Recruit & Retain (Hampshire College)
Aligning Admissions with Mission
- By Meredith Twombly
- December 1st, 2016
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
- How does Hampshire produce such exceptional graduates?
- What is it about Hampshire that attracts such high-potential
- 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.
Meredith Twombly is dean of Enrollment and Retention at Hampshire College in Amherst, MA (www.hampshire.edu).