Conference Blog


Day 1


Opening Address: A Map of Opportunity: Anchor Institutions and the Diverse Next Generation

Nancy Cantor

Nancy Cantor
Chancellor, Rutgers University

Nancy Cantor launched the conference with her opening address.

Cantor encouraged the audience to consider the purpose of higher education today and the external landscape in which we sit. She showed the Higher Ed Council Opportunity Index map, which is a combination of economic prosperity, educational attainment, and community health.  She notes that if higher education is going to be an engine in innovation, we need to have a little (or perhaps a lot) of a shift in focus.

On one hand, higher education has a strong habit of looking inward. When we think about how to transform ourselves, we think about tweaking our admissions criteria, etc. We are looking inward. But the question that we ought to be asking, Cantor suggests, is if this inward-looking focus essentially reifies what we already do at a time when we ought to be thinking about change. Cantor encouraged an outward-looking focus that cares about the national landscape, cultivates talent, and empowers more institutions to change that opportunity map. She continued by suggested that there is indeed a business case to be made for taking an outward focus. The key questions are:

  • What is the talent landscape?
  • What are the issues that we should focus on?
  • And what does this mean for the nexus of mission, excellence and diversity.

Next, Cantor showed a map that demonstrates the fastest slowest growing metros and noted that in such places you will find first generation college students, low income, students of color, etc.. This external environment is full of disparities in opportunities. Interestingly, the present generation is the first generation in American history to be less well educated than the generation that preceded them.

Cantor notes that we have a perfect storm of disparities of income, opportunities, and where our population growth is. Hence, a business plan is appropriate. She continues by noting that the huge and growing disparities in educational opportunities, achievement, and resources have its own logic. The wealthy are using their resources to be sure that their kids attend institutions that will put them in leadership positions in the future.

Cantor argues that institutions need to make generative partnerships in the communities (not doing this “to” communities but doing things “with” them.) Metros cannot survive if the next generation doesn’t fully participate and engage. If the generative partnerships we make in the community leave out the diverse next generation, there will be no prosperity. Cantor turned her attention to what Syracuse University did in this area. They realized that if they were “the institution on the hill” they would not create the diversification that would make change. Syracuse’s scholarship in action program, a 501c3, promoted full participation of the community. This created a two way street of engagement that benefitted the institution. In the city they promoted inclusive practices and created college-ready schools. They hired education students to go into the community and to connect with students. Cantor suggested that these steps changed the face of Syracuse University and dramatically increased the geography of opportunity.

Moving from this case study to what can be done elsewhere, Cantor emphasized that we need to reach, cultivate, and share the talent. A big part of this is doing the work to be in the communities. The other part it to look a little harder in defining what talent is. She suggested that doing this reaches talent that should already be at the institution. Cantor suggested that institutions consider creating a “farm team”- cultivating talent just like Major League baseball does. You are both cultivating talent and putting commitment into it.

Cantor continues by emphasizing that we need a critical mass of experience to change and breakdown stereotype threat that undermines the performance of minority students. To make change, she notes, we have to be willing to face resistance. The resistance when one goes from the ivory tower to the engaged institution. But… it is worth it.

Cantor concludes by noting that the future of the country depends on leveraging the talent in the university that we too often leave undeveloped. Too often we have our heads in the sand, ignoring the social distress in a country supposedly built on opportunity. Cantor believes the perfect storm for change can’t be ignored.


Day 2


Morning Keynote Address: The Meaning of Merit

Harry Brighouse

Harry Brighouse
Professor of Philosophy and Educational Policy Studies, University of Wisconsin, Madison

Harry Brighouse kicked off the morning with his presentation: The Meaning of Merit.

Brighouse began by outlining a view about merit based on the way that he was taught to think about it. This approach, described by Brighouse, as “The English Way” is purely academic, individualized prior achievement, measured by reasonably sophisticated tests of learned content. It is, he reflects, intelligence very narrowly conceived and a system in which pathways are determined at age 11. Why is this considered merit?

Consider the meaning of the term. Merit can be considered a combination of talent and effort/industrious. Merit has also been used as “Meritorious” or something that someone deserves because they earned it. With the English Way you only look at achievement on tests – not athleticism, extracurricular activities, not even being the future king of England will get you in Cambridge or Oxford. Simple achievement is what gets you in.

So what is wrong about the English way?

  1. Multiple intelligences…. There are many different kinds of intelligences but the tests narrowly focus on one.
  2. Past success (achievement on a test) is an imperfect predictor of future success.
  3. Brighouse quoted Ben Bernanke’s words from a commencement address at Princeton: We have been taught that meritocratic institutions and societies are fair. Putting aside the reality that no system, including our own, is really entirely meritocratic, meritocracies may be fairer and more efficient than some alternatives. But fair in an absolute sense? Think about it. A meritocracy is a system in which the people who are the luckiest in their health and genetic endowment; luckiest in terms of family support, encouragement, and, probably, income; luckiest in their educational and career opportunities; and luckiest in so many other ways difficult to enumerate–these are the folks who reap the largest rewards.

Brighouse notes that no one achieves anything unless other people pour an investment into them. The upper middle class has the means to invest in their children, whereas others do not. Brighouse supported this point by showing a bio of the Beatles and makes the point of how incredibly lucky they were (the abolishment of national service, for example). He suggests that Lennon, who must have been a pain in school, was supported by one teacher who identified him as someone who needed to be in a school that matched his talents. The teacher suggested that Lennon go to art school and the rest is history. In other words, a total stranger put a lot of thought in someone else’s achievement and that contributed to their future and success. He concludes that there is a lot of luck in people investing in you.

Brighouse next moved into a parable of the islands and describes a scenario in which there is a shipwreck and there are two islands. Imagine that you get to pick which one to go to. One has the four of the greatest violinists ever and the other island has “a pretty good string quartet”. If you wanted to go to where there is the maximum aggregate of talent, you go to the island of the greatest violinists. This suggests, however, that you have a “fetish for achievement”. They have talent but they are not necessarily going to be as socially productive. They can’t play in a quartet. There is a lot of abstract excellence, but the quartet offers more diversity and potential for productivity.

So, Brighouse asks, how should we think about merit? Why do we want higher education?

One reason is that we think we need to develop higher-level knowledge and skills that, when used in concert with others’ knowledge and skills can optimize the social good and contribute to social mobility.

The question is: What do we do with students to make them productive and contribute to the social good? In some universities, developing people for social benefits is a greater priority than others. In terms of social good, that isn’t about GDP. Good is about the outcomes of the social, economic, political, and civil activity that enhances the quality of people’s lives. When we think about social good, Brighouse continues, we should give extra weight to the good of those who have less. Increases in their good should be prioritized over the increase in the good of others. To punctuate his point, Brighouse quoted the book of Luke:

For everyone to whom much is given, of him shall much be required; and of him to whom men entrust much, they will require and demand all the more.

Brighouse returned to the essential question: What does merit mean? He suggests that it means possession of traits that predict that students will, if they take the spot in college, both gain more from it than other candidates and will contribute more of what they gain to the social good than a rival candidate would. Thus, merit depends on who else is enrolling, the social environment, and what the institution has to offer (how the university fits the student).

Next, Brighouse turned his attention to the “American Way”. He notes that the American Way recognizes the value of diversity and emphasizes the notion of constructing a class. It allows affirmative action, pursuit of diverse missions, and distinct institutional identities.

Brighouse notes that he discussed the English way because in a sense it never went away. Faculty in the US are entrenched in the English way when they think about the students they want. Americans, who got rid of the monarchy 200 years ago, are still paying attention to the monarchy and find something seductive about the English way.

Next, Brighouse unpacked the American Way. He asked us to consider the type of students that faculty want. They basically want students that they don’t have to teach. Students who will do well with or without them, and who allow them to teach any way they want because such kids will still do well. Faculty prefer the English Way, tend to be the most conservative on campus, and are a central source of resistance to change.

Thus, the question is how do we change hearts and minds? Brighouse notes the hypocrisy. Students who have a socially-conscious drive receive messages that they are not ambitious. Human improvement, while incredibly complex and ambitious, is not recognized as such. It is a tragedy that all the talent that we need is steered in other ways.

Consider the following: Does our institution’s ethos align with these values? How do we rank these fields?

  • Early childhood
  • Education
  • Nursing
  • Political Science
  • Philosophy
  • Pre-Medicine
  • Pre-Law
  • Social Work

Brighouse shared his perception of the status of these fields based on status within an institution:

  • Pre-med
  • Pre-law
  • Political Science
  • Philosophy
  • Nursing
  • Education
  • Social work
  • Early Childhood

Next, Brighouse sorted the majors by social value:

  • Early Childhood
  • Social Work
  • Nursing
  • Education
  • Pre-med
  • Pre-law
  • Political Science
  • Philosophy

Brighouse suggests that the real status order ought to reflect the social value of the majors. We must ask, do our institution’s practices align with these values? He continues by emphasizing that test scores have a lot of power in a culture and we will always take them into account in some respect, but we should de-emphasize them and describe the specific reasons why we use them.

Brighouse concluded with the following:

  1. The American way is better.
  2. The English way is like the British monarchy (nuts!), so don’t be fooled
  3. Live, don’t just talk, your values

Morning Session 1: Mission and Merit: The Broad Institutional View

Georgia Nugent

Georgia Nugent
Sr. Fellow, Council of Independent Colleges; Former President, Kenyon College

Georgia Nugent began the next session: Mission and Merit: The Broad Institutional View. She described her presentation as both pragmatic and philosophical. From a pragmatic perspective, Nugent introduced three case studies.

  1. Kenyon College was investigated by the Department of Justice. The issue in question was that over 3 years, she had convened 6 sessions with university and college presidents to discuss merit and to think more equitably about allocating resources to those who need it most. While the group continued the conversation, it never managed to take any action- and due to this, after a 3-month investigation they were notified that the Department of Justice found that there was nothing to investigate further. So the irony is that because they hadn’t been successful in acting, they were fine. Also, the group had gone to the Department of Justice in advance to ask if they could have such conversations. Finally, shortly thereafter, Obama called university and college presidents to the White House to ask if they can do something about college costs…
  2. Nancy Cantor demonstrated success in terms of taking on issues of diversity and civic engagement and taking action. But she was attacked by her faculty and the press….
  3. Leon Botstein at Bard shows another case study. He has taken an unconventional, yet intentional, path. He has been very outspoken about endowments and that they should be used for education rather than as a nest egg. Thus he has amassed and utilized funds- and has been “punished” by being downgraded two levels by Moody’s.

So the question, Nugent asks is, “Am I opposed to merit?” The key question is what is merit? As a classicist, Nugent notes that “merit” comes from the Latin word meritum, meaning to deserve or earn. The Latin word relates to meros– a Greek word meaning a part or a portion- like your piece of the pie, what is apportioned to you. So we have a bit of distinction that is relevant to our thinking about merit. What you earn or deserve (the English way) seems to be related to your personal agency (although Nugent would argue it reflects what was poured into you) and what you will be allotted by another agent- presumably the college.

So we butt right up against a classical conundrum- is merit good at all times and all places, or is merit situational? We need to ask ourselves if we should see an evolving concept of merit as good (like how views of women, etc., have evolved over time) or should we worried about the erosion of value. Are we aligning our values and our practices?

Another approach to defining merit is in practice today. In this approach, merit means or refers to a student or family with sufficient means to pay for college education (no rich kid left behind) but 1) they want the sense of getting a good deal, or 2) bragging rights- a craving for self-esteem, or 3) these families do not subscribe to the social compact which originally undergirded the high tuition-high discount model. They are not fans of the Robin Hood strategy of taking from the rich and giving to the poor (aversion to supporting the less fortunate). Merit then is used to meet these 3 consumer needs.

Why then do we call it merit? We need to look to our own language. We need to worry when our words don’t mean what they say. Nugent recounts first hearing the term “need-sensitive” and took it to mean sensitive to the needs of the students. She was surprised to know it wasn’t what she thought. Disordered language is an indicator of less-than-admirable practices. If you are being opaque- there is probably a reason and that should concern us.

Nugent referenced a book, “The Honor Code- How Moral Revolutions Happen” by Kwame Anthony Appiah. She notes that transformation in behavior is key, not just sentiments. How can we move from sentiment to behavior?

Appiah’s book outlines 4 significant changes in deeply rooted social behavior:

  • Dueling in Britain
  • Foot binding in China
  • Slavery in the Atlantic areas (Britain and US)
  • Honor killings of women in Middle Eastern countries

In each of these cases, Appiah says that a later generation looks back incredulously and wonders: What were they thinking? How do these transformations occur? How can we persuade others?

Interestingly, change can be rapid. Appiah points to the practice of foot binding, which was practiced for millennia and then transformed in 20 years. In each of the cases that Appiah studied, the moral arguments were well known and had persisted for a long time- but they were not acted upon. Something had to happen that acted as a catalyst for change to occur. Appiah discovered that the catalyst to moral revolution was self-respect. Ultimately, what mattered was the status quo viewing what was occurring as shameful rather than honorable- it held you up to ridicule. What happened with foot binding is that as China had more contact with the Western world, it came to feel that the practice was shameful. He cites a member of the literati citing foot binding as making China an object of ridicule.

Why did people ultimately stop dueling? It had to do with class issues. It was considered an aristocratic practice and then it started slipping down the social levels. When lower classes started to duel, it became seen as ridiculous, and the elites decided to stop the practice.

Nugent emphasizes that it is when a few courageous people act that change can begin…. but these folks are subject to scrutiny, etc. A courageous act is only courageous if there is a cost. These courageous folks analyzed the system, enlisted strategic partners and allies that would make a difference. They utilized the press and other forms of publicity- often, for ridicule. The press ridiculed the lords that participated in dueling and this helped change attitudes.

Those who are successful in causing moral revolutions were willing to take a different path but were conscious that they may pay a price. All of us want to be heroes of our own lives. The most important question that we can ask is: What am I doing to earn my heroism?

Marianne Begemann

Marianne Begemann
Dean of Strategic Planning and Academic Resources, Vassar College

Next, Marianne Begemann aimed to share thoughts about merit, diversity, and access, and how these are reflected at Vassar. She notes that we cannot think of any of these separately- but must consider them all together. The diversity of our institution reflects how we define merit; and how we think about diversity will color how we think about merit.

We must also talk about the practices and policies that can provide opportunity to increase diversity as you have defined it- or be meritorious for your particular kind of institution. Merit and diversity are institutionally defined, although we may agree on the value of diversity both ethically and for practical reasons. But how these values are translated into definitions of merit and diversity will depend on the specific mission of the institution and should be grounded in that mission and in that identity.

We must be clear about our own constraints and histories, geographies, size of endowments, and education program offerings. We should also recognize that we can’t do everything despite perhaps wanting to. Vassar was an all-women institution until 1969—it is an important part of who we are and how we think about ourselves- but it constrains us in ways that we should recognize. It constrains us in terms of offering athletic programs, for example. These constraints influence how we think about merit and access.

When Kathy became president, they moved to a need-blind model that defined merit only based on need. This was seen as a move that was consistent with Vassar’s fundamental mission. It was also a tool that they could use to change the composition of the applicant pool- increase the diversity of the institution. Vassar went from a discount rate of 35% to almost 50% and increased the number of students of color. Making this change during a severe economic depression was difficult- it takes leadership from the president, the board, and faculty (it is very difficult to argue with them about why need-blind and meaningful need is important). People ask how do you afford it and we respond, can we afford not to?

Vassar implemented the Exploring Transfer program in which they partner with community colleges to select students to come to Vassar for 5 weeks in the summer. These students take courses that are team-taught by faculty from Vassar and the community college. The idea is to provide kids with a mini-experience of what it means to go on to liberal arts 4- year institution. They can see that they can succeed in this kind of environment.

They also have a partnership with the Posse Foundation. Together, Posse recruits veteran applicants, and Vassar selects 10 veterans who join the freshman class. They began the program last year and had 11 veterans that were close to 30 years old (some with children), both men and women, and who provide a great example of how to increase diversity.

Vassar is working on a transition program to support students who are first generation, have not experienced the life of a small liberal arts college, etc., who may be in shock on campus. They are given skills and tools and are supported for the first two years.

Vassar also offers “Diving into Research” to improve the representation of underrepresented students in the sciences. They take a group of pre-matriculation freshman from low-SES or underrepresented/first generation students and they spend 4 weeks at Vassar as part of a summer institution. This provides the opportunity to build a cohort, a network, mentors, etc. prior to arriving on campus.

The presentation concluded with a final thought: The solutions that we find must be institutionally focused and driven.


Morning Session 2: Translating the Mission in Student Selection

Richard Shaw

Rick Shaw
Dean of Admission and Financial Aid, Stanford University

Rick Shaw presents a definition of merit from the dictionary; merit: a praiseworthy quality. What praiseworthy qualities should we look for in students? Quantitative elements have value, but what candidates value allow us to move beyond the quantitative that contribute to crafting each year’s class.

This is also known as the “Secret Formula.” Folks have made careers claiming knowledge of the secret formula; the process of crafting a class is much more complex and challenging. Excellence and merit beyond quantitative measures have been the subject of much research. How do we develop policies that can be applied across universities of differing missions?

Using Stanford as an example, the ratio of applicants to admitted students is approximately 18 to 1. The applicant pool is one of the most, quantitatively, competitive in the US. Stanford starts with quantitative measures: testing, program rigor, and grades.

The founding principles of Stanford (1885) were to provide access and opportunity for all (and it was free at the time!). The university would be co-educational, non-denominational, and practical, producing cultured and useful citizens. It was founded to advance learning in the arts and sciences and promote social welfare. The university was founded to promote public welfare- with no tuition to be charged to avoid stratification. The spirit of equality must be maintained.

Moving this mission into a philosophical approach to admission, equality must be center-stage. All students deserve an opportunity to compete and there should be no favored routes or preferences. It actively avoid a one-dimensional approach as it would be a betrayal of the founders. Thus, a multi-dimensional, in-context evaluation approach that considers a broad array of personal excellences, creativity in the arts, contributions to community service, proven and sustained leadership, etc., or intellectual vitality- aims to identify those who are immersed in the learning process and demonstrate a depth of thinking with insight and originally. Hence college essays are critical.

Recognizing that students learn greatly from one another, an emphasis must be placed on crafting the class.

Jenny Rickard (Vice President for Enrollment, University of Puget Sound)

Jenny Rickard
Vice President for Enrollment, University of Puget Sound

Jenny Rickard used Puget Sound as a case study to discuss merit. Puget Sound is looking at defining diversity and quality in the context of their market position and mission.

Puget Sound is a national residential liberal arts college. It is one of 5 national liberal arts colleges in the Pacific Northwest, with a $280 million dollar endowment and 80% of revenue coming from tuition room and board.

Puget Sound was a regional, comprehensive, commuter institution, but in the 1970s the board made the decision to become a national liberal arts college. There was a decision to become smaller, increase the academic profile, increase retention, build a national profile, expand diversity, and increase the focus on the liberal arts. The university invested in the faculty and added a residential environment by building three residential halls. They used merit aid to help build their national profile and to raise the SAT profile in particular.

Recently for the class of 2017, they met their enrollment goal while lowering the discount rate. The discount rate declined by 5 points and they met the class target, but the academic profile and diversity declined. This served as a catalyst at Puget Sound to convene to ask how to define merit.

Three categories of discussion:

  1. Market Position: What are the criteria that we want to use? (US News?? No!)
  2. Who are our students and does the composition of the student body embody our mission?
  3. How do we meet goals in a way that is financially sustainable?

They turned their attention to their mission. The determined that they want students who are interested in personal and intellectual pursuits, come from a variety of interests, and want to contribute to society. The university also engaged in a branding effort. Their ethos is demonstrated in materials that emphasize: “We make our own wisdom”.

They describe their students as “proudly unclassifiable and universally kind…we’re ambitious and modest. We’re collaborative and independent minded…”

Rickard continued by describing how Puget Sound defines “quality”. For admission, they use a holistic process that incorporates academic factors plus personal qualities and characteristics. For need based- and merit aid they have been focused on standardized test, GPA, rigor of curriculum, and financial need. Mission, she notes, is about outcomes, not inputs. Branding is about intellectual engagement and non-standardized approaches.

Thus, the first step they took was to analyze data about what best predicted student success. They added in “overall fit” and writing score criteria into the selection process, reduced weight for standardized testing by 60%, and increased GPA weight by 120% with hopes of expanding diversity and increasing retention.

Reflecting on the steps Puget Sound has taken to define merit and meet their mission, Rickard concludes that position can both constrain and liberate an institution as can history and brand, as they try to align selection with mission. Additionally, she concludes that every institution has a different conversation.

Ted Spencer (Associate Vice Provost and Executive Director, Office of Undergraduate Admissions, University of Michigan)

Ted Spencer
Associate Vice Provost and Executive Director, Office of Undergraduate Admissions, University of Michigan

Ted Spencer began the panel discussion with an overview of the University of Michigan. Founded in 1817, the university aimed to offer an uncommon education to the average citizen. The mission statement has changed over the years and how to get into the university depends on the mission at a specific time. Currently they are looking for broad and diverse students who are academically excellent and accomplished in extracurricular endeavors.

The elephant in the room, however, is “aggressive diversity policies vs. perception”. 25 years prior to Bakke, most colleges and university did everything that they could to increase minority enrollments. Bakke said you can use race, but not as a primary factor. From that point on, colleges have been struggling with how to increase minorities in a fair way. Merit is defined to the public differently than it is defined within colleges and universities.

U of M takes a holistic approach to reviewing applicants. Direct measures include GPA, pattern of grade improvement, quality of curriculum, test scores, internships in areas of academic interest, participation in enrichment or outreach programs, and class rank. Additionally, they consider counselor and teacher recommendations.

The review process aims to gain a diversity of characteristics and attributes—which is not just about grades and test scores. What is important, according to Spencer, is that they look at context. They evaluate kids based on the context that they are in. Students are not compared, but rather evaluated, based on their own context.

Spencer referenced “The Shape of the River”, noting that it wasn’t until Bowen and Bok’s study did we have enough data to show the benefits of diversity in summary. Diversity, if done properly, is good for all students. There is a question of critical mass; and the answer is it is not a specific number but is rather the concept of enrolling enough minority students that all will receive benefits from the diversity. We look for students who are qualified, but may not be as competitive. Those kids, put in the right environment and given the opportunity, do graduate. This must be taken into account when considering merit.


Afternoon Panel 1: Merit and the Role of College Admission

Frederick (Ted) Hill Headmaster, Chadwick School

Frederick (Ted) Hill
Headmaster, Chadwick School

Ted Hill described his school as intensely mission driven. He also told the university admissions staff, “The closer that you hew to your mission, the closer that we can hew to our mission.”

He discussed the disconnect between what kids do to get into college and what will truly benefit them academically and in life. As a result of college admissions, the top of the food chain in math, for example, is calculus. Yet kids will probably never use what they learn. Probability and statistics, on the other hand, is not taken because kids do not perceive it as being attractive to the admissions process, although it is very practical and used in the college curriculum.

Hill also brought up Bok’s (2006) “Our Underachieving Colleges: A Candid Look at How Much Students Learn and Why They Should Be Learning More” to illuminate 8 purposes of undergraduate education:

  1. Ability to communicate
  2. Critical thinking
  3. Moral reasoning
  4. Preparing citizens
  5. Living with diversity
  6. Preparing global society
  7. Acquiring broader interests
  8. Preparing for career

Hill leaves us with the thought: In what ways should alignment between K-12 and higher education be bottom-up or top-down?

Gary Meunier (School Counselor, Weston High School)

Gary Meunier
School Counselor, Weston High School

Gary Meunier launched his presentation with a description of the characteristics of excellence. They include:

  • Equal opportunity to success
  • Access to resources to support those with diverse learning styles
  • Cultural fairness – safe schools
  • An atmosphere where those in charge believe and support the mission
  • A motivated and engaging faculty
  • Access to rigor and remediation
  • Access to relationships with adults who fosters a connection
  • High expectations
  • Environment that suggests that hard is a good thing
  • Access to the arts
  • Maximizing and promoting diversity
  • Culture of understanding
  • Adequate facilities
  • Contemporary resources
  • Professional development for all staff
  • Culture of success: a college-going culture

Next, he described concepts that promote excellence:

  • Fairness
  • Communication
  • Transparency
  • Learning the language of success from elementary to middle to high school
  • Availability model of excellence in teaching
  • Data driven practices
  • Healthy competition
  • Promotion of innovation
  • Learning that includes analysis and synthesis
  • Evidence based assessment

Meunier suggests that communication needs to improve between K-12 and higher education. The highest performing students, students with “snow plow, helicopter, Velcro, and tiger mom parents”, have advantages over those who do not.

Meunier suggests that when the students invest the quality time into building their application, and they put their best foot forward, their application will stand on its own. Meunier suggests that he can best help students by helping them start and complete their college applications. He notes that thousands of qualified students do not engage in the process. They are just not in the applicant pool.

Among the questions Meunier asks of college admissions:

  • Does their education at the secondary level relate to higher education?
  • How do we get information to underrepresented kids?
  • Do we speak with or at kids?
  • Are we using contemporary strategies to reach them?
  • Is what we provide relevant to them or “digital garnish”?
  • What is the role of standardized testing? Are we adhering to protocols that the designers of the tests had in place?
Dixie Ross (AP Lead Teacher, Pflugerville High School)

Dixie Ross
AP Lead Teacher, Pflugerville High School

Dixie Ross began with a discussion of the ratio between counselors to students. She recounted a story in which her student said counselors don’t really matter that much. He indicated that it was pretty much his teachers who connected him and helped him get to Howard. Counselors try to get kids out of high school not necessarily into college. Teachers are a really important in terms of their opportunity to help drive the process. Her high school is in Pflugerville, which is located just outside of Austin, Texas and has an urban demographic with 1/3 Latino, ¼ African American, and 10% Asian students. More than 44% qualify for free and reduced lunch and the city is very much a working class community. Most kids will be the first generation of college participants in their family.

Ross suggests that we tend to gravitate toward quantitative measures when we talk about diversity, although some of the other qualitative elements, or life experiences, that are harder to measure may be more valuable. Students have diverse life experiences that contribute to who they are and we need to think about how to look for kids with different experiences. She described her first school, where students were fearful of the flushing toilets and getting sucked in (this is in the 1980s) because most of the kids had outhouses. This is a diverse upbringing as compared with what is considered the norm.

Ross then described how at Pflugerville high school changed the culture from a school in which 100 students participated in AP testing each year to 1,000 testing after 5 years. She emphasized that it wasn’t that the talent had changed, but rather the opportunity. Ross notes that kids know surprisingly little about college processes and colleges in general.

In Pflugerville, they love it when kids come back from college and tell their stories to the high school kids. When asked what surprises them most, one of her students responded that they were surprised at how few black students were at the university. He spoke about being the only black students in the class and how people have pre-conceived, stereotypical ideas about him. When a professor approached him about tutoring, the student thought the professor as asking him to be a tutor. He realized that the professor made assumptions about him (presumably because he is black) and was actually offering tutoring, despite this student being a National Merit scholar. Additionally, she notes that the students are greatly deterred by price and also hold a strong (and erroneous) belief that bigger is better.

Ross posed the questions: How do universities access my students? How are you reaching out to them? She went straight to the source and found out that her students wanted to know about or cared most about:

  • The mission of the university.
  • How much it will cost them and their family to attend? They weren’t all that interested in amenities and felt like there was a lot of slick marketing.
  • About opportunities for them to have internships, work in labs, interact with faculty
  • Really, really care about personal contact. If someone from the university (a student, staff, etc.) called them to talk about the university, this is very meaningful interaction to them.

Ross asked students, when it is time to apply what do you think should be on the application in order to be treated fairly?

  • One student said that universities should ask us how we use our time. Ask about how students use their time, work, responsibilities, and what they contribute to the household.

She also asked, how do universities ensure that students attend once admitted? Some apply and are accepted and then when it is time to attend in the fall, they don’t show up.

  • We need to really think about what is preventing them from attending. It may be something (such as fear of flying in an airplane) that we would have never thought of or expected.

Ross closed by emphasizing how when her students come back from college, they are the absolute best advocates and promoters. Thus when you accept one student, you get an advocate who will recruit heavily on your behalf.


Afternoon Panel 2: Meet the (Education) Press

Eric Hoover Senior Writer, Chronicle of Higher Education

Eric Hoover
Senior Writer, Chronicle of Higher Education

Eric Hoover shared an Alden Thresher quote from 1966:

“We (Colleges) are entitled to pick the people that seem most likely to contribute the most value and will have the maximum impact on the life of their time. These are defensible arguments, but they nevertheless often serve as rationalizations for a kind of insensate avarice: we want the best and only the best, we are never satisfied, we regret that every class, no matter how able and promising, still has a bottom third”.

Hoover went on to recap and connect to what has been covered thus far in the conference, noting that tradeoffs, decisions, etc., need to be made about what colleges value most, and that on-going rethinking about admissions work and merit is critical.

Scott Jaschik Editor, Inside Higher Ed

Scott Jaschik
Editor, Inside Higher Ed

Scott Jaschik notes that as reporters, they tend to be skeptical and critical. He noted that some of the majors Brighouse identified as socially important were not even offered at some of the elite institutions (social work, early childhood). He noted that the Hoxby research, quoted frequently, and that colleges – judging by their actions not their hearts- do not appear to be aligned or doing what they say. He suggested that universities are not visiting the high schools with underrepresented students and referenced the “Search for Black Bruins” video on YouTube in which a student describes what it is like to be black at UCLA. He referenced other social media posts that describe the difficulties of being the profound minority. The UCLA video, he notes, has been viewed 1,700,000+ times. That will have more impact than anything else that we do.

Jaschik continued by suggesting that the participants of the conferences are wonderful, but are too elite. More diversity in terms of who is represented in the room is needed. He asks, what is the responsibility of elite education as other areas of education are being attacked? Those, among other things, are some of what Jaschik are interested in.

Janet Rapelye (Dean of Admission, Princeton University)

Janet Rapelye
Dean of Admission, Princeton University

Arlene Wesley Cash  Vice Provost for Enrollment Management, University of the Pacific

Arlene Wesley Cash
Vice Provost for Enrollment Management, University of the Pacific

Philip Ballinger (Associate Vice Provost for Enrollment, University of Washington)

Philip Ballinger Associate Vice Provost for Enrollment, University of Washington

From here Jaschik and Hoover interviewed Arlene Wesley Cash (Vice Provost for Enrollment Management, University of the Pacific), Janet Rapelye (Dean of Admission, Princeton University), and Philip Ballinger (Associate Vice Provost for Enrollment, University of Washington). Hoover asked about the tensions/conflicts that they are facing that gets attention on their campus. The panelists discussed the challenges of the balancing act when resources are limited. The conversation continued to touch on and examine pressing issues in higher education including access, merit, role of the SAT, and how institutions use standardized tests, student support systems, financial aid, and communicate with students.


Dinner Keynote Address

Karen Symms Gallagher kicked off the evening by sharing about her work with Don Heller. They have worked together to promote increase federal spending on educational research—specifically knowing more about teaching and learning. She suggested that if we are doing it right, we should all be connected in influencing student outcomes. She praised Don’s work and dedication to education and welcomed him.

Don Heller began by noting that we have had a number of definitions of merit, and they are all about the same. A few examples of how merit is used in admissions and college aid included:

  • Merit can be academic talent measured by standardized test scores, etc.
  • It can be defined by one’s ability to bring an audience to tears playing piano, or performing.
  • It can also be defined by athleticism.
Don Heller Dean of the College of Education, Michigan State University

Don Heller
Dean of the College of Education, Michigan State University

As we use money in talking about admissions and financial aid, it is quite complex and we need to consider capital constraints and access to information.

Heller continues, noting that all other things being equal, having more merit will increase the choice set of a student, as will having more money.

Heller looked at how merit and money relate, describing his own background. He came from a Title III elite institution and was able to attend due to an “accident of birth”. He came from a background that had money, which increased his merit. His parents encouraged him and his sisters to attend college. The annual cost of attendance at Tufts University at the time was 37% of an average family’s income—today it is 94%. He didn’t appreciate the ease of getting into college as all of his peers had the same easy path. But that accident of birth could have placed him in different circumstances in which the path was not as clearly defined.

Heller asks, “What role did merit and money play?” What if he had one or the other- or neither? We can never know for sure. We do have evidence to inform speculation on how his path would have been different. There is a large amount of research that tells us that on average both merit and money play critical roles in college admissions and money has a particular effect on merit. Most recent data show that there is a strong and positive linear relationship between scores and family income; the lower the income—the lower the scores. There are similar gaps based on race. Studies have shown that students in the top economic quartile were 4 times as likely to get a bachelor’s degree by 26 years of age than those in the bottom quartile.

A longitudinal study looked at students from both high and low SES who were high academic achievers starting at 8th grade. High-SES students were more likely to enroll in college than poorer peers and to earn a degree. This study took out merit- all were meritorious, but it shows that money matters.

So where do we go from here? How do we address this? We know that financial barriers play a role, so how do we change the current mindset regarding what attributes will lead to college success?

There is some promise in recent trends:

  1. Movement away from requirement of standardized test scores. 800 institutions have made applications test-optional. Every institution should examine their own policies to determine how and why scores are used.
  2. The trend toward awarding institutional grants rather than need-based grants has slowed somewhat.

Heller notes that those with academic units must ensure that every student admitted have an equal shot at success. Heller’s institution, Michigan State, is working to analyze and close the achievement gap and they aim to make sure every student is given every opportunity to be successful and thrive on campus.

Heller closed with a thought experiment.

Take any one of our selective institutions; find the scholarship athlete, legacy student, or any student admitted with the lowest academic credentials. Look at whatever measure you want to use. That measure is the floor at which you have determined a student can succeed. So now that you have the floor, take all of the students who applied and who had credentials above that floor. We can’t admit them all, so you are going to run a lottery.

And maybe you give underrepresented students a boost in the lottery selection (more balls, more opportunity). How different would the institution look if you did admissions that way? How would that change who gets admitted to the institution? If you think about the chances that someone has on the lottery compared with current opportunities, things would look different.


Day 3


Transforming the Dialogue of Merit: A Framework and Strategies for Defining and Defending What You Decide

Art Coleman Managing Partner, Education Counsel, LLC

Art Coleman
Managing Partner, Education Counsel, LLC

Art Coleman began by complimenting Jerry and CERPP for aiming to conquer the elephant in the room: MERIT, which often gets surface treatment at best. To tackle this, Coleman considered the kind of question one should pose if you are attempting to conquer obstacles: Why can’t admission be more like college football? Rankings are abundantly clear, he notes sarcastically (see slide 4). Coleman shared the different college football rankings and makes the point that we think of things as being objective but it is not always so. He notes that we are ratings obsessed and emphasized that despite having numbers, it doesn’t mean it is objective. We measure what we value, but not everything that we value is easily measured. That is essentially our challenge as we consider merit.

Coleman emphasized that when discussing merit, terminology is key. Context is important, as there is no one-size-fits-all situation here. It varies by student, by institution, etc. Merit implies multiple factors and merit is a question of judgment about who enters your class. Coleman suggests that we do not do a good enough job defending our judgment.

Diversity is often linked with access but the two are not identical. As we think about the concept of diversity we should associate it with quality and excellence, as much as access and underscore the notion of the benefits that everyone will experience in a diverse setting. Coleman then shared a quote from an op-ed from the Wall Street Journal from March of 2013 (Susie Lee Weiss), “Colleges tell you just be yourself….” (Following is the article and a clip from the Today Show or Today Show interview).

Diversity, Coleman underscored, is more than just checking off a box.

In this session, Coleman offered an operational framework associate with issues of merit and diversity, and presented “Six for Success”, or key elements integral to defining and affirming institutional judgments. These are:

  • Clear Goal and Strategies
  • Evidence
  • Coherence and Alignment
  • Transparency
  • Engagement
  • Advocacy

Coleman shared the Pyramid (please see slides 10 and 11) to demonstrate the interaction between clear goals, objectives, strategies, evidence, coherence and alignment and how that relates to transparency, engagement, and advocacy.

Coleman moved into a benchmark related to clearly define missions and the connection between that mission and diversity. Key questions (slide 14) serve to trigger conversation and reflection.  One of the big take-aways, Coleman hopes, is that excellence and diversity are connected, rather than either/or, as so much of the public assumes. He asked, if we have clarity on goals and strategies, the question is, how do you know there is a relationship between my intuition’s success regarding its goals and the diversity of our student body? Evidence could include general research, institution-specific data/research, institution-specific experiences, etc. Coleman encourages us not to lose sight of the power of the stories on campus and what students have to say about their experience. Additionally, he encouraged us to not lose sight of the 21st century skills that are critical to students’ success.  (See www.p21.org). This is about what it takes to succeed in the 21st century.

Coleman reviewed some of the criteria related to the Six for Success:

  • Transparency: Are admissions strategies and policies related to merit clearly articulated in a way that communicates the direct relevance to mission-related goals? We must ask ourselves how do we communicate goals, values and success? (See slide 19)
  • Engagement: Are admissions professionals working as a team to engage with key stakeholders regarding key issues, opportunities, and challenges? Are there clear strategies with respect to engaging senior officials, faculty, parents and prospective students, alumni, enrolled students, the press, etc.?

Advocacy: Coleman asks us to consider, Am I an effective advocate in helping my institution communicate its mission and the importance of admission judgments to that end?

Coleman turns attention to the court of public opinion, underscoring that it can be more powerful than the court of law. (See slide 23). He notes that where voters have been asked the question should public institutions be allowed to consider race in admissions, the answer is overwhelmingly no.

We are encouraged to review the College Board document, A Diversity Action Blueprint. It includes the verbatim admissions policy that was challenged in Grutter, and ultimately upheld.

Coleman concluded with a quote: “Justice must satisfy the appearance of Justice” (Justice Frankfurter, 1954).

Coleman moved into a poll of the conference participants related to a clear and common understanding of the characteristics of merit from multiple perspectives, and how they would grade their institution on the Six for Success themes. The results of the polls are as follows:

Poll slide 1: Understanding of value and characteristics of merit among enrollment management colleagues

Poll slide 2: Understanding of diversity among leadershipPoll slide 3: Understanding of diversity among publicPoll slide 4: Institution's grade for establishing clear goalsPoll slide 5: Institution's grade for use of evidence with enrollment strategiesPoll slide 6: Institution's grade for alignment of enrollment policies and goalsPoll slide 7: Institution's grade for transparency in enrollment goals, strategies, and policiesPoll slide 8: Institution's grade for engagement with key stakeholdersPoll slide 9: Institution's grade for advocacy of enrollment strategies, policies and success

The conversation moved into a panel discussion related to diversity. Panelists including Kedra Ishop (Vice Provost and Director of Admissions, UT Austin), Mike Barron (Assistant Provost for Enrollment Management, University of Iowa), Stu Schmill (Dean of Admission, MIT), Tim Brunold (Dean of Admission, USC), and Youlonda Copeland-Morgan (Associate Vice Chancellor for Enrollment Management, UCLA) shared personal experiences and institutional perspectives related to diversity. Coleman concluded by encouraging the building of pathways and opportunities. A spirit in which we say we don’t care where you go, but just go somewhere.

Kedra Ishop Vice Provost and Director of Admissions, UT Austin

Kedra Ishop
Vice Provost and Director of Admissions, UT Austin

Mike Barron Assistant Provost for Enrollment Management, University of Iowa

Mike Barron
Assistant Provost for Enrollment Management, University of Iowa

Stu Schmill Dean of Admission, MIT

Stu Schmill
Dean of Admission, MIT

Tim Brunold Dean of Admission, USC

Tim Brunold
Dean of Admission, USC

Youlonda Copeland-Morgan Associate Vice Chancellor for Enrollment Management, UCLA

Youlonda Copeland-Morgan
Associate Vice Chancellor for Enrollment Management, UCLA

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


Concluding Remarks

Jerome A. Lucido Research Professor and Executive Director of the USC Center for Enrollment Research, Policy, and Practice

Jerome A. Lucido
Research Professor and Executive Director of the USC Center for Enrollment Research, Policy, and Practice

Jerry Lucido wrapped up the conference. He first reminded us on the important of earning public trust on the matter of merit.

“Merit, no matter what the temptation or the ubiquity of practice, is not a narrowly defined concept. There is merit in providing equitable opportunity. There is merit in rewarding academic achievement. There is merit in developing talent among populations that are historically underrepresented. There is merit in students with means and in students without means. There is merit in personal virtue and in courage and in conscientiousness, and in empathy. There is merit in building great educational institutions. There is merit in building a better society.”

Admission policy, policy directed “toward the mission,” should be a reflection of institutional purpose, but it should also be a reflection of a commitment to educate students, and a commitment to benefit society.

He also exhorted us to join him in taking up Harry Brighouse’s challenge of the status hierarchy: “Status order ought to reflect social value.”

Finally, he also quoted Alden Thresher (1966) to conclude: “In the broad context of the general welfare, the overwhelming obligation of higher education is the provision of education for all capable of realizing its benefits and feeding those back in multiplied vigor into the general polity.”