Monday, December 10, 2018

Yes, but for a Different Reason

Longtime readers know that I have about thiiiiis much patience for the “undermatching” hypothesis.  That’s the idea that it’s tragic and awful when a student who could have gotten into someplace selective chooses a less selective college.  Although some of the partisans of the “undermatching” hypothesis try to couch their concerns in terms of altruism -- save those diamonds in the rough from terrible schools -- I know lifeboating when I see it.  If you take for granted that the majority of schools are, and must be, terrible, then don’t talk to me about egalitarianism.

That said, Monday’s piece in IHE about Texas’ 10 percent plan for admissions to the U of Texas actually confirms something positive that’s applicable across sectors.  Legibility matters.

On campus, that’s the cornerstone of the “guided pathways” movement.  At its best, the guided pathways movement assumes that students who have talent and drive, but may not have parents who went to college, would benefit from a more prescriptive curriculum.  Students whose resources are strained are less likely to waste them, the argument goes, if the directional arrows are clear.

Between campuses, though, it’s much harder to create those pathways.  That’s particularly true with more selective institutions, since they reserve the right to cut off students’ pathways as they see fit.  I can tell a student that if she follows the guidance in the catalog and gets decent grades, she will graduate in x semesters. But I can’t tell her with certainty that she’ll get into Snooty U.  That’s not up to me, and Snooty U doesn’t offer bright lines. A student can do stupendously well here and still not get in, based on whomever else happens to be in the pool that year and what Snooty U perceives its needs to be at the moment.  

For students with high cultural capital, that may not matter much.  The Boy is in the thick of the selective college application process now, so I’m seeing it up close.  He has the benefit of parents with graduate degrees, including a Dad who is immersed in higher ed, to help him read the tea leaves.  For instance, I’ve downplayed talk of a “dream school,” and compared the process to buying a car. You have some criteria, but within those parameters, several different models would do just fine.  Set your parameters, then compare deals.

Guaranteed admissions agreements can provide a sort of guided pathway between institutions.  That’s to the particular benefit of students who don’t have bespoke navigators of their own.

My favorite guaranteed admissions agreements come with reasonable GPA requirements.  Telling a student at a community college that she can get into Flagship State if she graduates with, say, a 3.0 or better gives her a reason to keep plugging.  A bright line guarantee like that gives her assurance that her considerable efforts will be rewarded. Saying “well, it’ll probably help, but who knows?” can sound evasive to someone who’s already justifiably wary.  But putting the rules out there in public, in writing, in clear and understandable ways, can make the hard work seem worth the effort.

That wasn’t the intent of the piece, or of guided pathways, but I stand by it.  Students who start in community colleges benefit from guaranteed admissions agreements to four-year schools, particularly when the criteria are clear, legible, and reasonable.  When the rules are clear, the folks who don’t have professional tea leaf readers by their side stand a fighting chance.

Guaranteed admissions agreements can also help reduce the stigma of starting at a club that would accept you as a member.  They’re a vote of confidence by the receiving institution in the sending institution.

So “yes” to guaranteed admission, though not because it’s a way to finesse affirmative action.  That’s a separate issue. Yes because it gives every student here a reasonable shot.