The Bottom Line vs. Social Good

In an article on Thursday, I described new projections that will shape the future of college admissions. By the year 2020, minority students will account for 45 percent of the nation’s public high-school graduates, up from 38 percent in 2009, according the latest edition of Knocking at the College Door, a regular report on demographic changes published by the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education.

The report confirms trends that admissions officers have long anticipated. The supply of white students—including many affluent applicants for whom colleges so often compete—will soon dwindle. Meanwhile, the number of Hispanic and Asian-American high-school graduates will increase sharply. This shift will present colleges with historic opportunities—and challenges.

At a news conference in Washington on Thursday, several experts discussed the report’s implications. The worry-to-optimism ratio was about 2:1, according to my measurements.

First, admissions officers must adjust to the end of a long-term boom in high-school graduates, warned David A. Longanecker, the commission’s president. “The growth agenda is essentially over,” he said, “so institutions have to focus on things other than enrollments.” Like retention.

Jane V. Wellman seconded that thought. During years of tremendous demand, the consequences of not focusing on retention have been few, she said. As the high-growth era fades, said Ms. Wellman, executive director of the National Association of System Heads, colleges will have to reassess their priorities. “In the last 20 years, we’ve developed some bad habits,” she said. “This coming change is going to expose them.”

Take tuition discounting. Over the last two decades, Ms. Wellman said, colleges have used competitive financial-aid strategies “to ratchet up their gene pool, to become more and more selective, because they could.” She described a future in which colleges must rein in those habits, for they will confront an even greater tension between meeting the bottom line and serving the social good.

Joyce E. Smith, chief executive officer of the National Association for College Admission Counseling, said demographic changes would force many colleges to redefine “success” in admissions. ”Most of us are concerned about our ranking and our rating, and the ability [of students] to pay,” she said.

Is that obsession with more—more applicants, more full-pay students, more high-scoring test takers—sustainable? No, Ms. Smith said.

As for presidents and board members who are caught up in the metrics of prestige and selectivity, she proposed a remedy: Taking the commission’s report and whacking them on the head with it. She was just kidding, of course, but you’re welcome to try it.

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