12.3.11

SPELL OUT THE TRADEOFFS.  Advocates of inclusion will engage in all sorts of logic-chopping to avoid confronting the possibility that different academic standards can mean lower academic standards.   Minding the Campus reports that at Syracuse University, the students see the adverse consequences of neglecting that tradeoff in order to assuage the consciences of faddish administrators.
Donald A. Saleh, vice president for enrollment management at Syracuse, pooh-poohed the student and faculty critics of the new recruitment strategy as fuddy-duddies who don't understand that times have changed. "There is this tension in higher education between the old ways in which colleges described the quality of their class—test scores and G.P.A. and rank in class, and the new metric, which will be much more along the lines of what we are talking about—the socioeconomic diversity, the percentage of students who are first-generation in college, and for students from the Northeast in particular, the geographic diversity of their class," he told Inside Higher Ed. "Some of our faculty members are locked into the old metrics. Our president, our provost and the deans and my area of enrollment management are focused on the new metrics."
That noted, the U. S. News rankings continue to sell well, even though there is no longer a print edition of U. S. News and World Report.  The usual suspects continue to occupy the top of the league tables, and they continue to be seriously oversubscribed.  That oversubscription might lead some of Harvard's rejects to consider Syracuse, and Harvard's rejects don't want to be fobbed off with a diluted degree.
For all the administrative happy talk at Syracuse, it seems clear that the university embarked on a perhaps not carefully thought-out experiment in admissions policy that has backfired, at least in terms of public relations. Although a venerable academic institution with several top-rated programs, Syracuse has struggled for decades with the realities of its unappealing geographic location in economically depressed upstate New York and its second-rate reputation compared to, say, the Ivy League. Although a national research university, it has historically drawn most of its students from the Northeast, a demographically declining region with a diminishing population of young people that has meant, at least in the recent past, a diminishing number of applications for freshman places at Syracuse. 
Note what is unseen: whatever cachet membership in the Big East athletic conference might confer when the office pools get organized, there's no mention of the athletic program providing an attractive front porch for the remaining applicants.

The current students, on the other hand, fear that less-prepared and less-motivated students will be a drag their classes.
What the critics among Syracuse's faculty and students fear is that this trend will continue: lower-income, marginally qualified students signing up at Syracuse in droves, while their better-prepared counterparts take a look at the situation and decide to spend their $200,000 elsewhere. The problem is that Syracuse isn't Harvard. Harvard and the other Ivies can afford to indulge in diversity admissions because, with their towering reputations, they are virtually guaranteed thousands of applicants of the highest academic caliber (Harvard turns down nine out of every ten who apply). Furthermore, neither U.S. News nor the consumer base of parents and perspective students who regard the magazine's college rankings as holy writ, have bought into that "new metric" of Saleh's that measures a school's greatness by its percentage of first-generation students who are high dropout risks. They still go by the old metric, in which SAT scores and GPA's count more. The question now is to what extent Syracuse's administrators actually believe their own Orwellian rhetoric, and to what extent the justified alarm of Syracuse's students, faculty, and perhaps alumni persuades those administrators to take a different tack in their recruiting efforts.
Cold Spring Shops does not encourage the use of the pejorative "Orwellian rhetoric" to describe what might be more accurately described as a misguided, faddish, show of conscience.  There is an Inside Higher Ed report titled "Is There a Price for Inclusiveness?" that features a reasoned bull session on the various dimensions of Syracuse's policy shift.

Minding the Campus quoted from a letter to the Daily Orange from anthropologist Robert Rubenstein, who suggested the editorial board identified "a false choice" between academic quality and inclusiveness.  His concluding paragraph received the most play at Minding the Campus.
The choice is not between quality and value on the one hand and diversity on the other in the SU experience. Indeed, when selectivity and exclusivity become ends in themselves, they easily become another way of saying that a school should only admit students who look and think like those already on the student body. By valorizing selectivity based on relatively superficial aspects of a student's achievement in high school, rankings such as the U.S. News and World Report do a real disservice to all of us. I hope the SU community continues to admit students based on an appreciation of who they are and who they show they might become. This makes the university a better place at which to live, to work and to learn.
The student columnists are unlikely to be impressed, as their editorial suggests that inclusion has been conflated with productivity, to the enhancement of neither.
The administration justifies the rising acceptance rate with the idealistic goal of increasing student diversity and socioeconomic inclusiveness. The new recruitment strategy has paid off, as the number of students eligible for the Pell Grant, intended to aid lower-income students, increased by 16 percent last year.

But putting the value of campus diversity aside, the administration has chosen to change SU's recruitment strategy to one largely untested and one that reverses three decades of working to make SU's a more exclusive education.

SU already feels some of the negative consequences of a now 60 percent acceptance rate. 2010's freshman class was unintentionally large, causing overcrowding in classes and especially in campus housing. If SU wants to increase diversity by accepting and potentially enrolling larger numbers, then the infrastructure — enough dorm rooms, classrooms, staff and faculty — must be in place beforehand. Likewise, the quality of education could decline if class sizes continue to increase.

Faculty know best how larger class sizes may affect their ability to teach. Declining prestige may also lessen professors' desire to work at SU. The administration must listen to faculty concerns and input, as they have much at stake in the change to recruitment.

The acceptance rate has increased so dramatically students are watching their diploma lose value even before graduating. We should likewise have a say in the change to recruitment and rising acceptance rate, as this directly affects us and our hireability in an ailing economy.
Left unsaid: whether increased enrollment is a device to bear the debt service on the Carrier Dome, with the taxpayers picking up the tab, at the same time that the columnists fear the new-profile students are dragging down the university's academic profile.  Standard Cold Spring Shops fare, all that.  What's more interesting is what both Inside Higher Ed and Minding the Campus left out of Professor Rubenstein's statement.
The editorial mistakenly equates exclusivity with quality. Exclusivity enforced by selective admissions favors those in our society who are already advantaged. As an end in itself, selectivity does little to ensure high-quality educational experiences. 
Fair enough. Selectivity in the presence of the failure of K-12 to provide advantages to those capable of seizing those advantages reinforces the pattern of social stratification.
I worked on a factory assembly line after school while my high school friends from more fortunate families had time to do their homework and be tutored for their SATs. They often got better grades or higher SAT scores than did I. Many of them went on to Ivy League and other exclusive schools. I did not. I applied to SU, but I was not admitted. I went to a less selective college.
I went to Milwaukee Hamilton. There might have been Kaplan-style SAT preparation classes in those days, but they weren't something our parents fretted about.  The football and basketball programs might have garnered more attention, but the planetarium and the Superior Ability Program functioned as college board preparation (in addition to a number of other useful things, including the correct use of 3x5 cards for references and 5x8 cards for quotations).  Today, however, if such a program even exists, its very title is doubleplusungood, and I'm probably not overanalyzing to note that where the primal program is No Child Left Behind, the dual program is No Child Runs Ahead.  Professor Rubenstein's school district probably was not that constrained by public policy, but thirty years of misguided egalitarianism in the common schools leaves parents with few options other than to spring for Kaplan or locate a parochial school, in order that their offspring get a shot at the thick envelopes from the right places.  That, or take out a mortgage on a house with a price that includes the capitalized value of higher test scores.
I spent my winter, spring and summer breaks at the factory, not traveling with friends to Mexico or Europe. But I worked hard at my schoolwork; and because some of my professors were especially supportive, I did well enough to go to graduate school, though not well enough to get into a "top-tier" graduate program. SU rejected me for doctoral studies, too.
Apparently, though, his undergraduate degree was solid enough to get him into a graduate program that was strong enough to get him on a job trajectory that got him a professorship at Syracuse.  Doesn't sound like a subprime party school undergraduate experience to me, and it reinforces two points regular readers are familiar with: first, the tension between providing sufficient resources for a motivated college student to earn expenses with a full-time summer job and a part-time academic year job and taxing that student's less motivated or less clever classmates who join the workforce more rapidly to make the future degree recipient richer (an intertemporally regressive transfer); and second, the obligation of the less-well-regarded universities to act like they are in the same business as Harvard or Syracuse or Wisconsin.
By the age of 25, I had completed my Ph.D. at the State University of New York Binghamton (then considered a second- or third-tier school). Despite not being from a prestigious school, the education I got was outstanding, and I learned skills for teaching, research and publishing that many of my colleagues who went to more prestigious schools did not learn. Working through college and graduate school introduced me to worlds I would not otherwise have seen or experienced, and this enriched, too, my own educational experience. My experiences in the classroom and outside have enabled me to achieve much.
Binghamton might have come late to the land-grant business, but, note, the faculty Professor Rubenstein interacted with pushed him to work up to his potential: none of the pernicious we-can't-possibly-be-Syracuse-or-Berkeley-so-why-bother that causes more than a few of the comprehensives and mid-majors to fail at their mission before they even begin.  (There were more than a few economists with Binghamton connections passing through Wisconsin as visitors or as tenure-trackers while I was studying there: good research is good research, no matter what the institutional affiliation is.  Whether administrators there grasp the point I don't know.)

And note, again, no mention of Binghamton seeking basketball recognition with a less talented bunch of grifters than Syracuse employs recruits to achieve somewhat greater recognition.

More to the point, nobody put then-Mr Rubenstein down for being from a less wealthy family, or expected less of him.  We're all in the same business, and the rubric of low-net-worth-first-generation-minority-nontraditional-access does not have to be a low-level expectations trap for Syracuse's current students, the new cohorts of students, the faculty, or the administration.  But firing the diversity hustlers and the assessment weenies might be socially necessary to release that trap.

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