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April 15, 2004

Jenny Rickard (Admissions)
Information, Meaning, and Noise in College Admissions

Prepared by Anne Dalke
Additions, revisions, extensions are encouraged in the Forum

Jenny, who is Dean of Undergraduate Admissions and Financial Aid at Bryn Mawr, invited a discussion by reviewing perennial questions in college admissions:

  • What are all the sources of information about colleges?
  • What means the most to the prospective student?
  • What's the most important piece of information in a college application?)
--as well as recent headlines in admissions and financial aid:
  • What is the relevant information behind the controversy with early decision and early action?
  • What does Harvard's recent announcement regarding financial aid for students with family incomes below $40,000 really mean?
  • What do we mean by diversity in college admissions?

Jenny told us that, along w/ letters of admission to the class of '08, her office is engaged in mass-mailing information to a list of prospective students whose names we purchased from College Board. How to get them to open that packet, when they are now receiving so many from so many different colleges? There's not much research on this: they are more likely to open a package if they are already familiar w/ the institution mailing it, if it has a stamp on it....they are also more likely to open an e-mail than something sent through the postal system.

Jenny had just returned from trips to Chicago and New York, where she used various focus groups to try and discover what interests 17-year-olds. How can we communicate the Houghton Hepburn Initiative (for instance) in terms that intersect with their interests? What information is important to them, in selecting a college? ("What I know about it.") How do they go about getting that information? (One key seems to be "breaking into high schools," convincing guidance counselors that Bryn Mawr is a school that some of their students should consider). The students in the focus groups do not find U.S. News and World Report very helpful; they turn instead to more qualitative accounts, such as those supplied by the Princeton Review and the Fiske Guide.

The Admissions Office is afraid to stop the practice of mass mailing, because it is "so much of the culture of what we do," although the suggestion was made that we could "save that money: all the stuff we send does nothing." Prospective students can not possibly be reading it all (there were several testimonies from faculty members that their own college-age children had not read the stacks that piled up in their homes, were in fact derisive about all the paper wasted on them). Mention was also made of the work of Swarthmore Psychology Professor Barry Schwartz, whose recent book on The Paradox of Choice suggests that there is a tipping point, beyond which a large number of options paralyzes consumers, and actually prevents them from making a selection. There needs to be a large enough search space so that one can actually survey the choices available. It was also acknowledged that such information as is contained in mass mailings might well provide a good service for one particular population, that of first-generation college students. Might we cull our lists to target only those who might find such mailings useful? (This coming year the mailings will be reduced by 1/3; stay tuned for results....)

The clearest index to whether students will both apply to and enroll at Bryn Mawr is whether they have visited the school. So how do we get them to do so? Jenny consults constantly with the "17-year-old experts"; out of those conversations has come a commitment to "not be shy about who we are, and not to try to be who we are not." Our applicant pool is very self selecting: they know what Bryn Mawr is.

What then are the most important sources of information, for us, about our prospective students? The high school transcript "tells many stories," about the student, her school, and the community in which she lives. It tells us how consistent her academic performance has been, how challenging her selection of courses. The rest of the file rounds out that story: a graded writing sample gives us insight into what sort of instruction the student has received; the recommenations add additional information and context. Tipping our decision are always the transcript and the academic recommendations. An interesting question is whether or not to take into account any "outliers" (such as one recommendation that diverges from other accounts). This kind of judgement was also discussed extensively in some of our earlier conversations: how something is "noise only until we see--learn to distinguish--a pattern in it", and how "junk" might be understood simply as what we don't yet understand about the genome. In the language of our on-going conversation about "Information, Meaning and Noise," there is "a whole lot of noise in the application process," both in terms of what we are trying to tell students, and in what they are trying to tell us. The job of filtering out both "information that needs to be taken account of" and "noise that can be dismissed" can be a difficult one.

In response to questioning, Jenny admitted that a disproportionate amount of time is spent on "iffy ones," the students who are neither clearly admissable nor clearly not. Out of a pool of 1900, about 60 students were brought to the regular decision committee this year, and about 40 of those were admitted. (It was suggested that randomly assigning them "yes" or "no" votes would be much more efficient.) Jenny also explained to us the regression model used in "yield predictions": 120 pieces of information are entered into an algorithm that predicts whether or not a given student is likely to enroll here. Our statistics tell us that--as would be expected, since more highly ranked students are also being sought by a variety of our competitors--"the yield goes up as the rating goes down." Tufts University, which finds itself in sharp competition w/ its neighboring schools, actually uses "propensity to enroll" as one of its admissions criteria; their notion of "fit" becomes one of the factors they take into account when deciding whether or not to admit a prospective student.

The most excruciating part of the whole decision-making process, of course, is the matter of needs sensitivity. In light of that concern, Jenny explained Havard's newly reconceived financial aid package (in which families with an income less than $40,000 will receive all grant aid, and those with incomes less than $60,000 will also receive a more preferable package). This new package was designed to develop a more economically diverse student body; Harvard wants to increase its number of applicants in the lower income brackets. (SAT scores are of course at the heart of this initiative, since the one standard correlation to high scores is high family income.) Harvard's new package would affect 7% of their current student body; such a policy would affect 18% of ours. Granting that many public universities do a much better job at this, we are, among private schools, a leader in this area: 2 1/2 times as likely as Harvard to enroll students in the lower socio-economic brackets.

This sort of leadership is not without problems. As we have diversified our student body (in 2003, 59% of our students received grant aid), there has been concern about our rising discount rate ("discount rate" is a calculation arrived at by dividing "grant aid" by "tuition revenue"). There are lots of "finagling possibilities"--such as increasing the denominator in the equation--but none of them get to the central issue: preserving Bryn Mawr's financial health. When Jenny was hired, she was faced with "an impossible" request to "hit both numbers"; she found that, in order to reach the desired number of students, the discount rate had to be raised.

Jenny's take-home lessons for us were four:

  • the socio-economic diversity story is a great one for us to broadcast; we are providing more access than many private schools
  • campus visits are essential to recruiting students to come here, and faculty have important contributions to make, during those visits, in conveying who we are to prospective students
  • our goal is to "try to become the place where people will open the mail" we send them. We can't do that with outstanding performances in the NCAA; how do we want to distinguish ourselves?
  • Faculty members are warmly invited to join the Faculty Admissions Committee, which spends most of its time (not reading folders, but) setting policy: it is very interesting and satisfying work.

Our next meeting is Thursday, April 22, when Betsy Reese (Map Curator in the Collier Science Library) will invite us to consider "The Secret Life of Maps." Some questions to ponder:

  • Do cartographic maps serve various political, social and economic interests?
  • What is represented on a map and why?
  • Do a map maker's beliefs about the world influence what is portrayed on a map?

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