Episode 79 - Collision Course

President Scott L Wyatt and Steve Meredith sit down with Jon Boeckenstedt, vice provost for enrollment management at Oregon State University. They discuss the adjustments colleges need to make to stay alive over the next decade, including more transparency in pricing and reducing barriers to admission.

Full Transcript

Steve Meredith: Hi again everyone, and welcome to Solutions for Higher Education, a podcast featuring Scott L Wyatt, the president of Southern Utah University in Cedar City, Utah. I'm your host, Steve Meredith, and I'm joined in-studio today, as I usually am, by President Wyatt. Scott, how are you? 

Scott Wyatt: Terrific, thanks Steve.

Meredith: Both of us are wheezing and rasping, you with allergies and me with bronchitis, but we shall do our best to get through this.

Wyatt: [Laughs] That's right.

Meredith: This is part of our continuing series on the issues related to enrolment in higher education and in particular, I think, about the looming changes that are coming to higher education, generally decreasing enrollment, at least for some institutions. And we are having a series of guests join us as we do today have a guest joining us, and why don't you take a few minutes and introduce John?

Wyatt: Yeah, we are delighted to be joined by Vice President John Boeckenstedt calling in from your office at Oregon State University. Welcome, John.

John Boeckenstedt: Hi, it's great to be here.

Wyatt: So, how's it like in Oregon today?

Boeckenstedt: Well, I just tweeted out about 10 minutes ago that this is my 193 day living in Oregon and it is the first day I've felt compelled to use an umbrella. [All laugh]

Meredith: Wow.

Boeckenstedt: So, maybe we can bust a few myths along the way while we talk this afternoon.

Meredith: Yeah, that's impressive.

Wyatt: I have a son that got a degree at a university down the street from yours…

Boeckenstedt: Oh, we won't talk about that. [All laugh] Is their mascot better suited for rainy days?

Meredith: That's right.

Wyatt: Better suited for rainy days.

Meredith: Yeah.

Wyatt: But, nevertheless…well, welcome and we're delighted to have you join us to visit this afternoon. Let's start out by having you give us just a little bit of your background and how you got to where you are.

Boeckenstedt: Sure.

Wyatt: You're the Vice President of Enrollment Management at Oregon State University, right?

Boeckenstedt: Technically Vice Provost, but it's sort of the same thing, yeah. I report to the provost here as do a lot of functions sort of in academic administration here at the university. I've been in enrollment management for about 35 years now through admissions, financial aid, some consulting and other sorts of things. I sort of fell into admissions by accident. I came into the profession in the middle of an academic year when I think competition wasn't so great and I was always sort of the last person that anybody would ever think would be a good admissions officer because if you know Myers Briggs, on that scale I'm overly introverted. [All laugh] But as Paul Tough said in his book, I got lucky because the profession changed around me and it suddenly became a profession where people with analytics and orientation to think about data became more important than the people who go out and do the college fairs and host visits on campus, are still important, but not the sole sort of source of human resources within the profession. And so, I've worked at five different colleges and universities and have been at Oregon State since July 1 and have found living in the west extraordinarily wonderful and beautiful and really have enjoyed my six months here so far. 

Wyatt: Well, your spot on. In fact, it seems like not only that the west is beautiful but that we didn't even have vice presidents or vice provosts of enrollment management a couple of decades ago.

Boeckenstedt: Right. In fact, if you look at institutions like Harvard or Princeton or Berkeley or other institutions that have really strong market positions, there is no such position at those universities. And in some sense, I think, at a lot of public universities it's been the same thing where for the longest time, people have assumed that enrollment was simply something that happened to you rather than something you affect. And private universities who are largely tuition dependent to a much greater extent and certainly don't have that government largesse and support coming in have felt for a long time that it was important to be able to be strategic and to manage and to think about the tradeoffs and to try to affect the outcome that you want via important leveraging in strategy decisions and so, it's becoming more popular at public universities and my position is new year. So,  , we just came full circle and proved a point there.

Wyatt: Yeah, it's become a very serious thinking analytic business, the enrollment management, where, as you described, it used to just be happy people showing up at high schools.

Boeckenstedt: Right. Right, I don't know how dependent Southern Utah is on tuition revenue for your E&G budget, but here at Oregon State, we have a really high reliance on tuition. And so, small changes in student enrollment profiles or numbers can make a big difference in our budget every year and like most states I suspect, we don't see a future where things are going to get appreciably better. They may get incrementally better in some areas, but the days of the 70s and 80s where the state was thrilled to fund public education I think are long gone, unfortunately.

Wyatt: We're fortunate in Utah that the legislature gives us about half of our budget.

Boeckenstedt: Oh, you're very lucky, yes.

Wyatt: So, that's still 50% of our budget and it makes a big difference, but I feel for those institutions that are dependent on tuition for 60, 70, 80, 90 percent of their revenue.

Boeckenstedt: Yeah, the university I came from, I was at the DePaul University in Chicago for 17 years prior to coming here, and depending on how you ran the numbers and what you looked at and what you counted, DePaul was between 88% and 92% tuition reliant. And so, that's one of the reasons that our enrollment management division there was so sophisticated and had such a long tenure, precisely because the university had to be smart about enrollment in order to survive.

Wyatt: You've been in this business now for…what? 35 years?

Boeckenstedt: Yeah, we just changed a year, didn't we? So, maybe 36.

Wyatt: 36.

Boeckenstedt: Yep, and so it's been great and I've loved every single minute of it. I grew up in Iowa and neither of my parents even went to high school, let alone even college. And so, I was only…I only am where I am today because the state of Iowa was really strong in funding and supporting public and private higher education within the state, and I think about that all of the time. I think about where I'd be and where my children would be and what I'd be doing if, in fact, I didn't have the resources available to me to go to college for four years. I remember filling out the financial aid form and being sort of stunned in 1982 or 3…'81, maybe, my senior year of college, that my father's income was $17,000 and yet I could afford to go to college, and the state of Iowa made that happen. And I am still extremely grateful for that and wish that we were experiencing a similar situation for our students today.

Wyatt: You've written recently about this, the fact that throughout your entire career, there's been a constant hum warning some pending economic challenge regarding enrollments for higher education.

Boeckenstedt: Yep.

Wyatt: But that that hum was never really taken seriously because things just always seemed to be OK.

Boeckenstedt: Well, I don't know that they were OK, but I think we were able to adapt to incremental change over a long period of time. And so, there were a variety of ways you could do it, you weren't seeing big, sort of catastrophic changes in funding or enrollment from one year to the next, and colleges, for instance, would diversify their enrollment portfolios. So, for instance, when undergraduate education starting peaking, colleges said, 'Well, you know, there's this huge market of college graduates who want to get ahead and we can start offering master's degrees' or if traditional enrollments starting peaking or high school graduates were declining for a period as they…you know, it's just an ebb and flow of populations booms and busts. We can talk about non-traditional students and returning students and we can bolster our enrollment by thinking about part-time students or someone who isn't 17 coming back to college. But then, the 2007/2008 economic bust hit and that really changed everything. At DePaul where I was working, we had about…we were a private university, and we had about 40% of our freshman not receive any institutional aid, and within about four years, that had dropped to 7%. And so…

Meredith: So, 93% of your students were receiving aid at that point? Is that what you're saying?

Boeckenstedt: No. So, in 2006, only 60% of our students were receiving any institutional aid at all.

Meredith: I see, OK.

Boeckenstedt: And by the time 2013 or 2014 came around, we were looking at something like 93% of our students receiving aid.

Meredith: Right. So, you were having to purchase students that had been full-payers in the past?

Boeckenstedt: Yeah, we were having to support them. And one of the things that happened was a lot of those students that weren't receiving aid, their parents were simply borrowing against home equity. And in 2008, a lot of people saw that they didn't have any home equity left to borrow against.

Meredith: Right.

Boeckenstedt: And so, we understood and we knew that we had to do something pretty draconian and we started offering…approaching the market differently and saying, 'Yes, we know you may look on paper like you have some capacity to pay, but our analysis and our research suggests that if we don't offer you something, you're not going to enroll here. So, we'd rather have 60% of tuition than 100% of nothing.' And it was a pretty easy proposition to sell and to make for people.

Wyatt: Yeah, and your experience there is not unique. That's the way…we read that all of the institutions—most of them—are increasing what we would call a 'discount rate' which is how much aid students are given.

Boeckenstedt: Yeah. Well…so, I think that NACUBO (The National Association of College and University Budget Officers)  and other organizations think differently about discount rate. I think about it as unfunded aid as a function of tuition, because if you have funded aid, that's really invisible to you. You don't care if that comes in from a check the student writes or it comes in from a scholarship in the foundation that comes in as cash, and so, it's really not a discount. But a lot of the unfunded or waiver aid that institutions offer is where it comes out of the operating budget. And that means you have less money available to heat the buildings and pay the faculty and put helmets on the football team and all those things that you want to do as a university. It becomes a harder equation to balance.


Wyatt: It's kind of like putting it on sale.

Meredith: Yeah.

Boeckenstedt: Exactly.

Wyatt: Reducing the cost. This is…which is a positive good. It's wonderful for students who can then, as you described, who may have been coming to college based on their parents borrowing money against their house mortgage…

Boeckenstedt: Yeah.

Wyatt: Who now can't do it after 2008 and this is providing a way for them to come, so this is a wonderful thing for society, but it's very challenging for institutions. And for many of those institutions, it's threatening their viability.

Boeckenstedt: And people up until 2007 were willing to make that investment because the perspective going out was that it was still a good investment. That it might cost more than it used to, but the starting salaries for graduates are good and you'll make it back over the lifetime of your degree. And there were two things wrong with that. First of all, past performance is no indication of future performance, so there's that, and you never really know for sure whether something is going to be worthwhile going forward. But the second thing is people weren't as willing to question whether that sticker price was rational in the first place. And if you go back and look at the increase in student cost and tuition over time, it really started about 1981. So, I have a chart somewhere in my portfolio that backs things back to 1964. And from '64 to '81, the increase in college costs and CPI were almost dead on. It's remarkable how similar they were, they just tracked each other perfectly. Colleges were raising tuition at about the cost of the rate of inflation. And something happened in '81, and I don't know what that was, that caused those two to split, and the cost of private higher education from that time forward just went haywire. And so, it's interesting to say, 'We shouldn't discount this much,' but no one really asks, 'Should we be charging this much to start with that we have to discount?' And I think that's one of the key and important parts of the equation that people don't think about enough.

Wyatt: Here's a great line that you wrote: 'The ecosystem of American higher education today is like an aging baby boomer who has never exercised.' I think that's a creative way to describe…tell us what you mean by that.

Boeckenstedt: Well, it's a little autobiographical, actually. [All laugh]

Meredith: Yeah, for me too. Hits a little close to the bone for me.

Boeckenstedt: You know, as my joints ache and I get winded walking up four flights of stairs, I say, 'Oh, maybe I should pay a little more attention to this going forward.'

Wyatt: Well, we're three baby boomers, so…

Boeckenstedt: Yeah. I think it's true in the sense that between each 25 and 26 you probably go downhill a little bit but you don't notice it because it's something you can manage. And I think in a Peter Senge and the boiling frog metaphor, whether it's reflective of reality or not, is a good one. Put a frog in a pot of really hot water, it will jump out immediately. But if you put a frog in cold water and gradually turn up the heat, the frog won't notice it. And I think that's our situation here. Things have finally gotten to the point where you see some stress and some pressure and some cracks in the system all around you, but you really don't have any idea what's going to go first or what's going to go last or how long you're going to be able to survive. And, of course, the big thing is we don't know what catastrophic things are out in the environment that are going to affect us in ways that we can't even imagine. So, for instance, some people think that we're on the verge of another war in the Middle East. How is that going to affect things? What's that going to do to us? What does that do to 17 and 18 year olds and their orientation towards education. Other people point to the longest economic expansion in recent history and say, 'We're overdue for a market crash, and what's going to happen when that happens?' So, we can kind of get by from year to year if everything external stays the same, but when those big things happen outside the university in society, or politics, or government, or economics, or just public perception, we're not always well equipped to handle that dramatic, punctuated equilibrium.

Wyatt: There's a website that's been tracking institutions—there are several of these—that tracks institutions that go out of business, colleges and universities.

Boeckenstedt: Yeah.

Wyatt: And one that we're aware of is something like 100 in the last few years. That includes going out of…just closing their doors, but also it includes schools that merge in order to find a way to be viable.

Boeckenstedt: Is that the College Garden? I think it's called?

Wyatt: Yeah, there's one called The College History Garden.

Boeckenstedt: College History Garden. That's what it is.

Meredith: Right.

Boeckenstedt: Yeah, I know of the person who does that and does really, really good work. It's interesting to see and take a look at. And the interesting thing is all through the 60s, 70s, 80s, 90s, the average number of college closings was about six or seven per year. And so, if we stay on that track, which is not unreasonable to expect because of a lot of economic and demographic courses, is 15 in a year really that much of an outlier? I would say maybe it isn't, but if it doubles to 30 and it goes on for a few years, you're talking about some real, major impact, not just on the students but the faculty and the staff and the cities and the towns where those colleges are located.

Meredith: Right.

Boeckenstedt: But then on the other hand, I downloaded the entire IPEDS   data set and took a look and figured out that if you took the smallest 583 colleges in the country and closed all of them at once, the net effect on overall college enrollment would be about ¾ of 1%.

Wyatt: Well, that kind of amplifies, doesn't it? What happens when some of these schools go really big.

Boeckenstedt: Yeah.

Wyatt: Like Western Governors and Southern New Hampshire…

Boeckenstedt: Yep.

Wyatt: And Grand Canyon and Arizona State because their growth in one year could consume that many colleges enrollments.

Boeckenstedt: Easily, yeah. In fact, people always…you read The New York Times or listen to NPR and you're sort of persuaded the whole world of higher education is in New England and it consists of…

Meredith: Isn't that the truth?

Boeckenstedt: And it consists of Harvard…or maybe a little off side of New England, Crimson, Yale, Dartmouth, right? Those institutions.

Meredith: Right.

Boeckenstedt: And I'll throw Stanford in that pile.

Meredith: They may have actually met someone at the University of Chicago once, but other than that, nothing else.

Boeckenstedt: Yes, exactly. And it's always been the case that about 70% of college students in the US go to a public institutions. In fact, the more interesting statistic is that one out of every nine college students in the nation attends a community college in California.

Meredith: Wow.

Wyatt: One out of nine?

Boeckenstedt: Yeah. About 11%.

Wyatt: Wow.

Boeckenstedt: Of all students. I'm sorry, one out of eleven, 9%. I had that backwards.

Wyatt: Yeah.

Boeckenstedt: I had that reversed.

Wyatt: We knew exactly what you meant.

Meredith: That's an amazing stat.

Wyatt: And part of that reason is because of the cost structure, the tuition costs for community colleges in California and then, of course, of how many people live in California.

Boeckenstedt: Yeah, and what's really interesting to me is the sense that I have always had that in California, there's not a stigma of going to a community college like there might be in some other places in the country. Especially given the receptivity of private institutions USC or big, public institutions like Berkeley or UCLA and their willingness to work with and accept transfer students and to make transition as smooth as possible. They're really a model for how we can and should do things, because I think if you look at the difference between a student who comes in and a student who exits, I think community colleges do the best job in the country of moving that on those students farther than any other type of institution. It's often been said if you took a freshman class at Harvard and locked them in a closet for 4 years, they'd come out better educated just because of the people they are. And that's not true of community college students. I think that those institutions do a magnificent job and don't get nearly enough credit for all of the heavy lifting they do.

Wyatt: Yeah. We've talked about this quite a bit, Steve, haven't we?

Meredith: Yes.

Wyatt: The rankings for institutions and accreditation ought to be based on how much gains the students make during their time rather than how the students appear as they leave.

Boeckenstedt: Yep.

Wyatt: Because at some of these schools, they are recruiting students that are already successfully or obviously going to be successful and it doesn't take very much work to get them out the door. But some schools are really working hard.

Boeckenstedt; Exactly.

Meredith: I spent the first 27 years of my career in the two-year school and I'm really happy to hear you say that, John. I agree wholeheartedly. In fact, Scott and I met when he became the college president at a two-year college that we both worked at and we both agree with you that it's the distance travelled that's what's important, and that two-year schools do a great job with that.

Boeckenstedt: Well, just this morning, I tweeted out a visualization that I had done a long time ago, maybe three years ago. I downloaded all of the incoming test scores of students at all of the New York City public high schools and then plotted them against their mean SAT average three and a half years later. And it is as perfect a line as you can possibly imagine. And so, it's a matter of what you bring is what you put out. And it was really astonishing to see the…if a sociologist got a correlation of .93 or whatever it was, they just wouldn't believe.

Meredith: Yeah, that's right.

Boeckenstedt: And it was so stunningly linear that in fact, those 'best high schools' really aren't moving their students any more than the schools sort of considered to be the bottom of the ladder, and it can be a shocking sort of revelation for people. But people still don't want to believe it.

Wyatt: Yeah. It's interesting, and I think that's one of the types of institutions that we're seeing that are in trouble right now are the high cost private universities and colleges who are very highly dependent on tuition.

Boeckenstedt: Oh, sure.

Wyatt: You take a school like Harvard and they're not that dependent because they have a huge endowment, but the privates that are very dependent on tuition that are expensive, they're…

Boeckenstedt: Yeah. I think there was a Gallup Poll just a few weeks ago that talked about the American public's confidence in higher education and how important it was or is or isn't and the number who said it was very important has fallen from 70% to 50% in just three or four years. So, I think people are becoming less willing to put forth and put out that much effort and that many resources for the education that they believe, I think, is largely a commodity anymore with some exceptions at the very top end of the spectrum.

Wyatt: Yeah. Well, John, it's the New Year, or just shortly after the new year anyway…

Meredith: That's right.

Wyatt: And if we are in higher education in America a baby boomer who has never exercised, what should be our New Year resolutions?

Meredith: And can I follow up with that? Because my favorite paragraph in what you wrote is, 'Colleges have been reluctant to change,' I'm quoting you now, 'Or to be boldly distinctive for one simple reason. In our industry, innovation is dangerous. If you take a risk and it's successful, everybody steals it.' I'm now paraphrasing you. 'And if fail, the cost and consequence fall squarely on you. So, given that and what President Wyatt said about New Year's resolutions, what do you think is our pathway forward?

Boeckenstedt: Well, I think in higher education, everything has to start with your mission. And there are some artificial measures of…and externalities that people at colleges and universities get hung up on, but I think I see a real sense of a desire for authenticity among people in America, and so, there are probably maybe…we probably can't act together inclusion because the Justice Department has already indicated they don't like that sort of thing, but I think if one or two institutions sort of set forth on an agenda that is 'damn-the-torpedoes, full speed ahead,' others will follow suit. And so, for instance, I would say one of the things we need to think about and talk about is giving students a net price before they even apply for admission. The system where students have to apply for admission and wait three weeks, six months to get admitted and then have to wait again to see if they can afford it just doesn't strike me as something we would ever invent if we were doing this from the ground up. I've often also talked about a clearing house for all college applications and the advantage of that…

Wyatt: John, hold on a second. Let me skip back to that. What do you mean specifically by saying that we tell them what the net tuition price is?

Boeckenstedt: So, for instance, I just bought a car and before I did that, I was talking to three or four dealers online and they were saying, 'This is your out the door price.' I never had to set foot on the dealership floor until I had a place that I was reasonably comfortable about the price, the service, the quality, the make, the model, everything that was available to me. But students don't have that luxury. It's almost like you have to go through this convoluted process in order to find out what it's going to cost you. So, if you're a low-income student and you might be thinking about Princeton, right? You have no idea what it's going to cost until you actually get through the sorting process of the admissions committee and then go through the financial aid process and then make several phone calls and then go through verification. It would be really nice if a student could say, 'Princeton, I'm interested in you. If I get admitted, what's it going to cost me?' And have that contract with the student as opposed to a rough estimate. And that way…

Wyatt: So, it's…oh, go ahead, please.

Boeckenstedt: Oh, sorry. No, go ahead.

Wyatt: So, if I'm a student applying to go to a school, any school, and it might be Oregon State, when I apply, would I already know what need aid and what scholarships I would qualify for, would all of that information be upfront? I guess that's really kind of the question.

Boeckenstedt: I would think that would be the ideal system and I think that would cut way down on the number of applications students have to file because the uncertainty generates some fear.

Wyatt: Yeah.

Boeckenstedt: And the fear generates a lot of applications to institutions that students just try to cover their bases. So, I think that would be…if you can distill it down, you can say a more transparent pricing process.

Wyatt: We've got…at Southern University, we publish the scholarship numbers for most of the students.

Boeckenstedt: Sure.

Wyatt: There are some unique scholarships that are hard to understand, but when most students apply they know exactly what their scholarship would be. In fact, they apply and they're awarded a scholarship virtually on the spot.

Boeckenstedt: Sure.

Wyatt: But that doesn't answer the need-based areas.

Boeckenstedt: Right.

Wyatt: And those are…

Boeckenstedt: Yeah, I think a system where students don't need to fill out a financial aid form would be optimal and the first thing that the financial aid retrieval tool does is go into the IRS system and retrieve their tax information. Well, that information could be fed automatically into a financial aid form or some sort of 'intent to apply for financial aid' and that calculation could be done automatically for the student. So, you could say, 'You have a $5,000 PELL grant waiting for you at any of these institutions' or I don't know if there is a Utah state grant, 'Your Utah state grant will be $3,000' or whatever it happens to be and the institutions that are out there looking at you are willing to offer you this much in institutional scholarships or work or inventive loan programs or whatever the case may be. It's almost like…there was a system in the late 1990s called YouCollegeBid where students would simply put in the price that they were willing to pay and their academic statistics and colleges could bid on them as opposed to them bidding at colleges and it was so far ahead of its time it was doomed to fail.

Meredith: Yeah.

Wyatt: That's so interesting though. But part of what you're saying is that we need to develop—and it would be a national kind of a system because it's dependent on the IRS and the FAFSA application for federal financial aid—but that a student could apply for that before they apply for colleges and universities, get a decision…

Boeckenstedt: Yeah.


Wyatt: And then take that with them when they go looking for a university. Then they could match that with scholarships that might be available and they would know exactly what they would have to pay.

Boeckenstedt: Exactly.

Wyatt: Got it.

Boeckenstedt: And that means they won't have to apply at nine colleges to try to get a good offer someplace.

Meredith: And having one arm…go ahead.

Boeckenstedt: They could still do that, of course.

Meredith: Yeah.

Boeckenstedt: But it would cut down on the need for that. I think we also…I've talked numerous times and written a lot about a clearing house for freshman applications and even transfer applications where all of the data and all of the transactions are managed through a central system and that way the data and the information that's in there can be presented to prospective students in an attempt to give them better information about who enrolls, how much aid students get, what their chances for admission would be. So, if you're a…make one up, a Hispanic female from the state of Montana and you want to see what your chances are at Harvard, well, you suddenly have five years of data on Hispanic female applicants with your grade point applying to Harvard or the Ivy League institutions. And when you find out what your chances are, that may in fact influence whether or not you apply for admission. And there are some kids who probably have a 1/10 of a 1% chance of getting admitted to some of those places, but they see an admit rate of 5% and they think they're chances are 50% better than they actually are. I think students have a right to know early on what their real chances of admission are.

Wyatt: Especially some of these schools that charge so much for the admission.

Meredith: Yeah. You're talking about saving thousands of dollars in feeds.

Boeckenstedt: Yeah, absolutely. Fortunately, a very low income student can get a waiver, but it's probably also true that there are a lot of students that pay that not even knowing that waivers exist and I think that's also unfortunate. Here's sort of one that I think would be really interesting. If you think about who benefits from a well-educated workforce with corporations and I'd like to see, I said 20 years ago, I'd be thrilled to see the 'NACAC (National Association for College Advising and Counseling) Coca-Cola National College Fair.' Let corporations subsidize some of the cost of finding and identifying and recruiting talented students, especially students of color and students who aren't automatically go to college in order to make opportunity greater and make it more expansive and available to students. And so, I think some sense of public-private partnerships in that regard would be a really, really helpful thing. Not just the Coca-Cola scholars, but Coca-Cola funding national college fairs or funding information sessions or doing something. Or it could be Google or Microsoft or anybody that really wants a better educated workforce in the coming century.

Wyatt: Not just for their company but for their community.

Boeckenstedt: Yeah. Again, I think the time is…I may be naïve and Pollyannaish about this, but I really believe that companies benefit from a well-educated, diverse workforce and it's really incumbent upon them to say, 'It's our turn to chip in and help to make sure that that happens for the future.'

Wyatt: Well, you're not going to get disagreement from us over that.

Meredith: Yeah, I was going to say…

Wyatt: It's true. Everyone does benefit from the growing economy and growing qualified workforce.

Meredith: And John, if you can get the IRS to populate a FAFSA form, I'll vote for you for president. That's all I've got to say about that. [Laughs]

Boeckenstedt: Yeah, I think it can be done but when you fill out a tax form, you put the age and the birth date…

Meredith: Of course.

Boeckenstedt: And the social security number of every dependent so that information is already there.

Meredith: Seems like a no-brainer, yep.

Boeckenstedt: It does.

Wyatt: That's a fascinating idea. What else would you put in our exercise strategy for the new year?

Boeckenstedt: I would ask the IPED data center to stop requesting standardized test scores as a reporting tool or as a reporting point. We know what standardized test scores do, we know what they don't do and we know that they're really products of two private companies that whether for better or for worse are accountable to no one but themselves. And the extent that the standardized test score predicts anything above and beyond grade point average is really negligible, but those numbers, that the illusion of precision like Bob Sternberg referred to, gives colleges fear of admitting students with lower test scores. Even though they know that test scores don't predict much other than race and wealth.

Meredith: That's right.

Boeckenstedt: They're still largely afraid to make that move and to discount those scores in the process. So, if they still want to continue using them, that's fine, but take away the penalty that colleges experience for admitting students who are really smart and really talented and great students but who have low test scores. Take that penalty away and then I think you will find students having a better chance, especially if they don't have wealthy, college educated parents who can confer on them the benefits of private or excellent public education and test prep and all of the things that go into making a high test score.

Wyatt: There…I just look at all of my kids and my kids-in-laws, they all seem to have a different capacity to take standardized exams.

Meredith: Yep.

Boeckenstedt: Yeah.

Wyatt: And they aren't as diverse as a group as we have in the country.

Meredith: No.

Boeckenstedt: Right. You know, test scores measure something academic certainly, but really what they measure is your ability to do it quickly and there's not study I'm aware of that gives any advantage to speed processing in over the course of a semester. If you think about it, if you take a philosophy class, you're not given a test with four answers and you have to choose 'the correct one.' You're given an essay or a topic and you have three weeks to write a paper, to research, to draft, to think about it, to bring in other sources…that's really what education is.

Meredith: Yeah.

Boeckenstedt: It's not choosing one answer. Sometimes, the problem is figuring out what the question is, and standardized testing is just a different type of talent or skill and all things equal, you'd prefer to have it, but it really doesn't say much about where you'll end up in life.

Meredith: I used to run the master's degree in music technology that we have here at SUU and they asked me early on, 'Do you want to have the GRE be a requirement for that?' And I said, ‘No, because I think it only predicts ethnicity and, as you said, socioeconomic status and, in the case of the GRE, I think, gender.' It's a good predictor of those three things.

Boeckenstedt: Yeah, exactly.

Meredith: But it has nothing to do with grit, it has nothing to do with musical talent, it has nothing…any of the things that I'm actually looking for here. None of that would be predicted by a GRE exam. And I agree with you, a lot of our undergraduate students face that same discrimination, if that's the right word, based on the fact that they're not good speed-test takers.

Boeckenstedt: Yeah. As much as XXX 41:26 for undergraduate admissions has become a thing and has really taken off in the last ten years, there's a GREXIT, they called it, GRE exit movement, also and a lot of really high name institutions are eliminating GREs for admission into graduate programs. They really say, 'If you've gotten As and Bs in biophysics at an institution that we know, the GRE doesn't tell us very much. It's really our ability to do that level of work and your recommendations and what the faculty say about you that matters more than the number on a standardized test.' So, it's very gratifying to that, in fact, graduate schools are also coming around to the same sort of approach about the value of these tests.

Wyatt: Well, and they seem to be one of the barriers that makes it more difficult to get in.

Boeckenstedt: Exactly, right.

Wyatt: You know, 'I want to go to graduate school maybe but, oh, I have to study for this test and when can I schedule that? Oh, it's not until then. And how much does the test cost?'

Boeckenstedt: Yep.

Wyatt: 'Oh, I want to sign up today. I don't…in three or four months, I might have a different plan.'

Boeckenstedt: Yeah, my daughter was admitted early without a GRE into her PA program at St. Louis University and she had certainly the option of applying to other institutions and looking around and seeing if there was a better fit for her, and she said, 'Dad, I don't have to take the GRE. I don't want to go anywhere that I have to take that.' [All laugh] And she was a bright, very bright student. She was one of three kids admitted at the end of the sophomore year into the graduate program.

Meredith: Wow.

Boeckenstedt: So, she could have gone a lot of places, but just the idea of having to study and prep and get ready for the GRE was enough to make her say, 'I'm not doing it.'

Wyatt: Don't you think that students…I don't want to limit this to students, I think this is true for everybody, but don't you think that we're becoming more annoyed by processes that we don't necessarily think are important?

Meredith: See the value for?

Boeckenstedt: Yeah. Oh, sure.

Wyatt: I mean, if I…if we create…OK, every employee at the university has got to take a Title IX exam, a huge number of them just say, 'I already got it. I already figured it out, I'm not going to take that stupid thing.'

Boeckenstedt: Yep.

Wyatt: 'The Title IX test.' And so, we have to kind of push and prod to get everybody to do it.

Meredith: Right.

Wyatt: But there just seems to be a growing resistance to doing anything that's standardized that we think is…we shouldn't have to do, it's beneath us or something.

Boeckenstedt: Yeah. Well, what people don't realize is that the SAT, for instance, was a thing of colleges and universities in the northeast and New England until about the early to mid-60s and then Berkeley said, 'Well, we think we're as good as Harvard, so we should require this test.' And up until then, it was simply graduation from high school in California was the requirement for admission to Berkeley. You had to be a great student, of course, but there were not standardized tests required at all. And as the saying goes, 'When California gets a cold, the rest of the country sneezes,' pretty soon everybody was requiring the test. Not because they thought it added anything of value but because they wanted to look like the institutions that did require the standardized test. And the rest, as they say, is history I guess.

Wyatt: Well, this has been…

Boeckenstedt: In fact, the lawsuits and the possibility that standardized testing may go away for admission to the UC system will have the reverse effect.

Meredith: Right.

Boeckenstedt: I think you will see hundreds of colleges and universities dropping the requirement once you can get into UCLA and Berkeley without an SAT.

Wyatt: John, would you do away with SATs or ACTs or any of those tests for undergraduate students?

Boeckenstedt: You know, I'm not opposed to them and if some colleges find value in them, I think they should be…I think a university should be free to require whatever it thinks is appropriate, I'm just opposed to the blind allegiance that people have to them and the extent to which people support the use of the SAT without understanding much about psychometrics or much about testing or much about measurement. And, unfortunately, most importantly, very much about what the test actually predicts.

Meredith: Yeah.

Boeckenstedt: So, if you know all of that and you still want to use tests, more power to you. Go right ahead, I just don't think they're necessary.

Wyatt: It seems like, at least for hundreds of universities in the country, primarily public universities, the main purpose for these tests are to award scholarships, not necessarily admission.

Boeckenstedt: Right, and that's a self-perpetuating mechanism to because you're essentially awarding scholarships to the students with the highest income.

Wyatt: Yeah, it's an interesting dilemma. What would you do instead? You've been in this business forever, what would you do?

Boeckenstedt: Oh, you know, people ask me that all the time and I said, 'I don't know what the answer or what the solution is.' Until you start thinking about…so, let's imagine we didn't have tests, right? There was no such thing as a standardized test and a private company says, 'We're going to create a standardized test for you and it will increase your predictive capability by about…it will explain 2% more of the variance in freshman level grades, nothing else. And by the way, it's going to take away 15% of instruction time while students prep for these tests, it's going to be used to school districts and journalists and politicians in completely inappropriate ways to think about state funding and other sorts of stuff.' How many colleges do you think would take that bet? And say, 'Yeah, I think we want to require that test.' I think not too many. And so, I would say I think we could easily live in a world without standardized tests and just make it the high school record and how well a student has done in those rigorous college prep classes.

Wyatt: After 36 years of working in the recruiting business, enrollment management business, do you think that students…let's say a university said, 'We're not going to require the ACT or SAT at all.'

Boeckenstedt: Yeah.

Wyatt: How many students would say, 'Oh, but I wonder if you're really a university?'

Boeckenstedt: Well, that happens. When I was at DePaul, we decided to eliminate the requirement for standardized tests for 2011, in 2011 for the fall of 2012, and there were a lot of people that made that exact claim. In fact, someone at The Chicago Sun Times wrote a headline that said, 'DePaul Dumbs Down by Eliminating Tests.' That was the headline, which kicked off a lot of interesting discussions on campus, but I think now that the University of Chicago has done it and if Berkeley and UCLA go ahead, I think it's a whole new ball game.

Meredith: We didn't…we were unaware about the Chicago thing, that's interesting.

Boeckenstedt: Oh, yeah, University of Chicago is the highest profile institution in the country to eliminate tests. They did it two years ago.

Meredith: Hmm.

Boeckenstedt: And they're applications went up, surprisingly. [Laughs] Just kidding, that's not surprising.

Wyatt: That's a…you were back near the University of Chicago, that's a university that I've admired for a number of years.

Boeckenstedt: Yeah, it's a big place.

Wyatt: DePaul is a very good school, too.

Boeckenstedt: Oh, yeah. I had 17 tremendous years there, wouldn't trade it for the world.

Wyatt: If you were king for a day—here's my last question for you—if you were king for a day, what is it that you would do to change anything in higher education in America? What's the one thing? And it might be something that's big and it might be something that's actually more internal to schools? What would you…?

Boeckenstedt: Well, I would say for the lowest income students, make it free, for the middle income students, make it much more affordable, and for the highest income students, make it accessible.

Wyatt: Increase accessibility. Access, it's about access.

Boeckenstedt: Yep. I think that's the hill on which I'd die is more low-income students having access to more higher education opportunities.

Wyatt: Thank you very much, this has been a fun conversation.

Boeckenstedt: Thanks, I'm flattered that you asked me. Thanks very much.

Meredith: You've been listening to Solutions for Higher Education, a podcast featuring Scott L Wyatt, the president of Southern Utah University in Cedar City, Utah. We've had as our guest today, from his office in Oregon, John Boeckenstedt who is the Vice Provost for Enrollment Management at Oregon State University. We thank John for joining us and we thank you, our listeners, for listening to us. Happy New Year from Scott and I, we'll be back again soon. Bye bye.