12 February 2011

Admission: Philosophy and Some Numbers

Stephen Kershnar
A Philosophy of Admissions
Dunkirk-Fredonia Observer
February 7, 2011

An interesting issue concerns who should be admitted to different state colleges. As background, let’s consider some of SUNY-Fredonia’s numbers. Full disclosure: I’m a professor there and every semester I have outstanding students who would stand out in any college.

Fewer people are applying to SUNY-Fredonia than in years past. The college might have to raise its acceptance rate in order to keep enrollment high. On one estimate, the percentage might go from 50% in 2009 to 55% this year. This does not appear to be a big deal. It will merely return the acceptance rate to roughly the level it was in the recent past (2005-2007). Furthermore, President Dennis Hefner states that this has not reduced the applicants’ quality.

The overall pattern of competitiveness of admitted students appears to have leveled off. In the past five years (2005-2009), the SATs are about in the middle of a narrow 1104-1120 range and roughly half of the students come from the top quarter of their class. This last figure is impressive. This number does not include the disadvantaged students (Educational Development Program and Full Opportunity Program) who are not part of these numbers. It is a disturbing that colleges take some students off the books as if they weren’t on campus. This type of accounting gimmick would get a private business in hot soup. However, given that other colleges are also keeping two sets of books, this is needed for clear comparisons.

According to the 2009 University Fact Book, the six-year graduation rate is holding steady around (roughly 63%) for 1999-2003. For freshmen, the four-year graduation rate is dropping noticeably. Recently, it has dropped about 10% (from 49% in 1999 to 44% in 2005). I don’t know why.

The minority graduation rate is a matter of concern. From 1999 to 2005, on average 28% of freshmen minorities graduated in four years. That is, roughly only 3 out of 4 minority freshmen at Fredonia fail to graduate in four years. The six-year graduation rate is better (averaging roughly 43% from 1999-2003). However, when over half fail to graduate from Fredonia in 6 years, this is not great news. It is unclear if such students merely fail to finish at Fredonia or do not finish anywhere. The number of minorities doubled in the last decade (2000-2009) and minorities now comprise roughly 8% of the undergraduates. Hence, this concern is not going away anytime soon.

Fredonia’s ranking among competitor schools is interesting. Leaving aside Cornell (a wealthy public-private hybrid), Fredonia is ranked 12th among SUNY colleges and university-centers by SATs. If we focus on SATs among SUNY-colleges (SUNY-schools with less extensive graduate programs), it ranks 6th. Here ranking is done via the SATs of the middle 50% of students. It ranks lower than Geneseo, New Paltz, Purchase, Cortland, and Oswego, but higher than Brockport, Buffalo State, Oneonta and four others. Because this pattern is similar with regard to ACT scores and high school GPA (exception: Purchase students have a lower GPA), this ranking, at least with regard to the middle 50% of students, appears to be accurate.

Aside from Geneseo (1290-1380) and New Paltz (1100-1300), which are significantly ahead, Fredonia is competitive with the schools that it ranks behind. Also, the pattern changes over time. Fredonia had higher scores (average SAT score of entering freshmen) than New Paltz, Purchase, and Cortland as recently as 1990 and higher scores than Geneseo if one goes back to 1978. Oswego has also been dropping back, while New Paltz has surged ahead.

According to a noteworthy business ranking, Fredonia does about as well as its admissions ranking, although the schools ranked above and below it do not always track student ability. According to Kiplinger’s ranking of the best values in public colleges, Fredonia is 6th among SUNY colleges behind the usual suspects (Geneseo and New Paltz), but also behind some schools compared to which it has smarter students (Brockport and Oneonta). It has a slightly higher graduation rate than several of its closest competitors, but gives out less non-need-based aid.

Its average graduates don’t do as well financially as a number of its competitors. According to a 2008 article in The Wall Street Journal, the average mid-career Fredonia graduate (specifically mid-career median salary) makes roughly $66,000 per year. This is less than several of the competitor schools (for example, Farmingdale/$84,000, Geneseo/$81,000, Oswego/$78,000, Oneonta/$77,000, Plattsburgh $76,000, and Potsdam/$70,000) and much less than graduates of the university-centers (for example, Albany/$92,000, Stony Brook/$93,000 and University of Buffalo/$82,000). My guess is that the difference is at least in part the result of regional effects and the fact that Fredonia puts so many people into moderately paid fields such as teaching.

One interesting issue is whether a college (for example, Fredonia) should pursue higher admissions standards. Higher-admissions standards likely produce a more intellectually invigorating atmosphere, especially in the classroom, and might help recruiting. On the other hand, higher standards also result in fewer opportunities for marginal students. Students from poorer and less educated families are especially likely to denied entrance. Given that state colleges are funded by state taxpayers and that the smartest students are, on average, more likely to get loans and to pay them off, it is not clear why the admissions bar should be raised. The moral argument is unclear. Selfish professors (for example, Kershnar) would prefer it, but this is not a good reason for the taxpayers to do it.

A second issue is whether an individual college should pursue its own admission goals or whether the system as a whole should set the different admissions standards. Perhaps by allowing a few elite colleges (for example, Cornell, Binghamton, and Geneseo) to enroll most of the best students and having a few others (for example, Buffalo State, Old Westbury, and the community colleges) enroll less talented students, would bring about tracking-related benefits. This would allow professors to teach at a level that would reach most of their students and would reduce the problem of students mismatched to their school. The military sorts people by ability, including intelligence. It is unclear why SUNY as a whole shouldn’t do the same.

The SUNY colleges are already closing down some programs at some colleges (for example, computer science at Geneseo, Classics at Albany, and nursing at New Paltz). Presumably, other colleges will offer such programs and from a system-wide perspective, it is probably not cost-efficient for every college to offer every program.

A third issue is whether resources should be shifted to colleges that produce the graduates who make the most money. In a free market system, in general, income tracks the degree to which one person produces goods and services that others value. What explains why consumers are willing to pay more for some goods over others is that they value the former more. The money-test is less clear when it comes to government providers and those whose actions have effects not reflected in the marketplace (specifically, those whose actions have externalities). Still, this might be a way of ranking colleges according to what their graduates contribute to others.

In the absence of a philosophy of admissions to state colleges, our approaches to these issues will at best be a piecemeal approach that squanders public dollars.

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