Phillip Ballinger, University of Washington
Arlene Wesley Cash, Spelman College
William Fitzsimmons, Harvard University
Susan Wilbur, University of California
Moderator: Eric Hoover, Chronicle of Higher Education
Enrollment officials from public and private institutions suggested options for altering the way admissions departments do business, ranging from engaging private groups to touch base with some students to collaborating with for-profit universities.
Susan Wilbur, the retiring director of undergraduate admissions for the UC system, and Phillip Ballinger, assistant vice president for enrollment at the University of Washington, warned of serious fallout for public institutions as they face the additional problem of shrinking budget support.
The universities each have crossed crucial markers that have adversely affected their ability to meet their missions, Wilbur and Ballinger said. Public funding at both the UC system and UW has slipped to the point that tuition collected exceeds state support.
Both also fear being unable to offer enrollment to all qualified students in their states, whether they are high school graduates or transfers. "Crossing that threshold will make for a bleak milestone, not just for the University of California, but for all of California," Wilbur said.
Ballinger called it "such a challenge" to work with state legislators, even when they support higher education. They "can at time be astoundingly uninformed or misinformed" about issues facing universities, he said.
He also hoped for more federal intervention, in place of shrinking state aid, and constructed a novel theory in favor of his argument. Since more universities are enrolling out-of-state students who pay full tuition, it could be argued that the institutions fall under federal jurisdiction.
"That's a matter of interstate commerce," he said.
Arlene Wesley Cash, who leads Spelman College's recruitment and retention efforts, suggested ways to better serve student populations that institutions have trouble reaching.
On her campus, a young counselor suggested engaging a sorority to contact more than 2,000 women who wouldn't otherwise have met Spelman's standards for admissions. The outreach, Cash said, resulted in girls who might never thought of college giving the option more consideration.
She also recommended some engagement with for-profit colleges, to improve graduation rates and give the nation's higher education institutions a better chance of improving graduation rates.
Wilbur said her system is exploring whether some form of "blended education," relying more on online education, could work for UC. Even discussing proposals to do so has been a strain.
"We're really struggling right now about what to do about this," she said.
Private, elite institutions have come under some scrutiny throughout the sessions, and William Fitzsimmons joked, "Here I am representing Lucifer," before defending the economic, racial and gender diversity that has become more prevalent at Harvard since he studied there.
One factor in that change at Harvard and at other campuses, he said, is how college guides have "democratized" institutions, giving the public more opportunities to learn about them.
That view also stood in contrast to concerns expressed at the sessions, where officials have sharply criticized the "arms race" atmosphere spawned by publications like those offered by U.S. News and World Report. He acknowledged his school's, and others', explosion of applications, and said "that is perhaps getting to someplace that we don't need to be."
He called the lack of quality counseling for students, which could help them unravel complicated admissions issues, "a national disgrace and a national disaster."
"The battle for America is going to be fought in the public schools of the world. America either rises or falls to the extent we're able to tap the talents of students in all of society rather than just the white, the privileged, the few."
Art Coleman, EducationCounsel LLC
Matthew Reed, Institute for College Access
John Slaughter, Occidental College
Joyce Smith, National Association for College Admission Counseling
Advocates for education urged institutions to tap into their knowledge for planning how to address ongoing admissions challenges.
John Slaughter, former president of Occidental College and chancellor emeritus of the University of Maryland, College Park, noted the "mean-spiritedness" driving aspects of the public debate, particularly regarding minorities and undocumented immigrants. That climate, he said, may dissuade some students from their interest college.
"We are looking for diversity in the presence of equity, and opportunity in the presence of excellence," he said.
Art Coleman, managing partner and co-founder of his firm, told participants that success in building a policy or court case depends not only on good lawyering but also on persuading backers to step up and publicly support the cause.
He cited the University of Michigan's successful defense of its affirmative action program, and how Fortune 500 companies and the military provided crucial support to the institution. He called them "the external validators."
Joyce Smith, of NACAC, said association work, in which her group represents institutions with competing interests, can be messy. "Nothing happens quickly," she said.
"It's hard to get agreement on change, on direction, on priorities and on professional practices," she added, but said her organization can be a resource for
those who attended the sessions. She urged organizers to continue the discussion at her September conference in New Orleans.
Matthew Reed, cited statistics that showed $4.6 billion in 2008-09 aid was awarded in excess of student needs. Using financial aid to create more competitive packages to induce enrollment hurts those who depend on the support to obtain an education.
"Shifting even a fraction of it would make a big difference in focusing aid on those who most need it," he said.
The increased use of net price calculators, which will be required by October, also help families less familiar with college costs get a handle on what tuition and fees entail. Offering the service in a simple way, that makes inputting data easy for prospective students, can combat the "sticker shock" of much publicized tuition costs.
"This is not only for students at the end of the process, but also for early awareness," he said.
Jerry Lucido asked for a show of hands about who thought the case had been made for changing the landscape of college admissions. Most people agreed. But there weren't so many hands when he asked who in the room would be able to go back to their campus and do something right away.
"It's very clear work needs to be done," he said. "Our job is still in process, if not just beginning in some ways."
Data that reflects increased applications and higher rejection rates are good measures of popularity and demand, he said, but not of the quality of an institution.
To change, colleges and universities will have to dial back some of their competitive drives.
"We going to have to give a little of that up," he said, and forge collaborations a little bit more.
Lloyd Thacker, of the Education Conservancy, said the sessions were designed as an experiment to generate ideas. The discussion showed him admissions professionals "have been engaging in a bit of soul searching lately."
"This meeting gives me hope that we might work together to develop different tools and practices to help colleges manage enrollment in the public interest," he said.