How Algorithms Are Changing Admissions

The Atlantic: “While few colleges follow the same admissions playbook, they are all taking their cues from the invisible array of algorithms that recommend music on Spotify, movies on Netflix, and books on Amazon. While colleges say the data help to target their marketing efforts, the new methods also explain why students with similar similar academic backgrounds now get varying degrees of outreach from colleges.”

Jeff Goff of Saint Louis University comments: “We needed to focus on finding students who would be a good fit. So when we looked at the demographics of the previous class, we wanted to not only look at the students who chose to enroll at the institution, but those who ended up succeeding and were satisfied. We wanted to know if we could replicate those students.”

“Since the university began to rely heavily on Big Data to drive its recruitment strategy, it has … enrolled five of the six largest freshmen classes in the university’s history. What’s more, the campus has increased its four-year graduation rate to 71 percent—up from 62 percent in 2010.”

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The Ivies Become Even More Selective

The Wall Street Journal: “Some of America’s most exclusive colleges have become even more exclusive. The eight members of the Ivy League on Thursday evening released details of which lucky young adults were selected to join their first-year classes come fall, and with just one exception they received more applications than the prior year. As most didn’t increase their class sizes, acceptance rates declined.”

“Harvard University topped the exclusivity chart with a 5.2% acceptance rate, as the school offered spots to 2,056 of a record 39,506 applicants. Columbia, Princeton, Brown, the University of Pennsylvania and Cornell also boasted their largest freshman applicant pools in history, and acceptance rates dropped to 5.8%, 6.1%, 8.3%, 9.2% and 12.5%, respectively. Dartmouth College was the only Ivy to see a decline in applications … it accepted slightly fewer students, so the admit rate declined to 10.4% from 10.5%.”

“Despite the ballooning application numbers and dwindling chances of being accepted, many admissions officials say they’re getting less elitist in at least some regards. For example, Harvard noted that about 15.1% of the students it admitted would be first-generation college students after a concerted effort to appeal to more such students whose parents didn’t attend college. At Princeton, that share was 18.9%, also amid a push to expand its student body’s socioeconomic diversity.”

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Rejection & The Art of Disappointment

The Wall Street Journal: “Claudia Vulliamy, of London, had several rounds of interviews and an overnight stay at Oxford University, where she wanted to study classics. While hopeful, she prepared herself for bad news, but was ‘quite disappointed’ when the letter from Oxford arrived saying she didn’t make it. She texted her mother, Louisa Saunders. When Ms. Saunders arrived home, she said Claudia was ‘relatively chipper.’ She had taken the Oxford letter and cut out key phrases— ‘after careful consideration’ … ‘sorry not to have better news’ … ‘not been possible to offer you a place’ … ‘no longer under consideration’—and incorporated them into a painting.”

“Claudia wasn’t going to show it to anyone else, but when her mother reacted so positively, she decided to share it with friends on Facebook … Friends, who likewise received rejection letters, were cheered, says Claudia … Her mother tweeted it, saying: ‘Yesterday, my daughter learned that she hadn’t got into Oxford. By the time I got in from work, she’d made this from her rejection letter.’ It was retweeted about 52,000 times.”

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The ‘Moneyballing’ of College Admissions

The New York Times: “Nearly all colleges … make use of two metrics to gauge student quality: cumulative high school grade point average and composite score on the ACT … But research has shown that these metrics are imperfect: They are less predictive of student success than alternative measures that are equally simple to calculate and whose use would lead to a better incoming class.”

“Consider grade point average. Students whose overall G.P.A. is a result of doing better later in high school … are much more likely to succeed in college than students with the same overall G.P.A. who did better early in high school … A paper in The Journal of Public Economics … shows that an additional G.P.A. point in 11th grade makes a student 16 percentage points more likely to graduate from college, whereas an additional G.P.A. point in ninth grade makes a student only five percentage points more likely to graduate from college.”

“Something similar is true of ACT composite scores … college admissions offices are giving equal weight to each of the four subtests. But in a 2013 paper … (provides) evidence that the math and English subject tests are far more predictive of college success than the reading and science tests … Colleges may also be reluctant to adopt these more predictive metrics because popular college rankings … use the old metrics in their calculations. Admissions officers may also lack the proper incentives or feedback … Whether or not a student does well in college is not something you can typically determine until a few years after the admissions decision, and thus admissions officers may not feel that they are blamed or rewarded for student success”

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Application Anxiety: Please Don’t Ask About College

The Wall Street Journal: “Anxiety over college admissions is reaching a fever pitch as high-school seniors await decisions from colleges for next fall. Making it worse, students and parents say, is a barrage of unwelcome and inappropriate questions from prying adults. Sales of T-shirts reading, ‘Don’t ask me about college. Thanks,’ are rising on Redbubble … Some parents make their homes a college-free zone and ban all talk on the topic.”

“Spencer Neville, 17, has started dreading social encounters with adults.” She comments: “Every adult you meet, all they want to talk to you about is, ‘Where are you going to college? What do you want to study?’ They ask, ‘What’s your top school?’ and I say, ‘Oh, I don’t have a top school’.” High school counselor Brennan Barnard observes: “People aren’t going to walk up to someone at a cocktail party and ask, ‘How much do you weigh?’ But they’ll ask a student, ‘How did you do on the SATs?’.”

“The speculation peaks just as students most need a break … One mother kept quiet on Facebook when her son was admitted early to his No. 1 school, in an effort to be considerate … She later learned that because she hadn’t trumpeted the news, other parents assumed her son had been rejected. Many students try not to reveal their No. 1 choice. Asking teens their dream school is like making them announce that they have a secret, unrequited crush … After all the applications are in, counselor Jane Shropshire advises students to tune out the noise from peers and adults and immerse themselves in arts, sports, academic or community activities they enjoy.”

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Elite Colleges Stop Giving AP Credits

The Wall Street Journal: “Admissions officers from some elite colleges say they still expect to see high-school transcripts loaded with AP courses, but don’t give much more than a pat on the back—and possibly an offer of admission—for the hard work. Starting in 2014, Dartmouth College stopped giving AP credit toward graduation but allowed students with high AP scores to pass into more advanced courses … Next month, faculty at Duke University’s Trinity College of Arts and Sciences will vote on a revamp of the undergraduate curriculum, including reconsidering whether to award academic credit for high AP scores.”

“At the University of Pennsylvania, French, physics and a few other departments award credit or advanced standing based on a student’s AP scores. But other departments, including chemistry and biology, found that students who used AP scores to skip introductory courses fared worse in upper-division classes than those who took the full sequence at Penn because they weren’t as well-prepared. The departments unveiled new credit guidelines for the current academic year.”

Some colleges also “say that too many exemptions from classes can take away from a shared undergraduate experience with other students.”

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The Happiness Effect & Social Media for Students

From a review of The Happiness Effect, by Donna Freitas, in The Wall Street Journal: “The real downside of Facebook, Instagram and their ilk … is constant cheeriness. Young people learn that any hint of unhappiness or failure may not be posted; it can haunt their futures and damage their ‘brands.’ This imperative then creates a vicious circle.” Freitas writes: “Because young people feel so pressured to post happy things on social media, most of what everyone sees on social media from their peers are happy things; as a result, they often feel inferior because they aren’t actually happy all the time.”

“Young people feel that they have to be online almost all the time, but they cannot share their real selves there, a situation that produces even greater unhappiness. ‘For better or worse, students are becoming masters of appearing happy, at significant cost,’ she says. The ‘happiness effect’ isn’t as lurid a woe as teens sending racy pictures, but it is an important phenomenon to understand and one that parents, teachers and college administrators need to address.”

“College admissions officers and future employers can look back in time and see posts complaining about a difficult boss or admitting loneliness … Yet avoiding social media is almost impossible; professors, for instance, create discussion groups on Facebook. So the beast must be mollified and a ‘personal brand’ maintained: that of a studious yet social person who does the right activities and holds the right opinions. ‘Many students have begun to see what they post (on Facebook, especially) as a chore—a homework assignment to build a happy facade,’ Ms. Freitas reports.”

“Her most intriguing suggestion—that schools and employers declare it unethical to consult applicants’ social-media accounts—would be a game-changer. It would also probably be unworkable.”

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Boston College Revamps Remedial Courses

The Washington Post: “When students are unprepared for the rigors of college, schools often require them to take courses to catch up to their classmates. Those remediation courses, though, do not count toward a degree and may delay students from graduating on time, costing them money in the long run.”

“Boston College is taking a different approach to help students with weak academic records by using a set of learning strategies that require no more than one three-credit class. And new research shows the model is paying off as the vast majority of students are graduating in four years, results that administrators say have national implications for improving college completion.”

“The course teaches techniques for critical thinking, reading, note-taking and test preparation. The idea is to move away from rote memorization toward inquiry-based learning, encouraging students to develop an ongoing dialogue with new information … What’s striking about the results is the population of students in the Learning Theory class had SAT scores as low as 500 (out of a possible 1600), not the typical profile of students admitted to Boston College.”

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Private Schools Like Community College Transfers

The Wall Street Journal: “Small, private colleges have found a new place to troll for prospective students: At community colleges down the road, or even across the country … In the past year alone, more than a dozen private colleges and universities nationwide have signed deals to make it easier for community-college students to transfer in. They’re swaying prospective students thanks to hefty scholarship offers and guarantees of graduating in four years, nearly eliminating cost differentials with public counterparts.”

“The new effort marks a change in attitude for private colleges, which historically have assumed community-college graduates’ coursework wasn’t rigorous enough to count toward a four-year liberal arts or pre-professional degree. But with nearly half of all students now starting their college careers at public two-year schools, leaders of four-year private institutions say they can’t afford to turn up their noses at potential students who started down a different path and would be happy to get the two years of tuition revenue over none at all.”

“From 2006 to 2013, the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation invested nearly $10 million to help elite institutions like Amherst College and University of California, Berkeley, create pathways for low-income community-college students. More than 2,100 students moved to four-year schools through the program; they largely succeeded academically, with many going on to pursue graduate degrees.”

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Tulane Retracts 130 Early-Admissions Offers

The New York Times: “Alyssa was in her high school health class around midday Wednesday when she got the email welcoming her to Tulane University and giving her a college email address. In a grueling college admissions season, it was her first-choice university, and she had applied early decision, meaning she was committed to the place. Excited by the news, Alyssa texted her mother, told many of her classmates and was congratulated by one of her favorite teachers, a Tulane alum. But two or three hours later, she received a second, decidedly more downbeat email telling her it had all been a mistake.”

“Tulane’s defenders were quick to point out that it is not the first university to have made such a mistake. Some of the most prestigious institutions of higher education in the country — including M.I.T., Carnegie Mellon, Vassar, U.C.L.A., Fordham, Johns Hopkins and the University at Buffalo — have sent out misfired admissions notices in recent years.”

“The university’s explanation was complicated and blamed new software. True offers … come from the Office of Admission. When a student accepts the offer and makes a deposit, that results in the type of message, from Technology Services, that the 130 students received, with instructions on how to set up a Tulane email account. ‘Due to a coding error in how we installed new software, our system mistook deferred students for deposited students,’ he said.”

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