Thursday, October 18, 2012

The Gatekeepers of Higher Education

A recent survey conducted by Inside Higher Ed may provide some insights into the sorting mechanism that today's version of higher education is known for.  How does higher education perpetuate inequality?  Let's take a look at the admissions practices of our most accessible, affordable, bachelor's-degree granting institutions-- America's public universities.

Admissions officers at public universities reported:

  • Distributing at least some financial aid as a reward, rather than focusing their limited budgets on helping the neediest students afford college. Fully 31% (nearly as many as the private universities) said they are increasing their effort to distribute such "merit" aid, which studies have shown flows disproportionately to advantaged students whose propensities to graduate college are already very high.  There's very little return on investment for such spending and yet 44% of these folks said merit aid was a "good use" of institutional resources. Why? Largely because they help improve the "profile" of entering students-- an input, not an output, but one administrators continue to be obsessed with, since the American public continues to buy the myth that most colleges create great students rather than merely enroll great students.  After all, more than one-third of these admissions officers said that senior administrators, board members, or development officers got involved in trying to influence their decisions!
  • Going whole hog after out-of-state students, transfer students, and minority students but doing far less to recruit first-generation students, adult students, or veterans-- those for whom college opportunities are most likely to be in-state and life transforming.
  • Largely disagreeing with the notion that promising minority students with otherwise low test scores should be admitted to college. Compared to their peers, about half of whom felt this was a good idea, only 39% of admissions officers at public universities agreed.  But they were more likely than their peers to feel just fine about admitting athletes with sub-par test scores!
  • Adhering to the mistaken belief that test scores predict college success, or are otherwise a good tool for admissions.  Only 9% of public university admissions officers feel their schools should go test-optional, compared to 18% of admissions officers overall. So 91% like the standardized tests, but just 84% find admissions essays helpful.  Hmmm...
All I can say is, let's hope this survey is bunk. It had a 15% response rate, which is pretty lousy.  But if it's right, we need to pay a lot more attention to the professionals who are putting our policies into practice. It seems they have some opinions of their own...