Strategic Admissions Limitations Talks?

I’m seeing and hearing some interesting discussions in a number of places about recent changes to the price structure of tuition at highly selective colleges and universities.

In today’s New York Times, Roger Lehecka and Andrew Delbanco criticize the Harvard-led shift towards discounting the price of a college education to families earning between $120,000 and $180,000 a year.

They make a number of interesting points, primarily that while Harvard, Yale and other wealthy institutions (including Swarthmore) can probably afford to spread the discounting that they already do for families earning under $120,000/year, many other institutions can’t afford to do so. Lehecka and Delbanco argue that what this will probably force those less wealthy institutions to do is cut the level of support they provide to poor students.

The authors don’t go any further with that line of thought, but you could argue that the strategy for less wealthy private colleges and universities would be to aggressively target academic underachievers from wealthy and upper-middle-class families and to sweeten the deal for the latter group by negotiating limited discounts, while shedding most or all low-income applicants on the grounds that they’re unaffordable. In short, to become institutions skewed to giving wealthy ne’er-do-wells the certification necessary to have continued access to professional-class employment.

What Lehecka and Delbanco don’t discuss is the possibility of some other trade-off for less wealthy private institutions. Part of the problem is that many universities and colleges basically offer the same package of services in more or less the same conventional forms.

There is a big difference between a small undergraduate-only college and a large research university in terms of how education is delivered. That difference holds whether we’re talking about extremely wealthy institutions or not, all the way down the line. There are arguments to be made on behalf of either of those modes of education. I preferred the small approach as a student, and I honestly prefer it also as a teacher, but there are students and ambitions better served at a large research institution.

Within a given institutional type, however, there is actually a remarkable similarity of form and approach at the level of curricular design and services offered. Each institution uses marketing literature to highlight its major sources of distinctiveness, like Swarthmore’s Honors program or Reed’s focus on individualized senior research projects. But these are like shiny decorations on top of a basically similar cake. The big difference, in the end, is the relative wealth of a given institution: that’s what determines how big and lustrous and tasty the cake really is. Swarthmore can support the range of subjects and favorable student-faculty ratio that it has because in the end, that’s what it spends its considerable money doing: having a curriculum that’s unusually wide for the small size of the institution without using large lecture courses or adjunct instructors as the primary vehicle for delivering that curriculum.

Less wealthy institutions could make a different choice than throwing poorer students overboard in order to discount tuition to less academically qualified but financially attractive upper-middle class students. They could aim to live in the “long tail” of the education marketplace. Right now, there are relatively few selective colleges and universities that try to deliver a strongly distinctive kind of education. Hampshire and St. John’s College are often cited as examples. There are other variants out there: colleges and universities that strongly skew to service-learning or community-based learning, for example. Art schools and conservatories are another great example, one that works at several scales of institutional wealth. I tend to think of MIT and Caltech as “long tail” institutions in the best possible way: rather than build a curriculum that’s aimed to satisfy any and all possible enrolled students, they’ve made a very clear-headed decision to be exceptionally strong in particular areas, and tailor whatever is left over to their institutional strengths, and then to admit only applicants whose aspirations and skills fit with the institution’s design.

That’s a road that’s open to less wealthy institutions as well. Rather than trying to emulate the “all services and subjects for all students”, make a conscious decision to be a particular kind of institution strongly servicing only one approach or philosophy or curricular area. Otherwise, they’re stuck trying to pretend that a Yugo is a Mercedes-Benz.

Part of the issue here is also the desperate extent to which everyone, even the selective institutions, are locked into a helpless follow-the-leader mode. No one wants to be the first to look different in an unfavorable (or maybe even favorable) light, for fear of being the mole whose head is above ground long enough to get whacked by parents and prospectives. It’s a bit like the Cold War: the superpowers are, deliberately or otherwise, spending everyone else into the ground.

You could argue that wealthy institutions owe their less wealthy competitors some extra consideration, and shouldn’t undertake changes in their pricing that put those less wealthy institutions in an unfavorable light. But by that token, wealthy institutions shouldn’t offer better services, pay faculty better, or do anything which distinguishes them or makes differential use of their relative wealth. Instead, they should just create a revenue-sharing system that distributes money evenly across all private institutions. (There have been some people who’ve suggested that this is exactly what should happen.) I don’t see anything appealing about that idea, and not just because I’m working for a wealthy institution and benefitting accordingly. All that would do is aggravate the homogeneity in the educational marketplace that’s already something of a problem about a thousand times more severely. We’d go from a market with Chevys trying to pretend to be Benzes alongside actual Benzes to a market with nothing but Trabants.

The wealthy institutions could probably do a lot more to shoulder the responsibility of social mobility, to work harder to bring in first-generation college students. To a significant extent, I’d like to see Swarthmore and all of its peers shift some of the efforts we presently put into pursuing diversity across a very wide range into the dedicated pursuit of qualified applicants who would be first-generation college students, to look at economic diversity as Job #1. A lot of lower-income families don’t even consider sending their children to what look like very expensive schools, even if their children are qualified applicants, because they look at the price tag and figure it’s unaffordable. What they don’t know is that at most of the wealthy institutions, a qualified applicant from a low-income family is likely to be admitted for no cost at all. This is what the sticker price hides from the public. Elite colleges and universities charge on a sliding scale, essentially. “Financial aid” could just as easily be described as “bargain price”: it’s as if you walked into a store, brought a product to the cash register, and your price was determined by your income level. If an applicant’s family is below, at or even near the poverty line, it’s going to be free.

Of course, however much elite colleges might pursue such qualified students, they’re in short supply because of deeper inequities in public education in the United States, and because of all the consequences of structural poverty to children in terms of their ability to achieve academically. Leave aside for the moment the underlying causes of that: the fact is that there is a limited supply of such students unless elite universities and colleges are also prepared to make internal changes to the way they deliver education to try and compensate for weak preparation on behalf of marginally qualified students. For various reasons, I don’t think that’s necessarily a good idea, but it’s definitely worth discussing openly and clearly as a further direction to go.

However, even before that issue arises, I think it’s clear that wealthy institutions that are slightly less well-known than Harvard, Yale, and Princeton could probably do more (perhaps collaboratively) to explain how pricing and eligibility really work, and to pursue first-generation or economically disadvantaged students in communities where knowledge about higher education may not be well-distributed, where all that families know is that it looks like it costs a lot of money to go to college.

I think the answer for less wealthy institutions isn’t to either keep up with the Joneses or complain bitterly about the inequity of Harvard’s tuition initiatives. It’s to get out of the game of trying to be all things to all possible students, to drop services and curriculum not because of a need to indiscriminately economize but because of a strategic, deliberate decision to specialize or seek distinction in some highly specific area or philosophical approach. Frankly, I think the wealthier institutions could use a shot of this kind of thinking, too.

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9 Responses to Strategic Admissions Limitations Talks?

  1. Gavin Weaire says:

    This is something that I agree with – in principle. Really strongly in principle, in fact. I can think of a specific case I know, which I’ll keep vague – it’s *not* the place where I teach – in which an academic institution has a strength that is unusual for its type. Rather than play that up, the general preference is to work towards eliminating it in order to make the institution more similar to its peer group. I was genuinely surprised to hear that, as I would naively have assumed that the opposite tack was the obvious one to take.

    But bold “strategic, deliberate decisions” are not something that colleges are terribly well-designed to make and implement, and this is a very formidable decision to make, with a rather poor level of information to help one make it. The impulse to outsource the decision to the herd is understandable. In a world of big dramatic decisions, some college is going to be the panda bear that finds out that it can only eat bamboo. Can you suggest some way in which an institution could feel its way to this incrementally?

  2. Timothy Burke says:

    Now *that* is the million dollar question. A president who blows into town determined to turn Average U. into Exotic Long Tail Institution #1 is going to get sandbagged at every turn, probably deservedly so. It can’t be done from above. So the question really is, how do you ease into it, just as you say. I think it starts by taking something the intitution is potentially good at or known for, but it also takes having a faculty who are fluid in their interests and capabilities. This is one reason I want a lot of smaller institutions to prize generalists, because they’re the people who could sign on to this kind of redefinition of purpose most readily.

    I think one way to do it is to create an incubator institute or program inside a college or university and try to see if you can make a particular idea or identity work both in terms of attracting students and in terms of faculty satisfaction.

  3. wfschneider says:

    I view the decision to discount tuition for students whose parents earn up to $180,000 a year as allowing the elite institutions to compete for the students who, though admitted to a Harvard, now would be likely to attend an institution just below the top tier that offers him or her “merit” as opposed to need based financial aid. One of the the things elite institutions promote is their ability to offer everyone accepted a full need based financial aid package and the fact that they don’t award “merit” aid. I don’t expect to see the story line change, but in fact isn’t that what has just happened? Harvard now offers merit aid to students from upper middle class families? I would expect that the only schools that are likely to see much of an effect from this change are those schools less wealthy than a Harvard or a Swarthmore but in the top 25 of their classification. And probably not much change even there. Since the size of a school’s endowment is already almost an exact predictor of its relative eliteness, Harvard’s change should really only effect schools that would loose a significant number of admitted students to Harvard and those institutions can afford to compete. If a Swartmore, Williams, or Pomona follows Harvard, it will be interesting to see what impact it will have on a Haverford or Carleton that now purports not to award merit aid.

  4. Erasmus says:

    I’ve often thought that there ought to be more distinctiveness in the education marketplace. Seems to me that developing it should proceed hand-in-hand with a more robust ranking system and better communication to students about how schools are organized.

    As you note, colleges at all levels try to sell themselves as all things to all people. Just as a basic example, a goodly number of students who attend research schools complain that their professors spend too much time doing research and not enough teaching. But there’s a choice involved there that a lot of people don’t seem to assimilate when making decisions.

    Sherman Dorn has a recent post about some of the distortions arising from the current rankings system. He links to something from education week that makes a move in that direction. I wonder if there are ways to put the power of a modularized “roll your own” ranking system to use so people can get a better idea of their options, consider their expectations, and make the whole business less glossy brochure driven.

    I think this would be a particular boon/opportunity for the regional state schools.

  5. teofilo says:

    From what I’ve heard (and this is all second-hand, so take it for what it’s worth), the College of Santa Fe is doing exactly this: eliminating most of their programs and focusing specifically on art. Basically, they’re trying to go from being a low-ranked, cash-strapped all-things-to-all-people liberal arts college to an art school in Santa Fe, which is the sort of place where an art school is likely to do well. I believe they’re doing this primarily for financial reasons, but it seems likely to have other benefits as well.

  6. nord says:

    Even prior to the 1991 financial anti-trust lawsuits – there were always rumors … Princeton finding special awards for athletes of certain sports, etc. Even my beloved Swarthmore … where one of my friends wasn’t paying any tuition – not due to financial need, but rather from one of the “leadership scholarships” named for one of the famed alumni families of the college. Just give everyone from a family with an income of $180,000 a “lower income family award” and call it leadership.

    I don’t believe list prices and financial aid aren’t anything more than a form of price discrimination designed to maximize revenues for the college. The Harvard decision reflects push back from upper middle income families on this price discrimination – I have friends who call the high tuititions, high financial aid Marxism, but I see more capitalism than Das Kapital in how elite colleges manage enrollment and revenues.

  7. Timothy, I’ve got a series going on funding public higher education. I’ll try to respond to your ideas in this thoughtful post before our semester starts next week.

  8. alex says:

    I agree to some extent that wealthy institutions should owe their less wealthy competitors some extra consideration, and shouldn’t undertake changes in their pricing that put those less wealthy institutions in an unfavorable light. Rather they should just create a revenue-sharing system that distributes money evenly across all private institutions.

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