Donald Parsons: ‘Elite’ students at GW

Last spring, The Hatchet caused a stir with the front-page headline, “Intelligent students decrease,” (April 17, p. 1). The story was based upon a Faculty Senate report titled “The Decline of Elite Freshman Enrollments at GW,” undertaken by the Educational Policy Committee that I chaired. The Hatchet headline, though not the article itself, suggested that the GW undergraduate student body had grown short on, well, intelligent students. The report itself explored a serious but much less dramatic concern – the University has been losing students at the upper end of the talent distribution, the above-average GW students whom we labeled “elite.”

All schools compete ferociously for elite students – elite being defined relative to the school’s average student. Several years ago, a number of Ivy League schools were discovered colluding on financial aid offers in order to limit potential financial competition for students. Schools lower in the academic food chain shamelessly offer financial inducements such as merit aid to attract students who might otherwise choose “better” schools. This process ripples throughout the academic world, with students receiving merit aid offers from schools whose average student’s talent is less than their own.

Our interest in this policy question arose when a report in the Chronicle of Higher Education revealed that GW was not among the 98 schools with 20 or more entering National Merit Scholars in the fall of 2007. Professor of economics Anthony Yezer secured the complete data from the National Merit Scholarship Corporation and tabulated that we were tied for No. 127. This was a humbling number for those of us with high aspirations for GW.

One can discount the National Merit designation, which relies heavily on success on the Preliminary SATs, so we obtained broader data from GW’s Office of Undergraduate Admissions, which alas told a similar story. For purposes including admissions and aid, the Office of Admissions separates applicants into five Admission Rating categories (with “one” the highest), based on references, SAT scores and especially high-school grades. The distribution of freshman enrollments in the top two categories (AR1 and AR2) from fall 2005 to fall 2007 appear in the chart above.

The total number of elite AR1s and AR2s, 632 in the class that entered in fall 2005, fell by more than 200 students by fall 2007.

Our findings surprised some people, including a few who cannot believe the numbers are correct, but they seem plausible to me and to others. In the last decade, the administration has squeezed resources for educating students in order to finance various building projects.

Some of the effects have been felt by all students – closed-out class sections and limited contact with regular faculty. Others impinge on specific subgroups, including actual and prospective elite students. To “balance the budget” for academic year 2007-2008, merit aid offers to elite applicants were slashed by an average of $5,000 each.

Conversations with the Office of Admissions suggest that this particular economy has been eased for the current entering class, and certainly the early reports on the class entering this fall are hopeful.

The committee’s objective was not to demonstrate that a particular financial-aid strategy is unwise, although we uncovered no evidence that recent cuts were cleverly planned. Instead, we urged more careful thought about the ideal mix of students and how to achieve it.

Should the University devote more resources to attracting above-average students? There are plausible arguments for such a policy – classrooms may be more intellectually alive and demanding, and such students are more likely to win Rhodes scholarships or other reputation-building awards. Still, a Faculty Senate committee does not have the resources to answer the question we raise. We hope that the report, available at the Faculty Senate Web site, will continue to stimulate serious debate about this issue.

The writer is a professor of economics and the 2007-2008 chair of the Faculty Senate Educational Policy Committee.

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