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‘More Than Narrow Measures’

In an article today I describe a new paper by Jerome A. Lucido, executive director of the University of Southern California’s Center for Enrollment Research, Policy, and Practice. Colleges, he proposes, should form a “league” in which cooperation tempers the competition among them. He imagines a consortium of colleges functioning more like the National Football League, bound by the same rules and collaborating for the common good even as they strive to “win.”

Mr. Lucido did not pull this idea out of thin air, of course. From 1954 to 1991, nearly two dozen selective colleges formed the Overlap Group, whose members met regularly to compare aid packages given to students who had been accepted by more than one of the colleges. The group’s stated purpose was to keep bidding wars in check and so spread aid funds to as many students as possible. The federal government, however, brought antitrust charges against the group, and legal settlements ended a period of significant collaboration in the realm of admissions and financial aid.

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology was the lone institution to fight the case. In 1993 the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit ruled that the Overlap Group’s meetings did not violate antitrust law, writing that the group “may in fact merely regulate competition in order to enhance it, while also deriving certain social benefits.”

On Tuesday, I caught up with Mr. Lucido to discuss the ideas in his paper. Following is an edited transcript of our talk.

Q. Recently there’s been some talk about the need for more collaboration among colleges, an idea that’s come up many times in the past. Only nothing has happened. What’s different now?

A. There are presidents who really want to see this, but they’re not acting, they’re not speaking up. There is an effort right now in [the Council of Independent Colleges] to discuss ideas about merit aid and need-based aid, and to have conversations with the Justice Department. And this comes right out of the words of the appeals-court decision, that, in some cases, harnessing competition can enhance it. Therefore, it shouldn’t be out of bounds for us to talk about scaling back merit aid and putting more into need-based aid.

Q. Your paper describes the competitive mind-set of college leaders. How did this mind-set develop? Was there ever really a time when there was anything close to an all-for-one ethos in higher education?

A. Institutions have always been competitive, and competition is in our nature. But there was a time when a collective interest was more widely recognized, when we acted collectively in response to the needs of the country. … After the baby boomers went through college, there was a widespread concern in higher education that, hey, we’ve built up all these institutions and the number of students is going to drop off. Then the marketing began, and the mind-set of a business came into being.

Q. You describe the competing goals of enrollment management as a “hydra.” Generally, what do presidents and trustees need to know about this great and terrible beast that they might not already know or understand?

A. You hear a lot of concern at admissions conferences that rankings rule the prestige roost, and fund raising and tuition rule the financial roost, and that diversity and access can occur only to the extent that those first two goals are achieved. The nation needs something different from us. They need more than narrow measures and narrow numbers that really don’t measure educational quality. There’s a broader goal that we have to achieve here, and we’re achieving it on the margins.

Q. Standardized need calculations. Binding four-year estimates. Reductions in merit aid. Shared fund-raising efforts for financial aid. You suggest all of these, but are they doable? How much could, say, a tuition-dependent private college commit to all of these things?

A. The idea of the league is that folks would be doing it in agreement and in unison, and that does actually make it possible for institutions to say, You know, we’ll scale back this merit aid by 10 percent among our group so that we can achieve as a group these other objectives. If we were to get together on some of these issues, my contention is that would result in greater inclusion and greater rates of success for students.

Q. In the spirit of your paper’s football theme, I’ll ask one final question: Niners or Ravens?

A. I don’t know. Baltimore stole the Browns, my hometown team. But I’m probably going for the Ravens. I just want a good game.

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