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Transformation of Higher Ed: Calvin Chimes/First donation/Collapsing SAT

The (Continual) Transformation of Higher Ed
Transformation of Higher Ed: Calvin Chimes/First donation/Collapsing SAT
By Clay Shirky • Issue #6 • View online
Links and Housekeeping
In this issue:
  1. Recommendation: Calvin Chimes’ “The Downsize”
  2. CTHE’s First Donation
  3. Collapsing SAT and ACT use

The Calvin Chimes' "The Downsize, Part II"
Sometimes, what Google brings you back is better than what you went looking for.
I can’t remember what I was in the middle of when I came across the “The Downsize”, but it’s a fascinating series about the choices and tradeoffs faced by Calvin University, a small college in the upper Midwest facing shrinking enrollment. Written by Harm Venhuizen, a senior at Calvin and editor of The Calvin Chimes, “The Downsize” is a clear-eyed account of a college facing grinding contraction and painful tradeoffs.
Part I of the series, subtitled “If you can leave, please consider doing so”, covered Calvin’s voluntary retirement program. Part II, “We’re committed to uncertainty”, is considerably longer and more ambitious, and it is one of the best things I have read about university downsizing published anywhere.
Calvin U launched as a seminary in Michigan 150 years ago, with 7 students training to be ministers. Over its history, Calvin gradually acquired land, buildings, athletic teams – all the trappings of American collegiate success – and grew to enroll over 4000 undergraduates by 2007.
Note the year, and what has happened since:
Calvin's Undergraduate Enrollment, 2006-2021 Source: Harm Venhuizen
Calvin's Undergraduate Enrollment, 2006-2021 Source: Harm Venhuizen
In the 14 years since the 2008 financial crisis, enrollment declined in 12 of them, leaving Calvin with just over 2800 undergrads. It took a hundred and thirty years to grow to four thousand students, but just the last fourteen to shrink by nearly a third.
This story is being repeated all over the country, but unlike last-minute catastrophes at schools like Dowling or MacMurray, everyone on campus is aware of the losses Calvin is wrestling with. The school has had an Academic Program Review committee looking at program expenses since 2018, though the continued decline in enrollment made that job more agonizing than it was originally meant to be:
“Our job was to look at all the consequences of all those different options, and determine, honestly, the least painful solution,” she said. “When you’re faced with difficult constraints, it’s not like you can ignore them and keep everybody. Of course, that’s what we want to do. […]
The challenge of locating the least painful cuts to make is in part why the crucial panel tasked with evaluating programs exists in the first place, but members didn’t expect it to become their primary function.
Venhuizen’s reporting makes it clear that Calvin got into trouble because they got so used to the good times they underestimated the the bad times. (This is also the story of American higher ed in the 21st century more broadly.)
The school was keeping expenses barely under revenues, until the predictable surprise arrived. In 2018, revenue dipped far more sharply than predicted, blowing a $4M hole in a $120M budget at a time when the college was already choking on debt service and admitting fewer students into each new class. The Academic Program Review committee was created in that year.
Venhuizen documents the degree to which program expenses dominate Calvin’s budget, so that any significant loss of students requires program reduction and layoffs. He also provides an admirably clear description of the relationship between the school’s endowment and its expenses. (I know this seems like Academic Budgeting 101, but I’ve seen tenured faculty confuse endowment with revenue.) “The Downsize” is good journalism, full stop, not just ‘good for a student paper’ journalism.
Many of the people Verhuizen interviewed inadvertently make it clear how late Calvin came to terms with shrinking enrollment. As the faculty member leading the academic program review put it, “We started to recognize that, if you’ve got fewer students, you can’t necessarily have as many programs.“
And even after they’ve recognized that, it’s not clear their troubles are over. Voluntary retirements have bought them some breathing room, and the size of the freshman class in 2021 has risen for the first time in years. However, that rise follows the collapse of admissions in 2020, and 2021 admissions have not risen back to even to the level of 2019.
Not knowing how this will turn out for Calvin is one of the things that makes ”The Downsize“ so interesting, a lucid account of an enrollment crisis, reported as it unfolds, without posturing or rancor.
Our first donation
As I mentioned in the last housekeeping issue, we’re going to collectively decide where to direct a small donation ($500) to a higher ed charity. I think we’ll do this once a quarter; the first donation will go out before December 31st.
My experience with group donating is that the really worthwhile part is discussing the incommensurables – if you want to improve higher education, is it better to give directly to a school, or to an NGO? Is helping students enter college in the first place a better goal than helping the ones there persist? And so on.
Of the five options I provided last time for some sort of members forum, the majority choice was to host the interaction in a spreadsheet. I love group documents for all kinds of reasons – see this write up of Maciej Cegłowski’s wonderful talk, Fan is a tool-using animal, for some of my favorite ones. (Scroll to “I had summoned a very friendly Balrog” for the collaborative doc bit.)
So here is the spreadsheet we’ll use to propose and discuss who we want to donate to.
Process is detailed in the spreadsheet, but these are the basics:
  1. Any subscriber can suggest an organization.
  2. Proposals and discussions will run through the 14th of December.
  3. The final decision will be made by members sometime between December 15th and 27th, and announced on the 28th.
Collapsing SAT and ACT use
I have been thinking a lot about this chart of graduating high school seniors taking the SAT or ACT, embedded in a tweet by Erik Jacobsen (@ErikTheRedTutor):
Percentage of HS Seniors Taking SAT or ACT, 1991-2021
Percentage of HS Seniors Taking SAT or ACT, 1991-2021
You don’t recover from that kind of slump.
The stigma of ‘test optional’ applications has been removed, and students seeking admission in Fall of 2022 have been assured by nearly all selective colleges that they can apply without these scores. Hundreds of those same schools have already announced that they will keep test optional policies for students applying in Fall of 2023. Test optional policies look like one of the adaptations likely to remain after the COVID crisis.
The likeliest effect of this change is an increase in the diversity of applicants selective schools admit. Many academically qualified students, often minority or first-generation, previously declined to apply because the tests seemed like too much of a barrier. Now that they don’t face that barrier anymore, application numbers from these groups are up.
It can be hard for people who are familiar with how college works to understand how much of the ‘under-matching’ of minority applicants comes down to small but badly placed obstacles. The student experience applying to college is generally terrible – cable TV companies look user-centric compared to us – but the worst effect of these bad experiences is to convince minority students not to apply.
And really, we do that sort of thing to poor and minority students all the time. The cost of forwarding one additional ACT test – $6! – was enough to dissuade cost-conscious kids from taking a chance on a more selective school.
The COVID crisis is in its second enrollment cycle, and some of the results from last year’s test optional admissions at selective schools are astonishing: UCLA reported a 48 percent in Black applicants and 33 percent increase in Hispanic applicants. Grinnell’s Class of 2025 is 30% students of color, against 23% for the Class of 2024. For Brown, those figures are 55% for ‘25, vs only 36% for '24.
Previous research found much more modest increases in diversity at test-optional schools; part of the reason seemed to be that fewer than a third of students applying trusted that the admissions office would not view the lack of a standardized test negatively. COVID has changed that calculus, a downdraft that hit every school at the same time. The Prisoners Dilemma of being one of the few people to not submit a score was erased when a huge number of students simply didn’t take the tests, and a huge number of colleges announced they didn’t need it.
The list of things wrong with higher education is long, but allowing testing firms to set themselves up as gatekeepers is near the top. It is a thin silver lining for this awful pandemic cloud, but this is something we may be able to fix.
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