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Applications Drop Is No Surprise

After an October 1 New York Times article detailed Dartmouth’s myriad scandals and bad press, it didn’t take a great deal of foresight to see that the College was in for a tough year in admissions. We saw it coming then, and so did the Huffington Post’s Linda Flanagan. She wrote a prescient column dated November 6 that first described the Dartmouth admissions department’s furious efforts to drum up applications, even from high school students with virtually no chance of being admitted. She then looked at the broader picture:

I decided to check with a colleague I’ll call Adam, a college counsellor at a prestigious private high school. He had a less benevolent explanation for Dartmouth’s recruiting drive. Last year, Dartmouth was the only Ivy to have a higher acceptance rate in 2013 over the previous year; it took about 10 percent of its 22,416 applicants, compared to 9.43 percent in 2012. In short, Dartmouth was the lone Ivy to be ever-so-slightly less selective last year than the year before, having received fewer applications. “Once I saw that, I guaranteed that Dartmouth would triple its marketing and recruiting budget,” Adam said.

Why does that tiny shift in selectivity matter so much, particularly given the flood of applications elite colleges like Dartmouth receive — roughly double the number of applications it took in just 10 years ago? As with most of the nonsense that drives college admissions, it all goes back to the U.S. News and World Report rankings. “Colleges are looking for applicants because it helps their U.S. News numbers,” Marilee Jones, the former Dean of Admissions at MIT, told me.

A college’s overall rank is determined by 16 measures, and three of them are closely linked to admissions: SAT/ACT scores of admitted students; their standing in high school — ideally in the top 10 percent of their grade — and the college’s acceptance rate. Colleges want those kids with the highest standardized test scores and lowest class rank to enroll, but they need lots of applicants to get their acceptance rate down. A low acceptance rate, which equates with selectivity, means many more kids applied than were accepted. “Every college is working that U.S. News algorithm, to use that algorithm it its advantage,” Jones said. [Emphasis added]

If the admissions department really did put the hammer down this past fall in an effort to boost admissions, and we still had a 14% drop, then things must be really bad out there.

The Valley News had an editorial on Sunday about the decline in applications. Its thoughtful ending:

It’s certainly appropriate for college administrators not to jump to conclusions [about the reasons for the drop in applications]. But we hope that they bear in mind that reputational damage is not always readily observed or easily quantifiable. Good reputations take a long time to build, and when they take a hit, it often takes a while for the damage to manifest itself. Almost everyone can think of a business or a product whose reputation for quality has lived on long after it no longer obtained. The other side of the ledger is that once the damage has been done, it becomes doubly hard to rebuild that reputation. So the quicker the college moves ahead with its previously announced initiatives to improve social life on campus for all students, the sooner it can begin getting the word out that it’s a place where all are welcome — from each according to her abilities, to each according to his needs.

The wise thought here is that the College is now in a fairly deep hole. Phil is going to need to take some bold steps to turn things around. Cautious half-measures won’t do the job.

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