were not enough poor kids who were smart enough to do the work at her institution.  So maybe not. (Note: this visualization shows 2012 data instead of the most-recently available 2013 data because I was in a hurry and didn’t have time to start from scratch, so I reused an older visualization. I will update this when the 2014 data comes out this month.)
  • About a quarter of the public institutions have net prices of over $12,000 for students with family incomes under $30,000.  That’s a pretty big chunk of family incomes.  It’ seems to be inconsistent with affordable.
  • Finally, “meeting 100% of demonstrated need” might be a quibbling point for many.  Most of the private institutions in this group use Profile to collect additional financial information over and above what the federal form the FAFSA does, and while some students may get more aid after filing Profile, most get less.  Some colleges require a contribution of $5,000 from summer work for all students (even those who don’t make $5,000 in the summer), and others use large loans “to meet need.”  Need, of course, is an entirely silly construct, as I’ve written before.

To be fair, many of these institutions don’t have to share any of their wealth with poor students if they don’t think it’s in their mission to do so, so even 6% of freshmen with Pell might be viewed as altruistic beyond what is necessary.

So there’s that.

But these colleges also want to keep applications up and admit rates down, and offering poor kids the lottery ticket seems like a good way to do so.  If colleges told everyone they had to pay the $60,000 out of your own pocket, apps would probably plummet, or maybe increase dramatically from wealthier, but less qualified, students.  Thus, the expenditure on even a little bit of aid might seem like a good investment, or the cost of doing business in the higher education industry.

But there are a lot of other questions that might be asked, too.

For instance, one of the things The Coalition will be offering is an online suite of college planning tools, including a portfolio service to allow students to being assembling application support materials as early as the 9th grade.  This is not unlike what I recommended a while ago when I suggested Google might be a good way to manage college apps.  The difference is I was recommending it for everyone, not just applicants to these institutions.  You have to wonder, though: Who is most likely to jump on this service: Poorer kids with non-college-educated parents who attend under-resourced schools, or wealthier kids with college-focused parents who are already driving their college planning with counselors, test-prep, essay editing, and opportunities in “better” schools?  I’ll give you a moment to ponder that.  Along this line, one counselor said The Coalition should rename itself the “Independent College Counselor Full Employment Act of 2015.”

Do The Coaltion members plan to review all the portfolios of all the applicants or just those whom this initiative is intended to help?  I think this should be clear before many kids start this process.

What’s most puzzling in all this, at least to me, is the creation of a new Coalition Application students will be able to use to apply to the Coalition Colleges.  How will this application be different?  And, as it’s being built by College Net, a company that sued Common Application, and since the discussion of The Coalition appeared to surface after huge Common App problems in Fall of 2013 associated with roll out of a new platform, is this just a big “screw you,” to Common App?  Or is is a reaction to the Common App becoming, well, more common (in the pejorative sense of the word one might associate with wealth, prestige, and status)?

In that light, what about data sharing?  Will this be an opportunity for member institutions to share data on applicants, or will applicant privacy be respected as it is on the Common App?  Will the content in portfolios be reserved for member institutions, or will it be shared with other, non-Coalition schools?

Inquiring minds want to know.  And I’ve spoken to a lot of them today.  In fact, when there is an issue like this, and I’m the one serving as gadfly, I often do so alone.  This is unlike anything I’ve seen; I could not find a single person who thought it was good idea, or that it made sense.  That doesn’t mean there aren’t any, of course.  This appeared today.

Ultimately, I have a couple of big concerns:

  • First, the use of the name “Access” when there are many, many colleges who provide way more access to underserved kids.  True, we’re not the extraordinarily selective institutions, but still, thinking that you must go to a selective institution is part of the big college admissions problem this country already faces.
  • Second, the big question: How does a more fragmented application process help poor kids who are already intimidated by the complexity of the admission process?  I’m scratching my head on that one; I just don’t see it, and neither does a single high school counselor I’ve spoken to today.
  • The concern–like I have with the 568 Group–that this is a price-fixing scheme.  Will there be common needs analysis, or will competition (which only helps the student, despite what many tell you) reign supreme?
  • Finally, my feeling that this is mostly a public relations ploy by institutions who have come under some heat lately for not enrolling low-income students in great numbers.  In fact, the initial press release, coming from a public relations consultant, rather than one of the members only adds to my suspicion.

In my presentation yesterday, during which I touched briefly on a few of these points, I mentioned this group was acting more like a cartel (designed to limit competition and fix price) than a coalition.

I might be 100% wrong about all of this, of course.  But I’d like to see something other than aphorisms before admitting it.

2 thoughts on “At NACAC, some thoughts about The Coalition

  1. Thank you for telling it like it is. I read an interview that talked about submitting a page from a diary. Really? This quote from Ann McDermott’s essay in Inside Higher Ed left me scratching my head.

    “For example, a student from a low-income background can now use the collaborative platform to invite mentors, advisers, a parent and others to engage in a dialogue. They can provide feedback directly on the platform and let the student know if what he or she is producing is on the right track.”

    Maybe an “adviser” has some knowledge of college admissions issues, but is a parent, mentor or “others” going to be able to tell a low-income student if they are on the “right track”?


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