Is Freshman Admission Only About Prestige?

The Background

In October 2014, Bloomberg Philanthropies announced a $10 million investment to assist talented high school students of modest means gain access to “top” colleges and universities — “top” being defined as institutions with graduation rates consistently in excess of 70 percent. (There are now 270 institutions meeting that criterion.) Research had shown that less than half of high-achieving, low-income students applied to any “top” school, and this initiative was meant to address that problem.

In the press release, David Coleman, president of the College Board, said, “We cannot stand by while remarkable low-income students do not access the opportunities they have earned.” Mr. Bloomberg himself saw this as a worthy project because, as he said, “America is the world’s greatest meritocracy” and we need to make sure “that family income does not prevent talented and qualified students from applying to top colleges.” Both gentlemen were arguing that more high-achieving, low-income students needed to be encouraged to apply to “top” colleges. On the other hand, Walter Isaacson, president of the Aspen Institute, said, “Top universities and colleges…cannot fully succeed…if they don’t enroll American’s top talent from all socioeconomic backgrounds to maximize our nation’s potential.” He put colleges and universities on notice that it is their responsibility to admit more talented low-income students. That is, it’s not just that more such students should apply; “top” schools need to accept them.

The press release itself, however, went beyond just arguing for fairness in the admissions process to note the economic benefit to the individual student: “Students who attend these [top] schools have earnings that are about 25 percent higher than those who attend less selective colleges.” I’ll examine the validity of that argument shortly.

Over the succeeding two years, several actions were anticipated, including the development of a cohort of advisers who would be matched with students of low and moderate means to provide guidance; the creation of research funds to allow analysis of the impact of the initiative; and the funding and convening of a task force of college and university presidents who would, guided by the Aspen Institute, “develop actionable recommendations [to] enroll and graduate substantially more of these high-achieving, low- and moderate-income students.”

Today

On Dec. 13, 2016, Ithaka S+R (a nonprofit that provides advice and guidance to the academic community), in conjunction with the Aspen Institute, announced the creation of the American Talent Initiative, a program that is the outgrowth of the Bloomberg Philanthropies grant. At present, 30 “top” colleges and universities (21 private, nine public) have signed on; more are expected in the coming years, but only institutions with graduation rates above 70 percent will be eligible.

This press release was picked up nationally the same day by, among others, Inside Higher Ed and David Leonhardt in his column in The New York Times. Mr. Leonhardt was especially effusive in his praise of the initiative.

And why wouldn’t he be? What’s not to like about a push for greater economic inclusiveness in the makeup of the freshman classes of very good colleges and universities, many of which have historically enrolled only a handful of low-income students?

As it happens, there are quite a few problems, both practical and theoretical, about this initiative. Consider:

• The only good school is a “top” school. Think of the “top” schools, collectively, of representing the summit of Mount Everest. It is the highest mountain in the world! No other mountain is its equal! Only the very best mountaineers can ever expect to reach its summit, and therefore the cachet of having done so is particularly strong, because the number of successful climbers is so small. Many may aspire, but few will succeed. This is a terrible metaphor for higher education, and yet it’s how many people think about college choice: “I must climb Mount Everest, or live my life as a failure. I must be admitted to a ‘top’ school or have everyone see me as a loser.” Surely, what we most want for our children is the opportunity for them to receive a great education that prepares them for success in a career and in life, as opposed to valuing most not their college experience but the name of the school that appears on the diploma.

• Capacity problems. American Talent Initiative’s goal is to increase the numbers of high-achieving, low-income students entering “top” colleges by 50,000 over the next 10 years—and there are currently at least 12,500 such students graduating from high school each year. These are not small numbers. How will the “top” colleges and universities accommodate the influx? The nine public universities that now each enroll an average of more than 29,000 undergraduates can presumably grow (although one wonders if a campus of such enormous size is the best learning environment for high-achieving, low-income students), but the 21 private colleges and universities (averaging 4,500 undergraduates each) do not intend to grow their enrollment — meaning that the high-achieving, low-income students will displace some of the high-achieving, higher-income students (or legacy students) these schools are now enrolling. For these schools, it is a zero sum game. In order to create more winners, there have to be more losers — and the competition for slots will be even more intense, and the pressure on high school seniors to gain admission to “top” schools will be even more intense and traumatic that it is at present. Just what high school seniors need: more stress.

• Why not expand capacity? Surely, the solution is to create a better balance between supply and demand: there are presently too many very good students trying to gain access to a limited number of freshmen seats. Why aren’t we working harder to expand the number of “top” schools? If the criterion is a graduation rate of 70 percent, can’t we create incentives for schools to retain and graduate more of their students in order to reach the 70 percent level? At Roger Williams University, through specific programs and practices we have implemented over the past five years, we have raised our freshman-to-sophomore retention rate from 78 percent to 84 percent, and our four-year graduation rate from 58 percent to 64 percent (for the entering class of 2012). Since the 70 percent target is a measure of the six-year graduation rate, it is entirely possible that RWU’s entering class of 2012 will reach that figure by May of 2018. Moreover, since subsequent classes are being retained at even higher rates than the entering class of 2012, RWU is not far off demonstrating a consistent graduation rate above 70 percent.

Will that make RWU a “top” school? Well, yes, in the sense that we will qualify, according to the criterion used by the American Talent Initiative. But the more important point is that a substantial number of colleges and universities could reach this figure if they tried actively to do so — and more “top” schools would reduce the anxiety of high school seniors (and their parents) seeking admission only to a “top” college or university.

At the very least, efforts by schools to reach graduation rates of 70 percent or more would respond to those who think that American higher education currently consists of just two categories: a relative handful of truly exceptional universities, separated by a giant chasm from a huge number of institutions unworthy of a second look by any talented and ambitious student. We need to create more universities that are seen as exceptional; to return to an earlier metaphor, we need more mountains to accommodate those who aspire to climb them.

• “Top” is not properly defined. For purposes of this study, a “top” school is one that consistently has a graduation rate over 70 percent. But this relatively high graduation rate is less a function of the quality of the educational program than it is the result of a rigorous winnowing of the applicant pool. These are schools that are designated “more selective” or “most selective,” meaning that they accept less than 30 percent of their applicant pool (in some cases, less than 10 percent), and the students who are accepted are almost invariably exceptionally well qualified, as demonstrated by high school GPA, class rank and test scores. Any college or university with large numbers of such students can expect to see high retention and graduation rates. Indeed, if one knows the academic index (test scores and GPA) of the freshman class, it is relatively easy to predict that class’s graduation rate. In other words, a “top” school is a school with many “top” students, not necessarily the best academic program.

Surely a case can be made that a better definition of a “top” school is one that shows the greatest academic gains (using pre-tests and post-tests), or one that demonstrates the greatest transformative results, or one that shows, from surveys, the highest level of student satisfaction — all of which are more directly related to the quality of the educational experience than is the level of selectivity at the time of admission.

• Is there an economic payoff from graduating from a “top” school? As I mentioned earlier, one argument for creating greater access to the top schools for high-achieving, low-income students is that they will have an economic benefit — perhaps as much as 25 percent greater lifetime earnings, as compared to students who graduated from “lesser” schools. Those earnings data come from surveys of graduates from many different schools, and they are intended to identify the schools with the greatest ROI — return on investment, meaning earnings relative to actual cost of their college degree.

The problem is that, once again, one of attributing results — in this case, income — to the school itself rather than to the relative success of the individual graduates. Might we reasonably assume that some number of students currently attending “top” schools are the sons and daughters of very affluent parents? Might a higher proportion of the graduates of these schools be brought into the family business, or be encouraged to attend graduate and professional schools, or be set up for success in other ways? There is no factual proof that high-achieving, low-income students themselves will benefit financially from attending “top” schools, only that their prospective classmates have historically done quite well financially after graduation.

• But are there any risks for high-achieving, low-income students at “top” colleges and universities? Actually, there are. Many students are painfully aware of whether or not they “fit in.” Are their classmates like them? Do they share a common philosophy and view of life? Is the college likely to be a “second home”? Some low-income students, even if academically high-achieving, do not thrive on campuses where everyone is as bright as they are — and where the other students are far more affluent, with more expensive clothes, cars and tastes. Increasing the numbers of high-achieving, low-income students at “top” schools may not be the panacea it is touted as being.

So what should high-achieving, low-income students do? Any prospective student should certainly consider schools for which he or she is academically qualified; choosing an institution where one is well matched intellectually with one’s classmates is important to consider. But ultimately students should select a school based on their sense of how well they will fit in, whether they believe they will be happy and enjoy their college years, as opposed to forcing themselves to be something they are not, in the belief that the prestige of the college is the only criterion that matters. People are ultimately the happiest when they buy shoes that fit and are comfortable, not when they force their feet into an attractive shoe that is the wrong size and hurts their feet. Perhaps it is wrong to compare buying shoes to selecting a college, but fit matters a lot in both instances in terms of ultimate satisfaction and quality of life.

And “fit” is the paramount issue, because the consequences of choosing the “wrong” school are profound: Nationally, only 67 percent of students return for their sophomore year to the college where they started as freshmen, and within six years of when they started as freshmen, only about half of all students graduate from the campus at which they began their studies. A student’s first priority should be select a school where they are most likely to graduate; a prestigious name on the diploma should be a secondary consideration.

The Specific Threats Now Facing Higher Education

My essay in The Chronicle of Higher Education, Nov. 15, 2016

Three questions: What does Donald J. Trump’s election portend for higher education? How should we respond to ill-conceived, threatening, or dangerous initiatives from Washington? Is higher education somehow complicit in President-elect Trump’s victory?

He did not focus on higher education during the presidential campaign, beyond an occasional bombshell, but with the Republicans retaining control of both houses of Congress, many of their initiatives will now receive support from the new president.

Some proposals will spring from basic Republican values — reducing federal power and influence; shrinking the government; spending much less (except on defense), coupled with tax cuts; reliance on the free market. Some proposals will result from President Obama’s past actions, especially executive actions. Still others represent spillover into the world of higher education from deeply held concerns in other realms.

Here’s a quick list of things we should not be surprised to see.

What are the threats?

  • Pressure on colleges to reduce their costs or risk having their endowments taxed.
  • Greater emphasis on career education, at the expense of study in the liberal arts.
  • Re-enfranchisement of for-profit institutions.
  • Additional pressure on regional accreditors, and a push for even more educational credentialing by corporate America rather than by traditional colleges and universities.
  • A reduction of federal support for higher education, including the budgets of the National Science Foundation and the Pell Grant program, and greater reliance on student loans through private banks.
  • Institutional risk-sharing, if a sizable percentage of students default on their loans.
  • Raising the bar for unionization.
  • A weakening of Title IX, possibly including the elimination of the U.S. Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights, or perhaps the department itself.
  • A rollback of pending changes in overtime eligibility.
  • Significantly fewer new international students.
  • Direct threats to the status of undocumented students.
  • As a result of one or more Supreme Court appointments, negative changes affecting the rights of members of the LGBTQ community and women.
  • Defunding of climate-change research, weakening of environmental regulations, and expanding the use of fossil fuels.

What should we do in response?

Those things will surely not all come to pass, but it would be dangerous to assume that our academic lives will continue as before once Trump is sworn into office. What the higher-education community does in response will depend on the specifics of any proposal. But with a large number of academic associations having their annual meetings in January through April, this would be a good time for us to consider how we might present a united front on actions that we perceive to be a direct threat to our values, our students, and our historic role in supporting the American economy and way of life.

Has academe been complicit in the situation we face?

Sadly, I think the answer is yes. Ernest L. Boyer warned us more than 20 years ago that higher education had lost a key and historic value: the idea that we exist primarily to serve the public good. This was a universally held position at the beginning of the 20th century, even though those then going to college were primarily young, white, relatively affluent males. Ironically, as higher education became accessible to many more people in the years following World War II, it also gradually lost its spoken commitment to serve the public good. We started representing our worth by using metrics such as research dollars and publications, endowment size, exclusivity in admissions, and national rankings.

This would be a good time for us to consider how we might present a united front on actions that we perceive to be a direct threat to our values.

Underlying the 2016 presidential election was a deep divide between those who were succeeding (or at least who saw a pathway to success) and those who felt disenfranchised and abandoned by a society and a government that were not paying enough attention to their needs. The disenfranchised on the left backed Bernie Sanders and lost; the disenfranchised on the right backed Donald Trump and won. The responsibility of college presidents now must be to articulate higher education’s role in creating agency for many of those who feel disenfranchised.My campus has promoted affordability by freezing tuition for the past five years and increasing financial aid 30 percent; created educational programs for such nontraditional students as prisoners on work-release, teenagers entering the juvenile justice system, and inner-city high schoolers; provided training for corporate employees; and instituted work-force-development programs for underemployed workers.

It’s time for college presidents to make a collective pledge to America to stand for social justice and the creation of opportunities for those whom higher education has traditionally excluded. It’s time we recommitted to having as our primary mission “to serve the public good.”

Donald J. Farish is president of Roger Williams University.

Higher Ed and Presidential Campaigns: Incompatible Bedfellows? (Part 2)

Before we choose a solution, let’s identify the problem

In my last post, I considered at some length the pros and cons of tuition-free public higher education, as advocated by some candidates now campaigning to be the next president of our country. After all, the reasoning goes, free tuition has been a long-standing policy in the K-12 sector; why not higher education? Different candidates vary with respect to how generous they are prepared to be, with one advocating a means test and at least a token investment by the students and their families, whereas another wants simply to do away with tuition at public colleges for everyone.

Unfortunately, the candidates are not discussing what particular problem their policy is intended to solve. Surely, in order to be effective, solutions have to derive from a collective agreement on, and understanding of, what problem the solution is intended to remedy – and our presidential candidates appear to have skipped this step.

The presidential election is almost a year away, so we still have time to think more about the problem we want to address before we fall in love with a particular solution.

Higher Ed and Presidential Campaigns: Incompatible Bedfellows? (Part 1)

Let’s examine the merits of the prevailing sound bites on colleges and universities

I have worked as a higher education instructor, researcher and administrator for more than four decades. Over that span, I’ve seen many presidential campaigns, and in almost every case, higher education has not been a plank in the platform of either of the major parties. Those of us in the groves of academe may have been ignored by presidential candidates in the past, but at least we knew that we would not be troubled by them.

Ah, for the good old days!

This year, higher education seems to be a part of every candidate’s agenda. (See, for example, “Punch Lines Versus Polish on Iowa Trail,” The New York Times, Jan. 1, 2016.) The Democratic candidates are focused on making college far more affordable – even tuition-free in the mind of at least one candidate. The Republican candidates are focused on affordability as well, but with much greater emphasis on the need for institutions to reduce their prices and/or the need for Washington to reduce federal financial aid – since some argue that it is the easy availability of federal grants and subsidized loans that permitted colleges to raise their prices so much in the first place (although there are few studies that support that contention, and many that refute it). Finally, at least one candidate is focused on “practical” education (“we need more welders and less [sic] philosophers,” “In GOP Debate, Rubio Again Criticizes Philosophy,” Inside Higher Ed, Nov. 11, 2015).

As the political primaries take place, with the inevitable coalescing behind a single candidate in each major party, it will be interesting to see how these various ideas play out: How will each of them be received by the American public, and which one will emerge as the most important?

Higher Education in America: A Way Forward

To change the conversation, colleges must actively and openly address society's concerns

It is becoming increasingly difficult to pick up a newspaper, open a magazine, or walk into a bookstore without being confronted with yet another screed about the problems of higher education in America, each one seemingly more shrill than the last. With book titles such as Academically Adrift, or American Higher Education in Crisis?, or Why Does College Cost So Much?, it is no wonder that the parents of a prospective college student are confused and frustrated as they enter the season of campus visitations.

By way of welcoming the start of college this fall, The New York Times recently devoted its entire Sunday magazine (Sept. 13) to a series of articles collectively entitled Collegeland. If anyone thought it was safe to go back into the academic waters, these articles will frighten them back to the beach before they get their ankles wet.

There is no question that problems abound in the world of American higher education; they are serious, and they need to be addressed. But the good news is that genuine efforts are under way at many colleges and universities to implement solutions to these problems. Not every college is deaf to the voices of criticism. Consider three of the most vexing concerns:

Does Wealth Inequality among Universities Pose a Threat to the American Economy? (Part 5)

A New Course Heading for the Ship of State

For the past several weeks, we have been considering the ramifications of a Moody’s study done in April of this year that noted a widening gap in wealth between a handful of very rich colleges and universities, and all of the other institutions of higher education in America.

Even as I was writing the posts in this series, something occurred that dramatically underscored my concerns about the wealth gap in higher education. John Paulson, a hedge fund manager and multibillionaire, gave $400 million to the world’s richest university: Harvard.

Wow! That’s an enormous amount of money! A gift of that size would have instantly placed the beneficiary among the richest 200 institutions of higher education in the country – even if that institution’s endowment had been zero when the gift was received. But think about this: John Paulson’s gift of $400 million is, on the one hand, the largest gift in Harvard’s 379-year history; but, on the other hand, it increases Harvard’s endowment by a little more than one percent, and, after taxes, it represents less than two percent of Paulson’s net worth. Isn’t it extraordinary that a gift of $400 million can be made with so little sacrifice on the part of the donor, and have so little impact on its recipient? And since $400 million is equal to the total annual income of all of the people in a city with a population of 25,000 (median family income in America is just over $51,000; assume three people per family, on average), this gift to Harvard epitomizes the outrage of many that our economic rewards system is completely out of balance.

Does Wealth Inequality among Universities Pose a Threat to the American Economy? (Part 4)

Pros & Cons: How America Funds Higher Ed

In the first three parts of this series, we initially looked at a report from Moody’s regarding the growing separation by wealth between a small number of extraordinarily rich colleges and universities and the very large number of institutions that are heavily dependent on tuition to fund their annual budgets. Subsequently, we reviewed the history of wealth acquisition by the very rich campuses and noted that it was a relatively recent phenomenon. Then we examined the consequence of this imbalance in wealth in terms of the long-term viability of tuition-dependent colleges and universities.

Now, in Part 4, we will consider the relationship between historic patterns of public and private financial support for higher education, and the current very high level of frustration, on the part of parents, politicians and pundits, regarding the diminishing opportunities for young people to receive a college education that is both excellent and affordable.

Does Wealth Inequality among Universities Pose a Threat to the American Economy? (Part 3)

It’s Not a Good Thing to Be Other Than a King

In Part 1 of this series, I examined a recent report from Moody’s that predicted growing economic separation between a handful of the wealthiest universities and the rest of higher education. Media coverage of the report did not examine the consequences to either higher education or the American economy, should Moody’s prediction prove true, nor did the coverage assess the accuracy of the analysis, something that I sought to address.

In Part 2, I noted that extreme wealth in a handful of famous universities was not true historically, but is, instead, a relatively recent phenomenon.

Now, in Part 3, we look at the other side of the story: What does it mean to higher education in general that wealth is so unevenly and inequitably distributed across the 4,000-plus colleges and universities in this country? And why isn’t there greater concern about this extreme inequity on the part of the American public?

Does Wealth Inequality among Universities Pose a Threat to the American Economy? (Part 2)

The Growth of Institutional Wealth

In Part 1 of this series, “It’s Good to Be the King,” I addressed a recent report from Moody’s Investors Services that predicted a growing separation of a relative handful of super-rich universities from the rest of higher education. I also considered the media coverage generated by the Moody’s report, and expressed my bewilderment that the report’s conclusions did not generate deeper analysis and greater concern.

Perhaps the reason that there was not more media attention and review was because Moody’s summation of the institutional wealth of the richest universities did not surprise many people. There is evidently a broad understanding – and perhaps even acceptance – that some universities have amassed significant wealth, and that the universities with the most recognizable names, and/or the strongest reputations, are often the wealthiest universities.

Does Wealth Inequality among Universities Pose a Threat to the American Economy? (Part 1)

It’s Good to Be the King

On April 16 of this year, Moody’s Investors Services published a report entitled “Wealth Concentration Will Widen for U.S. Universities.” This report was the subject of articles on the same day in such major media outlets as the Boston Globe, The Wall Street Journal and BloombergBusiness.

The underlying tone of the Moody’s report was fundamentally positive, as was true of the media reports referenced above. Given Moody’s previous grim reports regarding the perceived financial weakness of much of American higher education (see an earlier blog post in this series, Moody’s Blues, Feb. 14, 2013) a positive report on a few enormously wealthy AAA-rated institutions was presumably welcomed by many readers and investors.