Friday, October 19, 2012

Incentives & Risk-Taking in Admissions

One of the most interesting phenomena in higher education is the admissions process.  Students develop ulcers over it; parents shell out cash to hire professional admissions consultants to give their child the best shot at getting into their top-choice school, and those hearty souls who work in enrollment management stay up nights trying to figure the whole process out.  I have never worked in admissions and probably won't at any point in my career, so I realize the danger in commenting on something that I probably don't know enough about as I should.  That said, it seems that the ultimate objective of an admissions office or department is to admit those students who (a) will persist to graduation and (b) provide a good "value" for the institution in terms of the cost of providing an education to that particular student.  Consequently, the "golden egg" for a particular school is , so to speak, a highly academically qualified student who can pay the full sticker tuition price, whatever that might be.  Of course, this is an oversimplification and doesn't generalize to every type of school (e.g. an open admissions institution whose mission is to provide educational opportunity to populations that have, historically, been underrepresented in higher education.

But, for the sake of argument (and so that I have something to write about today), let's assume that the above situation holds for at least a hefty percentage of the mildly selective institutions in the U.S.  In this case,  there is an incentive for an institution to minimize risk by only admitting those students that (a) seem nearly certain to succeed or (b) are relatively likely to persist to graduation and won't cost the university too much money if they aren't retained.  Clearly, a system like this decreases the likelihood that certain students will be admitted.  And, it raises questions about these institutions' commitment to educating more than just a very narrow segment of the prospective student population.

What if, however, institutions were rewarded for taking risks in the admissions process?  What if there was some kind of incentive for an institution to admit a slightly underprepared student, provide a high-quality experience to that student, and achieve some measurable level of success with that student (e.g. graduation, job placement, etc.)?  Not only would a system like this one change the admissions game dramatically and provide more students with access to institutions where, previously, they would never have been accepted.  It would also encourage institutions to be more thoughtful about the resources and initiatives they have in place to support students that may not be as academically prepared as others.

As it stands, there really isn't much incentive at all for institutions to take risks in the admissions process (outside of situations involving student-athletes).  And, often, the institutions that are viewed as most "prestigious" are those that rather than taking risks and seeking out students to whom they can add value, admit those who are a "good investment" and who are likely to make the institution look good.

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