Friday, February 3, 2012

What if admissions offices cooperated rather than competed?

Earlier this week, Inside Higher Ed reported on initial results of the Predictive Analytics Reporting Framework and the potential for this data to connect students to those online institutions to which they are best suited (the title of this particular section of the article is " for Higher Ed").  The senior statistician for the project, Sebastian Diaz, comments that his data set positions admissions and recruitment officials more effectively find, recruit, and enroll those students who are most likely to be successful on their campuses.  But, the article points out that this sort of academic matching service would require a level of collaboration and sharing among institutions that doesn't seem very feasible at present.

On the surface, viewing admissions as a purely competitive process makes sense.  After all, for any given institution there is a limited number of students who are, first, at all interested in enrolling at that campus and, second, who are good candidates for the experience provided, whether that is an intimate liberal arts experience, a distance ed experience, or the traditional state school experience (if there is even such a thing any longer).  What's more, for a group of institutions who share much in common, this pool of students is largely the same.  So, at some level, it is perfectly understandable that institutions compete for students.

However, this standard view of the admissions process, while acknowledging the competitive dynamic among peer institutions, fails to acknowledge two things.  First, among institutions who are very different, there is no real need to compete for students.  Second, many of the students who apply to a particular school aren't students that school is competing for and, in fact, may be better candidates for another institution.  And, despite the best efforts of campus recruiters and sometimes very expensive marketing campaigns, campuses don't always get the students they want.  So, if you and I are both in admissions on our respective campuses (and lets assume we aren't at "peer institutions" but that our campuses differ in some meaningful ways) I will, inevitably, receive applications from students that my institution doesn't want, but that yours does (and the reverse is also likely to be true--you'll receive applications from students that I want).  The trouble is that we aren't ever likely to realize this or talk to one another about it.  Instead, we'll each send our diplomatically written "thanks but no thanks" letters to our respective applicants, they will hit the trail again hoping to find a school that does want them, and we will hope that the next application we receive is from a student we do want.  Ironically, we both have pieces of information that would be helpful to each other, but we'll never share it.

So, what if an institution worked to develop collaborative partnerships with a diverse group of institutions, whose missions, enrollments, geographic locations, were different from its own .  This might be something akin to the "bridging capital" Bob Putnam describes in his book Bowling Alone, that connects us loosely to people quite different from ourselves and that facilitates access to community assets and promotes information dissemination.  If these partnerships were formalized in some way, institutions could "compete" with their peers, by collaborating with their "distant relatives.  These partnerships might give member institutions access to students they may never have found and help students by connecting them with institutions better suited for their needs, interests, goals, etc.

Typically, college athletics is not a good place to look when trying to solve broader institutional challenges; however, in the case of admissions, we might be wise to make an exception.  Like admissions, the college sports landscape is highly competitive.  Each year there are a small number of blue-chip recruits that every Div I coach wants to sign and bring to campus in the fall.  But, once you get through those 100 or so athletes for the particular sport in question, things are a lot less competitive--athletes are trying to find coaches who want them and coaches are trying to find athletes who would be a good fit for their team and campus.  What's more, the NCAA's practice of classifying athletic programs into divisions (Division I, Division II, and Division III), there is a clear and simple way of knowing if another coach's program is a "peer" or a "distant cousin."  Consequently, it isn't uncommon for a Division I coach to court a recruit and then, after realizing   that she probably won't be recruited by top Div. I programs, to make a phone call to a fellow coach at the Div. II level to let the coach know that they ought to "take a look at her."  I saw this happen fairly regularly as a student athlete.  As an example, one of my teammates at Mars Hill College in the late 90s was initially recruited by a handful of good Div. I soccer programs; however, his standardized test scores were not high enough to qualify him to compete at the Div. I level (due to NCAA regulations).  At that point, the coach from one of these programs contacted his friend who was the head coach at Mars Hill and let him know that this player may be a good fit for the program.  In this situation, both my friend and Mars Hill benefited.  We got a great player who was a four year starter and all-region player, and he got a nice scholarship and a great experience at a small liberal arts college.  The Div. I coach didn't benefit directly from this exchange; however, in coaching, reputation is everything, so he likely benefited indirectly.  The difference, then, between athletics and admissions is that when an athlete isn't a good fit for a team, there is at least some chance that the coach who has turned him down might be able to help him find another home.

While it would take some coordination and there would definitely be complexities to work out, is there any reason why this sort of sharing and collaboration among distantly related institutions couldn't happen at the level of general admissions and even be formalized in some way?  If it were to happen, it would seem to require a few things:

1)  The right kind of groupings or consortiums:  As mentioned, if everyone in the partnership is competing for the same students, it isn't likely that much sharing will take place.  So, member institutions would need to be different enough that they aren't drawing from the same applicant pools.  At the same time, if the institutions are too different, they aren't likely to have applicants that, although not a good fit for one institution, would fit somewhere else.

2)  Very clear understanding of one another's missions:  If the members of the group don't know each other well (their missions, their geographic locales, their academic offerings, etc.), they won't be positioned to make good referrals.

3)  Lots and lots of trust and good will:  As with any social contract, the success of an arrangement like this would require a collection of campuses that are willing to commit to act in the interest of one another and of the students they serve.  At the point that one member starts to hold onto students who would be better served by another member of the group, just to bump enrollments and increase tuition, things will fall apart.  Similarly, if back-room alliances between selected members result, the whole enterprise is in trouble.

I'm not overly familiar with the admissions landscape, so it's possible that this proposal has grown from a gross naivete on my part.  But, as an occasional idealist and advocate for the power of community, I want to think that it has promise (or, better yet, that it is already happening in some corner of higher ed and I don't know it).

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