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Huffing and Puffery: Applications Dive

Guess what announcement came out of the Office of Public Affairs on the Saturday morning of Winter Carnival? Applications for the Class of 2018 dropped by a whopping 14%, and the College admit rate will rise this year from 10% to 11%. These numbers are disastrous for the College, and they could hurt our ranking with U.S. News.

Applications Data 2014 Comp.jpg

However, let’s take a look at the College’s press release on the topic, a good example of modern PR. While it’s an energetic effort to make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear, in this case all one is left with is pigskin:

After Early Decision Rise, Dartmouth Sees Drop in Applicants

In a year when quality trumps quantity, Dartmouth’s 19,235 applicants for next year’s entering Class of 2018 are the most accomplished and most diverse in the College’s history. This year’s total is Dartmouth’s fourth-largest pool of undergraduate applicants, but a drop from totals the previous two years.

Now there’s a great lead: “the most accomplished” class is a claim that we cannot possibly verify or dispute. Admissions can always begin a press release with that claim, and, in fact, it always does. “Best class ever” is just the flip side of the trope flung at ‘shmen by upperclassmen. And, at first glance, the absolute number of applicants does seems large, and the spin doctors cleverly put it in some kind of context by citing the fact that it is the fourth highest number of applicants ever — but the truth of the matter lies in the real context: the figure is 14.2% below the Class of 2017’s number, and 16.8% below the number of applicants for the Class of 2016. That’s one sixth fewer applicants.

In putting a class together, the most important factor is the quality of the applicants. We are incredibly fortunate to have received applications from the most diverse, most academically outstanding group of aspiring students who have ever applied to Dartmouth,” says Maria Laskaris, dean of admissions and financial aid. “We are thrilled by the level of achievement and anticipate some very difficult decisions before we can offer admission to just over 11 percent of these applicants.”

Ahh, Admissions Director Maria Laskaris ‘84’s tortured syntax always makes for happy reading: applause all around for the “most academically outstanding group” and their thrilling “level of achievement” — but, needless to say, no proof is adduced. Higher SAT scores? More Nobel Prizes or Olympic medals? More valedictorians? Who knows? We’ll have to take Maria’s word for this assertion.

But then comes the kicker at the very end of the happy paragraph: “… we can offer admission to just over 11 percent of these applicants,” even though last year we admitted 10.4% of the applicants to the Class of 2017. Ouch.

The unexpected decrease in the size of this year’s outstanding applicant pool, which is down about 14 percent from 2013, has prompted College officials to conduct a survey of non-applicants and undertake careful study to determine the causes behind the fluctuations in the number of applications received. The results of the study will be shared with the community.

I can’t wait. Do you think that these sad results have anything to do with Dartmouth’s series of nationally reported embarrassments over the past two years? Duh. A local French friend, who announced to us out of the blue that she was applying to Stanford and four Ivies, shied away from applying to Dartmouth “à cause de toutes les scandales.” If a French high school student is aware of the mess, you can be sure that high school counselors throughout the United States have been talking about the College, too, and not positively.

Like Harvard, which recently announced its admissions figures, Dartmouth appears to have fewer applicants from the Northeast, the Midwest, and abroad. Some of this may be driven by a well-documented nationwide demographic shift, which is resulting in fewer high school graduates going to college nationally and with those who do tending to attend a school close to their home. About 80 percent of college freshmen attend college within 200 miles of their home, and 90 percent remain within 500 miles. Given that New England is losing college-bound population, this suggests that the application numbers may be a result of broader trends.

So we are just like Harvard, eh, subject to the slings and arrows of a “nationwide demographic shift”? Then how come Harvard’s applications are only down 2.1% compared to last year, and 0.02% compared to the year before? Somehow these pesky little numbers don’t make it into the press release. Hmmm. I wonder why those nationwide demographic shifts have hit the Green so much harder than the Crimson.

Echoing sentiment expressed by President Phil Hanlon ‘77 in a meeting with alumni leaders Friday, Senior Vice President for Public Affairs Tommy Bruce commented, “While we are thrilled to have another exceptionally strong pool of potential students, we take the decline in applications seriously and are investigating the causes. Some might be quick to point to our location, or the public debates about affordability and the quality of student life that affect many college campuses, including our own. The fact, however, is that there are broader issues, from demographics to the rising popularity of pre-professional programs in the wake of the financial crisis, that may be playing a substantial role. In the long-term interests of the College, any actions we take will be based on solid evidence.

And just from where is that solid evidence going to come? Is someone going to interview all of the people who did not apply to the College? That’ll be tough. Beyond the smokescreen of this press release, we all know the real reasons for the drop in applications.

“Ultimately, our goal is to assemble a bright, talented, and diverse class that will excel under Dartmouth’s high standards—not to win an application arms race. We will achieve that goal easily.”

Needless to say, had applications been up, the statistic would be trumpeted as evidence of just how wonderful a job the administration is doing. But as soon as things go south, hey, who needs statistics? When applications peaked two years ago, before the scandals hit, Maria explained the College’s success in attracting interest from exceptional high school students:

“Dartmouth remains an attractive option for students who relish access to the array of research opportunities to work side-by-side with our faculty, our broad range of foreign study programs, and the exceptional teaching that takes place on campus every day,” she continues. “Those factors as well as the College’s fully need-blind admissions process and our commitment to making higher education attainable for students coming from families earning less than $75,000 are what continue to make Dartmouth a desirable choice for students each year.”

Has anything changed since then?

Addendum: The D’s story today graphs how the Ivies fared this year in eliciting applications:

Applications Data 2014  D Graphb.jpg

Hmm. The College’s press release only looked at Harvard’s figures and noted the slight drop in applications in Cambridge. Funny enough, all of the other Ivies who have reported their number of applicants to date were up on the year. Seems like that “nationwide demographic shift” really only affected the College in a serious way. How interesting.

Addendum: A thoughtful undergraduate writes in:

If this drop in applications isn’t a wake-up call, then I don’t know what is. Some of my peers have pointed to the new AP policy as one of the primary reasons for the drop, and I agree to an extent. As the second-most expensive Ivy League school with the strictest policy against AP credit/placement, I can see why financial reasons may have driven some students away from applying. Yet this drop in numbers also seems to suggest that the current campus climate isn’t attracting all of the best student talent that it could.

How do we solve this problem? The approach must be two-fold. We must invest more in student life and faculty initiatives. I don’t see a feasible way to do this other than dramatically cutting administrative expenses. Secondly, we must drive students to apply here in the first place. Having an unnecessarily restrictive AP policy certainly isn’t helping our case, but we should do more in terms of outreach to potential applicants (e.g. those from underrepresented areas). Perhaps we could automatically waive application fees for families making less than $100,000 (or another number that is greater than our current policy). I know that Dimensions sold me as a prospective student, and I believe that this is also the case for many students who eventually enrolled.

I personally believe that President Hanlon has a solid vision for Dartmouth, but a moderate approach won’t do much to counter the steadily declining reputation of the College. We need an inspiring leader.

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