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Enrollment Under a Microscope

08/07/08
USC’s Center for Enrollment Research, Policy and Practice holds its inaugural conference on improving student access to higher education.
By Anna Cearley
Pictured on the front page, from left: Wayne Camara, vice president for research and analysis at the College Board; Michael Kirst, emeritus professor of education and business administration at Stanford University; Arlene Wesley Cash, vice president for enrollment management at Spelman College; and Saul Geiser, research associate at the Center for Studies in Higher Education at UC Berkeley

Photos/Dietmar Quistorf
University specialists from around the country convened at USC to discuss issues related to “Defining Enrollment in the 21st Century: Understanding Our Students and Our Communities.”

The event was the inaugural conference of USC’s Center for Enrollment Research, Policy and Practice. The more than 100 attendees included admissions and enrollment officers, financial aid representatives and registrars.

“We can be wiser and more equitable in providing access,” said Jerry Lucido, vice provost for Enrollment Policy and Management, and executive director for the center. “As colleges and universities, we really need to understand the students that are coming to us.”

The two-day conference started off with panelists acknowledging a demographic change fewer white students and more students of color that is forcing universities and colleges to rethink their admissions strategies. In some cases, as in the University of California system’s race-blind admissions policy, metrics and policies influence how this can be done.

The UC system’s minority student population of primarily African-American and Latino students dipped from 21 percent to 15 percent between 1995 and 1998, according to statistics shown by Saul Geiser, a research associate at UC Berkeley’s Center for Studies in Higher Education.

Though the number went up to 22 percent in 2007, some educators believe the rebound is deceiving because the minority population has increased over the past decade.

Harry Pachon of the Tomas Rivera Policy Institute, an independent policy research organization at USC, said the Latino population is on the rise nationwide and two-thirds of first graders in three major Texas school districts are Latinos.

However, a survey by the institute found many Latino parents are unaware of college preparation and higher education options for their children. As an example of this gap, Pachon noted the word “grant” doesn’t have a precise Spanish equivalent. He suggested more bilingual outreach in traditional and online media to make information more accessible.

Other panelists talked about ways that universities can create more connections with schools as a way of better reflecting local demographics.

Bruce Walker, vice provost and director of admissions at the University of Texas, Austin, spoke about a program at his university to identify 70 schools in Texas that were not sending students to the university. As a result, scholarship programs within the individual schools were created, and the university helped students find other financial aid sources.

“We can’t wait for schools to get better or you would just throw away a generation of school kids,” he said. “You have to lift them up from where they are.”

Gary Rhoades, director of the University of Arizona’s Center for the Study of Higher Education, said universities tend to recruit the students who have higher grades and test scores that bring a prestige factor. He suggested rethinking those policies to consider a different kind of public service measurement: “a path to a better life.”

Geiser of UC Berkeley said that high school grades are a more accurate measure of college readiness than standardized tests such as the SAT. He suggested that universities place a greater emphasis on high school grades and subject achievement tests.

Other panelists talked about the possibility of creating new metrics to quantify student readiness through categories such as leadership, interpersonal skills and social responsibility. Weighing these qualities along with other markers, such as test scores, could open up opportunities to a wider range of students.

“The only way to get a new level of metrics is through objective measures that can be defined,” said Wayne Camara, vice president of research and analysis at the College Board.