As college presidents went to the White House Thursday to talk about new efforts to attract more low-income students to higher education,admissions leaders gathered here and talked about how they define merit.
InsideHigherEd asks, “Who is admitted? Who gets aid? When spots and the aid budget are limited, who gets priority status?
“Speakers turned to definitions (from dictionaries, Latin and Greek) and to philosophy, and generally agreed that merit in higher education must mean more than having the highest grades and test scores. But beyond that, things get complicated. Recruiting a more socioeconomically diverse class is a great thing, everyone seemed to agree at the annual conference of the Center for Enrollment Research Policy and Practice of the University of Southern California.
“But is that still the case if your rankings slip and your SAT average drops a smidge? Nancy Cantor, who spoke here, was described as heroic by many for doing that at Syracuse University. But Cantor has left Syracuse and her successor seems much more interested in rankings than she was. And for institutions that compete for students, decisions that might be applauded here as ethical can be quite difficult. A case study was presented by Jenny Rickard, vice president for enrollment at the University of Puget Sound. She described how Puget Sound, between the 1970s and today, evolved from a local commuter college to a national liberal arts college, attracting increasingly competitive students.
“But last year, the college discovered just how quickly a gain in one college goal can lead to a loss elsewhere. Like many private colleges, Puget Sound feared that its discount rate had been rising too fast during the economic downturn, so it decided to loosen criteria for some non-need-based aid in the hope of building a good class without spending as much on all aid. The plan worked in part: The discount rate fell from 43 to 38 percent. The class size was right on target (670). But as more of a limited aid budget went to be sure the class targets were met, there was less money for needy students. The percentage of first-generation students in the class dropped from 17 percent to 8 percent. “This is a classic illustration of the tradeoffs that are made,” Rickard said.Puget Sound is not accepting those results as a new status quo. The college is reviewing all of its admissions and financial aid policies with a goal of making the discount rate sustainable, but making sure that other values — such as economic diversity — don’t suffer. Some tweaks are already being made, even as a full study continues. Rickard was hardly the only admissions leader here trying to decide on the relative merits of students of varying ability to pay — and doing so with a limited budget. (Puget Sound’s $280 million endowment is larger than that of many colleges, but leaves the institution depending on tuition revenue for operating support.)”