On an overcast day in January when a fringe of snow decorates the lawn outside Olin, twelve members of the admissions staff gather behind closed doors in the library's wood-paneled Ringwalt Room. Forming a track around the table are pens, notebooks, printouts, laptops, small piles of packaged snack foods, Nalgene water bottles, thermoses of coffee, some fragrant tangerines. In the deep recesses of the windowsills stand two statues: one a figure of Dante, the epic poet of judgment; the other, a boy standing precariously atop a large ball, just barely maintaining his balance.
The admissions staff assembles here to perform a difficult balancing act of its own-- composing a portion of the Class of 2009. Overlooked by the image of the Italian poet, they will determine which of the second-round early decision applicants will be admitted (paradiso!), which denied (inferno!), and which deferred to the regular pool in March (at best, purgatorio).
The seeming simplicity of the fateful words belies the difficulty of a process that has become ever more fraught, as Kenyon and other selective colleges wrestle with the consequences of increased competition in higher-education admissions. The colleges are facing an uncomfortable conflict--between commercial influences such as college rankings, on the one hand, and the intention to be thoughtful and humane in seeking the best fit between applicant and school, on the other. Between numbers and people.
This conflict has already produced a good deal of controversy nationwide. In a period when colleges are benefiting from a demographic bubble that has expanded the applicant pool, critics charge that the college admissions process has veered out of control. Perhaps nowhere have the critics complained more loudly than in attacking the increasing reliance, by both colleges and applicants, on early decision (ED)--the program through which students file their application by a late fall or winter deadline and get a decision back within two weeks. In exchange for early notification, they pledge to enroll if admitted, withdrawing any applications pending at other colleges.
Whether by cause or effect, the growth of ED correlates with an array of disturbing trends. There are the ratcheted levels of student and parent anxiety. There's the rise of a private college-counseling industry that takes advantage of students' fears and plays on the myth of the "perfect fit" school. There's the increasing reliance on quantifiable criteria (scores and grades) as a substitute for the evaluation of student talent. There's the domination of admissions practices by the standardized testing industry. And there's the deformation of the national atmosphere by organizations that issue annual "rankings" of the nation's colleges, pitting institutions against one another in a bid for prestige.
How do these pressures play out at Kenyon? Amid the benefits of a widening and deepening applicant pool, can Kenyon resist the encroaching pressures and increasing commercialism that threaten the admissions enterprise?
At the forefront of this balancing act is Jennifer Delahunty Britz, Kenyon's dean of admissions and financial aid since 2003. While championing the College's reputation, she is committed to making the college admissions process more humane and more sane. In its July 15 issue, the Chronicle of Higher Education named Britz one of ten "up-and-coming thinkers who have already made a mark on debates about American higher education and who are poised to influence national policies." The only admissions professional in the group of ten, Britz was lauded for her advocacy of "student-friendly" admissions practices.
A five-year turnaround
When Britz stepped into the deanship, the College was two years into a stunning turnaround of a dip in applications that had occurred at the end of the 1990s. Britz's predecessor, John Anderson, oversaw a resurgence of applications in 2001-02, leading to a drop in the selectivity rate from 66 to 54 percent in a single year. As a result of that accomplishment, Kenyon was featured as a "hot college" in the influential "How to Get Into College" issue published by Kaplan/Newsweek. The following year, then acting dean of admissions M. Beverly Morse kept the momentum going as the rate of acceptance dropped a further seven percentage points.
This turnaround was helped by demographic conditions favoring selective institutions of higher education nationwide. The college-going population currently forms a bubble, as the children of the 1980s baby boom mature. The year 2008 will see the highest number of high school graduates in the nation's history.
At Kenyon, this demographic bounty has coincided with a period of growing strength for the College. One way to gauge the result is to look at the numbers. Over five years, Kenyon's applicant pool has nearly doubled, the admissions rate almost cut in half. In 2000, 66 percent of applicants got into Kenyon. In 2005, only 36 percent were admitted--just 1,400 of approximately 4,000 applications, a record high. ED applications have grown at an even faster rate than the regular pool. And Kenyon has taken advantage of ED to fill its class. This year, ED applicants accounted for less than a tenth of the total applicant pool, but they were offered more than a third of the places in the class.
Academic quality is also improving, with average combined SAT scores rising fifty points and grade-point averages up by almost three-tenths of a point. More and more applicants have graduated in the top ten percent of their high-school class.
While the numbers are gratifying, Britz and her staff feel ambivalent about climbing on the "more is better" bandwagon. Greater selectivity does not come without cost--literally. The price tag for processing 500 more applications is $20,000. Of equal or greater importance is the cost in time. At what point will it become impossible to be thorough with each application? No one wants to see that happen.
The personal touch
When Britz recently asked a visiting group of high-school counselors what they knew about Kenyon, their first answer was, "Kenyon really knows its applicants." As Joanna Schultz, a college counselor at the Ellis School in Pittsburgh, observes, "What I admire about Kenyon is how thorough they are with each student." Britz is proud of that reputation and worries that "the greatest pressure on Kenyon is whether we can continue to do the thing that we do best, which is really get to know students."
Close attention to applicants has long been an attribute of the Kenyon admissions process. Staff members spend a good deal of their time cultivating relationships with a large roster of prospective students, writing notes and communicating with them and their parents, in an effort to turn appropriate prospects into applicants, applicants into admitted students, and admitted students into enrolled first-years. The cycle can take up to two years. Sophomore Joanna Watson recalls that she spent an hour talking to associate admissions director Christopher Renaud when she visited Kenyon the summer before
her senior year of high school. "It was more like a conversation than an interview," she remembers, "and then Chris wrote me postcards all year."
Getting double the number of applicants means twice as many interviews to conduct; more students to meet on the road at high school visits and college-fair events; more notes and e-mails to write and phone calls to return; and, of course, more applications to be read closely. As no corresponding expansion of the admissions staff has taken place, case loads for admissions officers have roughly doubled. The challenge facing the staff--to read attentively enough to grasp the person behind the paper file, to interpret statistics sensitively so as to understand a student's promise as well as achievement--strains resources. The admissions staff struggles to keep it up.
Not so at all of the College's competitors. "Some of our peer institutions are no longer offering interviews," says Britz, for whom the personal touch remains a priority and guiding principle. She has devoted attention to improving every interaction prospects have with the College, from a casual browsing of the Web site to a formal visit to campus, and everything in between. Students notice the difference. Joanna Watson recalls being impressed by the personality of the Kenyon tour guides, especially by comparison with those she encountered elsewhere. "They were fun and interesting and genuine at Kenyon, not calculating. They had passion, they told stories." The telling story is a Kenyon trademark.
The handwritten postcards spoke volumes to sophomore Phoebe Claggett. The College's brochures showed her that Kenyon had "a creative way of talking about itself." Impressing her favorably as well was the organization of the Web site, which "was set up in a helpful way that showed consideration for students. The same was true of the admissions process. That said something really important about to me about the kind of place Kenyon is."
Even in matters such as the design of Kenyon's application booklet, which recently shed eight pages, as the Chronicle of Higher Education pointed out, Britz seeks "to save harried applicants time--and perhaps an ounce of sanity." But the doubling of the applicant pool puts pressure on the relationship-building that is the hallmark of Kenyon's admissions process. "I want to be able to walk into the Norton Room to meet every kid who visits Kenyon," says Britz as she stands in the entry of Ransom Hall. "I don't ever want to be the kind of place where that's impossible."
Inspiring 'the ralph nader of admissions'
The growing use of early decision as an admissions strategy is one of the heavily debated aspects of college admissions today. Everyone struggles with it, including students who often feel pressured to make such an application, college counselors who in growing numbers advise students that they must apply early somewhere, and colleges themselves, which must decide what percentage of a class should enter through ED.
One of the loudest critics of ED is Lloyd Thacker, a former admissions officer and current college counselor who in 2004 created the Education Conservancy, a nonprofit organization whose mission is to put students' needs at the center of admissions practices, to empower the applicant, to make college admissions more about education and less about marketing.
Thacker argues that commercial pressures like the influential annual ranking of institutions by U.S. News & World Report, which relies heavily on school-reported and financial statistics, manipulate college admissions practices by putting undue emphasis on numbers. The heart of admissions should be predicting a good match between a school and a student, Thacker argues in the introduction to College Unranked, a compilation of essays by prominent figures in higher education that he solicited and edited.
But college rankings, which pit schools against one another in a feverish competition for the highest-profile students (even as they pit students against one another in a feverish competition to gain admission to the highest-profile colleges), and standardized testing have put numbers--quantifiable measures of prestige--front and center. College admissions, he warns, has become less and less about a relationship between a school and a candidate, and increasingly about producing statistics that enable colleges to climb the rankings ladder.
Britz is a founding member of the Education Conservancy and a member of its advisory board. In fact, she has been credited by the Chronicle of Higher Education with being an inspiration to Thacker. After talking with him about his ideas several years ago, she told him, "Admissions is a Corvair, and you're Ralph Nader." She urged him to write a book, thus planting the seed that grew into the Education Conservancy. Taking out a pad, she jotted down notes as he laid out some guiding principles for reforming the college admissions industry. Thacker starts with the premise that rankings oversimplify and mislead, that "colleges can be assessed but not ranked; students can be evaluated but not measured," and that "students' thoughts, ideas, and passions are worthy to be engaged and handled with utmost care" (http://www.educationconservancy.org/).
The early-decision crux
Britz not only subscribes to the Education Conservancy's principles, she stumps for them at national conferences. In a recent speech to admissions professionals, she urged her peers to resist the pressure of rankings, in part by refusing (as she and President Nugent have) to fill out the peer assessment form circulated annually by U.S. News & World Report.
But if the rankings game is part of the problem, it's also a reality that Kenyon can't afford to ignore. Britz may have an eye on reform, but she is also an admissions dean who needs to bring in a class every year that meets the needs and desires of Kenyon's faculty, coaches, trustees, and financial-aid budget. This is no easy task. Athletic teams demand competitive players, music ensemble seats need to be filled, all four academic divisions must have good students, the cultural life of the College requires creative participation, student government calls for leaders, the community can use movers and shakers. Offering opportunities to students from traditionally underrepresented groups and to first-generation college students remains a priority. Gender balance is a concern.
At a place like Kenyon, with its relatively small endowment and limited resources, where too large a class will crowd residence halls and too small a class might strain the budget, it's not just a question of whom to admit, but of how many. "We know we're turning away kids who are perfectly capable of doing the work at Kenyon," says Britz, "but we have only 1,400 offers to make." Elaborate calculations are performed to predict how many admitted students at each level of desirability are likely to attend. Bringing in a well-rounded class at the target size without overspending the financial-aid budget is nothing short of a magic act, something like parachuting out of an airplane and landing on a high wire.
If Britz's roles as dean and admissions reformer occasionally conflict, then early decision is a good example of a place where the rubber meets the road. The rationale for ED programs is that they offer reciprocal benefits to applicants and colleges. Students admitted this way know by the middle of senior year where they will be going to college. The school, for its part, is assured of an enrollment by a student who really wants to go there.
In the best cases, it still works that way. Take Phoebe Claggett, the St. Louis, Missouri, sophomore who performed a very thorough college search starting in her sophomore year of high school. By junior year she had narrowed her list down to a handful of colleges that she visited several times, learning as much about them as she could. Her list eventually consisted of just Hamilton College and Kenyon, and she was leaning toward Hamilton in part because it was ranked higher by U.S. News & World Report. But after a final visit to each campus (her fourth visit to Kenyon), she was persuaded that she'd be happier at Kenyon because she'd fit in well with the kinds of students she met.
"Everybody here is a little quirky in their own way, and that really appealed to me," she says. When she applied ED in fall of her senior year, Kenyon was exactly where she wanted to go. She had a great first year.
That's the way ED ideally should work. But in reality, it's more complicated. For starters, colleges realize that if ED allays the anxiety of admitted students, it is a strategy that can help relieve some of their anxiety as well. Composing a substantial percentage of the class by January removes some pressure from the admissions staff as they turn to the regular-decision pool in the spring. Some seeding of athletic teams will already have taken place, as has the discovery of brilliant creative writers, budding research scientists, and gifted artists. A portion of the financial-aid budget will have been distributed. Staff enters the regular-decision committee with a baseline of knowledge, a percentage of certainty about the composition of the class.
Moreover, guaranteed enrollment by ED applicants helps colleges improve their yield statistics. "Yield," or the percentage of admitted students who enroll, is one of many figures that influence college rankings. The higher the yield, the more desirable the college is reputed to be. Due to the binding nature of an ED application, the yield on ED acceptances is virtually 100 percent. (By contrast, the yield on the best qualified regular-decision applicants, who win other tempting offers besides Kenyon's, was 22 percent last year.)
On the other hand, as competition for college admissions heated up in the 1990s, students, parents, and college counselors noticed that early decision could work in the student's favor and began to employ it strategically. Because colleges had an incentive to admit early-decision students, applying early could improve the chances of a student whose prospects were otherwise uncertain. These days, an ED application is often seized upon by borderline applicants as the boost that may spring them over the gates into their first-choice college.
Early decision was developed in the years following World War II, in part as a way of relieving anxiety among the best-qualified students. Ironically, it is becoming a program that addresses the anxieties of borderline students who fear they might not get into their first-choice college any other way.
Others object that ED increases inequity in college admissions. Students who attend the best high schools are the ones likely to be advised of the advantages of filing an ED application. Those students, who tend to be disproportionately white and/or affluent, gain even greater access to the nation's top colleges. "It's a program that can advantage the advantaged," says Britz. "To ensure that it's extended to those who are less advantaged--that's what we try to do." Indeed, last year one-quarter of ED admits came from the most economically needy 20 percent of the class.
In the last few years at Kenyon, ED applicants have been admitted at a much higher rate than regular-decision candidates. While the rate of admission in the regular pool was 25 percent in 2005, more than 63 percent of ED applicants received fat envelopes. "These students are compared to a smaller pool," Britz points out, "and that helps them."
Last year 285 students applied ED to Kenyon, of whom 181 were admitted. ED applicants accounted for 37 percent of the places in the Class of 2009. This figure has been rising. In 2001, ED admits made up only 20 percent of the class.
Kenyon's stance is that ED should be a choice of passion, not of position. "There's a distinct advantage in terms of the chances of getting an offer," says Britz, "and we have to talk in honest terms about it. We have to educate students about early decision. But it's not for everyone." For students who haven't settled on a first choice, there may be no advantage in securing an offer from a college where they aren't sure they'll be happy.
At its best, the program brings students who succeed at Kenyon and who really want to be here. "We had 96 percent of the Class of 2007 return for their sophomore year," Britz observes. "That's incredible. That's an Ivy League retention rate."
A day in ed2 committee
"Admit." "Deny." "Defer."
In the Ringwalt Room on this cloudy January day, members of the admissions staff contemplate the second-round ED applications. Each candidate's dossier has previously been read and evaluated by two readers. If both readers advise admission, the student is a clear admit; similarly, two denials lead to rejection. Such files never arrive in committee. The cases to be adjudicated today are murkier.
"ED2 committee is like making sausage," says Britz as she calls committee to order. "You don't want to watch it. It's messy."
Kenyon offers two early deadlines, ED1 in mid-December and ED2 in mid-January. ED2 applicants have taken longer than their ED1 counterparts to make a bid for admission to Kenyon, and there might be several reasons for the delay. Shakier students can report later test scores and first-semester grades to bolster their transcripts. Some fall athletes are too busy with sports to apply in December. Some are rebound applicants to Kenyon, rejected by another college in first-round ED. Some weren't organized enough to get an application together for the earlier December 15 deadline. This group is a little less clean, a little less clear, perhaps a little less confident than those who apply ED1.
The staff members have seventy-six cases to get through this afternoon. Most require from five to ten minutes of discussion, such as the volleyball recruit who's gotten straight B's in non-rigorous courses this year, a less than sterling academic performance.1 As a mitigating factor, she's had some rough personal challenges: her parents have separated twice. Even with the "bump" of a high athletic rating, many in the group question whether she's adequately prepared to succeed academically at Kenyon. The student is denied.
Another applicant, academically very well qualified, ranked seventh in his class of 405. He presents an outstanding 4.73 grade-point average and combined SAT scores of 1230, in addition to having aced a 5 on the AP biology exam. He's strong in creative writing, although his science courses were less than challenging. The biggest hurdle for this applicant: apart from applying ED, he has shown no interest in Kenyon. He's made no contact with admissions staff, has neither visited campus nor interviewed. No one in the room has met him. "A real pig in a poke," remarks one officer.
Can Kenyon take him sight unseen? What sort of community member would he make? Does he understand that ED is binding? After debate, the group votes to admit him, but first to send him an e-mail explaining that the decision is binding. He'll have a chance to escape if he needs it.
The cases march on:
"Call the counselor for more information."
"Ask the student to submit first-term grades."
Midway through the afternoon a case arises that will throw the schedule off entirely: A phenomenally talented student who does well in high school but presents extremely low SAT scores stirs the group into an impassioned half-hour debate. A musical powerhouse, the applicant has composed a song cycle that was performed by a professional choir. Although her grade-point average is an admissible 3.58 in a solid college-prep curriculum, her combined board scores are more than 300 points lower than the Kenyon average of 1323. No one remembers seeing such low scores arrive in committee before, but a musical talent of this caliber rarely crosses the table, either. Two sets of questions dominate the discussion. The first focuses on how best to meet the student's educational needs. Is Kenyon the right place for her? Is she sure she doesn't want to study at a conservatory? The second set, inevitably, considers the impact this student's SAT scores will have on Kenyon's statistics. As one staff member puts it, "How many kids with perfect scores would it take to offset hers?"
Nearly thirty minutes have elapsed when Bev Morse, associate dean of admissions and veteran of nearly twenty years of Kenyon admissions committees, summarizes the quandary: "She'll hurt the data, no question, but she's a once-in-a-lifetime kid."
The question comes down to this, says Britz: Is Kenyon a place that can still take a risk on brilliance?
Erica Carroll '01, associate director, looks around at her colleagues and asks, "Why are we still talking about this kid? We can still admit genius."
The vote is unanimous: the student is given a place in the Class of 2009. A collective sigh is released. Everyone feels Kenyon is doing the right thing. When they aren't thinking about the stats.
A student's tale
On the other side of the admissions equation, many high-school college counselors urge all of their students to consider making an early-decision application. At elite private schools, 80 percent or more of the senior class files an early application, according to the National Association for College Admission Counseling.
Elizabeth Forman '73, senior associate director of admissions, finds this trend troubling. "A student saying ';I'm going to apply early somewhere' is like saying ';I'm going to marry someone next May; I just don't know who.'" Certainly, some students cease to look for a college that meets their needs in the hectic rush to "hook up" with a college they might not get into any other way.
Based on her own experience, sophomore Kate Aufses believes that early-decision pressure does a disservice to students. All the students in her class at the Horace Mann School in New York City were strongly urged to make an early application. Her ED try for admission to an Ivy League university was turned down. While recovering from the rejection, she filed regular applications with a group of high-prestige East Coast schools, nearly all of which she considered a "reach." Her counselor advised her to make additional applications to some liberal-arts colleges in the Midwest. Aufses complied with this advice but never expected to attend one.
Without doing any research, she chose four colleges nearly at random from the schools listed on the banner of the Common Application (an application accepted by a large number of colleges, to make applying easier for students). She was accepted by all four of the "Common App" colleges and by none of the East Coast colleges she'd visited and researched.
Starting from scratch in April, she made visits to the schools that wanted her. She felt she did not fit in well at Carleton. To her surprise, though, she clicked with Kenyon even before she set foot on campus, as she met other admitted students on the plane ride from New York and liked them all. She had a great visit, fell in love with Kenyon, flew home and sent in her deposit, thrilled to feel so good about her college.
Now a tour guide and an unabashed champion of Kenyon, Aufses firmly believes that early-decision pressures, and the cult of prestige, get in the way of students finding the college where they'll be happy and learn the most. It was only during the April visit month, as she compared colleges, that she learned what she valued. She ended up feeling sorry for friends of hers who were successful in their ED applications but later experienced "buyer's remorse," wondering if they'd chosen the right school.
Without the chance to compare colleges, students can neither confirm nor disavow their hunch about where they'll be happiest. Such thinking lies behind the move toward "single choice early action" programs recently undertaken by Harvard, Yale, and Stanford, where students can get an early determination from one college but need not withdraw other applications nor make a commitment to attend until May.
Ironically, Aufses's counselor had mentioned Kenyon to her early on, but Aufses's response was "no way." She was sure she could be happy only in a big school in a city.
Aufses's story underscores the importance of Britz's emphasis on a student-centered admissions process and the idea of a good fit. In an era of admissions marketing hype, it's easy for students to be misled by rankings and the high gloss of prestige. And at a time when too many students are advised to market themselves to colleges, to present a polished package to admissions committees, it's equally important for a college like Kenyon to keep its eyes on the prize: students who will genuinely benefit from what Kenyon has to offer and who will bring good things to the community.
For Britz and her staff, that challenge is all in a year's work.
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