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At What Price?

BJM8BJM8 Registered User Posts: 1,279 Senior Member
edited February 2006 in Smith College
SMITH
Prestigious women's colleges have been at the forefront in attracting low-income students. Wellesley, Mount Holyoke, and Smith give at least 15% of their highly coveted spots to students poor enough to qualify for a federal Pell Grant. This was in part a response to the challenges all-female schools faced when once all-male colleges such as Amherst, Williams, and Yale went coed in the '70s. "It was clear we had to cast a wider net or we wouldn't survive," says Diana Chapman Walsh, president of Wellesley.

None of these schools has been more aggressive than Smith College, the largest of the elite women's colleges, where roughly a quarter of the students get Pell Grants, and nearly two-thirds receive need-based financial aid. That doesn't exactly jibe with Smith's traditional image as a school that helped prepare young women for society by serving dinner on white linen tablecloths, and which also claims former First Ladies Barbara Bush and Nancy Reagan among its alumnae.

HELPING OLDER WOMEN. But that outdated image conceals a dedication to helping poor women get a top-notch education. "Our admissions office has been targeting inner-city schools for years," says Audrey Yale Smith, the college's dean of enrollment. That effort got a huge boost in the latter half of the '90s, when Ruth J. Simmons was president of Smith. "Simmons was the African-American daughter of sharecroppers, and she made a very compelling case about our commitment to access," says Dean Smith. Simmons is now president of Brown University.

A second factor that sets Smith College apart is its program that helps non-traditional women students -- who must be at least 24 years old -- complete college. Currently, Smith has about 210 of these Ada Comstock Scholars, some 8% of its 2,800 students. Unlike traditional students, who come directly from high school, these women are often already living on their own and are far more likely to be low income.

LOWER AVERAGE SATS. To help attract such students, the school has somewhat altered its admissions criteria. Dean Smith and her colleagues are well aware that SAT scores are highly correlated with income. As a result, "We have de-emphasized SAT scores, and put more weight on teacher recommendations, high-school performance, and other measures," she says.

Smith points out that students with lower SAT scores often end up thriving at the school, where they get a lot of support, which ranges from an individual adviser and help with writing and math to a wardrobe of business suits they can draw from to go on job interviews before graduation.

But trailblazing has a price. "We take a big hit on [average] SAT scores," the dean concedes. "Our SAT scores are about 100 points below those of our peers in the U.S. News & World Report college rankings." And that has hurt Smith in the U.S. News rankings, where it now places 19th among liberal arts colleges. By comparison, Wellesley, where students' SAT scores average 100 points higher, is No. 4. As a result, getting into Smith isn't as competitive as getting into Harvard or Amherst. But Smith still gets plenty of applicants -- 3,400 applied for the 639 slots in last fall's entering class.

AID ECLIPSES TABLECLOTHS. In recent years, Smith College's financial-aid budget grew faster than other parts of the budget, says Dean Smith, swelling to over $40 million, or well over a quarter of the college's operating budget. As a result, the college was forced to cut back its famed dining program. Previously, Smith served students dinner in formal settings -- complete with linen tablecloths -- in the 26 houses where they live on campus. Now Smith has scaled that back to just 16 dining halls, while offering students more flexibility in when and what they can eat.

Dean Smith admits the change caused controversy. It also generated "a huge response from alumnae," many of whom have fond memories of the intimate dinners they enjoyed at the college. But she defends the change as necessary. "At one time, we were preparing women to enter society," says Dean Smith. "But now, we're preparing them to enter leadership positions." That should be food for thought for other schools looking to help low-income students.

Interesting article in February 27th edition of Businessweek online. There has been much talk on CC regarding the drop to #19 in the standings, according to US News and World Report. Is it a big deal? Will we lose more than we will gain? Dining took the biggest hit at Smith, and many alumnae are very upset and concerned.
Post edited by BJM8 on
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Replies to: At What Price?

  • TheDadTheDad Registered User, ! Posts: 10,225 Senior Member
    What I've heard, and can't verify, so treat it as RUMINT, is that the drop the Selectivity going down, which affects the rankings, was a one-year thing. I think in the fullness of time the impact of the dining changes will be minimal, though I personally regret them.
  • ChocolateisgoodChocolateisgood Registered User Posts: 394 Member
    Thats interesting.. But everyone knows that the academics at Smith is very very good anyway..
  • BJM8BJM8 Registered User Posts: 1,279 Senior Member
    Chocolateisgood...no doubt; that is why my D choose Smith ED. My question revolves around two issues however; the 100 pt. swing in SAT scores and the #19 ranking go hand in hand. Diversity is a fine debate, and I'm a strong supporter of schools looking for more diversity, but not at the potential of losing the best students. Whether we like it or not, US News and World Report rankings are huge for colleges and potential students alike. Smith must be careful, and tread lightly in this area; so as not to lose their standing as one of the best LAC's.

    Dining has many alumnae up in arms, and they are preturbed by the loss of dining in each house, and teas are going by the wayside as well.
  • minimini Registered User Posts: 26,431 Senior Member
    Don't know about anyone else, but I think that overall, and for the majority of students, the new dining arrangement is a huge improvement. I attended Williams at a time when we had what was similar to the old dining arrangement at Smith. Yes, it was "homey". Yes, it was "nice" to see folks again and again. Yes, we had candles occasionally (though never tea - though I know my d's old house still had the weekly teas.) But it was also insular, inflexible, and served the needs of the entire community really poorly. If I had friends at other houses? tough. We actually had to make a date to eat together. If there was sports practice or a music rehearsal that ran over? tough. I could try to find leftovers, or go without. Had classes close together around lunch? Tough. No grab and go. And the food was the same regardless of where one ate on campus? Vegetarians? Yeah, right. Kosher. Sure. Or just some variety from which to choose? Non-existent. Yes, there are tradeoffs, but for the majority of students, the majority of times, I imagine this is a considerable improvement, regardless of the cost. (Of course, I can be a dispassionate observer, as my d. has opted out of the dining thing altogether, by living in a coop house.)

    There hasn't been a "100-point SAT swing." They haven't dropped. Rather, according to the CollegeBoard's own data, SATs are closely associated with income - at higher levels, a 1400 SAT score is simply a 1200 plus a $100k in family income - for equivalent students. As the three-year study undertaken by then-President Simmons concluded, they could take students with higher SAT scores, but with no impact on on-campus performance, and negative impacts on Smith's historic commitment to economic diversity. I think the fair comparison is to look at outputs and ask why does Smith, with its lower SAT scores, have more Fulbrights than the female Fulbrights at Amherst, Williams, Swarthmore, and Pomona combined, more undergraduate Fulbrights than Harvard, Yale, or Princeton, more undergraduate research Fulbrights than the University of Chicago? It is NOT because the students, coming in, are "better" (because they are clearly not). It is rather because the income-based differences begin to get washed out when students are given good opportunities, and superb advising, and peer faculty at other institutions are choosing Smithies. Are they losing the best students? If the evidence is SAT scores, I think there is more digging to do.
  • roadlesstraveledroadlesstraveled Registered User Posts: 1,146 Senior Member
    I agree with TD and Mini on the dinning issue. It will pass. Smith’s dinning is still far superior to any other college. How many colleges have *16* different dinning rooms? None.

    I’d rather see a few students have to walk a block for breakfast in exchange for 6 extra kids from very low income families attending Smith that wouldn’t be doing so otherwise had the money been spent on a dinning room for a house with 16 students residing in it.

    When the fraternities were disbanded and the houses confiscated at Amherst, Middlebury, Hamilton et al. alumni became apoplectic. They got over it. Midd, Hamilton and Amherst aren’t hurting for applicants or alumni donations.


    {{[is that the drop the Selectivity going down, which affects the rankings, was a one-year thing. }}

    The admission rate drop was for the class of ‘09
    The acceptance rate fell to 47% for ’09 from 57% for the class of ‘08... The rankings due out in Aug will reflect the class of ‘09... However, what has yet to be determined is the acceptance rate this year. The 47 % admission rate may be the anomaly because 47% was the lowest Smith has recorded in years and might not have been sustained.
    Selectivity, yield and average SAT scores are separate issues.
    The lowered SATs averages aren’t just a function of admitting students with lower scores but getting those with the higher scores to matriculate to Smith instead of Wellesley, Bowdoin, Bates, Colgate, et cetera. ED admission percentages have risen at every college in the country. They’re capturing the top students so they can report higher SAT scores, lower acceptance rates and higher yields.



    {{Smith must be careful, and tread lightly in this area; so as not to lose their standing as one of the best LAC's.}}

    Well said. Many students select colleges to apply and attend based on the rankings. A lower ranking leads to a self-fulfilling prophesy, of sorts.
    TMP stated, “Smith was just the best choice out of three offers that I had. So I took that and said that I'd give a chance.” Sara, in her past posts, also mentioned she was at Smith because it was the best college she was admitted to.



    Many students at Smith--and every other college-- are there for the same reason. It was the *best* --i.e. in the rankings-- they were accepted to. Mini and TD, I said “many” I realize your daughters were accepted to other great colleges. But TD, if your daughter had been accepted to Yale she wouldn’t be at Smith today-- Bjm8’s would be at Amherst. If mine had been accepted to the Ivy she applied to she wouldn’t be at Smith. Although, in hindsight, she’ll tell you getting rejected was the best thing that could have happened because she never would have had the opportunities she has had at Smith.
    Many students (read Stacy’s post) consider the reputation and ranking of their college extremely important because of their future aspirations to apply to grad, med, or law school. Deciding to attend a college that is rated #13 is a lot easier than if it’s rated #19 or less.

    Wellesley attracts the top students not because it’s a better college than Smith, it isn’t, but because it’s rated number #4 and doesn’t have the radical reputation and negative press Smith has managed to garner recently.

    --TMP stated--{{ I wasn't aware of the extremeness in the campus culture}}

    http://talk.collegeconfidential.com/showthread.php?t=142980

    Don’t shoot the messenger. I’m only repeating the gist of numerous conversations I’ve had with students, teachers, Alumnae and parents, as well as private PM’s I’ve received from current students here and on other boards.
  • roadlesstraveledroadlesstraveled Registered User Posts: 1,146 Senior Member
    {{I think the fair comparison is to look at outputs and ask why does Smith, with its lower SAT scores, have more Fulbright’s than the female Fulbright’sat Amherst, Williams, Swarthmore, and Pomona combined<<<snip}}}

    You make a valid point, but I can guarantee you 1% of the 1st yr. applicants don’t have the faintest idea what a Fulbright is. Smith itself does little to broadcast their achievement and buries the facts on an obscure webpage even I had trouble finding, and I’ve been playing with the Smith website for years. http://www.smith.edu/fellowships/successes.html

    I suggest you and Ellen take over, I’m not being facetious, Smith’s academic advertising and get the facts upfront, understood, and put into the proper prestigious perspective. Otoh-comparing Smith to Amherst, Williams, Swath in a negative light might not bode well when it comes time for the peer review for the rankings. Isn’t the rankings chessboard game fun-lol

    I would also make the suggestion since Smith has devalued the SAT anyway, make the test optional and do away with the SAT subject test recommendation, as Colgate has.

    Even better yet, adapt Midds from of admissions, SATs, IBs APs, SAT subject test or any combination and report the SATs that were cherry picked from top submitters for the USNews rankings.

    It appears to me the colleges who are the quickest to game the system seem to be winning. It seems senseless Smith is not taking advantage of, or making changes, that may effect their ranking favorably in the future.

    It wasn’t that may years ago Colgate was an ok LAC known as the party college of the east and ranked far below Smith. Now they’re ranked ahead of Smith with an impressive class profile.
    Colgate worked very hard to change their image and they have obtained impressive, if not outstanding results. It might behoove Smith to take notice, images and perceptions of a college matter.
  • roadlesstraveledroadlesstraveled Registered User Posts: 1,146 Senior Member
    Stacy said it best. "of course current students care about rankings! we're paying a ton of money for our education, we want a good return on it"
    "employers and grad schools are going to judge alums based on college rankings (and I'm sure they will to a certain extent, at least until we build up a work history), then it would be good to have the highest ranking possible."
    " There are a million little things that can change the rankings and while it might be nice to one day say "I graduated from a top-10" college, I think really what most students want is for us to just stop declining"
  • interesteddadinteresteddad Registered User Posts: 24,177 Senior Member
    It appears to me the colleges who are the quickest to game the system seem to be winning. It seems senseless Smith is not taking advantage of, or making changes, that may effect their ranking favorably in the future.

    On the other hand, when the bubble bursts on the college application boom in a few years, LACs what have carved out a unique, readily identifiable identity may be in the best position. When applications tail off, I'm not sure that saying, "well, we are just like Duke, but smaller" is going to be that persuasive. It may prove that niche marketing that generates enthusiasm to a hard-core customer base is a winning strategy.
  • roadlesstraveledroadlesstraveled Registered User Posts: 1,146 Senior Member
    {{{On the other hand, when the bubble bursts on the college application boom in a few years}}

    A few years may not be until 2012 or beyond to 2020 when immigration is taken into consideration.

    If a LAC falls far enough it won’t matter what niche they have carved out for themselves. With regard to Smith, what unique niche has the college carved out for itself other than the fact it’s a women’s college?
    Sure, Smith has great advising, professors and a special housing system, but is that enough to make it unique enough it will be a /must attend/ college? The majority of students’ most important factor (after affordability) when choosing a college is the reputation and ranking, regardless of whether the college is single gender or not. Sure fit is considered, but you would be surprised how many students will decide to attended Midd and many other LACs, even though they're miserable around the preppy student body, small size or location for the explicit reason they want to graduate from a top college.
    And if attending an all women’s college is important, there will be even fewer women students’ applying in the years ahead, leading to a much less competitive or highly qualified application pool. How will Smith attract the top students? Those who attend Smith today because they were deferred/rejected from Yale, Colgate, Dartmouth, Amherst, et cetera will have a much greater chance of being accepted to the aforementioned colleges in the future and will not need to enroll at Smith as their *best alternative*, especially if Smith has fallen far enough in the rankings to remove it from serious contention anyway.
    Wells, Skidmore and Vassar have already discovered to stay viable in a decreasing application pool it was necessary to admit men.
    That’s not what I’m inferring Smith should to do. But it has been mentioned enough the pres. believed she should put out a statement that Smith is NOT considering going co-ed despite the rumors.
  • pestopesto Registered User Posts: 254 Junior Member
    I dunno. I guess I wouldn't argue against the significance of reputation and rankings, but still I would emphasize that there is some ineffable quality that comes across in any visit to Smith that transcends statistics. My daughter was never particularly interested in rankings -- she WAS looking for the place that felt right -- and she found it in Smith. We did look at Colgate (a school we probably would never have considered if NOT for its ranking), but we all experienced a collective shudder there. Compared to Smith, it felt like a college for automatons. I guess I would hope that Smith will always attract young women with character, who want to be in a place where they can be themselves, rather than putting up and shutting up, all in the interest of future status, in a place that feels alien to their sensibilities. I would still hang onto the principle that it's what you do, not the reputation of your school, that determines your ultimate success in life.

    Should Smith start trying to play the ratings game? Or should they concentrate on doing what they've always done best -- provide an environment for learning that is supportive on so many levels I can't begin to count them all, the kind of environment from which their students can launch rich and interesting lives. I vote for the latter.

    Between all us parent posters on this site, I expect we have, in our daughters, the best ambassadors Smith could possibly hope for. It is students like them who will help Smith seed future populations of formidable young women, and the rankings will follow suit.
  • BJM8BJM8 Registered User Posts: 1,279 Senior Member
    Should Smith start trying to play the ratings game? Or should they concentrate on doing what they've always done best -- provide an environment for learning that is supportive on so many levels I can't begin to count them all, the kind of environment from which their students can launch rich and interesting lives. I vote for the latter.
    Two different areas here:

    1. the latter; refers to current students and all the wonderful things we know that Smith does, and does well. This cannot be argued, but could be stressed a little more by the college.

    2. The former; refers to Smith playing the ratings game. Yeah, they have to, unfortunately. They have dropped precipitously in the rankings. Granted our D's will be great ambassadors for the college, all the while helping them with their rankings status i.e. SAT's, SAT II's, AP's. etc But, how long and how low can they really afford to drop before losing top-notch students just based on rankings alone? Many of us CC'ers are extremely happy with Smith for what they do and can or will do for our D's. I sure hope they never have to go the coed route, and I doubt they ever will; but I'm sure Amherst felt the same way, as did Vassar et al. If they are not careful they will begin losing top-notch students to Wellesely; which really is their only competition right now. If Wellesley remains #4 and Smith remains #19; that's a problem, period!
  • TheDadTheDad Registered User, ! Posts: 10,225 Senior Member
    Well, for various factors, for my D, Smith over Wellesley was a slam dunk, regardless of ratings.

    RLT, I'm kinda glad that the Yale vs. Smith cup passed us by. I actually had the Smith over Yale bullet points lined up and ready to go. Hubris. I'm not sure how it would have shaken out and there was no point in borrowing trouble, a wisdom validated by Yale's rejection, but it certainly wasn't clear cut to *me* and the input we received from one of the Yale admins on the subject just reinforced that. It was so far that I was mentally figuring out how to explain to people, if D was accepted at Yale, that she had chosen Smith instead.

    These days, after the fact, it's much simpler: she wouldn't switch to New Haven for a full ride.
  • roadlesstraveledroadlesstraveled Registered User Posts: 1,146 Senior Member
    {{but still I would emphasize that there is some ineffable quality that comes across in any visit to Smith that transcends statistics
    We did look at Colgate (a school we probably would never have considered if NOT for its ranking)}}

    You only looked at Colgate because of the ranking.
    How is “some ineffable quality of Smith going to come across in any visit to Smith” if students take the same approach as you did with Colgate and only visit colleges above a certain number in the rankings?

    Fwiw- The very fact Smith moved 5 spots in one year demonstrates the idiocy of the ranking. How much could have possibly changed in 12 months to dictate at 5 spot move at any college?

    A couple of colleges moved 3 spots. Wesleyan dropped from 9 to 12. Again, what could have possibly changed that much in 12 months to cause a college to move 3 spots?

    From U of Chicago magazine. This should be required reading for all high school students and parents.

    “If schools change so slowly, how slowly will the rankings change? And if the rankings change too slowly, how will U.S. News sell magazines? "The way they sell magazines is by causing different outcomes," says Provost Stone, "and they cause different outcomes by changing the criteria and by changing the weight they give the criteria. U.S. News wouldn't sell magazines if their rankings changed as slowly as the institutions."

    “Although the 1995 Wall Street Journal article prompted U.S. News to guard against schools reporting inaccurate data, many institutions have become craftier at making themselves look good, some changing academic policies to improve their standings. Some schools purge alumni databases, removing people unlikely to donate (e.g., students who did not graduate) in order to increase the alumni giving rate. Other schools market to students who have no realistic chance of being admitted simply to drive up the school's applications and thus its selectivity rate.”

    “If SATs are optional, only high scorers submit them, thus increasing the average score a school can faithfully report. Schools also benefit from an increased number of applications from students who see their SATs as a barrier to other institutions, thus driving up the school's selectivity along with its application rate. Currently about 20 percent of colleges and universities don't require SATs or ACTs.”

    http://magazine.uchicago.edu/0110/features/abuse.html
  • roadlesstraveledroadlesstraveled Registered User Posts: 1,146 Senior Member
    {{Hubris}

    Naaaa You have OPPD……….Optimistic Proud Parent Disorder. It’s a fairly common affliction and not easily cured.
  • BJM8BJM8 Registered User Posts: 1,279 Senior Member
    “If SATs are optional, only high scorers submit them, thus increasing the average score a school can faithfully report. Schools also benefit from an increased number of applications from students who see their SATs as a barrier to other institutions, thus driving up the school's selectivity along with its application rate. Currently about 20 percent of colleges and universities don't require SATs or ACTs.”
    Now...there's an interesting fact I hadn't considered. If they do not require SAT scores, the only ones who will probably choose to submit them are top scorers (DUH!) Makes lots of sense. Maybe this will help with the standings, rather than hurt them.
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