Podcast Transcript: Who Gets Into College? Interview with Jeff Selingo

In this two-guest episode, Dan talks to Nancy Reasland of Cornell College in Mount Vernon, Iowa, about how the college has been so successful fighting the spread of Covid-19, and Jeff Selingo explains how the college admissions process is built to serve the needs of colleges, not students. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Dan:     We’ve spent a lot of time talking about the pandemic, both in terms of successes and failures for institutions, but I’d like to spend some time talking to you about specific successes that I’ve learned about in the course of researching for this podcast. I’d like to start at Cornell College in Mount Vernon, Iowa. I spoke to Nancy Reasland there, who is their Pandemic Response Coordinator, and I thought the conversation that we had was very interesting about how a small school has the ability to actually beat the record of larger schools with more resources. Nancy, would you describe your college’s infection rates as low, and if so, to what do you attribute that?

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Reasland:         Yes. Our infection rate is very low, we currently have three students, just three students, currently diagnosed with COVID and, I believe two employees, so I think that’s very low [laughs]. Our current enrollment is just over a thousand, and we have approximately 875 students on campus. We’re on the block plan here at Cornell, students take one class for three and a half weeks before they break, and then a new block. So we are well into our second block, and so the fact that we have that many is pretty remarkable, I think. What do I attribute it to? I really think there is not one factor. It is meticulously laid groundwork; we’ve had probably 15 task forces that began meeting last March and met through the summer and into the fall to plan and plan and plan [laughs]. And so there was a whole lot of groundwork. We also have really promoted a culture of caring at Cornell. We are a small campus. We do care about each other. Students feel quite connected to their professors, and they know the names of the staff members that work in the cafeteria. We really do have a culture of caring, and we have really promoted that culture to include wearing masks, being mindful about your proximity to others, and following guidelines. Students and employees signed a commitment. It was not required, but encouraged to sign a commitment that, if you’re going to be on campus this fall, you’re going to follow the guidelines. I really believe that that has carried through. I also don’t want to minimize that our students are highly motivated. They want to be on campus. They want to be in class, unlike large universities where students live in apartments and studying remotely means you still get to live in your apartment with your friends.

Dan:     I know that many schools have adopted a hybrid approach in which some classes are online and some are not. I know that you have chosen that approach as well. Can you talk a little bit about how exactly you’ve implemented that?

Reasland:         Well, our students do have hybrid options in classes, but Cornell is known for smaller classes, very interactive faculty, student repartee in the classroom, and they really want to be in-person if at all possible, you know, last March we sent them all home. So if we had to go completely remote, it doesn’t mean you get to be on campus in your apartment, it means you’re going home [laughs]. And nobody wants to do that, so I think students are really highly committed and motivated to make it work.

Dan:     Can we take a moment and revisit the issue of block scheduling that you mentioned earlier? It’s been my impression that all other things being equal, colleges that have chosen to implement block scheduling have done better. I wondered if you could talk about whether your experience dovetails with that.

Reasland:         Oh, yeah, it’s huge. You know, our, our classes are often only 14 or 15 people, and those are the people you’re in class with every day. And we have mitigation in the classroom, fans with HEPA filters and, and distancing. So even then, with the 15 people, we have mitigation efforts in, in place and it makes contact tracing so much easier. And we have had a couple of instances with our few positive students where they have actually not named anyone in the class as a positive contact because of the mitigation efforts in the classroom. And so it may be their only positive contact is their roommate. It’s just huge.

Dan:     Can you just talk for a minute about your confidence level in terms of maintaining your low infection rate? There are lots of schools that started off strong but as soon as they were a one week, two week, three weeks into the semester, things began to change. You’ve got a good record so far. What do you think your prospects are for maintaining it?

Reasland:         My answer to that is I think everybody in this country, and Cornell is no exception, I think we’re all getting pandemic fatigue and I absolutely do worry about that. Especially going into the winter months where we can be outside less, and mitigation efforts inside become more important. I am really worried about that. So yeah, my answer is, I don’t know that we’re going to be able to keep this up. I hope so. [laughs]

Dan:     [Laughs] Is there anything else you’d like to share with me about steps you’ve may have taken at your college that you think have helped keep infection rates low?

Reasland:         At Cornell, we tend to do things differently, and I think our response to COVID is no exception. Brandy Shanata is a [statistics] professor on campus. She and a team of students have developed, I think, a really interesting testing strategy that we have employed. We did not test all students when they arrived, but we immediately employed this testing strategy, and it is a randomized strategy for employees (we are also testing employees). So they are randomized, but the students are being more stratified. And by that, I mean she is choosing high-contact groups of students, so that includes musicians, athletes, Greek groups, that kind of thing. And we are regularly sampling people from those groups every week. She’ll choose one person from every residence hall or residents’ floor. And so that testing strategy she feels is going to keep our R-naught, how many people, if one person has COVID, how many people are they going to spread it to? So that’s the R-Naught value. And she feels this testing strategy can keep R-Naught at one or less so far. I believe that she’s right now increasing our testing of athletes so that they can begin to practice in a more normal fashion. So we are testing about a quarter of our student body, every block. So we are doing a lot of testing.

Dan:     I’ve been talking with Nancy Reasland, the Pandemic Coordinator at Cornell College in Mount Vernon, Iowa. Nancy, thanks so much for being with me today.

Reasland:         Thanks for the work you do.

Dan:     And now I’m delighted to introduce you to my main segment guest for the day. Jeff Selingo has written about higher education for more than two decades. He’s the author of two New York Times bestsellers, is a contributor to the Atlantic and a special advisor at Arizona State University, where he is a fellow in the University Design Institute. He also co-hosts the podcast FutureU. His writing has appeared in the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, and he’s the former top editor of the Chronicle of Higher Education. His newest book. Who Gets In and Why: A Year Inside College Admissions, was published by Simon and Schuster in 2020. Jeff, welcome to the podcast.

Selingo:            It’s great to be here. Thank you.

Dan:                 You had extensive access to admissions departments in several well-known schools. I found the access that you had amazing. I was astounded that the schools were willing to grant you that kind of extensive access. And I’m so curious, how would you characterize your findings after spending so much time with them?

Selingo:            Well, college admissions is a big business. It’s a $9 billion business, by thousands of colleges and universities, that is really in some ways, no different than a typical sales cycle for any company out there that sells anything, where you’re trying to get your potential customers into your funnel, which in this case, are prospective students, you’re taking them through the funnel. In this case, you have gatekeepers who either accept or reject them. And then the ones you accept, you’re trying to get to enroll. So it is in so many ways, it is a sales job. And that sales job is really much more related to the needs and the priorities of the institution, much like a business would have priorities, to try to raise its stock price or raises prices or whatever it might be. And the same thing is happening with colleges and universities. They have priorities as well, to enroll more kids from the Northwest or the Southeast, depending on where they’re located; to enroll more students who could pay the full price; whatever it might be; they have priorities that the admissions office is left to fulfill.

Dan:     In the book, you make a distinction that I thought was so clean and simple and helpful, between “buyers” and “sellers” as institutions. Can you take a moment to describe that?

Selingo:            Yeah. One of the things I realized in reporting the book is that in admissions, there are haves and have nots among institutions. There are institutions that I refer to as Sellers, and there’s only probably about 60 of them. These are the most selective colleges and universities in the country, and they have something to sell, usually a brand name, access to the job market. And as a result, they don’t need to play games, and offer discount coupons and discount their tuition in ways to enroll a class. In fact, they have way many more applicants than they have space – many more qualified applicants than they have space. The vast majority of colleges, though, are what I call Buyers. Don’t think of this as a binary system – there are extreme Buyers and slight Buyers, right? So there are Buyers all over the spectrum. Those are institutions that may not be as well-known in some cases or well-known in other cases, but they just don’t have the recognition that Sellers might have, and they have to discount their tuition, in some cases heavily, in order to fulfill their mission, in order to fill their seats. And why is this important to students? Because every year, and while reporting this book, I meet parents who say, “I make too much money to qualify for need-based aid, but not enough to actually pay for the full price of tuition.” Buyers are really appealing to that family, because Sellers don’t have to discount their tuition, and most of their aid goes to financially needy students, where at the Buyers, in some cases, a majority of their financial aid goes to students who are not as needy, but where they could use money as leverage to get them to not only apply, but also to get them ultimately to enroll.

Dan:     You do talk about this sort of spectrum of Buyers, I remember a particular case of a school in which a high school counselor is reviewing an award letter that a student has received, and the description from the school of the “award” being given to the student is appallingly misleading. It describes things that are clearly not actually awards but rather simply things, in some cases, the family may have to pay themselves outright. I’m wondering if you could talk a little bit about the more sort of the cases that you thought were really flirting with dishonesty.

Selingo:            Yeah. There’s this aspect of these financial aid award letters, which shockingly are not regulated in any way. When we go buy a house, there is the HUD form that we all have to sign and it lays out essentially what you’re really paying for this house, and that is regulated by the government. So if you buy a house in Utah, it’s going to be the same form as if you buy a house in North Carolina. That’s not true of college admissions letters or financial aid letters that students get from colleges, where they might package things like a Parent Plus Loan, for example, as a family financing option, and you have really no idea what it really means. But the bottom line usually shows you is that you’re going to pay very little for college, even though if you really broke down, the individual elements, you’ll see that most of it might be loans that either the student has to take out or the parent has to take out. And again, this is what the Buyers really do because they don’t have enough money in their endowment and in their budget to really give the aid that students need in order to come there. And so many of them end up “gapping” students, as it’s called, where they are able to offer some money and really hope that you, as an individual, are willing to go out and take out a loan or find other family money in order to fill in that gap.

Dan:     You know, as another example, you just reminded me of a case that actually relates to my own daughter. One of my daughters, when she went to a university, one of her “awards” was a work-study position, and you mentioned that in the book as an example of something that sounds good, but may not be. The way you described it was pretty much exactly what my daughter encountered, in at least in one way you described as not being so good, which was that she arrived at school and there were not that many work-study jobs available. And the ones that were available were not an option for her; they didn’t match her schedule, or so there simply was no job actually available for her.

Selingo:            That’s an interesting thing that you say around work-study, because work-study is a component that is added to many students’ financial aid package, but it’s not clear to you when you sign that financial aid package that there’s no guarantee of a job here. And the earnings that they’re counting are estimated if you work X number of hours, which by the way, they also don’t tell you how many hours you have to work at that job. And so they’re including that again, when you’re trying to decide whether to go to this school, because it makes it look like a good deal. And that is really ultimately what colleges are trying to do with their financial aid packages. Because if that bottom line number was a shockingly high number, you’re probably not going to go there. So they’re going to do everything in their power to fill in that gap or to fill in that bucket to show, Hey, you know what? We’re going to give you an institutional grant. We’re going to give you putting in a parent plus loan that parents have to take out. We’re going to give you the maximum loan from the federal government. We’re going to throw in work-study. We’re going to throw in all of these things that, at the end of the day, lower that bottom line number, but you, especially as a parent who may be the first time to this process, don’t really realize just how much of that comes out of your own pocket, ultimately.

Dan:     You’ve said that college admissions will never be the same after the pandemic. How will it change?

Selingo:            In many ways. I think one is around test-optional. Over the course of the pandemic, more than 500 colleges and universities, more selective colleges and universities, for the most part, decided they were no longer going to use the SAT or ACT in this year’s evaluation, the evaluation of this year’s class of applicants. And so many of them will go back, but not all of them. In fact, I probably estimate maybe fewer than half will go back to using the test and that may be probably the biggest legacy of this pandemic. A couple of other things that I think are going to change: I think students and colleges are going to look for each other in many different ways, for example, I talked about the admissions funnel earlier, at the top of that funnel colleges would buy tens of thousands of student names based on SAT and ACT scores. Well, if students are not taking the ACT and SAT, in the same numbers as before, they’re not going to have access to those names and colleges are going to have to look for students in a different way. And also students couldn’t get to campuses during the pandemic. So they started to look online, not only on college websites for virtual tours and virtual presentations, but YouTube and Reddit and Instagram and other social media. And I think that will also continue in the long run after the pandemic where students and colleges are looking in different ways and mediating this match in different ways than they have in the past.

Dan:     I’m curious just to return to the issue of the standardized testing, it does seem like that will obviously be reduced. And I’m curious, based on the conversations that you saw in admissions offices, do you think that the lack of that standardized test result for the school as they make their decision, do you see that as a good thing or a bad thing in the case of most students?

Selingo:            That’s a good question. I don’t sit in one of the camps. This is a very contentious debate in admissions and broadly in society around the use of standardized tests in admissions, and you usually have a pro camp and an anti-testing camp out there. I kind of sit right in the middle, in many ways, and I’m not trying to avoid the question because I see the benefits on both sides. So in the book, for example, one of the students I follow is this student in rural Pennsylvania, who went to a high school where most kids didn’t go to college. The average SAT in that high school was a 950, but he hit it out of the park. He scored a 1300 plus on his SAT that put them into on the radar of many selective colleges who would have never looked at this student otherwise because of the high school he went to. So without an SAT score, even if a student ends up from like that type of high school ends up applying to college, they’re not going to know how to assess that student because they probably don’t have many applicants from that high school over time. And that’s where the lack of a test score could hurt. At the same time, we know that test scores are highly correlated with family income. And so it really doesn’t give you much information about students who come from high-income families and do well in school with grades and so forth. And so it doesn’t really add much to the process. And in fact, it may bias the process in some ways, because it’s highly correlated with family income. So I can see both sides of why on one hand you would want to get rid of it, because it’s not really that helpful, the test score, and on the other hand, it is helpful for those students you might not be able to find otherwise.

Dan:     Once again, I’m talking with Jeffrey Selingo, whose recent book, Who Gets In and Why: A Year Inside College Admissions, was my absolute favorite read this year, and I would recommend it to anyone who is interested in higher education or part of this industry. Jeff, as my final question for you, I’d like to ask you: in Frank Bruni’s piece on your book in the New York Times, you told him about a Planet Money Podcast called “The Old Rules Were Dumb Anyway,” which talked about the rules that went out the window because of the pandemic and which changes might be here to stay, and that it got you thinking about the old rules that were dumb in admissions. And I’m sure there’s a few that you would single out that you don’t like. If you had to single out some doozies, what would those be?

Selingo:            The calendar, mostly. We we’ve figured out that you could actually admit students at different times of year and so forth. I mean, we’re right now in the midst of early decision at many selective colleges, it’s one of the rules that I would throw out. We could actually have much more flexibility. We’ve seen it on campuses with the academic calendar. We could have so much more flexibility with the admissions calendar as well. If we’re willing to rethink it, where you travel in the fall, you read applications in the winter, and you accept in the spring. There’s no reason we have to follow that calendar.

Dan:     Thanks again for joining us. My guest has been Jeff Selingo, who’s written about higher education for more than two decades. His newest book, Who Gets In and Why: A Year Inside College Admissions, was published by Simon and Schuster in 2020. If you’d like to follow Jeff on Twitter, you can @jselingo. Jeff, thanks again for being on the podcast.

Selingo:            It was great to be here. Thank you.

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