Can success prove that admissions officers get it wrong?


I received a great e-mail this week from a parent of a Mason student. A while back the student was denied admission and then filed an appeal. The appeal was granted, and now the student is on Mason’s dean’s list. The parent takes this as evidence that admissions processes in general (or at least ours in particular) don’t work, that initially denying a student who proved to be so successful proves that admissions officers are making fairly arbitrary decisions.
For the most part, I entirely agree. As I’ve mentioned before, the admissions process isn’t a terribly imperfect tool, using very limited data on and interaction with applicants to try to predict their performance in college. Everyone who works in the field is very aware that we really don’t succeed at this goal, that there are many students we don’t admit who would be just as successful, if not more so, than the students we do accept.
Of course, most very competitive schools know they are picking among well qualified applicants for limited space. As a result, our goals are as much about class mix, student profile, and rewarding past performance as they are about predicting grades in college.
The parent is correct that we sometimes just plain get it wrong. Maybe more than sometimes. On the other hand, in this case we got it right. The committee did take a second look, and while we rarely overturn a decision in appeals committee, in this case it certainly seems to have been justified. I also believe increasingly colleges will be looking at accepting larger numbers of transfer students, giving you the opportunity to prove what kind of student you will be college, rather than relying on the limited data we have at the freshman admission stage. So maybe, just maybe, this process will get a little easier to understand, and a little less stressful. That is, until we start getting ranked on the profile of our transfer class – then the whole cycle of picking a certain profile so that we get a higher rank so that students with a higher profile select us will resume. In the meantime, my advice is to keep in mind exactly what this parent said to me- that the process is subjective and arbitrary. While many of my colleagues will disagree, it’s true enough that you should use that knowledge to try to keep the process in perspective – not being admitted, especially at first, clearly doesn’t mean you won’t be a spectacular success. Be seeing you.

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2 Responses

  1. To whom do you report to in your role as “Dean of Admissions”?

  2. In a broad sense, admission officers report to the faulty, as the faculty set the admission standards for the institution. From the standpoint of who is the “boss” for a dean of admissions, there are nearly as many models as there are colleges and universities. There was a lot of growth in the 80’s and 90’s in vice presidents for “enrollment management”, and a lot of deans report to these positions. Others may report to Provosts, or other titles regarded as the chief academic officers for their institutions. Many institutions have Vice Presidents for Student Life and group admissions functions under that role. A few smaller institutions have a Dean reporting directly to the President, and I know of a handful where the Dean reports to the Vice President for Finance (which may tell you something about how those institutions think about student enrollment!). One place that tried to recruit me had the Dean of Admissions reporting to a Dean of Undergraduate Studies that reported to an Associate Vice President for Academic Affairs that reported to the Provost who reported to the President!
    It’s also worth knowing that at many places the Dean has multiple reporting lines to various cabinet officers.
    A larger question might be whether it’s helpful to know about the reporting line. At most institutions, student admission appeals that are sent to someone “higher up” are just referred back to the admission office without comment. Unless the university officer knows the applicant personally, they rarely want to create a perception of bias by becoming involved in the admission decision. There certainly are exceptions, but usually the decisions stay in the admission office.

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