The Moneyballization of college admissions
July 10, 2011, 04:32 AM
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Steve Hsu points to an article from Chronicle of Higher Education on how college admissions departments are, like baseball teams in the 1990s are increasingly hiring quants to statistically manage the admissions process.
Those Tweedy Old Admissions Deans? They`re All Business Now
A profession that once relied on anecdotes and descriptive data now runs on complex statistical analyses and market research. Knowing how to decipher enrollment outcomes is a given; knowing how to forecast the future is a must. Which students are most likely to apply, submit deposits, and matriculate? At what cost to the college? How likely will they be to graduate? Such questions echo in the modern enrollment office, which is often supported by one or more institutional researchers, as well as consulting firms that sell recruitment strategies in various flavors.
Search the job listings for top-level admissions and enrollment openings, and you will find that many colleges seek a "data-driven" leader, someone who will develop "data-informed" strategies. This past winter, for instance, Pomona College, in California, began a national search to replace Bruce J. Poch, who had stepped down after 23 years as vice president and dean of admissions. Among the qualifications listed in the job advertisement: "an ability to analyze and use data to guide decision-making and measure results."
David W. Oxtoby, Pomona`s president, led the college`s search committee. The modern admissions dean, he says, must have a "technical, quantitative facility," the ability to delve into the relationship between a student`s SAT score and her subsequent performance in college, or why some kinds of students are more likely to enroll than others. Moreover, Pomona had decided to merge its admissions and financial-aid offices (a change many colleges have made already). So the new dean would need to speak the language of costs.
Poch was the one admissions professional I`ve met who really impressed me. The lower levels of the business are full of nice young ladies (a large fraction black) and nice young gay guys who couldn`t get better jobs, but Poch definitely seemed like The Brains Behind the Operation. And clearly there are some brains somewhere, because American prestige education has been one of the big success stories of the last decade, at least at maintaining and enhancing its prestige. Granted, this is awfully easy to do in a business driven by brand names where the older the brand name the better, but only a handful of colleges in recent decades have screwed up so badly that they`ve fallen notably in prestige. Digression Alert: I also once spoke on the phone to Poch`s boss, David Oxtoby, now the president of Pomona college. Around 1990 in Chicago, I lived in a six-flat that had "The Oxtoby, 1923" carved over the front door. One day I started wondering who or what an Oxtoby was. So, I looked in the Chicago phone book (remember phone books?) and there was only one Oxtoby in Chicago: David Oxtoby, Hyde Park. So, I called the number and a man with superb diction, like a college president`s speaking voice, answered. I asked him if his family had built The Oxtoby. He said no, but he kindly gave me a full etymology of the name Oxtoby (it means oxen-go-by, kind of like "Oxford" is where the oxen forded the river). I wasn`t surprised to read in the newspaper years later that Hyde Park resident with distinguished diction had been appointed president of a very good liberal arts college. Being a college president is a tough job. Basically, you need to be Angelo Mozilo on the inside, a pushy Alec Baldwin in Glengarry Glen Ross-style salesman always always asking for a donation. On the outside, though, you need to come across like Mr. Chips, an unworldly scholar who makes guys who`ve made a pile of money in real estate or metal bending (and their wives) feel elevated by associating with you. Elegant diction helps.
Pomona interviewed a dozen candidates before hiring Seth Allen, dean of admission and financial aid at Grinnell College, in Iowa. Soon to occupy one of the premier jobs in admissions, Mr. Allen, 43, represents the next generation of enrollment chiefs. They`ve ascended during an era of high competition, learning how to market their colleges and massage the metrics that define success in admissions.
Although idealism may inform their work, they are clear-eyed realists. They are not introverts, for they must collaborate constantly with faculty members and other campus offices. They are diplomats who must manage competing desires: those of administrators who want to enroll more first-generation and low-income applicants, professors who want more students with high SAT scores, trustees who want to lower the tuition-discount rate. "Twenty years ago," Mr. Allen says, "there were not as many wants."
Drawn to statistics at an early age, Mr. Allen earned a bachelor`s degree in economics at the Johns Hopkins University in 1990. He first worked as an admissions counselor for his alma mater, a cutting-edge laboratory in the then-burgeoning science of enrollment management. Mr. Allen learned how predictive modeling could project net tuition revenue, how many biology majors would enroll, and a hundred other outcomes.
Later Mr. Allen became the university`s director of enrollment planning, research, and technology, a title that captured the profession`s increasing sophistication. While most colleges were still operating in a pen-and-paper world, he helped create the university`s first online admissions application.
In the 1990s, selective institutions intensified their recruitment of prospective students, and Dickinson College was no exception. As dean of admissions at the Pennsylvania college, Mr. Allen oversaw a surge in applications that enabled it to become increasingly selective. Average SAT scores rose, as did enrollments of minority students.
Dickinson did two smart things. One, it made submitting SAT/ACT scores optional but reported to USN&WR the scores not of all freshmen but just those who felt like submitting their scores. So, it could let in more rich dumb kids and the like, without taking a hit in the USNW&R rankings. Also, Dickinson appears to have a policy that any time a reporter, especially one from the New York Times, needs a quote about college admissions, a high-ranking Dickinson official will supply one at any hour of the day or night. What`s not mentioned in this rather starry-eyed article is that holy grail of admission moneyballers: alumni donations. Which type of applicant is most likely to donate the most to his alma mater? As far as I can tell, the big givers tend to be whites and males and legacies and jocks — i.e., basically, the same kind of people they were most likely to admit back in the Bad Old Days. Ironies abound. Have any college admissions moneyball stats ever been released to the public?