College admissions news stories are weird

The Washington Post‘s Nick Anderson has a story in today’s paper about the holistic, committee-driven process of college admissions at the University of Maryland-College Park campus, where approximately 30,000 applicants vie for half as many admissions slots. As with most college-admissions news stories, it’s richly-detailed at the micro-level, and absent some important context. We are so familiar with this type of story that we forget how weird it is that every year, a few hundred thousand applicants submit more than a million applications to flagship universities, in a process that tries to separate the pretty-well-qualified applicant from the slightly-less-pretty-well-qualified applicant. We focus on the admissions process and the very specific aspirations of applicants to the University of Maryland, Berkeley, or the University of Michigan, when the most important question for the future of these applicants is not where they start college but whether they finish.

In our forgetting the broader context, we miss the fact that the competitive college admissions process has far higher stakes for the competitive-admissions colleges and universities than for applicants. Yes, an applicant to Harvard, Princeton, or Stanford has a low probability of gaining admissions to any one of those universities, but graduating high school students will be admitted somewhere, while the University of Maryland-College Park and its peers face a prestige game in some high-visibility ranking systems, rankings that reward low acceptance rates. At the same time, the finances of many colleges and universities depend on recruiting enough students whose parents can pay tuition. Yet the process is generally portrayed as high-stakes for the applicants.

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Dean prospectus omissions

After 6 years in various administrative roles, I’ve become a Usual Suspect for a certain slice of dean searches, mostly smaller private and regional public colleges/universities. At one point rumors were apparently circulating that I was interviewing, and I’m glad that a colleague told me so I could point out that, no, I’m pretty happy in my current position, and if you knew me well enough, you’d know why I wasn’t likely to be looking around. But I receive a few contacts every year, and from the standpoint of someone who is not looking, it is pretty easy to see what the various executive-search prospectus narratives typically miss with the colleges of education I tend to receive search information on:

  • Trends in enrollment, budgets, and hiring
  • Fundraising profile of the institution, especially emphasis among areas (athletics, financial aid, health sciences, other sciences, everything else)

On the whole, the last fifteen years have not been very kind to these colleges, and I understand why this information would not be front and center. Yet, at the same time, a prospectus typically tries to signal the type of person the college or university is looking for. And for some people, specific challenges are attractive… and a provost at these institutions should want someone who looks for that challenge. Yes, everyone wants to be higher-ranked in [name your ranking magazine], have more grant funding, have a broader impact, and so forth. We all know this language, and you don’t call forth the Potential Miracle Dean by pointing out your needs in a way that cries, “Please, apply. We’re desperate.” But is there a middle path?

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Laptops and knitting in class

Twitter is burning up with discussion of Sue Dynarski’s November 22 NYT column on laptop use in class. Dynarski summarizes some of the research on how laptops affect students in classes heavy in formal presentations (such as many economics classes) and explains why she generally bans electronic device use in her classes as a result. Loads of discussion has focused on the needs of students with disabilities,1 current/former student descriptions of how they (benefitted from) taking notes in certain ways, and discussions of how general classroom policies such as on notetaking affects the relationships between faculty and students.

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  1. Dynarski does make exceptions to her general policy []

Credentialism and its discontents

McMillan Cottom, T. (2017). Lower ed: The troubling rise of for-profit colleges in the new economy. New York, NY: The New Press.

The Lower Ed project

In Lower Ed, Tressie McMillan Cottom explains how the recent boom and bust of for-profit higher education has been a direct result of economic dislocation. Public policy has responded to economic anxieties with one clear message: the primary and often only solution to your potential unemployment is to borrow money to go to college. For millions since 2000, that has meant enrollment in for-profit colleges and universities, and Lower Ed has a unique, persuasive portrait of the phenomenon.

As a sociologist, McMillan Cottom approaches for-profit higher education with broader questions: why would Americans take on thousands of dollars of loans to attend programs that others see primarily as disreputable and debt-inducing?

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Boundaries and presence

This morning, Inside Higher Ed reported on the resignation of Terrell Strayhorn from his faculty position at Ohio State University, after he was dismissed from a center director position. Strayhorn is well-known in higher-ed research,1 and his administrative dismissal and then faculty resignation is a startling end to what had been a rocketlike career trajectory.

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  1. i.e., the research community that focuses on higher education []