Syracuse, Selectivity, and ‘Old Measures’

How do we write headlines here at The Chronicle? A few of my sources asked me that question after reading “Syracuse’s Slide,” a recent article by my colleague Robin Wilson. To say the least, some readers thought the headline stunk like a day-old fish. I don’t do media criticism here, but I do write about the admissions world, so I thought the article was worth revisiting. After all, it raised some serious questions about how people define “excellence” in higher education, not to mention “success” in admissions.

For the record, Robin is a fearless and an uncommonly talented reporter who has written many, many illuminating articles for The Chronicle. Over the years I’ve learned a lot from her. This post is intended only as a riff on one aspect of her article that relates to my beat: let’s call it the Will to Prestige, which drives some folks to fret about U.S. News & World Report’s rankings and colleges’ acceptance rates. These metrics that have long mattered—to administrators, faculty, and applicants—far more than they should.

In case you missed it, Robin’s article described how Syracuse has sought to provide more opportunities for the town of Syracuse and for disadvantaged students. “As a result,” the article said, “Syracuse is fading on the national stage, falling in the U.S. News & World Report rankings of national universities” (to 62 this year, down from 40 in 1998). Furthermore, the article described how the recent rise in Syracuse’s acceptance rate had alarmed some professors and students, not to mention the editorial board at The Daily Orange, which wrote that a higher acceptance rate might “devalue the SU diploma … and affect the quality of an SU education.”

Behold the power of the P word. The more applicants a college rejects, the more prestigious a college must be, or so the thinking goes among many observers of college admissions. By all means, colleges have helped perpetuate this notion. But how long can the citizens of academe go on thinking this way?

Not much longer, says Donald A. Saleh, Syracuse’s vice president for enrollment management. “Those metrics are going to be dated,” he says. “We’re at the point of needing to recognize that it isn’t just about the admit rate you have or the average test scores enrolled students have, because those measures are old measures. They don’t serve the institution in and of themselves. An admit rate doesn’t say anything about the student body you’re enrolling. If you want to build your job around an admit rate, you can make a lot of decisions that are not in the best interest of the institution.”

By all means, any enrollment czar with a calculator and a marketing plan can manipulate his institution’s admit rate to some degree. He could, for instance, extend a greater percentage of admission offers to students who, above all else, are the most likely to enroll. Or he could solicit more applications from students who stand little or no chance of getting in, just to reject those poor suckers by the hundreds.

In the years to come, however, the chase for “better” admissions metrics each and every year might prove unsustainable for some colleges. According to various projections (like this one), tomorrow’s applicant pools will not look like today’s do: they will contain many more students from lower-income families, more students whose parents did not attend college, and more students who lack the on-paper polish, like sky-high test scores, that so many of today’s applicants have. And if you work in an admissions office in the Northeast, you’ve surely lost some sleep thinking about the shrinking number of high-school graduates in your college’s backyard.

All of those looming demographic changes have shaped how Syracuse officials think about recruitment. Over the last decade, the university has expanded its outreach in New York, but also in far-flung cities, such as Miami and Los Angeles. This has helped the university enroll more lower-income and minority students. “As we look at how we want to be 15 years from now,” Mr. Saleh says, “we have an imperative to recruit those students and educate those students.”

Generally speaking, enrolling more low-income students means emphasizing grades over ACT and SAT scores, one of the many trade-offs admissions officials often weigh. When a college enrolls more Pell-eligible students, it can expect to see standardized-test scores to go down. That doesn’t mean sacrificing academic quality, Mr. Saleh says. Nor does it necessarily mean that a college’s acceptance rate will soar: Syracuse has found that the lower-income applicants it admits are more likely to enroll than affluent ones, who tend to apply to numerous colleges.

Then again, geography also plays a large role in “yield” (the percentage of accepted students who enroll). In general, the greater the distance between College X and a student’s home, the less likely he or she is to enroll at College X. So when an East Coast college like Syracuse attempts to enroll more students from California, it can expect them to yield at a lower rate than, say, students from Pennsylvania do.

In other words, acceptance rates are complex, much more so than they might seem when published in a press release or in the pages of U.S. News. Daniel M. Lundquist, vice president for external relations at the Sage Colleges, says it’s a mistake to put too much stock in the vicissitudes of admissions statistics. “The reality is they’re not lowering their ambition at Syracuse,” says Mr. Lundquist, previously vice president for admissions, financial aid, and communications at Union College, in New York. “They’re looking around the corner to the Syracuse of 20 years from now, and trying to imagine the audiences they’ll be serving. To think that the population that sustains their pool now will always be there would be ostrich behavior.”

If you must search for meaning in the recent rise in Syracuse’s acceptance rate, it might help to take the long view. For this fall’s incoming class, Syracuse received more than 25,000 applications, about twice as many as it received a decade ago. In 2001 the university’s acceptance rate stood at 71 percent. It fell steadily into the mid-50s before climbing back 60 percent last fall. Mr. Saleh attributes that jump, in part, to the recession. During the height of the economic crisis, he says, the university accepted more applicants than it might have needed otherwise amid concerns about a big drop in yield. As it turned out, there was only a slight drop. Syracuse has also grown its classes by design. Ten years ago, the university enrolled a freshman class of 2,627; this fall, it welcomed 3,385.

As Robin’s article noted, Syracuse’s spending on need-based aid increased to $131.5-million from $49.9-million between 2004 and 2011. Meanwhile, the proportion of minority students in each incoming class has risen to 31.7 percent from 18.5 percent; and the proportion of Syracuse students who qualify for Pell Grants has increased to 28.3 percent this year from 19.7 percent.

Those statistics impress Theodore A. O’Neill, former dean of admissions at the University of Chicago. “What the article suggests about the recent history of admissions at Syracuse is that we are in the presence of a real triumph, and a model for what some other, if not all other, universities should be doing,” he wrote in an e-mail.

Mr. O’Neill, now a lecturer at Chicago, doesn’t buy the notion that rising acceptance rates or falling SAT scores automatically indicate that incoming students are any less capable of doing the work at a particular college. “I am astounded, as always, that the faculty thinks that the ratings matter,” he wrote. “They are supposed to be smart.”

There are many sides to this discussion, of course. I’ve chosen to elaborate here on just one. In that spirit, I suggest that “Syracuse’s Slide” was but one of several possible headlines that could have accompanied this article. An equally good (and alliterative) one might have been “Syracuse’s Surge.”

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