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Showing stingy Ivies how to become less selective but much better

A cyclist crosses an intersection on the campus of Arizona State University on Tuesday, Sept. 1, 2020, in Tempe, Ariz. (AP Photo/Matt York)
A cyclist crosses an intersection on the campus of Arizona State University on Tuesday, Sept. 1, 2020, in Tempe, Ariz. (AP Photo/Matt York)

Michael M. Crow is the mad scientist of magnifying college matriculation. He wants our most renowned colleges to admit NOT just the top 5 to 10 percent of applicants, as usually happens, but the top 25 to 30 percent, at least.

Crow then wants to strengthen the academic muscles of that larger group with more advisers, tutors and courses that prepare students for careers in much-prized specialties that, not coincidentally, pay better.

My first reaction to the new book Crow co-wrote with historian William B. Dabars, “The Fifth Wave: The Evolution of American Higher Education,” was that this was a pipe dream. I receive many requests to write about visionary proposals. My response is: Get back to me when it’s working in real schools.

But as president of one of our largest and most innovative universities, Arizona State, Crow has had some remarkable results. By this fall, the pandemic should be receding. Across the nation, students will be freed from more than a year’s imprisonment with their parents. Amid those happy changes, offbeat ideas like Crow’s might spread.

Ivy League schools earn their prestige mostly by admitting as small a portion of applicants as possible. This year, in part because of the suspension of entrance tests like the SAT or ACT, their admission rates are likely to plummet further. Applications to Harvard are up 42 percent this season, with its acceptance rate possibly going below 4 percent.

My solution to this stingy approach is to apply standard business practices. When companies have that much unfulfilled demand, they expand. Why don’t our most prestigious colleges franchise themselves? We could have Princeton in Pittsburgh, Paducah and Pismo Beach, or Yale in Yakima, Yarmouth and Yreka.

I’m joking. As Crow and Dabars explain in their book, universities need to expand in ways that enhance not just the marketing of their brands, but also their diversity, depth and innovation.

Franchising the Ivy League: How about Yale at Yreka?

Celebrated policy wonk Oren Cass breaks high school students into approximate fifths in his 2018 book, “The Once and Future Worker: A Vision for the Renewal of Work in America.” One-fifth fail to receive a diploma. One-fifth get a diploma but do not proceed to college. One-fifth enroll in college but don’t graduate. One-fifth complete some level of college but take a job that doesn’t require a degree. Only the remaining one-fifth realize the dream of graduating college and launching a career based on what they learned.

Crow and Dabars argue that most universities are blowing their chance to give more students the knowledge and thinking skills that lead to professional success. “Mere access to standardized forms of instruction decoupled from discovery and knowledge production will not deliver desired societal outcomes,” the authors said.

“College is not for everyone,” they said, “but if our nation is to remain competitive in the global knowledge economy, our society must begin in earnest to build a higher education infrastructure proportionate to the task.” The authors recommend more “interaction of students with scientists and scholars working on the frontiers of discovery.” They also want “opportunities for lifelong learning to more than half the population.”

That risks lower graduation rates. So universities, they said, will have to assume “responsibility for the success of each student” and reconfigure “the delivery of content through adaptive learning and other technology-enabled strategies.” Universities taking that approach “will likely scale up to include twice as many students as are currently enrolled, producing three to five times as many graduates, and serving more than ten times the number of engaged learners” through online and other devices.

Dear Lori Loughlin and Felicity Huffman: You wasted your money

You may be thinking: yeah, sure. But Arizona State has some interesting data. From 2002 — when Crow took over — to 2019, non-White enrollment jumped 310 percent, from 11,487 to 47,104 (which is 39 percent of total students). The number of Black undergraduates went up 262 percent, the number of Hispanic undergraduates up 338 percent and the number of Asian undergraduates up 193 percent.

The school’s four-year graduation rate has risen from 28.4 percent to 53.9 percent during Crow’s tenure, even though the number of students has soared. The university had about 38,000 undergraduates in 2002. In 2020, it had about 102,000.

Arizona State ranks sixth among 747 universities without medical schools in total research expenditures, ahead of Caltech, Princeton and Carnegie Mellon. It offers free online courses and transferrable credits to students in nearly every country in the world. It has cut deals with companies to enhance depth and relevance of instruction or, in the case of Starbucks, to offer tuition-free enrollment for employees.

Arizona State admits anyone who meets the requirements set by its regents. Since 2007, it has cut the time it takes to decide on an applicant from two weeks to 24 hours. Once students are admitted, the university helps them find financial aid and promises they will be able to afford to attend whatever their financial situation.

Special courses for new Arizona State students are designed to enhance their learning and study skills. Mentors recruited from the junior and senior classes are ready to help. Freshmen arriving with low SAT scores and high school grade point averages can take seminars to work on critical reasoning, reading, communication, emotional intelligence, teamwork and time management. One study showed the first-semester grade point averages of at-risk students at the school increased from 2.4 to 3.3.

Once the pandemic ends, students will again be meeting with advisers both in person and online. Adaptive courseware allows them to learn at different speeds. Data shows the courseware increased success rates in math from 66 percent in 2009 to 85 percent in 2015.

Most of this information comes from Arizona State. We need to know more about how well this approach works. But something unusual is happening there and at a few other large universities with similar ambitions.

Perhaps even our most prestigious schools could welcome more freshmen and work harder to prepare each for the demands of high-level thought and research. At the moment they are spending money on elaborate procedures to make their admission rates infinitesimal, and thus guarantee high rankings. Why not devote those resources instead to making more students better?

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