Jan. 25, 2022
This blog post is the fifth in a periodic series aimed at lifting the veil on the enrollment management industry. Earlier posts in the series can be found here.
In November 2019, Syracuse University (SU) was in turmoil. An outbreak of racist incidents sparked two weeks of protests that “electrified” the campus, according to The New York Times.
“Black, Latino, Asian American, Jewish, Muslim, Indigenous and international students descended on Syracuse’s new $50 million campus center for a sit-in under the slogan #NotAgainSU,” the Times reported. The university’s handling of the incidents was so shoddy that it drew a rebuke from New York’s then-governor Andrew Cuomo, as well as from the college Republican group, which declared, “This campus needs reform.”
For many of students of color, the focus of the protests went beyond the racist incidents themselves to a university administration they couldn’t trust – led by a chancellor, Kent Syverud, who seemed to be wholly focused on building the university’s prestige at their expense.
“The administration has made severe mistakes not only over the past two weeks, but the past five years,” the leaders of #NotAgainSU wrote as part of a series tweets demanding Syverud’s resignation.
The unrest at Syracuse in the fall of 2019 showed just how far a break the university had made with the vision of its former chancellor, Nancy Cantor, who was essentially forced out of the post a half dozen years earlier over her efforts to make the institution more inclusive.
As I previously wrote, Cantor spent nearly a decade leading Syracuse University and, during that time, transformed the institution into one of the most economically and racially diverse universities of its caliber. During her tenure, she 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. She also boosted the share of Pell Grant recipients the university enrolled, to more than a quarter of freshmen annually. To help these students, the university nearly tripled the amount of money it spent on need-based aid.
But instead of being celebrated for her efforts to diversify the campus, Cantor faced a backlash from some prominent white faculty members and alumni who were alarmed that the university’s acceptance rate had risen 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, told The Chronicle of Higher Education in October 2011. Such a move, Bennett argued, was “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.”
Despite publicly standing behind her, Syracuse’s Board of Trustees proved to be sympathetic to those arguments. After Cantor announced she was leaving to become the chancellor at Rutgers University’s Newark campus, the board chose Syverud, the dean of the law school at Washington University in St. Louis, to replace her. Washington University was the country’s least socioeconomically diverse college at the time.
A key selling point for Syverud was that both of the law schools he had led – first Vanderbilt and then Washington University – had seen their U.S. News rankings rise under his stewardship. In a written statement announcing the hiring, Board Chairman Richard Thompson touted Syverud’s record of “bringing the Washington University and Vanderbilt University law schools to greater prominence” and stressed the importance of “rais[ing] SU’s profile."
While Cantor had been dismissive of the rankings, Syverud recognized their importance and made raising Syracuse’s ranking a top priority. To accomplish this goal, his administration put in place a standard enrollment management strategy – similar to those employed by many other selective public and private colleges --designed to make the university more exclusive.
“Syverud’s overarching intention with each decision is to boost the university’s prestige,” an ally of the chancellor told the university’s independent student newspaper in 2017.
Playing the “Merit” Aid Game
Syverud knew that the key to rising up the U.S. News rankings was to attract higher achieving students with better SAT scores. U.S. News judges colleges in part by the average standardized test scores of its incoming students. But to do so, he needed to free up money that the university could use to provide competitive scholarships to top students.
In that pursuit, Syverud made a controversial move that signaled that he was making a clean break with his predecessor. The university announced it 2014 that it was scaling back its involvement with the Posse Foundation, which helps selective colleges enroll groups of promising urban public school students, many of whom are students of color and financially disadvantaged. To participate in the programs, the colleges must guarantee four-year full-tuition scholarships to participants.
Cantor, in her last three years as chancellor, had made Syracuse a leading destination for Posse students, accepting groups of 10 each from three of the foundation’s sites in Atlanta, Los Angeles, and Miami. Under Syverud, the university cut two of these programs, reducing the number of new participants each year from 30 to 10, all coming from Miami.
In an interview with Inside Higher Ed, Ryan Williams, Syracuse’s then-associate vice president for enrollment management and director of financial aid and scholarships, denied that the move was made to make Syracuse more exclusive. Instead, he said that the university needed “flexibility” to devote its financial aid “dollars where it thinks its highest need may be.” Ryan acknowledged, however, that a share of the money saved from eliminating Posse scholarships was going to be used to create new non-need-based scholarship programs to recruit higher-achieving students.
Syverud’s decision to eliminate financial aid that mostly went to lower-income minority students to pay in part for scholarships that were likely to go predominantly to white wealthy ones outraged the Posse participants and other students of color on campus. Protests broke out, with students reeling from the university’s sudden change in direction.
“At what point do we stop increasing the prestige of a school without taking out the color of the school?” a freshman who was part of one of the Posse programs demanded to know.
Syverud appeased the protesters by allowing the Atlanta Posse program to continue for one more year. Meanwhile, using the money saved from the Posse programs for non-need-based scholarships was just the start. From 2012-13 to 2019-2020, the university nearly quadrupled the amount on money it spent on non‑need-based aid, in inflation-adjusted dollars, to $42 million yearly. Meanwhile, the number of freshmen receiving this aid increased by more than five times during this time, from 307, or 9 percent of the class, to 1,581, or 43 percent of the class, according to data that the university reports to magazines that rank colleges.
Beautifying the Campus
Syverud also knew that simply throwing more money at higher-achieving students wouldn’t be enough necessarily to win them over. To attract these students, many of whom came from affluent families, he made a significant investment in beautifying the campus and adding top-shelf amenities that these students and families have come to expect.
First he authorized the university to spend $6 million to construct a “pedestrian-friendly promenade,” with a heated pathway, to give the campus “a greater sense of physical connectedness.” And then he devoted $118 million to renovating the Carrier Dome, Syracuse’s sports stadium, adding a retractable roof and making “state of the art upgrades to the building’s sound and lighting.” The remodeling included adding “a new center-hung scoreboard,” which the university boasted was “the first of its size in collegiate sports, featur[ing] four panels that are each 20 feet high by 62.5 feet wide and a 6-foot ribbon board that wraps around the bottom.” And finally he devoted $50 million to build a "health and wellness center," that included "massage chairs, a built-in pharmacy, and an esports room for video gaming," as well as "a pet therapy room" for students "with puppies to play with."
The university’s no-holds-barred spending on amenities outraged many faculty members who complained that their wages had been left stagnant and that the university was leaving faculty vacancies unfilled. “It’s jarring when on the one hand we’re being told we have to be fiscally disciplined, and on the other hand there seems to be an unlimited amount of money for fixing up the Dome and installing heated sidewalks and a better gym,” Tom Perreault, a professor of geography, told the Daily Orange, university’s independent student newspaper in an article in 2017 evaluating Syverud’s tenure.
But the chancellor’s champions on campus praised him in that article for carrying out a plan to improve Syracuse’s standing in rankings, and its competitive position among its peer institutions. “If we want to move up with them or surpass them, we need to have a plan,” Joanna Masingila, the then-dean of the school of education said. “He’s trying to get the university, the campus, to have a plan. … Getting everybody moving together with a plan, I think that’s a good strategy.”
Finding a More Lucrative Way to Achieve Diversity
Syverud has never acknowledged that his administration has reduced socioeconomic and racial diversity on campus. But he didn’t have to. The decision to eliminate Posse programs made that shift abundantly clear to students of color on campus.
Syracuse administrators, however, continued to tout their commitment to diversity by pointing to their success in expanding international student recruitment. From the fall of 2012 to the fall of 2018, the number of international freshmen the university enrolled grew by 77 percent -- from 370, or about 11 percent of the class, to 656, or 18 percent.
For enrollment management purposes, boosting international student enrollment is a win-win, allowing colleges to make their campuses more diverse while increasing their net revenue. Foreign students who study in the U.S. tend to come from wealthy families and, as a result, are typically able to pay the full price of admission, without requiring financial aid.
At What Cost?
According to the metrics that enrollment managers tend to value, Syverud’s strategy was fairly successful, at least until the pandemic struck. The average SAT scores of incoming students rose by about 120 points to 1,280 under Syverud’s leadership, the acceptance rate dropped, and most importantly the university’s U.S. News rankings improved. By 2018, Syracuse was ranked as the country’s 53rd best national university, nine spots better than under Cantor (although it has slipped to 59th in the latest rankings).
But Syracuse has paid a very high price for these “improvements.” The university cut in half the share of Pell Grant recipients it enrolls annually, from a high of 27 percent in Cantor’s last year to just 13 percent in 2019-20. And it also cut nearly in half the share of underrepresented minority students from a high of nearly 32 percent under Cantor to only 16 percent under Syverud. The university enrolls at least 300 fewer Black freshmen each year than it did when Cantor left. Where Black students once made up 9 percent of the freshmen class, they made up just 6 percent by 2018.
After Cantor’s departure, minority students at Syracuse worried about the direction the university was headed. Syverud talked a good game, assuring the campus community of his commitment to diversity. However, his decision to eliminate the Posse programs spoke volumes. Activists on campus are still pushing Syracuse to restore those programs. Meanwhile, a recent survey that the university conducted on equity and diversity on campus reported that, “A surprising number of student participants admitted they don’t trust anything the university says.”
Stephen Burd is editing a forthcoming book with Harvard Education Press on the enrollment management industry.
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