That’s risky. Stepping away from reality can get you in trouble. Some of Selingo’s proposals don’t work for me, but several others are compelling. They are worth considering at a time when our colleges and universities have been knocked askew by the pandemic. Even the most prestigious — and thus the most rigid — institutions of higher learning might consider serious reform to get back on their feet.
Here are some of Selingo’s best ideas:
1. Colleges should disclose their needs for certain kinds of applicants.
If a college is looking for “five specific zip codes in Florida, or for students who want to major in history, or for those interested in Catholic colleges,” they should say so, Selingo says.
That makes sense. Admission office perspectives have some odd twists. When my daughter was an 11th-grader in love with a certain Southern California college, her counselor sadly informed her that the campus of her dreams tended to reject students from the Washington area for fear their parents wouldn’t let them go that far from home. My daughter, my wife and I told him we had all been born less than 50 miles from that college. We were sun-loving California chauvinists. He said he could work with that. A little more data from the college on its admission patterns might have helped.
2. Colleges should reveal what they charge students of varying family incomes and academic credentials.
Discounts are common is college recruiting. But colleges fear they will weaken their bargaining power if they reveal how low they might go. Selingo recommends a searchable database to provide at least some clues.
3. Colleges should discourage listing every extracurricular activity and have applicants focus on just their deepest interests.
Selingo notes that fewer than 15 percent of colleges think application essays, counselor and teacher recommendations, and extracurricular activities are of considerable importance. That is true for most colleges, but the big brand names rely heavily on those factors.
I spent 20 years as a volunteer alumni recruiter. Each year, we picked the applicants we thought our selective alma mater would like best, emphasizing what we knew the admission office wanted. Extracurriculars were important tiebreakers. In our discussions, we gave candidates weird labels, like the ballet-dancing third baseman or the cheerleading pastry cook. Two big activities will do for schools like that.
4. Colleges should build more dorms and open more campuses.
Selingo shares my view that prestigious schools should stop celebrating their rejection of nearly every applicant and offer their gifts to more young people. I have suggested a Princeton campus at Pismo Beach or a Cornell in Corpus Christi.
Selingo has researched the issue much more deeply than I have. I was surprised when he revealed that in Canada, “the three most-prominent universities — the University of Toronto, McGill University and the University of British Columbia — enroll nearly 150,000 undergraduates.” That’s more students than the top 18 U.S. universities in the U.S. News & World Report rankings combined.
Selingo rightly urges more creativity in university planning offices. They could learn something from the pandemic, rather than just wail and bemoan their fate. I think if they found better ways to do online courses, for instance, they might expand their admit lists without adding more lecture halls.
Is it crass to discuss money at academic institutions older than our country? Selingo convinces me the answer is no. He recommends colleges respond to their financial problems with fresh thinking.
Colleges demand that applicants show how resourceful and thoughtful they are. Selingo suggests university presidents and deans apply those same standards to themselves. Until now, our higher education system has been the envy of the world. It should shake off its gloom and start fantasizing. Pioneering initiatives have the best chance in times of crisis, like this one.