Opening Remarks to Rethinking Admissions Conference
Provost Jill Tiefenthaler, Wake Forest University

April 15, 2009

As provost of Wake Forest University, I’d like to welcome you to the Rethinking Admissions conference.

Admission and enrollment processes are critical components of higher education in this country. By emphasizing certain requirements and values over others, these processes identify what’s important to an institution. For many students, the admission experience makes a first and lasting impression.

As the name of this conference suggests, we’d like to step back and rethink the way we approach admissions. The central question is: How can each institution best provide fair and equitable decision making in the admissions process as we build a class that creates the best learning environment on our campuses?

This question is even more important today because of the new economic and demographic environment we’re facing. One could say that admission professionals are in a more powerful position than ever before.

The current economic situation is fraught with uncertainty. Many people feel anxiety about the future. Yet, at the same time, most feel certain that a quality higher education offers the best path to success in the years ahead. For students from low-income families, going to a top college is truly the opportunity of a lifetime.

As an economist whose research focuses on the economics of the family, I must warn you that this subject is very close to my heart. I’ve worked closely with families on a variety of community-action programs, and I know how terribly important a college education is to high-achieving students—and the challenges the admission process represents to people who are facing it for the first time.

Currently, only 3 percent of freshmen at the top 146 colleges come from the poorest quarter of the population. As Wake Forest President Nathan Hatch said in his 2008 state of the university address, “Today we run the risk of our best schools not being places of opportunity, democratic thresholds that open new vistas, but campuses reserved largely for people of means.”

In the years ahead, researchers see a growing enrollment demand from low-income families and many other underrepresented groups. One researcher described this generation of students as “the most ethnically heterogeneous—and the poorest—ever to seek higher education.”

So how can we ensure that our admissions process is fair to all students who possess the academic capacity, fortitude, creativity and problem-solving skills needed in our world today?

Last year, Wake Forest began an internal conversation about how to best craft a class of students who will become the thinkers, scholars and leaders of tomorrow. We looked at standardized testing, diversity, creativity, and how to evaluate success in college. We discussed some of the issues we are focusing on at this conference: rising inequalities in access to higher education, whether standardized exams measure the potential to succeed, and questions about how to reach a more heterogeneous group of students.

We decided to take an approach that reflects not only who we are as a community, but also who we want to be. So we made personal interviews – on-campus, on Skype, and online – a more significant part of the process. We also requested additional essays and short answers, which offered a more revealing glimpse of candidates.

We made national news by downplaying the role of standardized testing in the selection process. While 28 percent of colleges do not require the ACT or SAT, we were the first nationally ranked university to make the submission of those scores optional.

It’s still early, and we will continue to monitor this closely, but so far we’ve learned a few lessons from our experience.

We’ve heard from many high-achieving high school students who say they are drawn philosophically to an institution that assesses merit in a broader sense – one that emphasizes intellectual curiosity, creativity, and diversity of viewpoint.

And we are now attracting students from all backgrounds. In a year where applications declined at many private colleges, applications for our freshman class increased by 16 percent. Applications from students of color increased 46 percent; African American applicants, 70 percent; North Carolina applicants, 52 percent; and applications from international students rose by 36 percent.

Has admissions been more difficult to manage? Definitely. The process has been more labor intensive and has required more discussion and deliberation. But we are energized by the experience. We believe that our personal attention and investment in each applicant will result in a class that enriches and enlivens the Wake Forest community.

As we began this process, we also hoped to contribute to a national conversation about issues related to admissions. The idea for this conference was formed long before the economic downturn. But now the need for fairness and clarity is even more compelling.

As for the conference itself, this morning we’ll focus largely on standardized testing. Two sessions will examine various issues surrounding the use of standardized test scores in admissions.

In the afternoon, we’ll shift our attention to the academic and social goals of admission. We’ll hear from top admissions officers – including our own Martha Allman – who will tell us how they craft a class to achieve diversity of talents and social characteristics.

We’ll cap off today’s conference with our keynote speaker Daniel Golden. Dan is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who has investigated inequities in college admissions. His talk promises to be as provocative as its title: “Slumdog Ivy Leaguer.”

I’m sure we are all looking forward to that.

Tomorrow morning we’ll begin looking beyond the SAT to the high school record. In addition to case studies from the University of Texas and the University of Virginia, we’ll hear from the director of the Education Conservancy, Lloyd Thacker.

In the afternoon, we’ll begin looking at the college record, and how students perform after they’re admitted to college.

Our closing session is sure to be interesting as well. We have invited the director of data research for U.S. News and World Report and the economist who developed Forbes’ new college rating system to explain how they arrive at their rankings Jeffrey Brenzel, the dean of admissions of Yale University, will also be on that panel to give us another side of the issue.

I think it’s clear that we have assembled some of the best minds in the field, and we are all sure to come away more informed and better equipped to lead and shape this very complicated process from our respective positions.

Before closing, I’d like to thank all the members of the Wake Forest community who put in such hard work organizing this conference.

A special thanks to Joseph Soares, who assembled this excellent line up of researchers and practitioners.

My heartfelt thanks to Michelle Gillespie, Associate Provost for Academic Initiatives, Deb Alty, Special Projects in my office, and the offices of Creative Services and the News Bureau for their wonderful creativity and tireless efforts in organizing the details for this conference, I would remiss not to express my gratitude to Director of Admissions Martha Allman and her entire staff for taking risks, being brave, and working so hard to rethink our admissions process and to make it better.

Later today, you’ll be hearing from our president, Nathan Hatch, who supported us in all our endeavors.

So again I welcome you to Wake Forest. My hope is that this conference sparks further discussion and leads to admission standards that reflect the same rigor and creativity that we expect from our highest-achieving students.

Learn more about the Rethinking Admissions conference