Monday, September 28, 2015

The Peacekeeper Missile Comes to Admissions

Maybe  you're too young to remember the Ronald Reagan presidency, but one of the things I remember most is the "Peacekeeper Missile." People were incensed by what they believed to be political doublespeak worthy of the book 1984.  Missiles were objects of destruction, not something you associated with peace.  Change the language, change the discussion.

So today, this happened.  In what Inside Higher Ed is calling "An Admissions Revolution," eighty of the country's top colleges have formed a "Coalition," (a nice political sounding word: I mean, they form coalitions in Canada, so it must be nice, right?) to create a new application as well as a new portfolio system for students, who can start as early as the 9th grade, to assemble documents and other resources, not unlike my suggestion about Google managing the application process.  The goal, ostensibly, is to get more low-income and first generation students interested and ready to go to college, and to apply to these mostly-selective institutions.

This sounds great, right? Right?  You'd think so.

Of course, if you know anything about college admissions, your first question might be this: Today, one day after the announcement, which group is probably more aware of The Coalition?  A) first generation, low-income, students of color from under-resourced high schools, or B) white students of wealthier, college-educated families who already being planning for college at--or well before--the 9th grade.  I'll give you a moment.

In an industry already obsessed with prestige, this sounds like a club that won't take just anyone as a member, unlike the Common App, which has recently--God help us all--begun to allow colleges to determine for themselves what admissions criteria are important.

The collective gasp from the super selective members of Common App sounded like a Rockefeller in the presence of someone who extended the wrong pinkie finger when drinking tea.  "We just can't have these, these, Commoners, in the Common App," they decided without discerning a hint of irony, and they started their own country club, which of course, will do the requisite charity work one expects of any decent country club.

The standards for membership are fairly arbitrary: A 70% graduation rate for all members; for privates, a pledge to meet "demonstrated need," (a patently ridiculous term both in definition and in the way it's practiced) and for publics, "affordable tuition for and need-based aid for in-state students."

Does that seem backwards to you?  Shouldn't public institutions, which I believe were generally founded by the public for the public, be held to a higher standard of serving, you know, the public they're supposed to serve?  And of course, remember my frequent rant that high graduation rates are an input, not an output.  Even as blunt an instrument as US News and World report recognizes that if you enroll more Pell grant recipients, your graduation rate will drop.

Which brings me to the last point.  These institutions are, for the most part, selected from the institutions that a) have the most resources, b) charge the most, and c) enroll the fewest Pell grant kids.  Is this new application, which fragments the process even further, and clearly--not even possibly, but clearly--favors wealthier kids really the answer?

Or is the name--The Coalition for Access, Affordability and Success--just a political ploy from institutions that don't really seem to know much about access in the first place?  A new take on the Peacekeeper Missile? An homage to 1984?

Look at this, showing about 1700 four-year private and public institutions, each as a bubble.  The Coalition institutions are in red, everyone else in gray.  Colleges to the right have higher median SAT scores in the freshman class (another proxy for wealth, of course); colleges lower on the chart have fewer Pell grant kids as a percentage of all freshmen.  Larger dots are wealthier.  Hover over any dot for details about that college.

The the two-bar chart on the top shows Pell Grant enrollment.

There is one filter, to allow you to look at all institutions, just public, or just private.  Go ahead, click. See if it makes much difference.  And remember:

“War is peace. 
Freedom is slavery. 
Ignorance is strength.”

“It's a beautiful thing, the destruction of words.”