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College admissions officers ask: What is merit?

January 23, 2014

By Merrill Balassone

USC's Jerome Lucido with Georgia Nugent, former president of Kenyon College and a senior fellow at the Council of Independent Colleges

USC’s Jerome Lucido with Georgia Nugent, former president of Kenyon College and a senior fellow at the Council of Independent Colleges

As college presidents gathered at the White House last week to talk about how to increase access for low-income students, many of the nation’s top admissions officers came together at a USC conference to debate how best to define merit among America’s college hopefuls.

Nancy Cantor, chancellor of Rutgers University’s Newark campus, kicked off the conference — hosted by the USC Center for Enrollment, Policy, and Practice — with a baseball analogy, urging leaders to do more to prepare students in their communities for higher education.

“Each institution we run or are part of should be creating a farm team, cultivating talent just the way Major League Baseball does,” Cantor said.

She pointed out statistics that showed just how important the college degree is to the economy: If the country’s 51 largest metropolitan areas each increased their college attainment rates by just one percentage point, it would be worth $124 billion in additional personal income from having more productive workers and subsequently thriving businesses.

This year’s theme was “Defining Merit: The Nexus of Mission, Excellence and Diversity,” and nearly 200 college admission deans, higher education scholars, state and federal policymakers and school leaders took up the challenge.

Many spoke of the need to evaluate college candidates in the context of the opportunities available to them, such as the valedictorian who graduates from an inner-city high school that offers few advanced courses. As college admissions seem to get more complicated and less transparent, Donald Heller, dean of the College of Education at Michigan State University, offered a radical suggestion: using a lottery system to ultimately choose who gets an acceptance letter.

“The notion of earning the public’s trust is tremendously important,” said Jerome Lucido, executive director of the USC Center for Enrollment, Policy, and Practice. “How we define merit is often interpreted through who we take.”

Part of the problem, many officials agreed, is the sheer number of qualified applicants vying for a small number of spots at elite institutions.

USC Dean of Admission Timothy Brunold said that over the past 25 years, the university has gone from accepting 78 percent of its applicants to admitting just 18 percent.

“I believe diversity and excellence are the same thing. They’re not something that need to be balanced,” Brunold said. “But as institutions are turning more and more folks away, the public is getting this very particular perception about what we’re trying to do.”

Last year, the USC Center for Enrollment Research, Policy, and Practice — housed at the USC Rossier School of Education — turned its attention to so-called “noncognitive variables” — such as a student’s grit and drive to succeed — and how they can be better represented in the college admissions process.

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