Discourse / Editorials / February 6, 2013

Thoughts from the Embers: Are colleges sacrificing standards to increase numbers?

EmbersRecently, Monmouth College announced that it is removing the phrase “liberal arts” from all admissions materials. The move, according to Monmouth officials, is aimed at broadening its applicant pool by not speaking above any potential applicants. Monmouth is far from the only school attempting to grow its student body in response to financial woes; most small, tuition-dependent colleges are facing the same challenge, including Knox. But growth cannot come at the cost of compromising an institution’s mission, and Knox must be careful not to go back on its core values in the course of generating more tuition revenue.

In an article in The Monmouth Courier, several reasons for not referring to Monmouth’s curriculum as “liberal arts” were given: the term is too undefined, for one, and the word “liberal” carries partisan political connotations. If the concern is clarity, the phrase Monmouth has chosen to replace liberal arts — “integrated learning” — is even more ambiguous. And while the phraseology is changing, the underlying curriculum is not, potentially leading to a disconnect between what students expect (and are prepared for) and what they actually experience. This is not a recipe for retention, nor is it a way to attract students seeking the sort of education Monmouth offers.

There is no indication that such a drastic rebranding would take place at Knox. But as Knox attempts to add 200 students over the next four years, some rethinking of the admissions process will undoubtedly occur. The college’s fall 2011 acceptance rate was 71.5 percent, a figure brought about by the necessity of accepting the majority of applicants in a relatively small pool in order to make financial ends meet. Still, if Knox cannot afford to be selective, how can it maintain the quality of its student body?

The pool for this year is, as of Jan. 25, 20 percent larger, which is encouraging. But the number of high-achieving students in that pool is decreasing, not increasing: only 31 percent of applicants so far this year are in the top 10 percent of their class, compared to 37 percent last year. Naturally, a student’s potential for success at Knox cannot solely be measured by academic indicators such as class rank or SAT scores. But high academic achievement in high school does predict how students will perform in college, and with the level of work demanded by professors remaining unchanged, it is not clear that all incoming students are adequately prepared for a Knox education. “Unusually high” numbers of dropouts during fall term, as described by college officials, may be an indication.

At a tuition-driven institution like Knox, there are few options to increase revenues aside from increasing the size of the student body. Still, this must not come at the cost of Knox’s educational program. Admitting students who are not prepared to deal with the rigor of Knox is as much of a disservice to the institution as it is to the students themselves. Those who are not good academic matches will leave, hurting Knox’s retention rates, which will in turn hurt its rankings and appeal to the very sort of student it wants to attract. And if students who are not good matches stay, they will flounder in their academic work, putting additional strain on support systems like the Center for Teaching and Learning that are already understaffed.

But Knox students are more than just strong students: they are passionate individuals, engaged in activities for the sake of enjoyment or personal growth, not simply as résumé-builders. In turn, they come to Knox and work to better the campus and larger Galesburg community. Attracting these types of students is a prerequisite to building an engaged student body, so looking holistically at potential applicants must remain a feature of Knox’s admissions process.

Fortunately, Knox has not tried to “dumb down” its portrayal of what it does in order to attract more students, as Monmouth has. But it is essential that it work to attract the sort of student who is both prepared for the education it provides and fits the character of the Knox community. In trying to increase the number of applicants, we urge the Office of Admission to aggressively recruit high-achieving students in all areas, academic and otherwise, who want and are ready for a Knox education. This will require visiting more high schools in more areas of the country, and it will require more targeted communications to students who fit the Knox profile. Put simply, it will require more work — but the payoffs, both financial and otherwise, are worth it.

TKS Editorial Board

Tags:  acceptance admissions integrated learning Knox liberal arts Monmouth selective tuition

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  • Anonymous

    Two notes to this article.

    Firstly, Knox’s acceptance rate of 71.5% in 2011 is not significantly different that that of its peer institutions in the ACM and other schools listed in the Colleges That Changes Lives book. Small private-liberal arts colleges attract a certain type of student and do not waste their time recruiting students that they don’t feel can be successful at their school. This is not the approach that many other schools adopt, as some seek to bring in as many applications as possible from any student, in an attempt to appear more selective.

    Secondly, the statement that the number of “high-achieving students in the pool is decreasing, not increasing: only 31 percent of applicants so far this year are in the top 10 percent of their class, compared to 37 percent last year” should be taken with a grain of salt. More and more high schools across the country, especially the more academically rigorous, are abandoning this practice of ranking students in their class–therefore this number is not a true reflection of the entire class.

  • Anonymous

    You also look at the percentage of money Knox pulls in and how much can be spent without restrictions. For example, how much of incoming revenue is spent on financial aid? http://www.collegeboard.com/prod_downloads/trends/tuition-discounting-brief.pdf

    Also, in order for this to work, we need FULL paying tuition students. Where is the diversity in that? Specifically, we don’t then want any low SES students-we need to clearly discount the tuition for them? round and round we go.

  • Anon2

    One of the issues I think needs mentioning is the decision to be test-optional. The real reason Knox does that is to inflate its ACT score: people with lower scores are a lot less likely to submit them than people with high scores, so the low scores are left out of the pool, and Knox can say its average is higher than it really is. The thing where it combines subscores from different tests also serves to inflate the score.

    But I think test-optional is obviously worse than combining scores. It is really, really hard to judge a student’s academic skills based on grades alone–you don’t know how tough the high school was, how much extra support the person was getting, etc. Standardized tests have their downfalls, but they’re the closest thing to an objective measure of college readiness.

    I met someone when I first got to Knox who went to a private high school and, from what I could tell, had basically been tutored through everything. She claimed she had high grades, and she looked good on paper, I’m sure. But when I had to do a project with her in FP, I was horrified to find that she could hardly write a coherent paragraph by herself. She was practically illiterate. I’m sure she did terrible on the ACT and didn’t send it in. She was of course gone after the first term. I bet her ACT score would have ruled her out, but by eliminating that important piece of information, the admissions people had no idea who they were letting in. Being test-optional results in people who are not ready for Knox’s academics slipping through the cracks, then quickly dropping out.



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