23 February 2017

Should the State University of New York at Fredonia raise or lower its admission standard?

Stephen Kershnar
At the Crossroads: The State University of New York at Fredonia
Dunkirk-Fredonia Observer
February 19, 2017

            The State University of New York at Fredonia has declining enrollment and it faces a decision. It can emphasize student quality or quantity and shape its identity in so doing.

Fredonia has had at least 5,000 students per year and usually more than 5,300 students from 2000-2013 (roughly, 5,100 in 2000 and 5,800 in 2010). After that the student body has been getting smaller. It was down to roughly 4600 students in 2016 and will likely be noticeably below that in 2017.

The percentage of freshmen in the bottom half of their high school class has also increased over the years from 9% in 2000 and 12% in 2010 to 17% in 2015. On the other hand, there has been an increase in the strongest freshmen (top 10% of their high school class) from 15% in 2000 and 16% in 2010 to 19% in 2015. Thus, the average freshman appears to be losing ground in the sense that she is less likely to be in the top half of her class. Still, the school is attracting more of the strongest freshman, at least as a percentage. The freshmen numbers can mislead though because, at least until recently, they did not include disadvantaged students (Educational Development Program and Full Opportunity Program). If these students were included, the numbers would likely be worse.   

Along the way, the quality of Fredonia’s students relative to its competitors has declined. Its SAT range (25% and 75% percentiles) has its students tied with SUNY-Purchase for 8th. It ranks below competitor schools such as Brockport, Cortland, Geneseo, New Paltz, Oneonta, and Oswego. It is also behind the university centers (consider, for example, Albany, Binghamton, Buffalo, and Stony Brook). It does, however, rank ahead of competitor schools such as Buffalo State, Old Westbury, and Plattsburgh. The SAT is a moderately good predictor of grades and its predictive power increases when combined with high school grade point average.

Whether Fredonia is diverse depends on the type of diversity in which one is interested. On average, it is a school for students from New York’s upper middle class. More specifically, the undergraduate population is mostly from New York (96%), heavily white (75-80%), and majority female (57%).

Fredonia’s student body tends to come from the upper middle class with a median family income of $97,000 and with 4 out of 10 coming from the top 20% of family incomes (2013 numbers from The New York Times). Nearly, 1 out of 6 students comes from the top 10% of incomes, but almost none (less than 1%) come from very rich families (top 1%). These families do better than the average family in Western New York. In 2015, the median household income of Western New York was $57,000.  

Surprisingly few of Fredonia’s students come from poor families. Only 5% come from a poor family (income from the bottom 20%). So while 20-25% of its students are racially or ethnically diverse, far fewer are from poor families. 

In different ways, Fredonia’s elite competitors, Geneseo and Buffalo, have similar profiles. Geneseo is similar in being 60% female and 79% white. However, on average, its students come from richer families (median family income: $125,000). Buffalo’s undergraduate students on average come from families who make about the same as do the families of Fredonia students (median income $99,000), but it is majority male (56%) and much less white (50% white) than Fredonia or Geneseo.  

Faced with declining enrollment and a slight drop in the ability of the average student, Fredonia has to decide what to do. It could change its admissions standards. If the standards are lowered, then the school will have more students, which will allow it to offer more programs and hire more faculty and staff. On the other hand, the cost to the school’s reputation might be significant. This could be costly if this were to make it more difficult to attract students, especially better students, or if it were to lower faculty morale. Also, the caliber of education might worsen if the quality of students’ education is affected by their classmates’ ability. If the school were to raise standards, this could have the opposite effect on enrollment, number of programs, reputation, morale, and, perhaps, learning.

Before deciding what to do with admissions, it is worth considering what justifies Fredonia’s existence? Because it is a state school, Fredonia is in part funded by coercively obtained tax dollars, sometimes taken from taxpayers who make less than families who send their kids there. This makes it important that the school’s justification be made clear.

If what justifies Fredonia is that it provides equal opportunity, then the school should be focusing on increasing the number of students from poor or otherwise disadvantaged families. The idea here that students from upper middle class and richer families will have plenty of educational opportunity without Fredonia and its peers. Increasing the focus on disadvantaged students might be done, for example, by shifting resources to the programs for disadvantaged students. It also might be done by emphasizing programs that serve the disadvantaged. Consider, for example, education, social work, and criminal justice. Another way this might be done is by shifting merit-based scholarships to need-based ones.   

Alternatively, if the school is justified by its economic contribution to New Yorkers, then it is less clear that resources should be spent on disadvantaged students. Both a student’s SAT scores and her family’s socio-economic status affect her graduation rate. As Jason DeParle reported in The New York Times, among those college students whose families were in the bottom half of income distribution and who had below-average test scores, fewer than one in ten graduated from college. If the state wants a good return on its investment, those students should not be the focus of the state’s efforts.   

Fredonia’s mission will get even murkier if, as Governor Cuomo proposes, the state makes college tuition-free for most students. It is unclear whether spending even more taxpayer dollars should move the school in an equal-opportunity direction or economic direction.

Perhaps the first step then in deciding what to do with Fredonia’s admissions standards is to decide what justifies it. 

No comments: