In recent years Syracuse University has decided to make its undergraduate student body more “diverse” and “inclusive”–code words for racial preferences that translated into a freshman class for the fall of 2010 that was 30 percent black and Latino. The class of 2014 was also 26 percent eligible for federal Pell grants to low-income students. Pells are usually proxies for students of lower-tier socioeconomic status, many of whom are ill-prepared for college-level work, and, according to a 2009 report from the National Center on Education Statistics, drop out of college at higher rates and take longer to graduate than non-Pell students. Minorities such as blacks, Hispanics, American Indians, and Pacific Islanders are disproportionately overrepresented in the Pell population.
Still, all seemed well and good for the many diversity enthusiasts among Syracuse’s faculty and administrators–until a report went public at a faculty senate meeting three weeks ago that Syracuse’s new recruitment policies had resulted in its admitting 60 percent of applicants for its 2010 entering class. It was 53 percent in 2009 and under 50 percent in 2008. That pushed Syracuse down toward the dreaded “unselective” category that negatively affects a college’s U.S. News and World Report ranking, Sure enough, Syracuse dropped last year to No. 55–second tier for national universities–from No. 50 (just inside the top tier) in 2008. Those most upset by Syracuse’s demotion turned out to be…Syracuse students, upper-level undergraduates who had chosen the university on the assumption that it was working to raise its reputation for academic prestige, not dilute it. They were equally stung by U.S. News’s new designation for their alma mater: “A+ school for B students.”
On Feb. 21 the student newspaper, the Daily Orange, carried an editorial declaring that Syracuse’s shift in recruitment strategy toward low-income students, with its concomitantly high acceptance rate “could devalue the SU diploma, cause a larger freshman classes, and affect the quality of an SU education.” Indeed, as the Orange reported elsewhere, 2010’s entering freshman class ballooned to a record 3,300 students, up 10 percenti n recent years. The editorial pointed out that larger classes and declining prestige could “lessen professors’ desire to work at SU” and could adversely affect alumni giving. “The acceptance rate has increased so dramatically that students are watching their diploma lose value even before graduating,” the editors wrote.
The Daily Orange editorial reflected at least some faculty sentiment. David Bennett, a longtime history professor at Syracuse and a member of the faculty senate's committee on operations, said that while inclusiveness was an admirable goal, "The university has moved in a direction different than the one it has followed for three decades," according to a report in the Orange. He later told Inside Higher Education, "I think many faculty would like to see a lower [acceptance] figure. If you try to become more inclusive, it does affect your selectivity." As a private university Syracuse is expensive, Bennett pointed out (tuition and living costs total about $50,000 a year), and many academically gifted prospective students who can afford Syracuse might likely choose an equally pricey but more academically choosy institution instead
The reaction of Syracuse's administrators and some faculty members has been a frenzy of wagon-circling and circle-squaring as deans, professors, and even Syracuse's chancellor and president, Nancy Cantor, wrote letters to the Orange arguing that diversity and inclusivity are as significant markers of educational excellence as selectivity in admissions.
"I've found that selectivity too often comes along with limited insight into the many alternative ways that people create meaningful lives," wrote Robert Rubinstein, a professor of anthropology and international relations, in a Feb. 24 letter. Rubinstein criticized the U.S. News rankings for "valorizing selectivity based on relatively superficial aspects of a student's achievement in high school." The deans of Syracuse's thirteen graduate and undergraduate schools and colleges submitted a letter to the Orange declaring that a "having 50 to 60 percent of applicants qualified for admission at Syracuse can be a strength, not a weakness." A letter from Cantor declared, "Pedagogically, the quality of education is enhanced when students are part of a campus community that is diverse on many levels, including geographic and socioeconomic diversity….With all the changes and challenges our nation and world are experiencing, more and more a great university will be defined by whom it reaches, not whom it rejects."
Donald A. Saleh, vice president for enrollment management at Syracuse, pooh-poohed the student and faculty critics of the new recruitment strategy as fuddy-duddies who don't understand that times have changed. "There is this tension in higher education between the old ways in which colleges described the quality of their class—test scores and G.P.A. and rank in class, and the new metric, which will be much more along the lines of what we are talking about—the socioeconomic diversity, the percentage of students who are first-generation in college, and for students from the Northeast in particular, the geographic diversity of their class," he told Inside Higher Ed. "Some of our faculty members are locked into the old metrics. Our president, our provost and the deans and my area of enrollment management are focused on the new metrics."
For all the administrative happy talk at Syracuse, it seems clear that the university embarked on a perhaps not carefully thought-out experiment in admissions policy that has backfired, at least in terms of public relations. Although a venerable academic institution with several top-rated programs, Syracuse has struggled for decades with the realities of its unappealing geographic location in economically depressed upstate New York and its second-rate reputation compared to, say, the Ivy League. Although a national research university, it has historically drawn most of its students from the Northeast, a demographically declining region with a diminishing population of young people that has meant, at least in the recent past, a diminishing number of applications for freshman places at Syracuse. In 2001, for example (as Cantor's letter to the Orange pointed out), Syracuse had an acceptance rate of close to 71 percent). Syracuse spent nearly a decade pushing that figure down to under 50 percent—and boosting its U.S. News ranking substantially—and then abruptly changed course in the name of diversity. This created a new dilemma, as Saleh pointed out to Inside Higher Ed: Those large numbers of lower-income admittees chose to enroll at Syracuse in higher proportions than their wealthier counterparts who typically applied to more colleges and had more choices of where to attend. Thus, the swollen class of 2014.
What the critics among Syracuse's faculty and students fear is that this trend will continue: lower-income, marginally qualified students signing up at Syracuse in droves, while their better-prepared counterparts take a look at the situation and decide to spend their $200,000 elsewhere. The problem is that Syracuse isn't Harvard. Harvard and the other Ivies can afford to indulge in diversity admissions because, with their towering reputations, they are virtually guaranteed thousands of applicants of the highest academic caliber (Harvard turns down nine out of every ten who apply). Furthermore, neither U.S. News nor the consumer base of parents and perspective students who regard the magazine's college rankings as holy writ, have bought into that "new metric" of Saleh's that measures a school's greatness by its percentage of first-generation students who are high dropout risks. They still go by the old metric, in which SAT scores and GPA's count more. The question now is to what extent Syracuse's administrators actually believe their own Orwellian rhetoric, and to what extent the justified alarm of Syracuse's students, faculty, and perhaps alumni persuades those administrators to take a different tack in their recruiting efforts.