Starting at the Base: A Thorough Look into the Wabash Admissions Department
In our last issue we talked a lot about our outlook on things in the wake of, and yet in the midst of, some of the rougher times in the history of our College. In fact, even to add a slightly romantic touch we stuck in a poem about the literal view one might see gazing nostalgically across campus. But to take that view and turn it in to something kinetic, we’re now talking about walking, and not just looking, down the rows of Halls, and trees, and springtime fauna. We are turning around and pushing off, one step at a time. We believe that thoughtful, intentional, confident steps will take us from where we are to where we want to go. In the theme of looking ahead and providing a solid future for Wabash, we felt it necessary to start at our base—recruiting and admissions. As for myself, I decided a good beginning for this work would be to research our Wabash Admissions Department, not out of critical spite, but just to learn a little about it. I certainly ended up learning more than just a little.
For those unaware, Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid Steve Klein and his staff is located in Trippet Hall, on the far north end of campus. For many outsiders, Trippet provides the first glimpse of Wabash, and it is without doubt one of our greatest ambassadors. Beautifully furnished with artwork and stately interior architecture, it greets all visitors to campus, especially visiting prospective students, with a warm handshake and a classic grin, and offers them a splendid view of our dear campus from wide, spotless windows. Fresh coffee, plush chairs and abundant literature invites guests to sit and relax, and maybe wonder what it might be like to spend a college career on such a serene campus. But a short exploration reveals that this inspiring view is seen only from the front of the building. Down the stairs and towards the back, that view becomes just a vague memory. It’s suddenly clouded out by closed doors, cubicles and drab gray walls that lack personality.
Unfortunately it’s in this disconnected environment where you’ll find the Admissions and Financial Aid Offices. Now, I don’t mean to say that these departments live lives disconnected from the rest of the College. To be sure, Dean Klein and his staff work unbelievably hard to stay connected and in touch with the spirit of the school. As Dean Klein reported to Jim Amidon in an early February interview celebrating the 1,456th received application for the fall ’09 semester, “We recruit students the old-fashioned way- person to person. We build interpersonal relationships with families that endure. As we build those relationships, we’re also utilizing new technologies- our website, blogs, Facebook, and even YouTube. What it boils down to is a fully integrated, campus-wide approach to recruiting” (“Applications at an All-Time High”, Feb. 9, 2009).
Yes, this seems in excellent accord with the spirit of Wabash. The latest edition of “Our Core Values: What We as a Community Believe In”, published with the latest draft of President White’s Strategic Plan, places a firm emphasis on “A personal context to teaching and learning that encourages…candid, respectful, face to face conversations.” Recruitment techniques are obviously right on track with this. But I noted that in his interview with Amidon, Dean Klein also said, with reference to the slipping economy: “We’re in unprecedented circumstances this year. We usually rely on historical data for building our freshman class; we have predictive models that indicate the percentages of our admitted students who will enroll here in the fall. [But] this year is unpredictable.”
This struck me for two reasons: First, I was curious what these so-called predictive models were, and how they related to our famous personal touch; and secondly, I wondered to what extent economic duress affects recruitment methods, specifically how it changes the balance between “personal” and “predictive”. I directed these questions to Dean Klein but due to scheduling difficulties was ultimately unable to meet with him. I decided instead to sit down to talk with Charlie Blaich, Director of the Center of Inquiry and former Associate Professor of Psychology at Wabash. —Hi, Charlie, I said. Do you have a second? —Of course, he said.
Dr. Blaich not only answered my questions, he answered them with a nice plethora of helpful information besides. He talked about how the recruiting process can be modeled like a funnel, where large numbers of names and mass mailings sift down over time to increasingly more manageable numbers and increasingly more personalized attention. “The recruiting process will always focus on students with specific backgrounds—athletes, academic and theater standouts, etc.,” he said. “But it’s hard work to find young men who will thrive in this place.” He noted that recently there’s been debate around whether recruiting should focus on admitting well-rounded classes or well-rounded students, which is a fascinating debate, but did not say whether that was true or not of Wabash. But he continued, echoing Dean Klein: “The economy has a large effect. Things are different this year and no one knows what to expect.” In regards to the most personally direct recruiting and distribution of limited scholarship money, he explained that, “It’s complicated. There comes a point when the Admissions and Financial Aid Offices have to make some critical decisions: Which types of students best fit our mission and core values? To which students should we give the most financial aid?”
Complication in point: Several years ago Dr. Blaich and other honorable Drs. from various departments at Wabash conducted a study to determine what role athletics, a single aspect of college life among many, play in the environment of small liberal arts colleges, especially Wabash. They then posed research-backed questions as to what role athletics should be playing based on those institutions’ missions statements. I did my own bit of research on the official Wabash College Mission Statement, and surprisingly found that nowhere among our listed core values is athletics clearly enumerated. Whereas “A culture of competition without malice” might include athletics, it is not a necessary correlation. Although Blaich noted that not all athletic sports shared the same results, the Drs.’ study “How does the Game of Life Play at Liberal Arts Institutions?” revealed that “Athletes at these institutions typically entered college with slightly lower standardized test scores and high school academic performance than non-athletes”, a fact that might seem initially contradictory to a Wabash core value that is clearly enumerated in our mission statement: “A rigorous liberal arts education that fosters [among other things], ‘a local scholarly community’, and ‘a dedication to the serious pursuit of learning’”. Yet the study also revealed that “Athletes showed higher levels of engagement than non-athletes on several aspects of student engagement, including student-faculty relations.” So, although they may not be up to par on some core values, athletes excel regarding others. It’s a complicated process for any institution to decide which values are truly more valuable.
But this problem is not seen in athletics alone. It’s just an example. For the study results continue: “Such questions about athletics are no different than the questions faculty can and should ask about study abroad, undergraduate research, academic majors, and other programs on our campuses.” At Wabash, just as the worth of these different programs can never be precisely, quantifiably measured, men are not judged to be “exemplar” or “poor” students based on their performance of core values in individual areas alone, but rather on their embodiment of the spirit of the College mission statement as a whole. Blaich summed it up for me: “Chemistry, Psychology, football, theater, publications—they’re all just means to an end: to think critically, for instance.”
Very well. I do not envy Dean Klein and his staff the complicated sorting out of this hugely complex system of analysis. But in spite of these inherent complexities, at least one thing is clear: When the day’s paperwork is done and the final numbers are tallied up, the Admissions Department decides who makes up each freshmen class—and effectively who makes up the Wabash student body.
Therefore, the importance of looking closely at prospective high school seniors should never be underestimated. But something still nagged me. It was clear that we do an excellent job letting prospects get to know Wabash, and that we invest a lot of thought and research into what types of students we want here, but it was as yet unclear to me just to what extent Wabash works to get to know the prospective students themselves.
When it comes to determining admittance to any college, the step between admitting student types and student faces is a great leap. Perhaps I do not need to mention all the various reasons why. We can all imagine the many possible bad consequences that can result when students are admitted based on apparent attributes, yet are able to hide much of their true personalities. Of course, the appearance vs. reality binary is inherent in all things, and there are unavoidable limits to even what might be the Admission Department’s best attempts to find prospects’ true identities. But the attempt to do so is still entirely necessary.
In my research I happily found indications that Wabash still does strive to get to know its prospective students. As I learned from Mr. David Clapp, Director of Off-Campus Studies and International Students, the most recent development in his role in the admissions process has been no less than the greatly increased personalization of international recruitment. Beginning last summer and continuing throughout this year, he and his staff have been using the modern internet marvel “Skype” to connect on a face to face basis with international recruits half a world away. “From my desk I can talk with prospective students from all around the world, and we can even take them on campus tours or help guide them through complicated paperwork. I can get a much better idea of their English and personal ity through personal conversation rather than e-mails, and they can get a better understanding of the campus and the Wabash personality this way, too. After they’re accepted I can then [using Skype] prepare them for the all important Visa Interview at the US Consulate- by role playing- which is another much added benefit.” Mr. Clapp’s work is a great example of that key goal of personal touch which Dean Klein so heavily stressed, but it’s fundamentally different. Clapp’s work of getting to know the prospective students personally takes place before they are admitted, not after, so that their admittance depends upon how well the Admissions staff thinks they will thrive in this challenging environment.
This puzzles me. Why should personal discrimination of any sort, let alone discrimination based on personality, occur just in regards to international recruiting? Granted, some might say that this isn’t the case, that it just happens earlier for international students than it does for United States residents, and that the Dean of Students performs this judgment when necessary; certainly every year there are cases where students are removed from the College by the Dean’s Office for all manner of ungentlemanly behavior. But, I would argue, why should that removal have to wait? Why couldn’t that ungentlemanly behavior be sorted out in the admissions process beforehand? Are there no signs apparent during the senior year in high school that might seem telling of future behavior, signs that would be caught by in-depth personal interviews? One can only speculate. But while the case for wholesale, required interviews to sort out the bad apples could surely be made, there is a very strong case otherwise as well. It’s no small fact that there exist stories upon stories of students radically turned around by the Wabash culture and the very installation of core Wabash values. Indeed, it would not be far-fetched to assume that every graduating senior has been fundamentally altered by their Wabash education. Required interviews for all students, while helpful to some extent, would limit the possibilities of a genuine Wabash-induced transformation.
There are many sides to this incredibly complex issue, and I will not profess to have come up with any genius solutions. The experienced, hard working, intelligent others in high places, whose success is evident and continual, I will not in good Wabash faith critique. In closing, I find that the issue, regardless of yet unresolved problems, can be solved at least in part by a fundamental constant: Whether students arrive on campus as prospective high school seniors attracted by the personable approach of a genuinely smiling recruiter and a tempting scholarship check, or as freshmen Wallies who, by the chance of an impersonal recruiting model chose Wabash as the playground of their late teenage years, it is absolutely necessary that they are immediately and continually bombarded and infused with our core values. In their future Wabash careers, then, no matter where they find their steps directed- whether across a glistening campus on a bright spring afternoon or down carpeted stairs leading towards the coldest fringes of their environment- they’ll be strong men well-able to carry the trust of their peers—brothers and professors alike. As Dean Klein remarks at the end of his interview with Amidon, “We’ve always been able to do what it takes to get the job done. We’ll keep working hard, moving forward, and seeing what happens, and as a result we’ll be that much smarter heading into next year.” Exactly.