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Downward Death Spiral?

Last week’s New York Times piece about the College seemed to be an attempt to summarize Dartmouth’s woes. The paper hadn’t written much this year about the overall state of the College, other than to note our declining admissions yields (in contrast to all of the other Ivies). As The D accurately commented on Friday, there was no evident reason for the Times to print this story now.

But that does not limit the piece’s potential to have a significant negative impact on the College. The word is already out there among parents and students — and the Times’ piece will only reinforce the message — that all is not well in Hanover. A correspondent recently wrote to me:

I do not live anywhere near the East Coast and yet I am still met with (probably faux) crestfallen expressions whenever the fact that my nephew attends Dartmouth comes up - the furrowed brow, the touch on the arm, the question “Is he okay? “- followed by “What is it with that place? ”

Early Decision 2017.jpgRight now high school seniors are thinking about applying early decison. The deadline is November 1. As The D noted last November (graph at right), the number of early decision applications that the College received in 2012 dropped by over 15%. Another drop this year, especially if all of the other Ivies are up again, could send ripples out into the world of higher education.

Parenthetically, it is curious that the Dartmouth Fact Book has not yet been updated to show the decline in early decision applications for the Class of 2017. The College’s official statistics end with the Class of 2016:

Early Decision 2016.jpg

Where will things go with the Class of 2018? Well, perhaps it’s time to recall former Trustee Peter Fahey 68’s evocative phrase from a piece he wrote for The D in support of the defeated Association of Alumni constitution in 2006:

Failure to adopt the new constitution would risk dire consequences for the College. It would be a step down the road of allowing a radical minority cabal to take over the Dartmouth Board of Trustees. If this were to begin to happen, it could well lead the College into a downward death spiral. [Emphasis added]

This phrase is imfamous among some alumni, so much so that Fahey is jokingly referred to as Peter Fahey, DDS. Needless to say, Fahey’s feared “radical minority cabal” did not take over the Board. Rather, the Board cut off that attempt, and then it expanded so that its component of directly elected alumni was reduced from half to only one third.

Nonetheless, at least to my mind, the downward death spiral began at that time under an unfettered, incompetent Board and the ugly trinity of Wright/Kim/Folt: spending ballooned out of control, the debt binge continued, hundreds of millions of dollars were wasted on massive building projects, academic life stagnated, and the student life events so regrettably summarized in the Times’ article began to follow one and other at ever shorter intervals.

The spiral could be about to accelerate now. As we have pointed out in the past, in order to avoid admitting a higher number of students to fill the freshman class, the total number of early decision admits and legacy admits has been increased significantly in the past couple of years. If the Times’ article and the past year’s scandals have a negative effect on high school students’ perception of the College — and it is hard to imagine that they won’t — those steps will not be enough to hide the yield problem this time around. Beyond that, I don’t expect that many senior administrators in higher education missed the Times’ piece, even if they have not been aware of the recent scandals.

USNews evaluations of institutions of higher learning place great weight on yield figures and the opinions of administrators at other schools. We might well take a serious hit next year in the rankings as a result of all the bad PR. Dropping from #10 to, say, #15 or worse could lead to more yield problems and the ever-diminished esteem of peer academics. And so on, onward and downward.

Phil Hanlon might well reap the Wright/Kim/Folt whirlwind, unless he makes some forceful moves to get the College back on track.

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