• September 4, 2015

Breaking the 'Cruel Cycle of Selectivity' in Admissions

Breaking the 'Cruel Cycle of Selectivity' in Admissions 1

Joyce Hesselberth for The Chronicle

Enlarge Image
close Breaking the 'Cruel Cycle of Selectivity' in Admissions 1

Joyce Hesselberth for The Chronicle

In pursuit of revenue and prestige, colleges have ramped up their marketing machines. Many now generate thousands more applications than are needed to select an economically viable and talented freshman class. An explosion in rejection letters has matched the explosion in applications as students vie to enter ever-more-selective institutions. Both students and colleges are caught up in a "cruel cycle of selectivity," as Eric Hoover rightly described the process in a recent article in The Chronicle.

 For students, the cruel cycle means making choices in high school on the basis of what they believe college-admissions officers will want to see rather than on the basis of a personal quest for knowledge, self-understanding, and self-reliance. It means filing more applications and paying more application fees because the outcome of the admission process is increasingly in doubt. For those who can afford it, it means spending hours in test-prep classes and working with personal counselors who are paid to tailor and refine their applications. It also means that many students who come from families without college experience feel that college is unattainable. Sadly, this comes at precisely the time that the nation needs those students to aspire to and prepare for success in higher education.

For colleges, the cycle is a relentless drive for status, prestige, and revenue, in which the metrics are unequivocal: Applications must increase, test scores must rise, acceptance rates must fall, and enough full payers must attend to finance the institution's goals and aspirations. Nearly all colleges use extensive direct-mail and electronic marketing, and many are adding recruiters and sending them abroad in pursuit of new markets. Others employ direct-mail "fast applications," promulgate early-admission plans, and engage in financial-aid leveraging that can adversely affect socioeconomic diversity. Still others hire consulting firms to do the strategic marketing for them.

Meanwhile, the nation's demographics amply demonstrate that few institutions can post gains across each of those metrics, cer­tainly not without leaving out most low-income and minority students, and not without directing attention away from the nation's dire need for greater degree attainment.

College and university leaders—trustees, presidents, chief academic officers—have the unenviable responsibility of ensuring their institutions' continued financial viability while pursuing increasingly ambitious academic missions. In this pursuit, their strong turn to the competitive marketplace is understandable. But it is also clear that more is happening here. There is an insatiable appetite for prestige and status that accompanies the drive for revenues. What we see now is that marketplace competition has escalated to the point at which it threatens to become the mission rather than to serve the mission. And for what gain?

An institution can achieve short-term market advantage through aggressive marketing, but in due time competitors will match and then surpass that edge. The escalating competition raises institutional costs, invariably resulting in higher tuition and a greater need to admit students whose families can pay full price.

While some institutions can handle the added expense, there are broader costs that no college can handle alone. As numerous scholars have documented, zealous pursuit of institutional interest has come at the expense of social goals and the public trust. Moreover, there is a loss of educational values, a loss that we cannot afford. One effect of our pursuit of rankings and prestige has been to change how students view college. No longer seen as the crucial capstone of an educational journey, a degree is now regarded as a ticket to economic advantage. Students and institutions alike, it seems, are branding themselves in pursuit of positioning.

The needs of the nation and the realities of the marketplace require us to approach college admissions with metrics that encourage competition in areas that really matter and in ways that send strong educational messages to students, families, governments—and ourselves. Call it practical idealism. Here are a few of those metrics:

  • The lives we have changed; the families we have changed: How many first-generation students have we recruited, matriculated, nurtured, and graduated? How many low-income students?
  • The ways we have developed the students entrusted to us: What knowledge have they gained? What habits of mind have they developed? What skills have they mastered in the application of their newfound knowledge and habits of mind?
  • Student participation in and benefit from the elements of our programs that we promote: How many and what proportion have international experi­ences, engage in research, serve the community, pursue interdisciplinary study, receive individualized advising?
  • Faculty evaluations of our students' intellectual curiosity, vitality, and perspectives: Do they think, write, and speak critically, nimbly, and effectively? Do they demonstrate a keen interest in learning? Do they stimulate the thinking of one another and their instructors?
  • Student evaluations of the intellectual depth, inquisitive nature, developmental approach, and perspectives of our faculty: Do professors demonstrate a keen interest in the subject matter? Do they communicate it meaningfully and well? Do they provide methods and encouragement for each student to master it?
  • Other key metrics, similarly treated, include the number and percentage of students who complete their programs, and the extent to which our students (and their families, their employers, and their communities) attribute their growth to us.

Competing on those grounds would elevate higher education through the messages we send, the way we evaluate candidates, the results we produce, and the service we provide. It would permit us to reclaim lost public trust and to regenerate our educational values. As an added benefit, improvements in these areas would influence and strengthen elementary and secondary education by stimulating enlightened curriculum and instruction and by engendering higher aspirations among a wider representation of students.

The pressure on deans and directors of admission and enrollment to "meet their numbers" is enormous. The recommended set of "new numbers" will spread the pressure across the campus in educationally productive ways. But to do so, they must be adopted, promoted, and rewarded by trustees, presidents, and provosts.

With that in mind, this month, in partnership with the Education Conservancy, the University of Southern California's Center for Enrollment Research, Policy, and Practice will hold a national forum, "The Case for Change in College Admissions," to address what is right, what is wrong, and what must be changed. We must act collectively to identify a new framework for college admissions, one that will allow those leaders to chart a more productive way toward prestige, popularity, and revenue.

Jerome A. Lucido is a professor of research and executive director of the Center for Enrollment Research, Policy, and Practice in the Rossier School of Education at the University of Southern California.


1. gplm2000 - January 18, 2011 at 01:53 pm

AUTHOR: "...the nation's demographics amply demonstrate that few institutions can post gains across each of those metrics, cer­tainly not without leaving out most low-income and minority students, and...nation's dire need for greater degree attainment." The article is only about pushing diversity. When do educators stop worshiping at the altar of diversity and start focusing on their subjects? At what point do intellectuals start worrying about educating and inspiring the majority of students? Guess who is paying your salary.

2. 11159786 - January 19, 2011 at 07:05 am

The reference to the "nation's dire need for degree attainment" is both clumsy wording and misguided logic. The quality of the students is in decline, as is the amount of time they spend studying, as are their job prospects upon graduation. Why increase the numbers of such students?

3. jonespe - January 19, 2011 at 09:28 am

Metrics must be the new buzz word. Five times in this brief essay...

4. jlpca - January 19, 2011 at 10:26 am

gplm2000 (comment #1): "What we see now is that marketplace competition has escalated to the point at which it threatens to become the mission rather than to serve the mission. And for what gain?" This is the central point of the article, and of profound concern to most educators.

You sound like you have an axe to grind when you use buzzwords like "alter of diversity" and "...intellectuals (should) start worrying about educating...the majority of students..." when the article was precisely about how to better serve all our students.

5. drj50 - January 19, 2011 at 12:26 pm

I'd love to see more schools define their market as average (or even low-income or at-risk) students, tailor curriculum and services to help those students succeed, and document these students' success. When will the higher education community recognize that not every school can be Lake Woebegone U (you know, where all the students are above average)?

6. drj50 - January 19, 2011 at 01:00 pm

Really, what I meant to say was that I would love to see more schools take pride in admitting, educating, and graduating average or even academically challenged students. Even schools who mostly admit average students advertize their honors college. Most students fall near the middle of the bell curve. What is so bad about serving them and serving them well?

7. ohreally - January 19, 2011 at 01:28 pm

11159786 - January 19, 2011 at 07:05 am
What's the alternative?
This country has decided to gut public K-12 education, so for virtually all of our economic good, American students must get higher degrees to acquire the knowledge and skills necessary on a global economic scale. At the individual level, with the shrinking of wealth in the middle class and its redistribution to the tiny fraction who do not partake of public education, students and their families feel (largely, correctly, in my view) they must do anything they can to gain a competetive advantage. Ironically, as the cost of higher education increases along with it perceived necessity, the less real value it has. For many, that bachelors from a respectable U will not mean much economically and in terms of life chances, certainly not as much as they had hoped. Most of us have not adjusted to the fact that we live in an un-developing country and that education as entry into financial and social stability and upward mobility is far more precarious.

8. 11147066 - January 19, 2011 at 03:36 pm

Mr. Lucido is a voice crying in the wilderness. The current admissions climate will not change but plenty of admissions deans will issue disingenuous statements about wanting to help students find the best "match." It is relatively easy for a school to maintain selectivity: money spent on misleading junk mail and invitations to apply are really all it requires. Only when enough students and parents decide not to cooperate and to scale back the ten, fifteen or twenty applications per student to the much smaller number that used to be the norm will things change.
Mr. Lucido makes several excellent points but a more interesting article would be one which directly confronts deans of admissions at selective colleges with hard and pointed questions about their recruitment techniques and the real statistics than drive them.
That does not appear likely to happen because consumers still want the product these schools are selling, regardless of Mr. Lucido's valid assertion that there are many other more accurate ways to judge a college's quality.

9. rodneytoady - January 19, 2011 at 05:25 pm

Ask students why they're at college. Ask their parents. I would predict that things like "learning" aren't too high on the priority list. Instead, you'll find things like "so I can get a good job when I finish," "I need to go to college before I can get into a graduate/professional school," "it's part of growing up," and "all my friends are going to college." Maybe you'll get a few "nobody in my family has done it before and I want to make them proud of me," or if they're honest, "I want to party a lot and have sex with a lot of different people for four years."

There is a percentage of students who are there for the love of learning and to understand themselves and the world around them. There is another percentage who aren't there for that purpose, but find it a welcome benefit. And there are a whole lot of others who are there because they think it's the only way to get a good job, and because going to college is "just what people do."

That's your customer base.

10. nandoh23 - January 29, 2011 at 08:47 pm

I feel as though I'm in the minority but this I agree very much with most of the points made in the article.

Take a brief look at any job posting and when you see the small print that says "Bachelor's degree required," that is one of the main reasons why most people are applying to attend college in order to get that proverbial foot into the employment door so to speak.

The recent trend in this economic climate has made it a much stiffer competition as people from the so called "selective" institutions are now competing for jobs they would ordinarily would never contemplate pursuing. This in turn gives colleges the opportunity to be more selective as applications are on the rise.

The point the article tries to make is what realistic chances do the lower to middle income high school students have of getting into competitive colleges when the schools are selling them on the fact that they need a degree from them to be competitive in the work force.

I for one have no issues with the marketing or admissions criteria most schools seek, and for what its worth, every student needs to do a bit of research before applying to any school. In their hear of hearts, you always have a sense of your chances and when in doubt you apply to a safety school.

The issue is what happens when you arrive on the college campus. Are we actually teaching something.... are the students learning something that will benefit them after 4 years at your institution, but that's an entirely different conversation.

Add Your Comment

Commenting is closed.

  • 1255 Twenty-Third St., N.W.
  • Washington, D.C. 20037
subscribe today

Get the insight you need for success in academe.