Friday, December 26, 2008

Higher Ed Cop Out #1

The first in what I intend to be an ongoing series, these briefs will document practices that colleges and universities employ to supposedly accomplish an honorable goal, but are in fact practices that promote inequality and do long-term damage to higher education....

Cop Out #1: Need-Sensitive Admissions Practices

Definition: The practice of taking a student's financial need into account when determining whether to admit her. Said to only be used for "marginal cases" and with attention paid "with one eye open" this is generally used with the excuse that resources are tight and it's better to fully fund all admitted students than to partially fund a larger number.

Examples: In the past, elite universities such as Brown, Bryn Mawr, Johns Hopkins, Carleton, Oberlin and Vassar among others have admitted to this. Most recently, Beloit College in Wisconsin joined in.

The downsides: (1) This is a policy driven by an untested assumption-- that students with 100% of their need met are more successful than those with a lower percentage of need originally met. No solid research exists to back this. (2) Given the correlation between high school academic performance , test scores, and financial need, this will inevitably result in the decision to not admit greater numbers of low-income students. (3) A reduction in economic diversity of the campus could have lasting consequences-- in future prospective pools of students (low-income students, even the most talented, may well count themselves out when made aware), in the eyes of the public, in the eyes of U.S. Department of Ed and others concerned with student composition as an accountability measure. (4) Finally, there is no guarantee of real lasting cost-savings, or the relative effectiveness of this policy compared to other options.

In sum, a short-sighted solution to a long-term problem. Don't get me wrong-- I am completely sympathetic to tuition-dependent colleges who without state support are highly sensitive to fluctuations in enrollment. I really doubt Beloit's decision was independent of their recent loss of 10% of their staff after a drop in their enrollment yield of only 36 students! (Public universities considering forgoing state support in favor of private dollars ought to keep this in mind.) But the solution does not lie in this form of enrollment management which threatens to undermine a principle goal of higher education, a route to social mobility. In this day and age, a move to need-sensitive admissions would likely only exacerbate gaps in college attainment and perpetuate growth in income inequality--leaving a greater swath with even more need.

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