If You Could Reform Admissions…

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Monday, March 8, 2021

If You Could Reform Admissions…

And wipe the slate of all the bad practices, particularly those that favor wealthy students, what would you change? Recommendation letters? Campus tours? The funding system? Later deadlines? These and other ideas were recommended by experts.....

What if admissions could be done in a totally new way? Without tests? Without the many parts of the process -- think of legacy admissions -- that favor wealthier applicants?

The National Association for College Admission Counseling has just created a commission to rethink the entire admissions process "through a racial equity lens."

NACAC has identified three priority areas for the commission:

  • "The college-entrance pipeline, from student recruitment and college advising through the application process and admission criteria."
  • "Postsecondary financial aid requirements."
  • "The role of racial equity in postsecondary enrollment."

The panel is aiming for three reports by this summer: a guide for colleges centered on racial/ethnic inclusion, a related guide for postsecondary institutional leaders and recommendations for federal and state policy makers for an equity-based college transition.

Angel B. Pérez, CEO of NACAC, stressed that the panel would be open to any ideas. "This is about rethinking everything -- and starting with the question: If we're to redesign this process from scratch, what would it look like?"

The commission (members are listed at the end of this article) consists of admissions leaders and college presidents and business leaders. It is a diverse panel, not only in terms of race, but also through including several members from community colleges or those focused on transfer admissions (an area that NACAC has been weak at in the past). The panel also is supported by the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators and is funded by the Lumina Foundation.

Inside Higher Ed reached out to others in the admissions world and asked them what they would advise the commission to do.

Claudia Marroquin, director of admissions at Bowdoin College (who will become senior vice president and dean of admissions and financial aid on July 1), was a first-generation student when she attended the college.

She cited student aid verification as an important issue. "Among the biggest areas of reform necessary is related to federal student aid verification," Marroquin said via email. "The financial aid process is complicated enough and the verification process places low-income students in a position of having to prove their poverty unnecessarily to the federal government."

She also cited letters of recommendation as an area in need of reform. "On the application front, enrollment leaders need to continue to work to understand the student’s achievements within context while recognizing the biases and systemic structures that make the components of the application a hurdle," she said. "While the pandemic has brought about changes to testing requirements, we should also be thinking about the items like letters of recommendation. Letters provide a valuable window into how the student’s school and local community view them, but when teachers are struggling with underfunding, large class sizes, and now virtual learning we’re creating another hurdle. Let me be clear, understanding a student’s contributions to their community is important, but we either need to provide teachers either more guidance and support or provide additional ways of learning about the student beyond their grades."

Christine Harper, associate vice president for student success and chief enrollment officer at the University of Kentucky, said she hopes that a trend many see this year -- later deadlines -- stays. "Pushing deadlines earlier and earlier can disadvantage students in terms of admissions and access to aid awards," she said. "Pushing those deadlines back could help level the playing field for students, who may not traditionally have access test prep classes or who may not be involved early in their high school careers with college visits or thinking about the college recruitment process."

She also said that test-optional admissions needs to be extended to test-optional awarding of merit aid. "Even during times when we weren’t dealing with a pandemic, access and performance on testing may not be the best predictor of ultimate success," she said. "That has been the experience at the University of Kentucky."

Harper added, "The bottom line, too: while many institutions are test optional for admissions, at UK, we are also test optional for merit aid awards. The point is that providing both options -- and setting appropriate metrics for student success and retention -- would expand opportunities."

Roger Ramsammy, president of Hudson Valley Community College, said policy makers in admissions need to remember the trends by race and ethnicity and gender. "Many studies suggest that COVID-19 has taken a greater toll on people of color, women and other minority groups," he said. "We are now seeing even greater numbers of students who are underprepared for college as well as a rise in students who dropped out last fall. At the same time, there is a strong need for retraining and upskilling those who are now unemployed, a job that rest solely in the hands of community colleges. Plus, students have a greater need for emergency funding/support and mental health counseling."

Patricia McGuire, president of Trinity Washington University, had a long list of reforms. "Fixing college admissions to promote racial equity is a worthy goal, but it cannot be done simply by having a well-meaning group of higher ed people and researchers talk about it," she said. "The NACAC commission does not include anyone from high schools, which is a glaring omission. There is someone from NYC central administration college and career office, but [that is] not the same as real boots-on-the-ground high school reps. Also, the commission does not include parents or students."

McGuire said that "guidance counselors often get their status and perks by how many students get into top colleges, so if the counselors are not devoted to racial and social equity, the problem will not be solved. Many colleges (my own included) find dealing with the counselor corps very frustrating since counselors get to decide which institutions of higher education have access to their students. They fawn all over some colleges while giving short shrift to others," she said.

She urged the commission to not focus on top colleges. "Entirely too much attention is being paid to elite colleges and getting them to enroll more students of color -- the 'undermatching' theory that I find very pernicious -- while nobody talks about the millions of solid B-to-C students who have to go to college as well. If we really want to talk racial equity, let’s stop obsessing about getting a few bright Black students into Princeton --- they will get there and do well most likely --- and let’s talk about what it really takes to ensure success in college for students who come from the middle-to-lower ranks of high school classes."

And she would ban what she calls "glamour tours" of campuses. "Glamour tours should be banned as false advertising. I mean it," she said. "The over-the-top admissions practices that are all hype, no substance. An admissions tour should be a 'sales-blind' process in which the student spends time with real faculty and real students for a long enough time to know whether the fit might be right."

Along those lines, Estela Mara Bensimon, director and founder of the Center for Urban Education at the University of Southern California, said, "The recruitment and admissions process is centered on whiteness, and so there probably needs to be an intentional process of understanding why it works so much better for white students than for racially minoritized students."

She said college should be "mapping each of the practices associated with recruitment and admissions and consider how each of these practices may be disadvantaging racially minoritized students," she said. "For example, high school visits -- which high schools, what is the location and racial representation in these high schools, what does the recruiter do when they visit the high school, does the recruiter document who he/she met with by race and ethnicity, what follow-up is done with those students? When peeling the layers of the high school visit, we discovered at a Wisconsin campus that the recruiter sat at the library and waited for students to come, and for the most part he spent the time alone."

Don Hossler, senior scholar at the Center for Research Policy and Practice of the Rossier School of Education at USC and provost professor emeritus at the School of Education of Indiana University Bloomington, said NACAC's review is "much needed, but it has become harder to do."

"Rethinking the pipeline is a critical goal," Hossler said. "Doing so requires colleges to advocate for K-12 education, and this will require money. Would higher education institutions advocate for more K-12 funding if it was going to result in fewer dollars for colleges and universities?"

However, he stressed that "financial aid alone is not a cure for low college participation rates among low-income students. This is a worldwide problem. College is free in Norway, and yet they are concerned about college-going rates of potential first-gen, low-income students."

And he stressed the importance of looking at how students perform once enrolled. "The retention and graduation rates of Pell-eligible students remains low. For more equitable outcomes, colleges need to spend more money on support programs," he said.

Marie Bigham, founder and executive director of the group Admissions Community Cultivating Equity and Peace Today, said it was important that the commission truly examines a range of perspectives of students. (She said she was very impressed with those on the commission but suggested that students be added.)

"I would encourage them to expand their vision of what students are," she said. Specifically, she said that admissions needs to move beyond focusing "only on the 17-year-old." She said that was morally the right thing to do, but it would also help colleges.

"Every suggestion about the demographic crisis" facing colleges would go away if colleges recruited more diverse students -- by race and age, she said.

The members of the NACAC panel are:

  • Kendra Allen, associate director of financial aid special programs at Northern Virginia Community College
  • Tanya Ang, vice president of Veterans Education Success
  • Daniel Barkowitz, assistant vice president of financial aid and veterans’ affairs at Valencia College
  • José Bowen, principal and lead innovator of Bowen Innovation Group
  • Alexander Clark, founder and chief executive officer of Technolutions
  • Art Coleman, managing partner and co-founder of EducationCounsel
  • Shirley Collado, president of Ithaca College
  • Youlonda Copeland-Morgan, vice provost of enrollment management at the University of California, Los Angeles
  • David Follick, dean of admission at Nassau Community College
  • Kristen Harris, senior director of college and career success at the New York City Department of Education
  • Luisa Havens-Gerardo, vice provost for enrollment management at Virginia Tech
  • Emily House, executive director of the Tennessee Higher Education Commission and the Tennessee Student Assistance Corporation
  • Janet Marling, executive director of the National Institute for the Study of Transfer Students
  • Stephanie McGencey, executive director of the American Youth Policy Forum
  • Joseph Montgomery, vice president for enrollment management and student success at Tuskegee University
  • David Page, vice president for enrollment management at Dillard University
  • Daniel Phelan, president of Jackson College
  • OiYan Poon, associate professor affiliate of educational policy studies at the University of Illinois at Chicago
  • Brian Sponsler, vice president for policy of the Education Commission of the States
  • Michaele Turnage Young, senior counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund
  • Don Yu, chief operating officer of Reach Higher at the Common Application

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Story by: Scott Jaschik