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Admissions Officials Do Some Soul-Searching

Los Angeles—Sponsors of future admissions conferences might want to consider furnishing guests with complimentary whips. Wherever enrollment officials gather these days, it seems, bouts of self-flagellation follow: “Woe, the admissions system is broken,” goes the wail, “what a mess we’ve made!” And then everyone goes home again.

There was plenty of hand-wringing here last week during a three-day summit (“The Case for Change in College Admissions”) hosted by the University of Southern California’s Center for Enrollment Research, Policy, and Practice. Speakers fretted about the intense competition for applicants, the stress levels of students, the tightening of institutional budgets, and the quality of instruction  inside college classrooms.

Some of the discussion transcended the usual gripe-and-groan routine, however. I heard refreshingly frank appraisals of what ails the system, and some forward-looking proposals for treating those ills. Although opinions varied, there was general agreement that college leaders must start thinking of their respective institutions as part of an interdependent education system, redefine their recruitment goals and strategies to account for the increasing diversity of high-school graduates, and play much larger roles in preparing underprivileged students for college.

In his opening address, Andrew Delbanco, director of American Studies at Columbia University, described the ethical and psychological implications of the admissions arms race. He argued that elite colleges had become engines of self-congratulation. “Every year, deans and presidents announce that this year’s class is the best ever,” he said. “They define the quality of the institution by how many applications they throw away, which, if you think about it, is pretty weird.”

The way superselective colleges talk about themselves, Mr. Delbanco suggested, shapes applicants’ understanding of what it means to be accepted (or denied), often for the worse. “We could all stand to lower our self-esteem just a little,” he said.

For the next 48 hours, there was more than a dash of scorn for the nation’s most-selective colleges. William R. Fitzsimmons, dean of admissions and financial aid at Harvard University, joked that he felt as if he were representing Satan or Voldemort when he took the podium. Mr. Fitzsimmons noted—accurately—that Harvard was not the only high-profile college that had seen its application totals reach stratospheric levels. The host institution’s numbers are in the neighborhood of Harvard’s, in part because of intense, globe-spanning recruitment.

Constraints From Above

Application totals are powerful metrics, of course. Several enrollment officials here said they felt constrained by presidents and trustees who expected “better” numbers each and every year. “Once you make sure you’ve got more applications, that your average SAT scores have gone up, and that you’ve brought in more tuition revenue, only then you can think about enhancing the diversity of the class,” said one veteran enrollment official. One dean said he was frustrated by his administrators’ demand for more and better applicants, but that he was afraid to suggest changing his recruitment tactics: “I’m not going to put my head on the chopping block.”

Robert Zemsky, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education, acknowledged the difficulty of convincing institutional leaders that intense competition is problematic. “As far as they’re concerned, for all the hue and cry, it does get them good students,” he said.

Nevertheless, Mr. Zemsky warned that the dynamics of the higher-education market are changing in ways that might redefine the nature of competition among four-year colleges. For one thing, for-profit institutions have become major players at the same time that budget cuts are forcing institutions to do more with less. “Do not be disdainful of [for-profits], because they will eat you alive,” he told the audience. “You are about to go up against Wal-Mart, and the only way to compete is to become True Value hardware stores.”

William G. Tierney, a professor of higher education at Southern California, challenged admissions officers to redefine their understanding of what it means to shape the perfect freshman class. In short, the wants of individual colleges must match the needs of the nation. “If we want to craft a class that is as diverse as we will be in 2023, we need to make big changes,” he said.

To that end, he proposed that colleges adopt 10 underperforming high schools and provide students at each with regular college counseling and financial-aid seminars. “The students in these schools need intentional and systematic engagement,” he said. “We can’t act as if we’re above the fray.”

Thinking Out of the Box

Some speakers proposed ideas for reforming the admissions process that were far-fetched, yet intriguing. Michael S. McPherson, an economist and president of the Spencer Foundation, proposed that several highly selective colleges form a consortium that would offer a joint early-admission program. He imagined something similar to the matching process at medical schools, in which applicants rank their top choices.

Such a system, Mr. McPherson suggested, might ease application inflation, not to mention its attendant anxieties. “Schools would give up discretion but gain a reduction in uncertainty,” he said. “Students would give up discretion but gain peace of mind.”

That proposal drew puzzled looks from some members of the audience, as did a suggestion by Arlene Wesley Cash, Spelman College’s vice president for enrollment management, that four-year institutions consider establishing articulation agreements with for-profit institutions. But such ideas represented the kind of unconventional thinking that Jerome A. Lucido, the center’s executive director, had hoped the conference would spark.

One recurring question was this: Just how much did the behaviors of the nation’s most-selective colleges really matter? Some speakers insisted that fixating on the anxieties of affluent, high-achieving students who take a zillion advanced courses only distracts from more pressing problems. Philip A. Ballinger, assistant vice president for enrollment management and director of admissions at the University of Washington, said admissions officers should worry more about the many high-school students who are unprepared for college than about those suffering from “AP overload.”

Anthony P. Carnevale, director of Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce, said that because elite colleges educate relatively few of the nation’s students, “in the grand scheme, they don’t matter much.”

Still, how hyperselective college operate is of more than symbolic importance to other institutions. “What those colleges do cascades down to everyone else,” the dean of admissions at one liberal-arts college whispered to me over crème brûlée, “because we all want to be like Harvard.”

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