with Jon Boeckenstedt
Jon Boeckenstedt 00:01
I have to tell you, Harry, I suddenly feel a great deal of empathy for Oxford students sitting before a done exam time.
Harry Brighouse 00:11
Yeah, I never do things that way. But you’re the expert! It isn’t the same thing. In that case, you know, they have a student trying to display their expertise to the expert, but in this case, you know, you’re the expert that we’re trying to find out from.
Carrie Welsh 00:31
You’re listening to Ethics & Education. In this episode, part of our series on higher ed, the expert is John Boeckenstedt.
Carrie Welsh 00:40
Hello, I’m John Boeckenstedt, Vice Provost of Enrollment Management at Oregon State University in Corvallis, Oregon.
Carrie Welsh 00:48
Jon talked with Harry Brighouse this summer. You know Harry.
Harry Brighouse 00:52
Hi, I’m Harry Brighouse. I teach philosophy at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
Carrie Welsh 00:57
Harry is also the director of the Center for Ethics & Education.
Carrie Welsh 01:01
He talked with Jon last summer about the ethics of college admissions.
Carrie Welsh 01:06
This is part of our series on higher education.
Harry Brighouse 01:10
Okay, well, thanks for joining us, Jon. I just thought it would be good to start out: people who are unfamiliar with the business side of university, you know, they sort of understand what admission law is, sort of understand what admissions are, and have some understanding of financial aid. But the term enrollment management is sort of new, but it’s not familiar with all my colleagues, for example. So could you just explain, you know, what is your job as Vice Provost of Enrollment Management?
Jon Boeckenstedt 01:39
Well, in its most simple form, I like to explain to people that my job is making everybody a little bit unhappy on campus. Because in reality, we all know that life in Enrollment Management is simply a series of trade offs. And that while every faction on campus can make its demands, and you know, we want more of this, or more of that, or less of this or less of that. What people don’t understand is, every time you pull in one direction, something unravels in another. And so what I’m really trying to do in my job is find that sweet spot in the center of all the trade offs that we make, in order to probably make some small improvements each year incremental gains, without upsetting the entire University System. And so a great example of that would be an institution that might say it wants to raise the average SAT profile of its incoming class. Well, you can do that if you want to give up some things in other areas. So for instance, because students with high test scores tend to be more in demand, the price that you have to pay for those students in terms of financial aid is generally higher, assuming you’re doing merit, like 98% of all colleges in the country. And so if you want higher test scores, and more average revenue per student, you need to have a reality check with yourself and understand that those two things are in direct opposition to each other. And so enrollment management really brings together all of the functions on campus that work specifically with new students, those would be largely admissions scholarship and financial aid, to analyze past trends to understand behavior of students, because we do work and play in markets, of course, and to manage those trade offs and to try to find the the optimal spot in the middle of all the chaos where we’re most people are reasonably happy. But no one is elated with the outcome.
Harry Brighouse 03:56
You use the phrase “pay a price for that.” For the students with higher ACT or SAT scores. I think I know what you mean by that in terms of merit aid, but just for listeners who are not. Some listeners might balk at that phrasing. What exactly do you mean by that?
Jon Boeckenstedt 04:18
Well, most institutional aid in American colleges and universities is unfunded. There certainly are sources of aid where there’s a big pool of money set up, and the the earnings on that money comes into the university is cashed through endowed scholarships. And we’re not really talking about that, although there are some applications of it. What we’re really talking about is if your institution charges, it’s let’s say it’s a private university in tuition is $40,000 a year. If you give a student a $10,000 Merit Scholarship, what you’re really saying is we will accept $30,000 to educate you this year and we don’t care where it comes from. It could be your parents pocketbook, it could be a 529 plan, it could be a Federal Pell grant or a state grant, it could be a student loan. We want $30,000 in cash to educate you. Students who have high academic performance had been conditioned to believe that they should pay less. And so those students with the highest academic credentials, especially if they have high financial need, generally draw greater university resources. And so so the discount on those students might be as high as 75%, meaning you’re only collecting $10,000, to educate that student. And what it means is that in pursuit of some objective or goal at the university, you’re giving something, in order to get something, it’s no different than any other transaction in any other scenario or any other market. There are trade offs to manage and how you do it. And where you do it, and for whom you choose to do it are really the hard parts, it’s both, I guess, you would say the art and the science of Enrollment Management. Furthermore, if you want to be more selective, you will find those students have the highest academic ability at any university. Whatever that highest academic ability profile looks like, you will find that because they’re in greater demand, the yield rate, that is the percentage of them that enroll, once you offer admission is lower. And that makes it harder to lower your admit rate, because those two are diametrically opposed to each other. And so again, managing that tension, and the trade off is really what we do. And we have to tell a lot of people on campus, you can’t have everything you want.
Harry Brighouse 06:48
Okay, so that this was not going to be my next question, but it will be. In public discourse, and I think in university discourse, I think this is true of the way lots of professors think as well, admission to university is seen as a kind of prize for individual merit. And I think I think most students see it that way. I think you’ve just sort of said that. That’s not the way I think about things and I don’t think it’s the way you think about things. So how do you see admission and enrollment in a university? If it’s not a prize for individual merit? What is the purpose?
Jon Boeckenstedt 07:29
Well, I wrote a chapter in a book a long time ago about, you know, the place of the admissions office in the academy. And one of the things I think we have to acknowledge is that although we use the term admissions monolithically, in fact, the admissions functions at Oregon State, and DePaul where I used to work and Harvard and Princeton and Occidental College and Grinnell are fundamentally different things depending on the university’s history, mission, strategic plan, goals, and objectives. So so what I think of admissions is largely informed by the institutions I’ve worked at. I did work at Grinnell, which is a highly selective institution. But I also started my career at Mount Mercy College in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, which admits virtually every qualified applicant, who applies because they don’t have capacity constraints, vis a vis the number of applications they get. So in some sense, you know, you can think of the admissions office says what I call the Disney World Space Mountain model, where you know, there’s this bar set up, and if you’re this high, you can ride and there’s no limit to the number of people who can get on the ride. If you’re, you know, Yale, and you’re looking at admissions, you’re really thinking more like Studio 54. I guess I’m aging myself there. Or any, you know, in demand nightclub, where there’s someone standing at the door and saying, Look, we’re full, we’re going to be full tonight. And we’re going to choose only the most desirable ones from all the people standing online. And that’s, you know, those are the two extremes. And there’s a whole range of spectrum between black and white, a lot of gray in American higher education, and admissions. And so what admissions is, is really driven by the mission and the purpose and the function of the university. There are a lot of places in America that have in their mission statements, that they are designed for the highest achieving highest quality, most accomplished students in in the country or in the world. And there are others who say our job is to provide access to students who might not otherwise have the opportunity to apply to or attend college. And I think I don’t know if you’ll allow this to make it to the final edit, Harry, but I’ve told you before and your presentation at USC maybe six or seven years ago, where you talked about how Americans equate merit and achievement was, without any fear of hesitation or contradiction, the best admissions presentation I’ve ever seen in my life. And I’ve seen a lot of them. And I thought your distinction between those two concepts was something that every admissions officer in America should hear and think about it, and every President and Board of Trustees member should hear because, because in America, we really do think of achievement, as what we’re measure merit is what we’re measuring, when, in fact, we’re measuring achievement. And as you pointed out, no one in this country gets to achieve anything unless somebody invest in them. And I thought I thought it was the the perfect summation of the the tension, and the ironies, and the conflicts between what we in American higher education say we do, and what we actually do.
Harry Brighouse 11:14
Thanks, I’m really glad that it had… I remember being incredibly nervous when I was giving that talk. Because, as you know, for me, giving a talk to people who I see as the people who sort of, you know, really take responsibility for the university, which I don’t really think a faculty is doing, I sort of think of, you know, people on the business side is really, you know, they have all the hard decisions. So it’s really nerve wracking to, to prepare and give a talk to people doing that kind of work. And so it’s great. I mean, it’s great to hear that it, you know, that it was valuable.
Jon Boeckenstedt 11:56
Well, I’ve also used your example several times of being shipwrecked on an island. And would you rather be on shipwrecked on an island with the four best violinist in the world, or a really good string quartet. And for, for parents and students who don’t understand how highly selective admissions works, I thought that was among the most perfect metaphors I could possibly imagine. So kudos to you.
Harry Brighouse 12:24
Thanks. Um, a number of our podcasts are about higher education, a good number and not, and when we when we discuss higher education, we have tended to talk I think, to philosophers and sociologists. And so they have a very particular perspective. So one theme that comes up in those discussions, is, what’s the purpose of a university? You know, what, what, what can a university what should the university be doing for students and for the public? And I think we tend to think more about public universities and private universities. But that’s probably just sort of an accident. I thought it’d be interesting to hear what what, you know, a thoughtful enrollment management leader has to say about the purpose of the university. And in particular, the purpose of the undergraduate mission of the university.
Jon Boeckenstedt 13:20
Yeah, I don’t know that I either do have or should have a perspective on that. I mean, in the sense that, I believe that’s really the mission and the purpose of the faculty. And while you know, we all like to kid and and tease about how misguided the faculty can be or how out of touch with reality in relation to the business dealings of the university faculty can be, I really believe the heart and soul of the university starts with and should be housed with the faculty. And so one of the, as you probably know, I like to do, I like to visually represent data. And one of the things that first astonished me and sort of made a big impact on my perception was the CIRP data. CIRP is Cooperative Institutional Research Program at UCLA, the Higher Education Research Institute, and they do this survey every year of incoming freshmen at a university. And you know, the really valuable thing is, you know, to see what percentage of students are liberal or conservative this year, but to do the trend analysis on it. And if if you go back into the 60s and look at the question about why am I going to college or what’s the purpose of my college degree, what do I hope to attain when I graduate? In the 60s, I think the biggest thing was a bigger or a greater or broader perspective on the meaning of life. And by the mid 90s, or early 2000s, that had flipped to I need to get a better job. Right. And I wanted to know, there’s some some very crass economic exchange that’s that’s occurring between the students and the institution. And if I think about that, I think it’s a tragedy, in some sense, because I, I was an English major, and I had enough credits for a major in philosophy and religious studies that I never took them up on. But, you know, that was really the transformational thing, part of education for him. That’s why I would go to college again, knowing what I know. But in the early 80s, costs started to escalate. And public support for higher education, especially public education went away. And Ronald Reagan, you know, famously said, It’s not my it’s not the taxpayers job to pay for you to find yourself for four years. And so, the while the cost of education went up, the natural and expected reaction is that people think of it in transactional terms, and think of it as something that has to pay for itself. And you know, so I think if we find ourselves in that mode today, where people are thinking strictly about the monetary value of education, we really have only ourselves to blame for that, the society has itself to blame for it. And and I would prefer that the purpose of the university be more like it was in the 60s and the 70s When I went to college, but I have to be a pragmatic person and say that I understand why white people today are thinking of it in monetary terms, unfortunately.
Harry Brighouse 16:51
Yeah, I mean, I think about that a lot. And, you know, the funny thing is, I mean, I teach at University of Wisconsin-Madison, which is quite selective, where students are not, I mean, they’re socioeconomically somewhat diverse, but a lot of students come from reasonably affluent families. And I’m sort of struck by two things. One is they the extent to which so many of the students I interact with, are have been taught to see the university in this transactional way. But how open they are to seeing it in a different way. I mean, how, how open they are to, in fact, seeing it, not exactly about finding themselves, but about figuring out how they can do good things in the world. And you know, how learning how to do good things in the world. But it’s interesting, how many of them sort of carry both of those things with them, you know, the sort of transactional sense and also like, why I got to do good things. The other thing that I sort of am very aware of, is that since 2008, and maybe again, now, the the labor market that they face is not a friendly one. And it’s something that you really have to bear in mind. I mean, so there’s, there’s the cost side, but then there’s also the sort of uncertainty on the other end side. And I think that drives the sort of desire for vocational or, you know, for professional qualifications.
Jon Boeckenstedt 18:24
Two points about that. I’m being clinical and not judgmental here when I say that Wisconsin-Madison has a really low percentage of Pell Grant students compared to other public research one institutions. And so I would say the the ability to be sort of enthusiastic about, about, you know, both the transactional value of higher education and the higher, more important to me more important purpose of higher education is sort of a luxury of wealth, right, you have the opportunity to explore that. And if you’re, if you’re, you know, a first generation student from a low income family, and you have to work at Subway 30 hours a week in order to pay your tuition and your rent, you might not have the ability to explore and try different things and venture down avenues to see where they might lead you. And so it’s kind of ironic, in some sense that those who, who really don’t need the transactional nature of higher education because in some sense, they might already be set after they graduate are the ones who are most likely to follow that path wherever it might lead. So it’s it’s kind of a guess it’s it’s not surprising, but it’s, it borders on a shame. I think that that that opportunity is only available to students who can afford it.
Harry Brighouse 19:59
Yeah, and well, I think one of the I mean, as a teacher, you know, one of my jobs is to ensure that the students I teach whatever their background get a flavor of and an appetite for the, the more, I mean, what I was gonna say is the more ethereal meaning of intellectual life. But of course, I also think that that that, that exploration is professionally really valuable. I mean, somebody who doesn’t do that exploration is less well prepared to be professionally successful, often.
Jon Boeckenstedt 20:43
Yeah, of course. And, you know, I’ve told students, I can’t tell you how many times, that the classes that I found the least interesting when I was an undergraduate, were in fact, the classes that I rely on refer to more often than almost anything today. And so, you know, my philosophy and my religious studies classes, and even economics, which I didn’t find particularly interesting, until I started having lunch with the economist every day for about five years. You know, and the funny thing about economist is, they think every problem in the world is an economics problem. And so, you know, the, the banter in the back and forth and the, the funny sort of arrogance of economists who, who sort of take that approach to life really was, you know, had profound effects on how I do my job and how I think about things today. But then again, the, the bigger issues of social justice and right and wrong, and, you know, societal needs and fairness, those are things that also come into play all the time in my job. And, you know, it’s, it’s, again, a matter of balancing and striking sort of that sweet spot in the middle where everything, everything exists, but nothing dominates.
Harry Brighouse 22:05
Okay, so I want to take things from there a little bit. Um, you, it seems to me, you’ve been one of the leading voices in favor of making college and university admissions test optional. That is making it the case that students do not have to submit, applicants do not have to submit an ACT or SAT score. And I want to ask you a few things about this. If that’s okay
Jon Boeckenstedt 22:35
Sure. I haven’t I haven’t talked about test optional in 12 hours or so, so I’m looking forward to this.
Harry Brighouse 22:41
Yeah, I know. So, a very simple question. What information do you think you get as an admissions officer from an ACT or an SAT score?
Jon Boeckenstedt 22:58
That’s a big question. I would say if I had to condense it down to a few things, I would say, number one, for about 65 or 75% of students, it’s simply redundant presentation of the information that’s already available on the high school transcript. And that’s the thing that a lot of testing, advocates don’t seem to understand that even even by the admission of the College Board, an ACT scores, our scores and grades are harmonious for the vast majority of students. And so in that sense, you know, I’ve often said, I’m not anti testing, because if you only had an sh t, or an ACT and no high school transcript, you could do a reasonably good job of admitting students. It’s the it’s the redundancy. And the very little that it adds and predictive power to any equation that you run through your systems to try to predict who’s going to be successful. So there’s that. But the really interesting thing is when the scores are what college board calls discrepant, and that’s about 30 or 33%. of all students that is that either have a much higher SAT and a low GPA, or they have a high GPA and a low SAT. And if you look at the students with the highest 80 and the low GPA, they tend to be white or Asian. They tend to come from wealthier families. They tend to come from students whose parents have at least a bachelor’s and more often a graduate degree. And so the test is really conferring privilege on the privileged and when colleges use those examinations, those test results incorrectly. It sort of perpetuates the myth of meritocracy that we have when you think that the test score is somehow measuring, you know, a student’s merit or worthiness for a college education. It’s really not and, and there’s nothing more absurd, I think, then the idea of college readiness as measured in a single number produced by the test, you know, ACT is specifically has one number, I think it’s a 21. That says, if you have a 21 you’re college ready, and if you don’t, you’re not, I mean, and, you know, the absurdity of that proposition sort of belies the fact that large numbers of people, including journalist every fall by that term, hook line, and sinker, you know, and it’s, it’s highly distressing. But in some sense, there are champions of marketing and managing public discourse and public opinion. So so that’s really, I mean, test scores do and say a lot, but that’s really the the core or the essence of what they provide to a college admissions office.
Harry Brighouse 26:12
So I think you were part of the team at DePaul, which decided to go test optional, I think it was around 2011.
Jon Boeckenstedt 26:25
Harry Brighouse 26:25
And so why did you do that? And what difference did it make?
Jon Boeckenstedt 26:30
Well it’s a long story, but I’ll boil it down to a specific instance that that happened. I think, you know, Brian Spittle, you may know a Brian Spittle who ran our TRIO programs and the Center for Access and Attainment. I was in my office one day, and Brian comes in with a file of a student from Madame Curie High School, which is an IB program on the south side of Chicago, and said, the high school counselor called me and said, We should have admitted this student. And, you know, when you’re in admissions or enrollment management, you hear stuff like that all the time, right? And I said, Well, that’s fine, Brian, but I have to remind you that the high school counselors don’t make admissions decisions at DePaul. And he said, Well, I saw I looked at the file, and the student had, you know, a 3.98 GPA or something like that. And but the AC T was if I remember, 14, or 13, or, you know, something really low, I mean, not a very good score. And it was clear that the students first language wasn’t English. And I said, you know, Brian, I’d be worried about this student. And, you know, getting into the class that she wanted to take and the program, I can’t remember what it was. And he said, Well, these students do fine here. I said, What do you mean? He said, Well, all the research we’ve done suggests that she’s going to do fine. And I said, what research and so he scurried back into his office and brought binders of research in and said, this research, the IB students from the City of Chicago Public Schools graduate at the same rate, as our general student population, even though their test scores are abysmal. And it was like, you know, Emily Dickinson when she said, she read a good poem, and she feels like the top of her head has been taken off. I just looking through this stuff, and I couldn’t believe it. And I was never a big fan of the test. But I thought they were, you know, fairly important in the process.
Jon Boeckenstedt 28:38
And so we conducted some more research and showed that, really, the SAT and ACT were kind of unimportant, I mean, really not instructive as we make the admissions decisions, at least at DePaul. And the most important thing we had in the folder was the strength of the curriculum the student was in and their grade point average. And that was it. That was the thing that determined whether or not you were going to be successful. And nothing that we had in the folder determined whether a student was likely to graduate. I mean, it was it was almost random, in some sense, really high ability students wouldn’t graduate really low ability students in the class, classic definition. Really low ability students would graduate. So we started the process. We came to the conclusions. We ran through faculty, the committee on academic policies, we went to the Faculty Senate. And fortunately, we were first on the agenda. And the second thing on the agenda was a 10 year battle between the provost and one of the departments and the faculty didn’t…they voted us through, like in 15 seconds, right. They wanted to get their hooks into the provost. And so the rest is they say is history and it’s been it was a very successful program at DePaul. So the patterns of enrollment change significantly after that. Yeah, we saw, um, well, so. So let me back up. You know, the public has been persuaded that the test means something, right. In the first year of test optional, the market will hear you say test optional, and will think that you’re saying ability optional. And so there was there was a very low income high school in the city of Chicago, where we had enrolled maybe one or two students in the past five years, it just wasn’t some place that sent a lot of students to DePaul. And that first year, we got 54 applications from that high school, because the counselor essentially thought, well, you’re open admissions now, right.
Jon Boeckenstedt 30:54
So, part of the problem going test, optional is managing that, understanding that expectation, but I’ve I’ve produced on my blog, and several other places, screenshots of the student body diversity, the policies, we went test optional. And while some of it is explained, just by demographics, much more of it is explained by the fact that students who don’t feel constrained by a test score are now free to apply. And they probably wouldn’t have in prior years. That’s the biggest difference. It it, frankly, at DePaul, you know, moderately selective institution. It didn’t fundamentally change who we were admitting. But it did change who was applying. And I think that’s the the thing that people overlook when they think about test optional, you’re still admitting good students who can do the work is that you’re not judging them on those scores, which don’t tell us much anyway.
Harry Brighouse 31:55
So I was going to ask about what difference test optionality makes to the applicant. And you know, I mean, very anecdotally, I’ve discovered, I mean, a student actually, who recently was admitted to DePaul, I’m sorry to say she didn’t decide to go there. But she’s the sister of a student of mine. And the fact that schools were test optional, made a difference to whether she applied to them. She had a relatively low test score. And it made her anxious, you know?
Jon Boeckenstedt 32:35
Yeah, I think, um, you know, it really spans the gamut. So, so a colleague of mine, heard her daughter went to New Trier High School on the North Shore, and it’s the most affluent public high school in the Chicago area, and was highly distressed, because she could only crack a 29. When her friends and peers and people in our class, we’re bragging about 30, twos and 30, threes and 30 fours on the ACT. And she thought of herself as a failure. And literally, because of a score of 29, which I think is about the 95th percentile, nationally, top 5%. And other students that other schools, you know, would kill for 26 or 25, depending on the competition. And I think maybe rightfully so, students believe that that test in high school is sort of tattooed on their forehead for the rest of their lives. And, you know, we know for a fact that there are big consulting firms that are asking students for their LSAT scores, after they’ve graduated from college, you know, a completely inappropriate use of a standardized test. And we know, I mean, I’ve met a few of them, people who are 50 years old and still bragging about their LSAT scores. Right. And so the power that these tests hold on our public, intellectual discourse is really profound. I remind people all the time, that the College Board and ACT are not government agencies. They’re not appointed by anybody. We didn’t vote for them. They’re simply private companies who have created some hocus pocus, magic college admissions tests that they’ve done a really good job of selling to the public. And, and it’s fraught with problems. And people overlook that because they get this number that tells them whether they’re worthy or not. And you know, it’s something we all I mean, I wish we had that much clarity in real life, but we just don’t, and this test scores certainly don’t provide that.
Jon Boeckenstedt 34:58
I know that for various reasons, including COVID, but there are other things also going on, people in your position are expecting a lot of unpredictability in this current round. I mean, I know that I know, I imagine you’re expecting, you know, strange patterns of summer melts in different situations. And I imagine that you probably think things are going to be somewhat unpredictable next year. But with COVID, a lot of schools when test optional very quickly, it sort of happened sort of very quickly last year, and then again, this year sort of seems to have stabilized some. And so I want to ask you, not about the next couple of years, but I want to invite you to imagine that the schools that have gone test optional status test optional, and maybe some more join them. And we’re five years down the line. So in five years’ time, 2026-27. How different will enrollment patterns at different institutions look, than they would have looked? If nobody had gone? Or, you know, if no new schools have gone test optional in the last year and a half?
Jon Boeckenstedt 36:22
Yeah, it’s a that’s a great question. And I wish I knew the answer, but I can, I can make some guesses. You’re right about this year. And next year, it’s a time of profound lack of clarity for those who do my job. And I actually wrote a piece in The Chronicle of Higher Education called “Flying Blind,” which talked about how everything we use to try to predict student behavior, because we want to know how many students are going to enroll in the fall is is completely worthless this year, we’re just sort of flying by the seat of our pants, literally. But if we look five years into the future, and let’s say there are no test or the value, the the penetration of the test in the secondary schools is greatly diminished, I think there are some really good things that could become of it. The first, of course, is that students who might have scored lower on the standardized test are not dissuaded from pursuing an application to the unit of college or university they want to go to, the one that they think might be the perfect fit for them.
Jon Boeckenstedt 37:36
Secondly, I think colleges will largely be freed from the constraints of having someone looking over their shoulder at that number that they have to provide every fall. And a friend of mine, a colleague at a very highly selective institution, said that I remember this, like it was yesterday, he had an application from an African American woman who scored a 1290 on the LSAT, and he had to take anything under 1300 to the Dean of Admissions. And the dean of admissions would not allow that student to be admitted, because she was a 1290 rather than a 1300. Everything else in the file was great. And that Dean was very much concerned about what happens to average scores if you start admitting students, and what does the public think if your average score drops? And what does the faculty think? If that score goes down, nevermind, the fact that one student can’t affect an average in a class, never mind that the standard error of measure on those tests is 30, or 40, or 60 points, I think it’s 30 points on each section on the LSAT. So So 1290 is exactly the same thing as the 1300. You know, colleges and people in my role at those super selective places, or Ezekiel Bello says the highly rejected places, live and die by those numbers. And so, I think colleges will be freed to admit students who are the kind of students they would really like to have in their class. Not the not the excellent sheep, as Deresiewicz wrote about not, you know, not the was it was a George Eliot or George Dickens, I think I read about Gradgrind, you know, we studied that and, and you know, the grad grind, right? And my professor said, Well, you stalk about Gradgrinds in grad school all the time. And then finally, I think if the LSAT or ACT is not available, you will see a dramatic shift away from colleges chasing those high scores, and instead pursuing students who have done everything they possibly can in their school. So let’s take the SAT and the ACT out of merit award funding for a minute and see what happens. And it it has the potential to completely upset everything we do. But it also has the potential to affect a lot of good and directing aid to students who need it, as opposed to students who believe they deserve it. In about five years, I’ll probably be very close to retiring. But I really and honestly and sincerely hope that the loss of the ACT and LSAT as a major factor in college admissions will be mostly good. And of course, California is the one driving a lot of this discussion right now.
Harry Brighouse 40:51
Harry Brighouse 40:53
I wasn’t going to ask you about this. But now Now I want to. The public, and by the public, I think I just mean, you know, the kind of people who send their children to selective institutions. And, you know, journalists seem to pay quite a lot of attention to the US News rankings. And one thing that irritates me about, I know that you will have other things that irritate you about the US News rankings, one things. One of the many things that irritates me is that there’s a lot of focus on your side of the institution and very little focus on my side, like there’s a lot of attention to the learning that happens. And of course, I think that’s terrible because it affects the incentives to make learning happen. Like if I’m not, I’m not saying that ranking systems could ever be that great. But you know, at least if we looked at learning, which is what actually matters, my impression, and I might be completely wrong, and as you know, I I spend some time with people who work on your side of the equation, my impression is that many of you are quite skeptical and cynical of the US News rankings and find it a constraint on your effectiveness that you are bound, you know, often bound by the fact that your leaderships want you to maintain their standing in the rankings. Will just completely mess up the rankings?
Jon Boeckenstedt 42:41
I don’t know the answer to that. I don’t know what goes on in the head of Bob Morris as he ponders these big questions every year. My favorite story about the rankings was the year that Caltech came out first in the rankings, and no one bought the magazine. And therefore the ranking criteria and weighting index was changed next year to ensure either Harvard or Princeton, or Stanford, or Yale came out on top. You know, I thought that really said everything that you need to know about the rankings. And as much as people in academia like to curse or diss Malcolm Gladwell, he did write a great article about college rankings in the New Yorker, which pointed out that Yeshiva University in New York was 55 and Penn State was 56 in the national rankings. And of course, you couldn’t have two institutions, more different from each other, next to each other in the rankings. So moving from one to another was somehow significant in the rankings, but not in all the other things in the ways that they’re different. So my feelings about the rankings, although you didn’t ask this are sort of ambivalent. O n one hand. They’re merely doing what colleges have refused to do for a long time, which is to be transparent, and to talk about what we do and how we do it. And effectively, essentially, to talk about what’s the value that we add to students in the process, you know, the National Survey of Student Engagement, they tried to get at that a little bit. But you know, it wasn’t really widely accepted and didn’t take off. But think of a 17 year old who’s going through this process for one time, for the first time, the only time and who has been persuaded that this is the most important decision you’ll ever make in their life and they had better get it right. You’re going to rely on every source of information that you can, I think, to try to give you some assurances that you’re not making a stupid decision. And while I don’t think anybody–Well, I won’t say that. There is a small percentage of people who will take the rankings as gospel and think there really is a difference between two and three, and you have to go to the highest rank institution you possibly can. But I think most people use them as sort of a one piece of information among many. And of course, you know, I’ve blogged and posted before about, there have been rankings since 1911 in this country, and I have the Chicago Defender rankings from 1957. And to no one’s surprise, they’re largely the same institutions that are ranked in the top 10 or 15 right now. You know, they’ve always been with us, and they always will be with us and, and free enterprise and capitalism and God bless America. That’s how things work in this country, isn’t it?
Harry Brighouse 45:52
That’s right. I’m gonna ask a final question that I didn’t give you warning of, because I didn’t think of it. But I now have sorted it. And you can answer if you don’t want to, it’s fine. But if you were talking just to faculty, and you were talking from your institutional position as Vice Provost of Enrollment Management, what would you want them to know about the contribution you made to the institution or your team does? And what would you want them to know about the student body?
Jon Boeckenstedt 46:33
The first question, I would say, I would like faculty to understand that we work in thirds. And in in New Student Recruitment, I talk about the three thirds, a third of the students that you enroll each year, are going to enroll no matter what you do, you could shut down the admissions office, you can treat them rudely. They are committed to you and to your brand. And they’re coming regardless of what you do. A third of the students will enroll if you do most things right in the process, and you don’t spell their name wrong when they visit campus, or you don’t mess up something fundamental to the experience or, you know, there’s nothing horrible that happens on the campus visit. But it’s that last third of the students, where universities rely on that revenue to make their margins and to pay faculty and to heat the buildings and cut the grass and do all the things that a university does, that you really pay admissions and recruitment for. And you pay people like me to ensure that those students can afford it, that they can be persuaded to enroll that, you know, the biggest, we spend 90% of our time on that last third of students. And so that’s the value. If you shut us down, you would still have students enrolling in the fall, they might not be as many, they certainly wouldn’t be as many, and they might not be of the quality or caliber that you would expect. And now I forgotten the second part of your question. And the second question is, what would you want them to know about the student body? Oh, um, well, first of all, I encourage faculty to do a really strange thing, to look at our website, and to see how much the university costs in a year. Because I gather, if you walked around the philosophy or the mechanical engineering department, especially if you talk to professors who, who might not teach a lot of undergraduates, and just ask them what was tuition for an undergraduate, a lot of them would be wholly incapable of answering that question. And, and to be completely disassociated from that and to understand that, you know, for us at Oregon State, tuition, depending on how many credits you take is probably about $15,000 a year. And room and board is another 12,000 that we’re asking students whose families make $20,000 a year to buy something that costs $27,000 a year. And to think about the commitment and how hard that is, and what an extraordinary reach it is for the bottom 30% of your students socio economically. I think I think there would be a different approach and a different understanding about how we all do our jobs and what’s important and what we should be paying attention to the financial strain on students, Sara Goldrick-Raab at Temple has done a lot of work on food insecurity. And people are shocked when they hear that there are students, college students in America who can afford to buy food. Right? And they’re doing this because they believe as most of us do, that a college education is worth it and you know, it breaks your heart sometimes. And I wish they knew more of those individual student stories and, and the sacrifices that students make to get the education that they’re offering.
Harry Brighouse 50:12
Great. I also wish people knew that and I wish they knew, I mean, I wish people knew the students themselves more. It really is incredibly moving actually, sometimes when you see the amount of work that somebody puts into just staying in school, and not doing especially well in school, because of the work they’re putting into it.
Jon Boeckenstedt 50:37
You know, it’s the degree. I mean, if you’re going to apply to medical school at Yale, it certainly is your grade point. But for large numbers of students, that really is the degree that’s the line that they need to cross. And that makes all the difference. I mean, it makes a difference in who repays student loans in this country. For instance, most of the defaults are for students that don’t graduate. And so anything, the idea of retention studies or retention efforts are wildly inflated, and overblown, but for everything we can do to help students cross that line. We’re all better for it.
Jon Boeckenstedt 51:22
This wasn’t as bad as I thought it was going to be here.
Harry Brighouse 51:24
Good. Well, I’m glad. It shouldn’t have been.
Jon Boeckenstedt 51:29
Yeah, it’s it was very enjoyable. I appreciate it. And I’m honored to be on this. I will be eager to see what the reaction people have to it is.
Harry Brighouse 51:38
Yeah, thanks. No, I mean, I’ve really enjoyed it. I mean, it felt a little bit self indulgent because I felt I just got answers to a lot of the questions that I have, that I just have for you. But I think it will be really valuable.
Carrie Welsh 51:58
Thanks for listening. You can learn more about Jon’s work from the links in the show notes. And keep listening for the rest of the series on higher ed.