By WILLIAM E. TROUTT
Time magazine’s recent cover story "Who Needs Harvard?" provides solid advice for American families and students seeking to find the right college. It is especially meaningful at a time when admissions to America’s most highly rated colleges and universities is increasingly difficult and the pathway to admissions success at these institutions seems more opaque than ever.
The Time story references a sign over a high-school guidance counselor’s door: COLLEGE IS A MATCH TO BE MADE, NOT A PRIZE TO BE WON. This should be the mantra for American families and students as they go through the college-admissions process. It should also be the credo of college-admissions offices.
American colleges and universities offer the best education in the world for undergraduate students, but connecting the right student with the right college is far too frustrating and inefficient for both students and institutions. Well-intentioned parents often make it worse. Obsessing over college rankings keeps families from spending time on the key question of where their students are mostly likely to thrive and become their very best. The quest of a trophy school can produce enormous anxiety and less-than-satisfying outcomes.
On the other side of this process, colleges and universities also contribute to this frustration in their quest for trophy students. Literally buying trophy students _ students with near-perfect SAT scores _ is the admissions strategy for many colleges seeking to improve their standing or simply trying to sustain their position in the marketplace. The thinking is almost this simple: If you buy enough trophy students, you will become attractive enough yourself to be a trophy school.
It makes perfect sense for a college to use financial aid as a tool to attract a student body that best contributes to the overall achievement of its mission. Students learn from their professors, but they also learn from their peers. The right mix of student talents, perspectives and backgrounds is key to institutional success.
But simply buying trophy students as a way to secure institutional prestige is a very expensive strategy with unintended and often disappointing outcomes for both those colleges and universities seeking these students and the students themselves. For the trophy students, it can fuel an artificial sense of how they contribute to and benefit from their college experience. Students should not be led to think their academic credentials and presence make them God’s great gift to the institution. What matters is their actual academic performance and their real contributions as scholars.
Every college would like to meet the full financial need of qualified students who really want to be there. Very few colleges can both meet full need and buy academic talent. And very few colleges can pursue this merit-aid strategy without taking needed resources from other key academic areas. Far too many colleges are discounting tuition _ spending more dollars than they actually have _ to buy enough test-score achievement to advance their prestige or just hold their ground in the marketplace.
Rhodes College, where I serve, has seen the good and the bad of this strategy. We were an early adopter of merit aid. It has produced some measurable results _ our SAT average has increased a good 150 points and our applicant pool is more than twice as large as the number we can select. We have also missed some great students and some merit scholars have not contributed or benefited in ways that we would have hoped. We see an opportunity to both be better stewards of our resources and add more value to the student experience.
Our use of financial aid is changing now _ linked more to both financial need and what we expect from students who receive it. Our most successful scholarship program today is tied to community service and helps students connect their off-campus experiences with learning in the classroom. We are tying financial aid more closely to service, research and work opportunities. We are adding more value in how we utilize financial aid both for the student and the institution.
It is time to improve the system. Many families need to rethink their aim. So do many colleges and universities. Working together, we can make better college matches, enhance student learning and produce better results for everyone.
(William E. Troutt is the president of Rhodes College in Memphis, Tenn. His e-mail is Trouttw(at)rhodes.edu).