C.L. Max Nikias, USC's president, opened the day's discussion of admissions policies by noting the common goals of everyone in the room.
"All of you are here today because you believe in the power of education," he said. "You are here because you want to ensure that our admissions process is not getting in the way of attracting the very best students. You're here today because you believe that education is the greatest equalizer of society."
Competition is essential to institutions, he said, but the standards that result "should not become obstacles" to entry.
"The key is to compete wisely, to improve our education and results at the same time that we raise aspirations for high school students and the nation," he said.
Nikias expressed confidence that participants will "identify ways to serve their own universities while finding better ways to serve the public good."
Robert Zemsky, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education, reflected on an admissions report he worked on 25 years ago. Sadly, he said, everything he and his colleagues reported then still applies.
The focus then, access, learning and money, was on issues that colleges still grapple with as they try to admit the most-deserving students.
"The American collegiate curriculum, the one we recruit students to, is nothing more nor nothing less than the sum of what us faculty want. You are recruiting students to an enterprise run by independent contractors who do pretty damn well what we want to do," said Zemsky who has spent 47 years in the field.
"All we say to our students is check the boxes and we'll give you the degree, but please fill out my classes, because that's how I justify my line in the budget. That's what you've been recruiting students to for 25 years. and there's nothing new in that charge. That charge was made 25 years ago."
One difference, Zemsky said, is that now for-profit colleges are putting increasing pressure on traditional institutions, and colleges must tighten their practices to compete.
"The truth is we are a very scattered cottage industry in a world that doesn't treat scattered cottage industries well," he said.
He sees that change taking place first at public universities, rather than more selective private institutions. The leadership for such a change though, must come from the top at campuses, where presidents and trustees, he said, have been reluctant to confront admissions issues in the past, rejecting reports or recommendations for establishing new methods for students to find a good college match.
"The message to the president, is you can no longer be missing in action," Zemsky said.
In conclusion, Zemsky said college officials must set aside rhetoric and work on establishing new systems that will work for a variety of students.
"If you actually do the design then the educational values will rise and learning will matter," he said.
Joseph Soares, Wake Forest University
Susan Dynarski, University of Michigan
Bill Tierney, University of Southern California
Anthony Carnevale, Georgetown University
Rates of success for non-traditional students have not improved significantly in the last generation and challenges are increasing, from lower public funding, to increased demand for college graduates in the workforce.
The panel also discussed institutional trends regarding the use of SAT scores.
Joseph Soares said school grades are the best predictor of collegiate success, not SAT scores, and his university, Wake Forest, has made the reporting of such scores optional. Success on the tests also is highly correlated with greater family incomes.
Wake Forest's shift, Soares said, made a "huge difference" in the school's applicant pool. He also pointed to the University of Texas, where a program to admit high-school graduates who finished in the top-10 percent of their classes has met with some success.
"Using top-10 percent as a metric has a way of removing the barriers of bad schools or low resources," he said.
He added that faculty are sometimes very resistant to dropping the SAT's because they did well on such tests.
"We're a part of the Darwinist system to begin with," he said.
Susan Dynarski said there has been little movement in recent decades in improving graduation rates among African-Americans and Latinos or the poorest students.
"It doesn't look like we're getting any better at closing this gap," she said.
She recommended that universities begin measuring teaching in a serious way,
and pointed out how a focus on elementary and high schools has brought their performance into the public eye. She also said colleges and universities must not resist efforts to create better statistical models to determine how they perform.
"We need those measures to be imposed on us essentially," she said.
Studies show that California's need for college graduates to fill jobs will outstrip the supply in 2025, and Bill Tierney warned participants of the crisis in being able to met the demand.
He urged colleges to play a larger role in preparing at-risk students. One such way, he said, would be to adopt 10 low-performing high schools where students need more intervention than the typical college fair or financial-aid workshop.
If college administrators want to craft a representative and talented class, he said, they "must be more centrally involved in our nation's schools."
He also warned of the communication and planning gaps between the various higher education systems, from public and private universities to non-profit and for-profit institutions.
Anthony Carnevale said the spending gap among private and public institutions and community colleges is considerable and has reached a level of stratification that should be alarming, but the public hasn't caught on yet.
"Somebody needs to be concerned about it who goes where and I hope you'll remain concerned about it," he said.
He sees the connection between curriculum and job creation growing even more in the future.
"If educators don't make people employable, surely they won't make them good citizens or contributing members of culture," he said.
Sandy Baum, Skidmore College
Michael McPherson, Spencer Foundation
Colleges should commit to sharp changes in how they accept and evaluate applicants if they are to confront problems on the admissions landscape.
Sandy Baum and Michael McPherson recommended two methods for major shifts, including the creation of a system in which both colleges and students give up some freedom, in exchange for more certainty in their planning.
For instance, a group of colleges would create a consortium that would guarantee admission to applicants, limiting overheated competition to enlist top students. Students, in turn, would rank their favorite schools in the consortium, and be promised an education, but not necessarily at their top-choice campus.
The other method would involve the most-sought after schools simply accepting more applicants. That would result, Baum said, in a decline in competition, and perhaps level the playing field in spending per student, an area in which there are huge gaps between community colleges and the most elite, private research universities.
Baum and McPherson suggested the plans in hopes of spurring thought, and were not offering proposals that could be immediately implemented. McPherson said the proposals were "not a panacea by any means," but he added it's clear that admissions professionals would like to see some form of change.
People confront costs, figurative and literal, on all sides, he said. Colleges bear the burden of sorting through mounds of admissions materials, students pay for expensive preparation services to make themselves more attractive candidates and they also sacrifice time they could have spent on other activities.
"We're in a situation where we're all in a game that's not really the game we want to play," he said.
The education market is complicated, Baum said, because it is not a pure consumer market, where competition begets better prices and better products.
But the climate of competition, in which prospective students rely heavily on college ranking guides such as those offered by U.S. News and World Report, has led to a deep divide in perception, Baum said.
"We've somehow decided best is so much better than second best," she said.
Especially affected are students who are eligible for better programs, but unaware of it. They are more likely to drop out of the college where they do end up.
"The fact is we all know that many many students are going to institutions but not coming out with an education," Baum said. "We need to do something to focus more resources on that end of the spectrum."
Harry Brighouse offered a call to various institutional stakeholders, particularly faculty members, to seek simple changes that would have an impact on admissions numbers.
Faculty have tenure, a protection that could allow them to take risks and pursue "unorthodox approaches" that admissions officials, who lack tenure, might not be able to chance.
He boiled down his advice on confronting the complicated admissions issues: Find space for action, act as best as you can, work to expand your space to act, act within that sphere, and repeat.
Individual institutions could decline to participate in publications like U.S. News and World Report, which rank colleges, he said. They also could explain in the school's brochures why such rankings are unreliable, even if they continue to participate.
Administrators also might commission studies using alternative measures, such as those offered by CERPP's executive director, Jerry Lucido. Institutions also could collaborate or admit more students, as Sandy Baum and Michael McPherson suggested in their luncheon keynote remarks.
It's incorrect, he said, to assume that nothing can be done or that there's no space for moral action.
"There's no point in surviving if you're not implementing your mission, somewhat," he said.
Brighouse has experienced the brutal pressure of college choice up close. On his first day of graduate school, he recalled listening to his classmates list the schoolsthat rejected them. Recently, he overheard a family friend, barely a teenager, question if his daughter was keeping track of what she'd put on her college applications.
She wasn't. Why not? "I'm only 13," she said.
Students need to be convinced, he said, that college, however important, is "just a little bit of your life, for goodness sake," he said.
To spur participants, Jeffrey Brenzel noted the tone of the conference by the time his late-afternoon session began. Admissions processes that promote elitism. Stress among high-school students. Undermatching of low-income students.
It was trending a bit dark.
"I have to be honest with you, at this point I'm looking for a win here of some kind," he said.
He proceeded to urge the audience to come up with ideas to shift the tone, by coming up with answers to four broad questions that could be used to form a framework for change:
1. What's the most compelling evidence you've heard at the sessions that makes a case for change?
2. What hasn't been covered that would support the case?
3. What additional info is needed to make the case?
4. What considerations need to be addressed at your school to foster change?
The first half of the session focused on the first three questions. The best-evidence ideas included:
The fourth question, what actions can be taken on individual campuses, elicited these responses:
CERPP staff took written suggestions from participants as well and will report back as they are examined.
President Barack Obama outlined his plans this week to create an atmosphere in which the U.S. can "win the future" by improving education and innovation opportunities.
Roberto Rodriguez, an education adviser to the president, reiterated some of the themes from the President's State of the Union address in his discussion of the Obama administration's education goals, and how colleges and universities fit into his plans.
In addition to calling for efforts to develop new energy technologies and build faster and more reliable transportation systems, President Obama called for
stronger grant programs for college students and permanent tax credits for those who attend four years of college.
The president's push will have an impact on "elevating and reshaping higher education," Rodriguez said.
"The work in which each of you is engaged as leaders at your respective institutions, as faculty, as admission officers, as educators and advocates, that work will help prepare our next generation of leaders to move our government forward," he said. "The future is in your hands which is why this question of change in college admissions is so important.
"It impacts learners from high school through college, as well as the nature of the schools and institutions that serve them, and it will ultimately impact our broader social fabric and the society that our young people move on to create."
Rodriguez noted barriers to access for underrepresented populations in higher education. Data recently released by the College Board, he said, showed that there is "a stunning lack of awareness" related to the available federal financial aid options. The administration has tried to streamline the process by issuing a simpler FAFSA, with better online access and the ability to upload personal tax information.
Education leaders should seek programs that demystify admissions issues for the public, while also increasing diversity, not just by recruiting ethnic minorities, but also those with nontraditional religious beliefs and philosophies, or those from different geographical regions, Rodriguez said.
Admissions policies also have an impact on the K-12 level, he said, from AP course loads to the quality of high school counseling. He pointed to USC's summer program for incoming students as one good example of how institutions can offer help for newcomers to college life.
The president also wants to greatly expand the number of college graduates by 2020, from the 42 percent of young adults who currently hold two-year or undergraduate degrees, to more than 60 percent, Rodriguez said. Obama wants the U.S. to regain the lead in this category; the country is currently ranked ninth in the world.
Reaching the president's goal in nine years "will require a collective will on the part of policy makers, higher education leaders, philanthropic partners and others to confront the great challenges that remain in our higher education system," Rodriguez said.
He acknowledged the challenges facing higher education though, especially in light of tight state coffers and resulting cuts to public educations systems throughout the nation.
"I wish I could stand here and say we have a stimulus coming, we have a recovery act coming, for higher education, but we don't," he said.