dotEDU Episode 15: College Admissions Under the Microscope


​​​​​​​​​Aired Feb. 10, 2020

Joyce Smith, CEO of the National Association of College Admissions Counseling ​(NACAC), talks about the many changes the field has undergone in the past three decades and what can be done to reshape it for the future. Along with hosts Jon Fansmith and Lorelle Espinosa, Smith looks back at her 30-year career at NACAC, how admissions counselors work to support students and families, and the importance of transparency, along with the Varsity Blues scandal and the association’s antitrust settlement with the Justice Department.

Afterward, the hosts chat about recent developments in Washington including the new proposed rule on free speech from the Trump administration.

[10:26 AM] O'Connell, Carly Here is the embed code:

Episode Notes

Here are some of the links and references from this week’s show:

dotEDU Episode 14: Community Colleges Bring Dreams Within Reach

NACAC Agrees to Change Its Code of Ethics
Inside Higher Ed | Sept. 30, 3019

There's no room in the residence halls at Virginia Tech. That's why freshmen are at hotels.
The Washington Post | Aug. 25, 2019

Poaching Enrolled Students: Once Taboo, Now OK
The Chronicle of Higher Education | Feb. 5, 2020

Justice Department Sues, Settles With NACAC
Inside Higher Ed
| Dec. 16, 2019

Post-interview Chat

Protecting Faith-Based Colleges
Inside Higher Ed
| Jan. 17, 2020

Hosts and Guests
Joyce E.  Smith - CEO, National Association for College Admission Counseling  -
Joyce E. Smith
CEO, National Association for College Admission Counseling

 Read this episode's transcript

Jon Fansmith [00:00:05] Hello and welcome to dotEDU, the higher education podcast from the American Council on Education, and, as I like to say, the greatest higher education podcast from the American Council on Education, maybe the greatest higher education podcast in the world.

Lorelle Espinosa [00:00:16] It might be the greatest ever.

Jon Fansmith [00:00:18] We should be aggressive about that. Sort of claim our space. I think our colleague associations who've been doing this longer than we have might have some quibbles with that. Especially since, honestly, a lot of them are better than we are, but...

Lorelle Espinosa [00:00:29] Well, we're not going to disclose that, though.

Jon Fansmith [00:00:31] It's bad marketing when you say you're the greatest and then immediately say you're not.

Lorelle Espinosa [00:00:34] I agree.

Jon Fansmith [00:00:35] Yeah. Well, hey, I'm John Fansmith, director of government relations here at ACE. And, as people listening have already heard, I'm joined by my regular co-host, Lorelle Espinosa, vice president for Research here at ACE.

Lorelle Espinosa [00:00:48] Yeah, I'm back.

Jon Fansmith [00:00:49] You're back.

Lorelle Espinosa [00:00:50] It was nice to hear my colleague Jon Turk with you last week, however.

Jon Fansmith [00:00:54] Turk!

Lorelle Espinosa [00:00:54] Turk. Yes. Oh, yes. I know you're trying to get that to catch on. That was a great episode.

Jon Fansmith [00:01:01] Yeah, it was a great episode. I really enjoyed having Karen Stout on and., you know, as I mentioned on the show, she was the president of my hometown community college athlete, a place I have very fond feelings for. So that was fantastic to have her. And obviously, you know, Jon in particular has such a passionate interest in the subject of community colleges so...

Lorelle Espinosa [00:01:20] Yeah, he does and I'm a community college transfer myself, so I am very appreciative of that conversation.

Jon Fansmith [00:01:27] Maybe should've had you and Jon Turk on instead of me, but you know. But then you wouldn't have anyone who grew up in the same town as her former institution.

Lorelle Espinosa [00:01:33] That's right. That was special.

Jon Fansmith [00:01:34] That was the unique element I brought to the chat.

Lorelle Espinosa [00:01:36] That's right. That's nice.

Jon Fansmith [00:01:37] Well, we are going to have another great conversation today. We are joined by Joyce Smith, who is the chief executive officer of NACAC, the National Association of College Admissions Counselors. And she'll be with us in just a second right after the break. [Ad plays] And welcome back. Before I bring on our guests, I should mention that I totally messed up the name of her organization, which is particularly embarrassing, as I was just saying to her earlier, that I was e-mailing with some of her staff this morning. It is, of course, the National Association for College Admission Counseling. Not whatever...I think I said something--.

Lorelle Espinosa [00:02:14] You said counselor. But they are heavily involved in the association.

Jon Fansmith [00:02:18] It's true.

Lorelle Espinosa [00:02:18] It's for partly for them and admissions officers.

Jon Fansmith [00:02:22] And I will say in my own defense, for people outside of Washington, D.C., we use a lot of acronyms. So sometimes clear attention to what's actually behind that. You know who they are. You don't necessarily always know exactly the acronym. So I'm defending myself preemptively from, I'm sure, all the hate mail from your members that I'll now get. But anyway, I'm sorry I'm taking this far too long. Joyce Smith, please, well, thank you so much for joining us and welcome to the show.

Joyce Smith [00:02:46] Thank you very much for inviting me. It's a pleasure.

Jon Fansmith [00:02:48] It's great to have you. I think this is kind of a really nice time to have you on. There's a couple different issues around college admissions that have been taking a lot of attention. I think we're going to delve into those pretty deeply, but just on a personal level, you're reaching sort of an important point in your own career. And I thought, you know, just give you the opportunity to talk a little bit about that and the work you've done at NACAC and sort of what you've seen.

Joyce Smith [00:03:13] It's been really interesting to start reflecting on the notion of retirement. I started in admissions in 1976 and that was the time when you had a roadmap, payphones, no G.P.S., state cars with no radios, and you had to find high schools. And the reality of that time is that students really came to meet with admissions people and took notes and they were interested in what you had to say. Then if you fast forward to 2020, it's hard to get into schools. I think kids feel that they learn more about admissions in the process, in colleges, from the Internet, from social media, from one another. But I think overall, I would say that I am proud to have worked in a profession that I truly believe in. And one of the things I have so appreciated about NACAC and its members. We've had a longstanding belief that we work on items that are in the best interests of students. And I think that's something that when you can put your core values into your work and you believe in that, it makes a difference for the people we serve.

Jon Fansmith [00:04:27] And I think that comes through very clearly from...I mean, I'll just say, obviously, interacting with you and with your staff and then obviously the opportunities to engage with your members, it's a group of people who really, I think, passionately believe in the work they're doing in it. And it shows through, not just in their work, but in any interaction you have with those folks. Probably also a good testimony to the person who's been in charge of the organization for an extended period of time.

Joyce Smith [00:04:52] It helps when you have a whip.

Lorelle Espinosa [00:04:56] Whip them into shape! No, it is a great organization. And I was a member in a previous life when I was in the admissions profession and I still maintain many of those friendships. They're very close to me. And I've had the privilege of speaking at your conference as a researcher and able to see some of my old friends. So it really is a wonderful group of individuals, very committed, very dedicated, and also a very young group in some ways with the new generation really embracing NACAC. So it's really nice to see.

Joyce Smith [00:05:28] The interesting thing about admissions and enrollment management. When we first started this, you couldn't get a degree in this type of work.

Jon Fansmith [00:05:37] Really?

Joyce Smith [00:05:38] You couldn't get a degree. High school counselors, of course, they get counseling degrees, but not per say in admissions per say, but the whole notion of building professionals to advance this career, this job has been especially important in the association's work.

Jon Fansmith [00:06:01] And I think that's kind of an interesting thing. You've mentioned a couple different, you know, changes you've seen in your time in admissions and at NACAC. You know, I think are there things in the profession in particular you're most proud of that you've seen over this time? You know, things that...I think obviously you sort of touched on this idea of the professionalization of the field, but other things that you've experienced or that you've seen, that as you begin to transition out of the field, you're most proud of?

Joyce Smith [00:06:30] When the twenty Midwestern institutions founded the association in 1937, it was just post-secondary admissions professionals. And, over time, as we've added to our membership, counselors were next, high schools, the independent educational consultants, community-based organizations. The notion of expanding the tent and everyone who serves students and parents could be under that tent became an important aspect of our membership. And I have to say, I believe it makes a difference when we work together as a professional network to frame statements and protocols and deadlines in support of serving students and families. I think it makes a difference. That's the one piece of our discussion later about the Department of Justice investigation that really has thrown us off a bit about how we proceed as professionals and honoring students and parents in the process.

Jon Fansmith [00:07:31] And I think we'll get into that a little bit later. But, you know, I think one of the things that...We were talking about transitions and changes. One of the things recently in particular that we've seen that has been, you know, a negative change (we're talking about the positive), but a negative change has been the public perception of higher education and particularly of the admissions process. And there's obviously reasons for that. Here at ACE, obviously we have been...we regularly sort of track the public's views of higher education. And one of those things is there's been issues with partisan views of higher education and shifting public perception and that's pretty normal. But by and large, public perception of higher ed has stayed pretty consistent and pretty consistently higher than a lot of other institutions. As faith in institutions has declined, it's hit us, too, but less so than other areas you see like finance or faith in government or things like that. That said, we did have a very big admissions scandal earlier this year. And when we look at that sort of public views, we saw really in a way that very few other events have recently, the varsity blues admissions scandal caused a sudden drop in public perception of higher ed. It rebounded a little bit, but now it stays at a consistent level that's 10-12 percentage points below where it was before that scandal. Can you just talk a little...obviously, considering who your members are and the work you do, this was a central issue for you guys. Talk a little bit about your thoughts on both the scandal itself, how that's changed the profession and particularly what institutions are doing around the aftermath of this.

Joyce Smith [00:09:08] Thanks for the opportunity to say something. The first thought that came to mind when this case broke was that one would believe that you should be able to trust people on your campuses that you work with.

Jon Fansmith [00:09:23] It seems a pretty basic thing.

Joyce Smith [00:09:24] Trust coaches, trust counselors, trust people in student affairs who may be involved in some way in shaping the incoming class or helping you make a decision about who gets admission, who gains admission. And that first notion of not being able to trust the people that you work with really struck me because I think all of our organizations have a belief in core values and professionalism and so forth. And I would like to stand on my reputation saying that Rick Singer was never a member of NACAC or there's a group called the IECA, the Independent Educational Consultants or higher ed. He was never a member of any of these professional associations, yet he created a position for himself with the rich and famous with all of these promises. But I think the outcome...When the public lacks trust in higher ed, they start questioning everything about admissions, the mission of colleges and universities and whether they're true to those missions, the costs, of course, and the level of debt that students have. Colleges start competing in ways that businesses do. And that's been confusing to a lot of families. And they then turn the game and they start playing the game with colleges, which isn't good. But the big issue about public trust is the notion of the value of a college degree and it still troubles me when I hear politicians and others say every kid doesn't need to go to college, that colleges have no value of my kid gonna get a job. They're talking about other people's kids, not their own. And that's the part that really bugs me a great deal. But the whole scandal really shook a lot of us. And I think the admissions offices, presidents, coaches and others really had to take stock in these side doors. Where are these entry points that students were getting through? And the notion of this being available always to the rich and famous. So now everything about admissions is being questioned. Legacies. Oh, that's been the longstanding 50-year way that the rich and famous get in. Donations. All of these other kinds of ways. But I think the greater issue that my members are certainly taking to heart and I think presidents are as well: transparency. Right? We need greater transparency. But it's very hard to describe an admission process with 4,000 different ways colleges may conduct their admissions process.

Jon Fansmith [00:12:08] Well, and particularly there's a lot of institutions that are open enrollment institutions. And the scandal focused on, you know, admissions to highly selective elite institutions. This is...we did some focus group work around the scandal and one of the things that was sort of surprising was, regardless of political affiliation or other viewpoints of the people responding, they said they were unsurprised by the fact that the wealthy had ways of accessing admissions that they didn't think were available to them. And so your earlier point about families gaming the system. The biggest concern they had was, "Well, what are the ways I can game the system? I want to get my kid ahead, too. I assume the field is rigged. So how do I rig it in my kids favor?" Which I don't think any of us expected going in. And it was kind of shocking that this is the point at which the perception of admissions is with the public.

Joyce Smith [00:13:04] I think from that same Gallup survey, I was fascinated by the political side of this. If the Democrats thought higher ed was too expensive. Or if the Republicans thought it was too liberal or political. Or if they were alarmed by what faculty were teaching students, that we were pushing certain agendas or whether students were properly educated. Could they get a job? All of these public trust issues have really come up and the level of debt, of course, that students leave colleges with. So there's a lot that I think our institutions have to do to rebuild that trust. And the first thing honestly is looking at who gets in, the quality of the experience that students have when they're there, and that they graduate hopefully in four and not six or eight years, that they leave with a degree if they're two-year students.

Lorelle Espinosa [00:14:00] I'm glad you touched on transparency and how hard it is to be transparent when the process is complicated. And I feel personally like that's something that we still haven't gotten right as a field, as an industry, higher education in terms of being transparent there. But it is not easy. What have your members been doing, I guess, in light of this scandal? I know making their process more transparent might be one avenue, but what are some of the other practice changes or policy changes at institutions that you're seeing take shape?

Joyce Smith [00:14:39] I don't know that schools have changed their policies or practices because it was such an elite group of colleges. But it did make others start thinking about student athletic admissions, diversity admission, the things that people question, the rich and famous, the donors, all of those kinds of things. I do think this generated a lot of cabinet level discussions on college and university campuses.

Lorelle Espinosa [00:15:04] They're looking more closely.

Joyce Smith [00:15:05] They have to. They have to.

Lorelle Espinosa [00:15:07] Start pulling the curtain back and making sure they understand.

Joyce Smith [00:15:10] But I think the other piece of this that, as I reflect on 40-some-odd years in this field, a lot of the criteria that colleges require or request for admission is generally stayed the same: grades in courses, the rigor of courses, tests, even though the use of tests and test-optional, the tests themselves have changed over time. But they still use tests as some sort of standardized measure. Looking at the...I remember when we used to have a ranking class on high school transcripts and that got booted out when everybody became number one in the class. And even the types of schools that we're talking about, it's important for admissions officers to understand that the curricula that are available for students, the courses that are offered so that they can make some sense out of the students preparation coming in. When colleges talk about holistic admissions. I've been trying to explain to families, whenever I meet with any groups of families, to put into context. Perhaps when I started out in admissions, maybe a couple of thousand applications or something that the team had to review and make decisions on. And then when you hear 100,000 applications for perhaps 5,000 students in a freshman class. The digital tools that admissions officers, enrollment officers have to use now to read through all the essays and the pieces of the application have made it considerably harder, but they have been committed to making certain that every application, every piece of that application gets consideration. Are the essays authentic? Did the kids write them? Do they have demonstrated interest in something that they're saying they're doing? That's where those kids got away with, "I'm a field hockey or I'm a rower or something." And they've never done that. The School didn't offer it. So I think in that way colleges, and specifically admissions operations, have to look more closely to make sure that where students have said, "This is my talent, my skill, my special offering," that they actually have some experience with those.

Lorelle Espinosa [00:17:37] Some reading between the lines and interrogating the application to try to pick up on those things.

Joyce Smith [00:17:43] Yeah.

Jon Fansmith [00:17:44] And there's been a little bit of...I think when the scandal first happened, you heard a lot of outcry about the idea of, "Well, somebody should do something about this!" And I think it's kind of an interesting thing that we haven't really seen a lot of action by state or federal policymakers to get into the business of college admissions. There's definitely know, I think there was a bill that was introduced that would prohibit parents from donating to an institution while their child is of college-going age or about to be of college-going age. That doesn't seem to be going anywhere right now. I know a couple other states have talked about looking at things around athletics admissions and other things, but it doesn't really seem like people, policymakers, I should say, have responded. And usually when there's public outcry, policymakers are happy to sort of jump in front and say," I'm doing something to solve this" and we haven't seen that. I'm just curious if you have thoughts about why that is. It's sort of bucking an obvious trend in this media driven age.

Joyce Smith [00:18:47] I'm grateful they aren't.

Jon Fansmith [00:18:50] You're not asking why, you're just happy they aren't?

Joyce Smith [00:18:52] I'm not asking why, I'm just grateful that they aren't. Mostly because when you think about a state that may have some combination of public and private schools, the funding that goes to the public schools, the populations of students, and particularly states where student growth isn't increasing, that lots of states in their public institutions are concerned about sustaining themselves. And the notion of trying to apply some new policy or standard. I mean, there's still lots of states that the boards of regents might say, if you're a graduate of a high school in the state, you're automatically admitted and the schools have to figure out how to serve this diversity of students who graduated, but may or may not be totally prepared for college level work. So I think there's a danger in some way with proposing legislation or some processes when the total picture isn't understood.

Jon Fansmith [00:19:51] I think that's really into Lorelle's point, too, about holistic admissions is very hard to explain to people. And I will say I've had the experience of talking to congressional staff about what goes into the admissions process, and it's always somewhat enlightening for people whose experience of it has been applying for school really and not being on the side of the institution forming a class, and what are the decisions that go into that and what holistic really means when you're talking about everything about an applicant, not just as an individual, but within a broader institutional goal of structuring a class in such a way that this institution is at the best position. So there is some responsiveness to that, the Pandora's box that you get into when you start trying to play with one aspect or the other.

Joyce Smith [00:20:33] I think that's where I would once again say the admission job has grown so much that you have to know about student projections and changes in the marketplace. Presidents and others expect the dean of enrollment to understand marketing and a lot of business principles. Revenues for colleges might be based on tuition and meeting your class yields and those types of things.

Lorelle Espinosa [00:21:01] Housing, things that you have to predict. What will happen? And it doesn't go well for you when you don't predict, right?

Jon Fansmith [00:21:08] There was that Virginia Tech example of a thousand accepted students above their target and they were scrambling to find places to put them.

Joyce Smith [00:21:16] It's sad to say, but people in admissions positions have often said their jobs often feel like that of coaches and when they don't have a winning season. There was a time that you knew a college or university's dean because they'd been there so long, because they'd done well, they know the campus, they know the faculty. They could speak with parents and students. And when things started getting digitized, when we started applying some business principles to admission, I felt that we stepped away from counseling families and students to make the right match, to make the right choice to social media and marketing and branding. And again, I know I'm old and I'm out of the door in a few months. But the whole idea of not losing that personalized approach to admission, because I think that's what made this profession special. And I think that's what makes this process more personalized. A portion of my career was at the College Board. I used to manage the student search service, which was the first time we were selling student names. And I can remember when you mailed the thick and the thin envelope and the whole household celebrated. You guys are too young to remember this. But if you got a thick envelope, you were admitted and everybody was happy. Thin meant rejection, thank you very much. And now it's chat box, and webinars, and social media.

Lorelle Espinosa [00:22:52] Go online at this hour.

Jon Fansmith [00:22:53] Right, your status will be released.

Joyce Smith [00:22:55] Yeah. So there have been some changes trying to keep pace with students of today. They're even sending text messages and things during the school day. And that's causing students during the school day to be upset they're not accepted or rejected. Some counseling offices are setting up what they're calling safe rooms for kids to come if they're happy or come if they're sad during the school day to process what's happening with admissions. So there's a lot of change.

Jon Fansmith [00:23:27] And it's interesting to me because you mentioned this idea about part of this change is driven by the adoption of business principles. And I think, you know, to the extent, beyond sort of the personal familiarity with your members listeners might have, the biggest item that NACAC has been in the news for has been this ongoing...I don't know how you term it, discussion/disagreement/resolution process with the Department of Justice recently regarding what they assert are anti-competitive practices that were part of your code of ethics. Obviously, since there has now been a resolution of that, I don't know exactly how free you are to talk about this, so I don't want to get you in any trouble even if you are retiring. I don't want to get you in a trouble on the way out the door. I will editorialize a little bit as me, not as ACE, that it seems like a very questionable use of the Department of Justice's Antitrust Division's time in this current climate to focus so much time and energy on this. But having done that, having reached a resolution with them, can you talk a little bit more about what that resolution is? And in particular, I think there might be some significant facts and we'll talk a little bit about that, too, on what colleges do as a result.

Joyce Smith [00:24:43] Sure. I wanted to make sure people understood, and we've been sharing this with the education community, what it meant to have to delete three or four statements out of our code of ethics and professional practices. One of them had to do with the use of incentives in the early decision programs. And this is the notion that colleges should be able to offer better dorms, better parking, better schedules, all of these kinds of things as an incentive to get students to apply under early decision plans. And that was something that we felt should be restricted because it should be...The traditional understanding of early decision meant, "I want that school. It's my first choice.".

Jon Fansmith [00:25:29] This will be the best fit for me.

Joyce Smith [00:25:31] Best fit for me, my parents can afford it and not, "I've got to get in there early and they're going to give me all this stuff if I go in early." So we had to remove that because the Department of Justice felt that students might be given better options as consumers if colleges could compete for them. So that's what the application of the use of incentives meant. The second statement we had to remove had to do with transfers and this had been a statement in our code of ethics for over 50 years. And it essentially said, "You will not recruit students who are currently enrolled unless initiated by the student." Unless initiated by the student. And over the last few years, we would have colleges call us to say College X put in an advertisement in college Y's student newspaper saying, "If you're not happy and you come home for Thanksgiving, stop by and see us." And we would call them and say, "Come on, give us a break. Leave our kids alone. Leave the kids alone." But now that's permitted. So we may start to see colleges thinking that they have their enrollments solid. And if transfer students start changing and they know we're trying to give greater attention to the experience of transfer students. The one positive outcome from this has been suggested that perhaps colleges will do evaluations of the credits earlier, that they may consider them earlier and with greater communication and focus than as an afterthought, which is the way a lot of transfer students are often treated. "If we don't make my freshman class, I'll fill in the difference with transfers." So the hope is that transfers might start having a more positive experience in the admissions process. But the downside is the stability of a lot of experiences for themselves. If someone starts throwing new money, new opportunities, better housing or something at them.

Jon Fansmith [00:27:39] Especially that early in your college...I mean, we're talking here more about four-year students, but obviously you're still getting a feel for the campus. You're at the programs, the offerings, the faculty, and a financial incentive to go somewhere else resets that entire process.

Joyce Smith [00:27:53] But the whole idea of transfer...and I know Lorelle could certainly speak to this, that if you ended up going to a school that was your second choice and they said, "Go someplace, get your first year, see if you're happy. If not, transfer. We'll consider you later." So the notion of transferring to that preferred school, or the school with the major you really wanted and so forth, you know, that's great when it works.

Lorelle Espinosa [00:28:18] Sure. Yeah. And I think that in reality, I think most students might go to their second and have a really great experience there. When you're fortunate enough to be able to have a choice that...I think you realize when you get there that it's actually a great choice. So, that's a different way to think about it.

Joyce Smith [00:28:39] The third thing that we had to delete, and, in my life experience as an admissions professional or an association exec, I never thought I would see a headline that said, "Poaching Enrolled Students Once Taboo, Now, OK.".

Jon Fansmith [00:28:56] I saw that headline, yeah.

Joyce Smith [00:28:57] And a lot of what has a lot of us nervous about this upcoming cycle is that it's understood that May 1 has been the accepted national candidates reply date where students make a commitment to one school. They let the other schools know and they withdraw their applications. School X knows how many kids they've gotten or waitlisted that they have to go to over the summer. But now, after May 1, it's open season. And that's the scary part for admissions professionals. I daresay college, university, housing, presidents and others who may be concerned that what you have projected is your target yield and May 1 you got your accepts or some firm commitment through a deposit to your class--.

Jon Fansmith [00:29:50] Shaped your class.

Joyce Smith [00:29:52] Shaped your class, looked at diversity and so forth, and maybe you could take the summer off.

Jon Fansmith [00:29:58] Maybe not off. Just a little lighter than spring.

Joyce Smith [00:30:03] But now that's not the case. And that's what we're all preparing for, to see if people hold firm to what has always been their belief about the process for students and a part of doing these kind of podcasts and communications with parents and students and others. They're starting to see different things. High school counselors are telling us some colleges are asking them to commit earlier than May 1. Some of them are offering stronger financial aid packages. Some of them are asking for larger deposits. And I saw from some of the research that if colleges explain what the deposit is for, because there are enrollment deposits and housing deposits and some other things. So we're starting to see some colleges change. And I think everyone is waiting to see who's going to be the first one to really do something outrageous.

Jon Fansmith [00:31:02] Sort of big and aggressive that they couldn't do before.

Joyce Smith [00:31:05] Yeah.

Jon Fansmith [00:31:06] And I will say the article that you referenced was about a survey that had been released by consulting firm I guess, EAB, which was a survey of college admissions counselors, and it said some of the results. I think the ones that everyone focused on were 35% of those who responded said they would consider now reaching out to students who had previously applied and recruiting them as transfers. And as you point out, the distinction there being that the institution would be proactively reaching out, not waiting until someone had reached out to them. And they said...Yeah, I think even maybe more troubling from your perspective that 11 percent were considering the idea of going after currently enrolled students who had never applied to their institution, but targeting them for transfer as well. So, yeah, I'm interested a little bit this year, seeing who's gonna be the first out of the gates. You know, obviously a lot of people seem to be thinking about what this means for them. I share your trepidation a little bit about how that's going to actually actionize or, you know, go into action as we go forward through the spring and into the summer.

Joyce Smith [00:32:15] The scary aspect of this is, for the small colleges that are really hurting, there are a number of colleges that are on their last leg, and if this is the time to really break out, use whatever financial dollars they have to try to compete with in-state or out-of-state institutions. That's the fear that they're really going to try to be aggressive to preserve the institution. And I don't know that that's a smart approach because you have to sustain that. You can't just shoot once and get some kids and then not be able to sustain whatever you're offering. I think the other piece is the confusion that it will start with families and students. Unlike DOJ, I don't know that parents and students will fully appreciate this notion of colleges competing. They're not consumers. There's 17-year-old kids who are going to a college because their girlfriend's going there, or they have a major, or they going to play tennis or something like that. And when you start applying this notion that you're going to get a better offer of financial aid, and a better this, and a better that because colleges can now compete for you.

Jon Fansmith [00:33:31] And the ways in which they can compete are much more...And there's always sort of an understanding that financial aid packages could be sort of weighed against each other in certain circumstances. But now we're talking about incentives about which dorm, do you get preferential housing, do you get access to X, Y and Z, do you get this and that and the other.

Joyce Smith [00:33:51] And, you know what? The fear and concern that we've always had about first-gen, under-represented, underserved. They don't know to call a college to say, "Improve my financial aid package, please." They're not going to do that.

Jon Fansmith [00:34:08] Most people are so excited to be accepted. They don't generally think, "Well, now this is the beginning of a bigger negotiation."

Lorelle Espinosa [00:34:14] But it does reveal a different level of inequity. It's really, you know, supporting this gamesmanship or what-have-you for a certain type of student and family. And where we would like to see energies is placed elsewhere, including by the institutions. How do they better enroll and support, not these types of transfer students, but the type we were talking about earlier, the first-gen students that start in community colleges and how institutions can act as engines of mobility in that way. So it's distracting.

Joyce Smith [00:34:52] The notion of, quote, "trying to level the playing field," it's not level. Never has been. And the notion of...I would love it if there was evidence that colleges were going to be competing for those diverse students. But I can guarantee you it's going to be the full-paying...those who have the ability to pay. And that's generally not low-income students, or students of color, or first gen kids who once again might be marginalized with this game that's going to be shifting over the next couple of months, which I hope doesn't happen. But that's the fear.

Lorelle Espinosa [00:35:31] That's the fear. Yes, of course. And it's a valid fear.

Jon Fansmith [00:35:34] Yeah. I think sadly, as that survey sort of pointed out, it's a very valid fear. Joyce, I want to thank you so much for taking the time today to come on and join us. It's been a really good and lively conversation. Before we say goodbye to you, though, were there any last thoughts you want to share, anything you want to bring up or corrections of something I said or reiteration of something Lorelle said?

Joyce Smith [00:35:59] I just hope that the principles that we've...core values that we've always applied to our professionalism and to our work with families and students, that we don't lose that trust in the name of competition. There're relationships between and among colleges that are very special and they want to preserve those. And right now, some are afraid to even talk to each other with the notion of colluding that the Department of Justice in this action is planted in all of our minds about how we proceed. Our association will be under review for the next five to seven years. And there are standards that we have to comply with. We have to make certain we educate the public and our members about antitrust concerns. But I still hold and want to hold true to the statement I started out with, that our association and our profession believe in operating in the best interests of the students. And that's the one thing that is different from DOJ's concern about colleges being able to compete. That we set up a very different marketplace for the families and students we serve and for the relationships that we've cultivated over many years. So I hope that we're able to see some real core values and transparency in work that continues in admissions.

Lorelle Espinosa [00:37:29] Here, here.

Jon Fansmith [00:37:31] Absolutely. And obviously that will be a focus of the association while you're there and I assume to your successor as well, whoever that person may be.

Lorelle Espinosa [00:37:40] No pressure.

Jon Fansmith [00:37:41] No pressure. Big shoes to fill. Well, Joyce, thank you again so much for coming on. I really enjoyed having you and appreciate your time.

Joyce Smith [00:37:47] Thank you for having me. Thank you.

Jon Fansmith [00:37:49] And we'll be back after a brief break.

Lorelle Espinosa [00:37:56] And we're back.

Jon Fansmith [00:37:57] We are back.

Lorelle Espinosa [00:37:58] We are back. That was a great conversation. I really like Joyce.

Jon Fansmith [00:38:01] Yes. She's so incredibly nice and engaging.

Lorelle Espinosa [00:38:03] She really is. And you can obviously...On a podcast, you can't see the people. She's just very warm and, you know, expressive and funny, body language and facial expressions.

Jon Fansmith [00:38:19] And deeply thoughtful and passionate about her work and her members' work. It really comes across.

Lorelle Espinosa [00:38:24] I love how she always goes back to students. Students are not her members, but she always goes back to the students.

Jon Fansmith [00:38:31] And putting students at the center, which is a recurring theme we've got on the podcast.

Lorelle Espinosa [00:38:36] It is. And it should be that.

Jon Fansmith [00:38:38] It definitely should.

Lorelle Espinosa [00:38:39] But, you know, admissions is an interesting profession. So I mentioned I was in admissions, highly selective admissions, early in my career. And just watching it now as an outsider, I don't do admissions anymore. I've studied admissions here at ACE. But, you know, it's just an interesting field to watch because it is going through so much change that is a lot to do with changing demographics of students and, you know, facing up to inequities. But also, like she mentioned, technology. I mean the practice of doing admissions has changed. So it's just a very interesting field. And I would encourage anyone who's interested in it to check it out because it also is a very rewarding field. And you can hear that in her voice. The role that these people play. It's also a field that is getting more attention in the research community, so academics. I mean, Julie Posselt who we had on does do a lot of work on graduate admissions. And there's a group of scholars, including out of Colorado that are looking at admissions. They had a big convening, I don't know if we mentioned this before, called Hack the Gates and their reimagining.

Jon Fansmith [00:39:49] We did. So you're saying these are exactly your people. Researchers and admissions people.

Lorelle Espinosa [00:39:52] That's right. That's right. Yeah. Exactly. Getting together to think out of the box. And it's largely driven by the notion that we need a more equitable space in admissions. So that was cool. And we have some things to share here on this, too. Just to mention, on the Engage platform, on the Engage Conversation series, we have Scott Cowen talking there. He's the president emeritus of Tulane and he had a conversation there with Philip Rogers on how we should change college admissions. So he has an opinion that folks might want to check out.

Jon Fansmith [00:40:28] And then they can engage with the conversation.

Lorelle Espinosa [00:40:31] That's right. Go get on the platform there. And you know, we also at ACE and our research shop are going to be fielding a survey of presidents. So Joyce had mentioned the views of presidents quite often in the conversation. And so we're going to be serving presidents on the issue of public trust and admission. So we'll field that in early March and it'll come out--.

Jon Fansmith [00:40:53] Right ahead of the Annual Meeting.

Lorelle Espinosa [00:40:54] Yeah, right before that. But will come out, you know, like a couple months after. And it'll be interesting to hear presidential perspectives on if it has affected their campus, how they view their campus versus the larger field, things that they've been thinking about, things that they think about when it comes to how we should, quote unquote, "reform admissions." So that should be pretty interesting.

Jon Fansmith [00:41:15] Yeah, very much so.

Lorelle Espinosa [00:41:16] So keep an eye out for that. And that's in partnership, by the way, with the USC Center for Enrollment Research Policy and Practice. So we're grateful for their collaboration. So, yeah, this topic is not going anywhere.

Jon Fansmith [00:41:27] No. No.

Lorelle Espinosa [00:41:29] We'll keep people posted.

Jon Fansmith [00:41:30] And like you said earlier, that college admissions seems to be at the center of a whole lot of the different we're talking about in higher education.

Lorelle Espinosa [00:41:39] Which makes sense. Gateway.

Jon Fansmith [00:41:40] Absolutely. So we'll continue to be talking about it.

Lorelle Espinosa [00:41:44] So what's going on in your world these days?

Jon Fansmith [00:41:46] That's you know, there's a fair amount going on, obviously. We are recording this towards the end of a very interesting week. You know, this week started off with the Iowa caucuses that weren't.

Lorelle Espinosa [00:41:57] That weren't.

Jon Fansmith [00:41:58] At least as of our recording, they still remain in double digits, not quite reported in. We followed that off with Tuesday with a very dramatic State of the Union. Regardless of your political affiliations, I think people can agree there was a lot of drama.

Lorelle Espinosa [00:42:16] Very reality TV oriented.

Jon Fansmith [00:42:18] It was. It was a lot of "Wow" moments.

Lorelle Espinosa [00:42:21] Not a lot of higher ed.

Jon Fansmith [00:42:23] Not really any higher ed.

Lorelle Espinosa [00:42:25] Not any higher ed.

Jon Fansmith [00:42:26] There's a lot of emphasis on school choice at the elementary and secondary level. But really, no, higher ed didn't get much mention at all in this State of the Union, which, you know, in some ways can be a blessing too. Don't necessarily want to be the focus of national attention, depending on what the subject is. And then we had impeachment on Wednesday, the votes. The president was acquitted on both counts.

Lorelle Espinosa [00:42:55] Quite a week in Washington and just sort of matching the mood, it's been gloomy here. It's been rainy and--.

Jon Fansmith [00:43:03] I am wearing my rainy-day cardigan sweater. Yes, it's very comfortable. Emotionally supportive sweater.

Lorelle Espinosa [00:43:08] It kind of looks very Mr. Rogers.

Jon Fansmith [00:43:11] It is. It's very...I was going more academic, but really it actually works more Mr. Rogers than academic, less professorial, more kindly old man. Well, kindly old man is a look I can happily embrace. If I get that, I'm fine. You know, the one other thing I'll say, you ask what's going on in that we and I think our members are paying a lot of attention to is, the Department of Education put out a notice of proposed rulemaking in January, mid-January, January 17th, I believe. And this was particularly interesting to us because it is the follow up to President Trump's executive order on campus free speech. And essentially, this is the attempt of the Department to put into regulation what that free speech executive order means. It's interesting in a lot of ways. I think probably one of the things that strikes us the most about it is, there's 12 different government agencies that were tasked in the executive order with developing free speech policies on campus.

Lorelle Espinosa [00:44:15] That's not common for--.

Jon Fansmith [00:44:16] No. This is somewhat unusual. And they really are the Department of Education, obviously, because of the interactions with colleges and universities. Most other ones are federal research funding agencies. And since the hook here is that the enforcement of your free speech policies or First Amendment is tied to research funding. That's why it's those agencies. The Department of Ed is the first one out of the gates with rules in this area. So obviously what they are proposing could very well become the template for other agencies. I think, you know, my colleague, Anne Meehan, has really done a tremendous amount of work here. So I don't want to go too deep into the details of it. I will say we have a lot of concerns about what this means. There are some things that are reassuring. It doesn't touch Title IV aid, so a school won't lose their Pell grants or lose their ability to make loans if there is a conflict with the department over whether they've appropriately enforced the First Amendment or their own speech codes on the campus. But there's a lot of issues where we're concerned about whether it's practical to apply, whether it'll conflict with various state laws. You know, frankly, just a big area of concern. And comments are due very soon. They're due in a couple weeks back to the Department.

Lorelle Espinosa [00:45:30] They didn't give much time for that, did they?

Jon Fansmith [00:45:33] Not very much time. It's being moved...considering the significance of it and the complexity of it, when you get down to the fact that First Amendment, as it's understood by courts, varies from state to state, jurisdiction to jurisdiction, even different federal district and circuit courts have different interpretations and standards they use. To have this one sort of uniform federal rule just opens up all sorts of possibilities for complexity and conflict that are really hard to anticipate.

Lorelle Espinosa [00:45:59] And what about private institutions? How is that different?

Jon Fansmith [00:46:02] It treats private institutions differently. Public institutions have a requirement to follow the First Amendment. Private institutions have a requirement to follow their own codes. So different schools will have free expression codes or free speech codes or things like that. Both institutional types, the department gets involved when there has been a binding knot or a final, I forget the exact term, but essentially a final judgment has been reached in a court proceeding that's not a default judgment. So essentially, you've either...a judge has found against you and you haven't appealed it or you've appealed all the way up and appeals have turned out against your favor. That would be the basis for the department getting involved and they would suspend grant funding. They have a lot of options, but the hook is the support.

Lorelle Espinosa [00:46:52] That's various agencies.

Jon Fansmith [00:46:52] Right. So anyway, so that's thankfully taking Anne's time, not as much of my time, but it is definitely something that we're hearing a lot about from members, a lot of concern and a lot of desire to understand what the rule is--.

Lorelle Espinosa [00:47:06] Of course, I guess it's not ironic that the types of institutions where we've seen the most visible clashes around speech are the very large research universities that receive a lot of dollars from those agencies. I guess there's that statement to be made there by this administration.

Jon Fansmith [00:47:21] It's where the attention has been focused.

Lorelle Espinosa [00:47:24] Yeah, but yeah, this is...As we've talked before and certainly when we had our guests on talking about this issue a few episodes ago, this is a space that ACE has also done a bit of research on  and we are really excited to be a co-sponsor for the release of the Knight Foundation's new survey of free expression on campus of students. So they did this survey and I mentioned this last time we were a co-sponsor on the survey a couple of years ago. So they've done the survey again and we're looking to release it likely in early April, that first full week of April. So keep an eye out for that. We're gonna do a convening here in D.C. with the free speech project at Georgetown and you know, Gallup is the one that fields the surveys so they will be involved. So, that'll be a good conversation. I've had a sneak peek at some of the findings. I'm not going to reveal anything.

Jon Fansmith [00:48:19] No teasers? No spoilers?

Lorelle Espinosa [00:48:21] Just to say that it continues to be a very interesting perspective when you look at student attitudes and you know, we sort of square that with the First Amendment. And, you know, the generational differences perhaps, or just some of the challenges navigating inclusion on campuses in light of activity here. And that's where we like to look at it, at that intersection of speech and inclusion. And we're really grateful for the Knight Foundation, who continues to do this great work.

Jon Fansmith [00:48:50] Support this work.

Lorelle Espinosa [00:48:51] Really put it out there. It's a great resource in and of itself. So, stay tuned. I'll mention the details on a future podcast.

Jon Fansmith [00:49:00] Okay. And early April would be, considering what's going on with the department and just more broadly with this administration's interest in this issue, very good timing to actual data.

Lorelle Espinosa [00:49:11] Set us up for some good conversation.

Jon Fansmith [00:49:13] And some maybe informed advocacy. I'll put it that way. So links to everything Lorelle mentioned as well as some of the other resources are available that Joyce mentioned through NACAC can be found on our Web site page at as well as previous episodes both with Lorelle and without. Have we done one without me so far this year?

Lorelle Espinosa [00:49:40] I don't think. Well the year just began.

Jon Fansmith [00:49:42] Well, not this year, this session. Fair point.

Lorelle Espinosa [00:49:45] This last 12-month period.

Jon Fansmith [00:49:46] I'm trying to think.

Lorelle Espinosa [00:49:48] I don't think so.

Jon Fansmith [00:49:52] That's Audrey, our producer for people listening, in the background, she's shouting the next one.

Lorelle Espinosa [00:49:57] Sarah and I are doing... That's right. Sarah and I are doing the next one.

Jon Fansmith [00:50:01] By the way, we don't have a formal policy on producers shouting at us while we're on mics. So, Audrey, I guess Audrey, who is a podcast veteran, is introducing new rules as we go along.

Lorelle Espinosa [00:50:12] She can do that. She's a producer.

Jon Fansmith [00:50:14] Maybe she'll post these new rules on our Web site. So when you check out the resources, check out Audrey's rules for podcasting. Little example for the rest of you who're thinking about getting into this game. I should also mention, because now Audrey will yell at me again if I don't, that you can find our podcast on Apple Podcasts, on Stitcher, or wherever you get your podcasts. In addition to our Web site. And then finally, just say we have actually started getting some suggestions on topic ideas or possible guests, which makes me very happy because I've been, I think, desperately pleading for that the last few... It's getting increasingly pathetic. But keep them coming. We reply. We're friendly people. We want to hear your thoughts.

Lorelle Espinosa [00:50:58] And there's a good suggestion.

Jon Fansmith [00:50:59]  Good suggestions. Yeah, we're gonna incorporate a few of them. And for those people who did make them that we use, we're gonna show you out. So there you go. I think I promise books earlier? Maybe a shout out's more appealing to people.

Lorelle Espinosa [00:51:12] I don't know. You promised books.

Jon Fansmith [00:51:13] All right. Well, we'll have to give books and shout outs. All right. Well, anyway, so think about what you want to have us talk about. We'll be happy to engage with you about it. Thanks again, everyone, for listening. To Malcolm, to Audrey, to Carly, to Laurie, to all the folks who help us sound remotely decent on this podcast, thanks for your assistance. And we'll talk to soon. ​​

About the Podcast

​Each episode of dotEDU presents a deep dive into a major issue impacting college campuses and students across the country. Hosts from ACE are joined by guest experts lead you through thought-provoking conversations on topics such as campus free speech, diversity in admissions, college costs and affordability, and more. Find all episodes of the podcast at the dotEDU page​.

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