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Why The 14% Drop? (2/2)

A two-part series: Part 1, Part 2

There are far more plausible explanations for the 14% drop in admissions applications than the ones we reviewed yesterday. Obviously the elephant in the room is the ongoing string of campus life problems — we’ll start with that one — but there are other valid reasons to review:

— The serial scandals. The College was repeatedly depicted in the press over the past two years as a debauched, racist, strife-ridden institution. From the Andrew Lohse-inspired article about hazing in the Rolling Stone, to the RealTalk-motivated, CarolFolt-ordered class shutdown that was reported in every newspaper in America, and the many little scandals like the Crips and Bloods party, the message went out repeatedly that Dartmouth is in trouble.

The College employs over three dozen PR staffers to broadcast a positive message about Dartmouth to the public with the expectation that positive stories in the media enhance our reputation in the eyes of students, parents, college counselors, and the public. PR works, to be sure. That’s why we employ all of these people. But PR works both ways. One would think that it is self-evident that all of the ugly stories coming out of Hanover would hurt applications. How can anyone even question the validity of this assertion?

Ugly stories have piled onto each other over the past two years. Fewer occurred before that. They are a primary cause of the decline in applications. However, to admit this fact one would need to admit that the administration is not effectively creating a vigorous, intellectually enticing climate in Hanover. Based on past performance, obviously the Trustees and the administration won’t acknowledge that anyone has done less than a perfect job over the past two decades, right? After all, this is Dartmouth. Everything is awesome. So they blame the weather, etc.

— The end of AP credits. The import of this action is hard to pin down. A little background: since its January 2013 decision, the College is the only Ivy that does not offer some kind of academic credit for AP course work done in high school. We are routinely excoriated for this fact in the national press — as recently as last week. And as a practical matter, by not according AP credits, we make Dartmouth more expensive for incoming students. I wrote about the knock-on effect of this new policy last year on October 14:

Sources tell me that Admissions regularly receives skeptical questions about the new AP policy from potential applicants to the College. In fact, the Admissions staff agrees that applicants do not seem half as interested in our campus life issues as they are in the fact that we don’t give credit for any AP work. They also perceive that this new policy is hurting us especially among many of the best prepared applicants.

Sounds like a twofer to me: the AP decision has us losing interest among students who are sensitive to the high price of a college education and who have worked hard enough in high school to amass a large number of AP credits.

The whole AP policy change was an example of administrative incompetence: the faculty was repeatedly told that the modification to our traditional approach would put us in line with the other Ivies. That assertion was patently untrue. We are now paying the price.

— A >$60k Price Tag: Setting prices is an art and a science. Sometimes passing a magic price point can have an entirely disproportionate effect on customers. When the College vaulted over the $60,000/year price level — becoming the only Ivy other than Columbia over $60k, and making Dartmouth cost $3,000-$5,000 more per year than HYP — the families of high school students might have reached a tipping point about the College: why pay so much money to go to a place with so many problems?

— Tight-fisted financial aid. The word is getting out there, especially to high school college counselors, that the College’s financial aid program is the worst in the Ivies. As we noted in September last year, a family with an income of $150k would have to fork over about $20k/year more at Dartmouth than at HYP, and more, though not that much more, than at the other Ivy schools.

— Difficulty of Admission. As the College ramps up the number of places in the incoming class allocated to early decision students (up in the last four years from 35% to 40% of the matriculating class), the number of spots remaining for regular applicants falls proportionately. When you add to this observation the slots that the College reserves for special groups — students of color, recruited athletes, legacies, international students, and first-generation-to-college students — the number of spaces left for high school students whose parents went to college, but not to Dartmouth; who are white; who have always lived in the U.S.; who are not the children of Dartmouth Trustees or large donors or prominent alumni or senior staff members; and and who are not varsity athletes, is pretty small indeed. Yet students with this profile today make up the majority of high-achieving college applicants.

Alumni complain of working hard to generate interest in Dartmouth, only to see nobody at all admitted from their area, even though many of the same students are accepted at other Ivies. At a certain point, the word gets around that there is no room in Hanover for most top students. As one admissions officer mentioned to me, the local chatter about Dartmouth in many high schools is that “regular, well-rounded white kids don’t get in.” That perception is supported by the fact that this year more people of color (37%) and students applying for financial aid (70%) applied to the College than ever before. Given that total applications dropped by 14%, a fortiori the number of Caucasian students from privileged families fell even more than that figure.

Finally, the fact that the College is need-blind for international students — the only Ivy outside of HYP to have adopted this policy — has generated a surge over recent years of applications from China, India and Korea. When few applicants were actually admitted from these countries, international applications fell 20% in 2013. Regrettably, the Admissions department does not tell us what % of total applications come from abroad.

— Miscellaneous Ideas. Some readers have pointed to the Admissions department’s uninspired, one-step-behind-everyone-else, marketing efforts, but this point fails to explain the precipitous 14% drop. Lackluster marketing is nothing new from McNutt. It did not turn the tide in the last two years.

Other readers have suggested that the College’s admissions form requires more essays than other Ivies. That is just not true, though we do require a peer evaluation. In fact, HYP and Brown have more demanding supplements than the materials that Dartmouth requires beyond the Common App.

Conclusion: As an entrepreneurial businessman, I make decisions based on a lot less information than required by academics. Do I make more wrong decisions as a result? Certainly. But I make far more correct ones, too. At the end of the day, the balance is in my favor. To my mind, the bad press and the AP-credit error bear the greatest weight in the applications drop, a fall that will in all likelihood continue next year when our U.S. News ranking drops in September. However, the good news is that the problems advanced in this post as reasons for the 14% decline can all be fixed by a determined College administration. Does Phil have the necessary determination?

Addendum: A reader asks if the drop in admissions applications was evenly weighted between men and women — with the thought that perhaps women were shying away from the College due to stories in the press. I responded that according to the Admissions department, applications were evenly split between men and women. He commented further:

I have heard female students consistently say that they would not encourage their brothers to come here because they would not want them to be changed by the cultural aspects, such that they become more like the perpetrators at Dartmouth that go unpunished. So, you still could see a somewhat equal decline, by gender, for that reason.

One other thought on the gender issue: if you are a male, you are tainted by the bad press that the perpetrators bring to the institution, even though, of course, the great majority are completely innocent. Why take on that “taint” when you can go elsewhere and not be affected by that bad connotation?

Addendum: Another alum writes in with a couple of comments:

I would also add that the new AP credit policy not only makes Dartmouth more expensive, but it limits academic flexibility. Because I came to Dartmouth with some AP credits, I could have graduated my senior winter. While I appreciate how nice that would have been, instead I took a couple of terms of two courses, focusing on independent study, research with professors, and thesis work. These were two of my most intense and academically stimulating terms, and they would not have been possible under the new policy.

In other news, I’ve moved to the Midwest since graduation, and I find the weather excuse from Prez Phil, Maria, and the PR Machine to be laughable. A 20% drop in applications from this region cannot possibly be attributed to Hanover’s winter. I can assure you that the Hanover winter is almost tropical compared to what Midwestern high schoolers experience.

Addendum: An undergraduate shares a few interesting ideas:

Just wanted to give an undergrad’s thoughts on the 14% drop, specifically about the supplemental essay. Yes, it is true we require far less demanding supplements than that of HYP/Brown. However, in previous years, applicants who already had completed their Common App could, within a few minutes, easily apply to Dartmouth, as there was no supplemental essay at all. Any busy high school senior (qualified or not) who otherwise would not have thought of applying to Dartmouth during regular decision could try their chances of admissions at our Ivy without spending time and effort perfecting an extra essay for Dartmouth. This year was the first application year where a supplemental essay was required for all applicants. Not to be a cynic, but I think you underestimate the decisions that teenagers make when they are confronted with an extra essay that increases burden of completing an application. Whereas reputation and AP credits do factor into decisions to apply, it’s pretty intuitive that more work involved in applying (i.e. another essay) means less students will take the effort to apply, directly lowering admissions numbers.

Drawing out the implications of the supplemental essay, you could say that those high school seniors who didn’t think they were qualified enough to apply (but would’ve applied in previous years just to see how they’d fare in admissions) would choose not to apply this year given the extra costs of the supplemental essay. Additionally, seniors who knew they were qualified but chose not to apply given the extra time and effort of writing an essay for a College they had little interest in (due to AP credits, reputational effects due to bad PR) would not apply as well. These non-applicants would probably be composed of students who apply to a large number of colleges during regular decision, since these students would be the ones who, before this year, would simply add Dartmouth to their list of colleges that they could easily apply to without any additional effort. And which subset of applicants can afford to send out applications to so many different colleges? If you say the richer students, then I propose that maybe this is one explanation that more students are applying for financial aid this year (70%), which also correlates with your analysis about the number of Caucasian students from privileged families falling even more than the overall admissions decrease.

This obviously won’t fully account for the 14% drop (and it might just be a coincidence with no evidence of causation), but the introduction of the supplemental essay is a minor factor that you shouldn’t discredit so quickly. It’s just a shame that the Admissions Office would introduce a supplemental essay that clearly disincentivizes students from applying to Dartmouth right as we’re in the middle of a PR nightmare and AP credit fiasco. The only positive I can see from this is that we will be receiving applications from students who put in the extra effort to apply here, which could marginally increase the yield (and this, of course, is subject to other confounding factors as well). Lastly, from my personal experience on campus this term, it seems like more undergraduates are talking about the change in the supplemental essay (and are perhaps more perceptive of teenage laziness and its effects) than the faculty and administration. It just really boggles my mind when the administration starts blaming the weather without acknowledging other minor year-to-year changes that could actually result in tangible effects on admissions.

Addendum: An insider gives a different perspective on the subject of application essays.

Thought I’d provide a little more context to the discussion on how Dartmouth’s supplement may have affected the applicant numbers this year. First of all, it’s not quite accurate to say that Dartmouth “introduced” a new supplementary essay this year. In fact, the Common Application removed a 150-word “Activity essay” that had always been part of the application this year, and gave universities the choice of whether or not they’d still require it. This essay was often a factor in the selection process, and I was disappointed to see the Common App remove it. Dartmouth, like many schools, elected to keep the activity essay as a required part of its application. Dartmouth made its word limit 250; other schools asked for shorter or longer essays. But as this essay is so common, it’s almost certain that at least a few schools on a student’s college list would already ask for it, and students could simply use the same exact one for Dartmouth if they so chose.

Addendum: Another reader puts an idea out there:

Just thought I’d give my two cents on the drop in applications. One thing that has been overlooked was the Greek house ban for freshmen during the first 6 weeks of the term. During this period, freshmen literally had nothing to do on Friday and Saturday nights. They ended up drinking hard liquour in tiny dorm parties which 8 or 10 kids would attend. During this time, they were inevitably talking to their friends who were still in high school who might be thinking about applying to Dartmouth. Why would anyone choose to apply to Dartmouth when the only thing you’re hearing about the school is how miserable the social scene here is. Couldn’t possibly account for the entire drop, but I’m sure it made some difference…


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