A Cautionary Tale about the Gospel of Enrollment Management

Blog Post
Sept. 28, 2021

This blog post is the fourth in a periodic series aimed at lifting the veil on the enrollment management industry. Earlier posts in the series can be found here.

Nancy Cantor spent nearly a decade as chancellor of Syracuse University and, during that time, she transformed the institution into one of the most economically and racially diverse universities of its caliber. She also forged connections with the economically-struggling Rust Belt city of Syracuse – by sending student tutors into the cash-strapped local schools, for example, and by providing full-tuition scholarships to graduates of those schools who qualified for admission. In addition, she encouraged professors and students to direct at least some of their research to problems affecting the city and its citizens.

By the time Cantor left Syracuse in 2013, she had significantly increased the proportion of underrepresented minority students in the incoming class to nearly 32 percent, up from 19 percent when she arrived in 2004. Under her watch, about a quarter of freshmen each year were Pell Grant recipients. To help these students, the university nearly tripled the amount of money it spent annually on need-based financial aid.

But instead of being celebrated for her efforts to diversify the campus and help revitalize the city, Cantor faced a backlash from some prominent faculty members and alumni who were alarmed that the university’s acceptance rate had risen up to 60 percent and its U.S. News & World Report rankings had fallen about a dozen spots. “My fear is that the university is moving away from selective to inclusive,” David H. Bennett, a history professor who has written critically about the far right and political extremism, told The Chronicle of Higher Education in October 2011.

“If you look at the universities with the top 50 endowments and the percent of their students who receive Pell Grants, none of them were anywhere near even what we were before Nancy Cantor came,” Bennett stated. “This may be an admirable goal, but it is going to have an impact on our reputation. It’s a road to nowhere for a place like Syracuse, which is asking parents to pay a lot because they think they’re going to increase their kids’ life chances.”

The Chronicle not only reported Bennett’s comments but seemed to endorse them in its article, entitled “Syracuse’s Slide.” Writing of Cantor, the article’s author, a senior journalist there, wrote:

Before she came, they say, Syracuse was on the way to becoming a more selective university that competed with some of the nation’s best private urban institutions. Now, the chancellor seems more intent on providing opportunities – both for this struggling city and for disadvantaged students. As a result, Syracuse is fading on the national stage.

To the Chronicle's credit, the newspaper’s in-house admissions expert Eric Hoover published a column a week later questioning the metrics the senior journalist had used to evaluate Cantor’s performance. He suggested that “an equally good (and alliterative)” headline for the article “might have been ‘Syracuse’s Surge’” to recognize her success in diversifying the campus.

But the damage may already have been done. A year and a half after "Syracuse's Slide" appeared in higher education's newspaper of record, Cantor was packing her bags. She had accepted the chancellorship at Rutgers University’s Newark campus, which she said was “a good fit with the things that I believe in.”

Welcome to the world of selective colleges in the age of enrollment management, where earning greater prestige and revenue is the coin of the realm. Yes, enrollment managers say that increasing diversity is also a key goal, but it comes in a distant third, and is easily dispensed with if it interferes with the other two priorities, as outspoken faculty members and alumni believed it did in Syracuse’s case.

In my last post in this series, I argued that the enrollment management industry has played a pivotal role in defining the goals colleges and universities pursue and providing the strategies and products these schools need to achieve them. Far from offering a neutral, value-free set of tools, as its defenders claim, the enrollment management industry has pushed colleges to evaluate themselves using the metrics that publications, like U.S. News, use to rank them. These metrics are seen as proxies for prestige, even though they pretty much cement the status quo, guaranteeing that Harvard, Yale, Princeton, and Stanford will always be at the top, and forcing all other selective institutions to pursue them.

In this world, the average SAT or ACT scores of a college’s incoming students must always rise (under Cantor, they had stayed level) and a college’s acceptance rate must always fall. And most importantly, a significant decrease in a university’s U.S. News rankings spells catastrophe.

In his column, Hoover quoted the University of Chicago’s former long-time admissions director Theodore O’Neill praising Cantor’s leadership. “What the article suggests about the recent history of admission at Syracuse is that we are in the presence of a real triumph, and a model of what other, if not all other, universities should be doing,” he stated.

“I am astounded, as always, that the faculty think that the ratings matter,” he told Hoover. “They are supposed to be smart.”

But O’Neill is decidedly old school. The faculty members who won the battle at Syracuse University – and even a senior journalist at The Chronicle of Higher Education – had accepted the gospel that the enrollment management has been so successful at spreading over the past several decades: That there is only one path to success in higher education, and it is greater and greater exclusivity. The fact that striving to achieve this goal generally causes campuses to become whiter and wealthier is often left unmentioned.

Stephen Burd is editing a forthcoming book with Harvard Education Press on the enrollment management industry.

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