Tuesday, September 23, 2014


Ask the Administrator: What are Four-Year Colleges Up To?

A new correspondent writes:

Do you think that the growing number of non-selective private and public 4-year colleges that are going test-optional for admissions (or even transcript-optional as Goucher is doing) are in some sense trying to become 4-year versions of community colleges?  Or maybe not trying, but drifting in that direction anyway?  Back in the day  there were quite a number of private 2-year colleges, in the East.  But then, 4-year became the gold standard for middle class and  upper middle class students, and the 2-years seem to be gone.

I don’t know about Goucher specifically, so I won’t comment on what it’s doing.  For what it’s worth, my vague sense -- and I’m open to correction on this by people who are in a position to know -- is that the move by some selective places to go test-optional is less about lowering standards than about finding more relevant standards.  Test scores tell you a little, but mostly on the extremes.  In the vast middle, they don’t mean much at all.  Basing admission decisions on other, more variable criteria could allow for a more interesting and diverse class, as well as a potentially larger one.

Some of us at community colleges have wondered whether some of the four-year schools are getting a little less choosy in filling their seats.  That would tend to have a ripple effect lower on the food chain.

That said, if four-year schools were lowering standards to fill seats, I wouldn’t necessarily blame them.  Institutions do what they need to do to survive.  If you want to change the behavior, change the incentives.

The easiest and most powerful way to change the incentives, unfortunately, is the most politically challenging: make tuition a smaller part of the budgets of state colleges and universities, and state support a larger part.  (Private colleges can do what they want, except, apparently,in New Jersey.)  As long as tuition is an ever-increasing proportion of the budget, the drive to fill seats will know no bounds.

In a perverse way, over time, part of me wonders if going head-to-head with community colleges for the most academically challenged students wouldn’t actually benefit community colleges.  Right now, four-year colleges justify their considerable cost premium by pointing to greater prestige.  Take the prestige away -- since prestige often rests largely the exclusivity and/or median family income of the student body -- and suddenly cc’s greater specialization and lower tuition become hard to beat.  

Of course, that presumes little or no lag between change and perception.  That may prove unduly optmiistic.

Wise and worldly readers -- especially those at lower-tier four-year schools -- have you seen four-year colleges start to draw more on students who would typically have attended community colleges?

Have a question?  Ask the Administrator at deandad (at) gmail (dot) com.

The real reason, I suspect, is to game the USN&WR rankings. Students who have SAT/ACT scores below a certain percentile (maybe even the median) are much less likely to submit them under a test-optional policy, even though the admissions committee probably can infer likely scores (based on GPA, high school reputation, zip code, AP/IB scores, and the like), which allows the school to report higher percentiles and appear more selective than it really is.

This is the same game that law schools have used with the LSAT, except since they can't go test-optional for the LSAT (because they'd be laughed out of the ABA) they divert low-LSAT students into part-time or night programs to pump up the scores for their ranked program.
This particular "some of us" knows that some are more choosy (flagships trying to move up in rankings) while others are less. Both want the students from the CC where I teach, so that could be good for us if we weren't also facing demographic challenges.

One strategy is the obvious one: limit FTIC freshmen (the only thing that the rating folks care about) to ones with higher scores and a higher chance of graduating on time. Then encourage transfers (without an AA if they have good but not great scores) to increase sophomore enrollment and fill upper division classes.

I'm less sure if the other strategy is trying to game the rankings (as Chris suggests above) or just being practical. Students with an AA tend to do OK because they have already made that first cut, so they will fill classrooms that have lots of space due to attrition at a less selective 4-year school and are likely to graduate (which does help them on some metrics).
I worked in a high school for a while, and part of my time was spent with the AVID students. (AVID is a program for moderately high-achieving first-gen students who typically lack the social capital to navigate college applications, etc. In our school, they were also typically low income, but not all.) There was a definite focus on trying to get kids in our population to go straight to 4-year schools, so I think there's a push on both ends. Most of these kids would have aimed for CC left to their own devices.
This is a classic example of drawing (and running with) a spurious conclusion from one observation (Observation: some colleges are no longer using test scores for admission. Conclusion: these schools are 'dumbing down' their admissions to get more students). On what basis does DD or anyone else get to that conclusion?

In fact the few colleges that have gone from test-optional to 'test-blind' have done so for very specific stated reasons, not the least of which is the growing realization that there is a better correlation between SAT/ACT test scores and socioeconomic status, than between test scores and college success.

And, I know as a fact that USN&WR will not even deign to rank a college that does not have incoming student SAT/ACT data, so any accusation of 'gaming the system' is not valid.

DD, if you really wanted to know more about this subject, all you would have to do is stroll across The Valley to Hampshire College, where they would be only too happy to explain their reasons why they chose to go 'test-blind':

"Tests aren't part of Hampshire's pedagogy, so why would we use a test to determine which students would thrive here? The SAT is essentially one test on one day in a given year. Students' high school academic records, their history of civic engagement, their letters of recommendation from mentors, and their ability to represent themselves through their essays trump anything the SAT could tell us,"

USN may not rank schools that don't provide any SAT/ACT data, but if you're not collecting as many SAT or ACT scores from the students who scored lower than the typical admit would have, that pushes up the average and percentiles.

For example, let's assume some moderately selective LAC (say Birmingham-Southern) typically admits 10 students per year and the average ACT is 24. Birmingham-Southern now goes test-optional. The students who apply with high test scores still submit them; students who apply with low test scores no longer do. You admit 10 students, 5 of whom didn't submit test scores (likely scored below the old average of 24) and 5 of whom did (likely scored above the old average of 24). The ACT average you can report now goes up since you've thrown out a lot of the low scores but kept the high ones.
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