Recruit & Retain (Hampshire College)

Aligning Admissions with Mission

I confess: we had lost our way. We administrators at Hampshire College, rebels against lectures and passive learning, champions of self-designed majors and project-based learning, had let down our guard and were practicing admissions like every other college. This became clear in 2013, two years into the term of our president, Jonathan Lash, and the strategic planning he was leading. This planning revealed long-held concerns that our admissions practices were failing us. We were underperforming in retention, and faculty thought we were enrolling too many students who lacked the independence for our unique academic model.

President Lash asked me to lead a study to answer, “Who should come to Hampshire? Who thrives here?” At the next faculty meeting I announced the study and asked for names of our most successful third- and fourth-year students. We started interviews, and then went back and looked at those students’ admissions files. This is how we began realigning admissions with our founding mission: “To foster a lifelong passion for learning and inquiry.” Our driving questions were:

  • How does Hampshire produce such exceptional graduates?
  • What is it about Hampshire that attracts such high-potential students?
  • What was it about these students as applicants that enabled them to thrive in this rigorous, radical, student-driven program?

What We Found

What we found surprised us. We didn’t intend to look at SAT or ACT scores in particular, but it quickly became obvious: there was no correlation between high SAT/ACT scores and success at Hampshire. Not only that, the students we interviewed told us overwhelmingly they didn’t consider rankings. In an era when test scores drive rankings and rankings drive prestige, we found these two criteria to be unreliable and irrelevant.

We noticed the students who were sent to us with great SAT/ACT scores but average self-discipline, who lacked self-motivation and drive, struggled quite a bit. Students who had done their high school work, day in and out, and who demonstrated maturity, flourished.

What’s more, through all the interviews we conducted with applicants, we heard that the emphasis on the standardized tests in high school had become overwhelming. Countless students told us they felt intense anxiety around these tests, which are diverting students from what should be a more effective, healthier learning environment.

It was a very easy decision for us to stop asking for SAT and ACT scores. Once we did, U.S. News & World Report dropped us from its rankings. At that point many other schools would have balked, but we doubled down. It was liberating. There was no longer an incentive to make the compromises that most colleges make to drive their rankings.

There are lots of perverse incentives. When a college sees that its U.S. News ranking will improve if it denies more students, it’s tempted to chase more applications so it can deny more students. If it sees its ranking will improve with higher mean test scores, it’s tempted to chase high test scores, and maybe give precious financial aid to those who don’t need it.

The Path We’re On

Since we stopped accepting scores, every other piece of the application is more vivid. We’re getting to know students in a more qualitative way. We now ask them to write more essays and reflect on themselves as learners.

When reviewing applications, we now look more closely at high school transcripts. We’re seeking to know to what extent did the student challenge him- or herself. How do the transcripts relate to the letters of recommendation? Is the student on an upward trajectory? Has he or she learned from experiences and struggles?

We’re looking for evidence of motivation, reflection and critical analysis and trying to understand the whole person. We ask, what would the student be like in our community? We’re also sending a clear message about our values.

We’re encouraged by the early results. Our incoming classes are more racially diverse and include more students who represent the first generation in their families to attend college. Retention of first-year students is higher. Our “yield” percentage of students who accept our admission offer is significantly higher than in past years.

I’ve heard from peers who praise what we’re doing but wonder if it’s “scalable.” If scalable means giving up the opportunity to get to know a student before we make our decision, then we’re opposed to scalability. Applying to colleges is one of the biggest decisions students will make in their lives. We owe it to them to make it a constructive learning opportunity. By aligning admissions with mission, colleges can better focus on education and what’s right for students, and ignore the trivial race for rankings.

This article originally appeared in the December 2016 issue of College Planning & Management.

About the Author

Meredith Twombly is dean of Enrollment and Retention at Hampshire College in Amherst, MA (www.hampshire.edu).

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