The Messy Science of GW Admissions

The GW Hatchet
October 28, 2013

By Jeremy Diamond and Sarah Ferris

What does it take to get picked by GW?

When the University revealed last week that students’ inability to pay can actually hurt their chances of admission, it shed new light on the messy science of how colleges choose their incoming classes.

Behind closed doors, colleges are increasingly weighing factors beyond test scores and GPAs, former GW representatives and experts say, which can leave out otherwise qualified students.

“We build up these students to think that the college admissions process is a total meritocracy, and that’s absolutely not the case,” a former GW admissions representative told The Hatchet last week. “It’s not a qualification process. It’s a selection process.”

With a growing pile of applications each year, the former admissions officer said GW picks from thousands of students who would succeed academically at the school. But that supply of applicants gives GW wide discretion over who is accepted – giving weight to students who can potentially bolster GW’s budding research profile and who can pay.

The former representative, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because she still works in the admissions field, said she and her colleagues did not have strict rubrics to judge applicants, as long as their grades and test scores meet certain thresholds.

“We can admit our class three or four times over and keep the same statistics and keep the same test scores,” she said.

The best fit, behind closed doors
Colleges’ priorities are moving beyond academic measures nationwide. Only 35 percent of admissions directors at private colleges said academics were “very important,” while 47 percent said notions like “fit” were “very important,” according to a survey of nearly 400 admissions directors released by Inside Higher Ed this summer.

To help map their priorities, universities are increasingly hiring enrollment managers like GW’s Laurie Koehler to recruit the best-fit students while still balancing financial aid awards and the size of each freshman class.

After accepting or denying most applicants up front, two former GW admissions representatives said they would set aside a stack of applicants that were similar academically, but represented a range of enrollment goals to help “shape the class a little bit.”

“We had our initial review, and then there were associate directors taking a larger look at numbers. Then we were guided to some degree when we had too many students admitted to a particular school, so we had to pull back,” the second former admissions representative explained last week.

And if top officials were concerned about reaching the University’s goals, GW would admit applicants in this “holding pattern” to help fill out the University’s engineering program or boost its percentage of minority students, while others landed on the waitlist.

“Waitlist is basically protection for the University,” the first officer said. “We predict our yield to be this much. But sometimes we may need to admit a few more kids in business, or another field, so we’ll sort the kids who get on the waitlist.”

But GW is not alone. Nearly half of colleges nationwide now use waitlists, up from one-third in 2002, according to a survey last year by the National Association for College Admission Counseling.

The University came under fire last week when top leaders acknowledged for the first time that admissions officials had misled prospective students with claims that GW would not consider students’ financial aid requests when crafting its freshman class.

But most admissions officials never see the aid requests. After the former GW admissions officer completed her review, she said top administrators headed into a room, shut the doors and made the final determinations.

Still, she said the application process blurs the lines between need-blind and need-aware practices because the Common Application gleans information on prospective parents’ jobs and levels of education.

“You absolutely know if you’re admitting a kid from an inner city – a kid from the Bronx with a parent who drives a taxi and didn’t go to college – versus a kid whose parent works on Wall Street,” she said.

The other former admissions representative stressed that he never made decisions based on “someone needing X amount of dollars.”

Multiple top administrators declined to sit down for interviews this week, including Director of Admissions Karen Felton, Associate Vice President for Financial Assistance Dan Small and Koehler, the senior associate provost for enrollment management.

In admissions, money talks
The highly publicized retreat from advertising a need-blind admissions policy at GW last week sparked a wave of backlash nationally.

Part of that outrage, national admissions strategist Steven Goodman said, is because the practice contradicts the American notion that “if you simply work hard and do your best, you will rise to the top if you are really talented.”

“When universities essentially say, ‘You’re welcome to apply, but you’re really only welcome if you happen to have an extra $200,000 in a bank account,’ that really flies in the face of what we as a people want to believe our universities to be,” he said.

Goodman, who has studied admissions practices for 20 years, said money is a priority for nearly all private colleges – from recruiting in certain high schools to picking students off the waitlist.

As top colleges faced flat endowments and rising demands for aid in the wake of the recession, admissions directors and deans began increasingly considering students’ need before finalizing acceptance letters.

Colby College, Reed College, Tufts University and Wesleyan University have all moved toward “need-aware” admissions processes since 2008. And more than half of private admissions directors surveyed by Inside Higher Ed last year said they would craft strategies to attract more full-pay students in the next year.

But need-aware policies are often borne out of necessity, administrators say.

“I would love to see us become a need-blind institution. As matters stand today, however, we believe that our current practice is the best way to meet the financial need of as many students as possible while recruiting an academically strong and diverse student body,” University President Steven Knapp said in an email last week.

Last year, GW relied on tuition for 62 percent of its income, the second-highest among its group of 14 peer colleges. GW’s financial aid pool was set at $161.5 million this year.

Jim Jump, former president of the National Association for College Admission Counseling, said those economic realities make a need-blind admissions process unfeasible for schools with relatively low levels of endowment funds to cover each student, like GW.

While he didn’t criticize institutions who are forced to adopt need-aware admissions policies, Jump said colleges should “preach what you practice.” And while Jump said he hopes GW’s public relations disaster will push other universities to be more transparent in presenting their policies, he worried about the impact on his field.

“I would argue it actually hurts all of us in the admissions profession because the public trusts that we’re doing things based on what’s best for kids – it looks like we’re doing things based out of self-interest,” Jump said.

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