Will Dartmouth figure out big applicant drop?

February 23

If there were a prize this year for cluelessness in American higher education, it would go to Dartmouth College. That fine Ivy League institution has a brilliant faculty, terrific students and a lovely New Hampshire campus, yet seems unable to realize how ignoring high school students’ hard work and financial needs has hurt its reputation.

A year ago, the Dartmouth faculty, without considering any research, voted to deny college credit to students who got good scores on high school college-level exams such as Advanced Placement, International Baccalaureate and the Advanced International Certificate of Education. They decided, apparently based on nothing more than their own high opinion of themselves, that college courses taught by high school teachers could not match the erudition of Dartmouth professors, even though those allegedly inadequate high school instructors had more demonstrated success than they did in teaching introductory college courses to teenagers.

There’s been a backlash, but Dartmouth again seems unaware. Applications for the class of 2018, the first to be affected by the new rule, are down 14 percent. That is the biggest decline in 21 years. In its news release, Dartmouth officials speculated that a national population drop in that age group might explain it. Yet no other Ivy League school has experienced such a sharp decline in applications. There was a veiled reference to last year’s uproar over sexual harassment on the Dartmouth campus, but Cornell had a similar problem and seems not to have suffered a similar decrease in applications.

The news release made no mention of Dartmouth’s decision to be the only Ivy to drop all credit for AP, IB and AICE. The trend nationally is in the opposite direction. More high schools are adding the programs. More college credit is being given. Since 2003, the number of students taking AP exams has increased 95 percent. The number of students passing at least one AP exam has increased 83 percent. Success on IB and AICE exams also has increased, despite the three programs’ exams being the toughest in American schools and being written and graded by outside experts so they can’t be dumbed down.

The Dartmouth faculty members don’t seem to care. Nor have they shown any interest in relevant research, an odd attitude for scholars. The chair of the Dartmouth faculty committee that proposed the change told me he did not know of studies showing that students at selective colleges, including Dartmouth, who scored well enough on AP exams to get college credit did better in the next level course than students who had taken the colleges’ introductory course.


Students walk across the green at Dartmouth College. (Toby Talbot/Associated Press)

Elite colleges these days say they are concerned about getting more low-income students on their campuses. One way to do that is to offer credit for college work done in high school so that disadvantaged students can save money and get their degrees on time. That is one reason why the number of low-income students taking AP exams has increased 372 percent since 2003.

Some might suggest that this is just a battle between two rich, prestigious nonprofit entities, Dartmouth and the College Board, which sponsors AP. But note that the nation’s AP teachers and students are on the College Board’s side, and that the College Board, unlike Dartmouth, has data in its favor. A College Board survey last year of students who sent AP or SAT scores to Dartmouth and other Ivies found that two-thirds said they were more likely to enroll in a college that gave credit for AP, and they thought AP was important in managing college costs.

Dartmouth said its survey of students who didn’t apply after visiting the campus or sending scores showed the AP policy change had little impact. But it’s likely that many students never visited or sent scores precisely because of the change. They were wiser than the Dartmouth faculty. It’s time to discard this thoughtless policy.

Jay Mathews is an education columnist and blogger for the Washington Post, his employer for 40 years.
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