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It's Liberal Arts College Party Time!

Posted: 07/21/11 12:35 PM ET

Every college president's heartbeat quickens whenever a reporter from a major media outlet calls to have a chat. Of course you always hope they're calling because they've just realized how utterly fabulous your institution is and they want to sing your praises to the wider world and stress the importance of a liberal arts college education and the kind of transformational experience your students have. However, that is rarely the case. In fact, after having been president of Pitzer College for nine years, I can tell you that has rarely been the case.

Recently, an article appeared in Bloomberg News with the subtle headline, "Bowdoin says no need for SAT while buying College Board Scores." Oh my! While I've never spent much time worrying about decisions made at Bowdoin (although I do applaud them in making the SAT optional as Pitzer College did in 2003), clearly something must be amiss. What are they up to in Maine?

When I was contacted by the reporter, I took her call, as I always do, and after two quite long and extensive conversations (presidents love to sing the praises of their institutions), imagine my dismay when I found that our entire conversation had been boiled down into an inarticulate 19 words in the article. The crux of the reporter's story is that colleges who have made the SAT optional are wicked because they purchase names and addresses of students who've done well on the SAT from the College Board, owner of the SAT. When that thesis was proposed to me, my immediate response was that I saw no contradiction because we also buy lists of students based demographic and academic interests which are in line with our programs. Other colleges buy lists based on their own specifications of student demographic they believe will be a good fit for their institutions.

When Pitzer College decided to go SAT optional, we did so because we felt we had been excluding a whole group of students who perhaps did not perform particularly well on standardized tests but excelled in their academic pursuits and we wanted to reach out to as many potential students as possible. Current students wanted to be assured that if they scored highly on the SAT, this wouldn't work against them. And so, in a moment of opening our arms to all so that we could recruit the finest, most "Pitzeresque" class possible, the faculty, staff, students and Trustees ultimately voted to make the SAT optional so that everyone could be considered as a potential future Pitzer alumni.

Now this issue of purchasing mailing lists is in my view really a straw dog. I don't know about you, but when I throw a party I like to send invitations to the guests. This is what our admission office does in purchasing lists. We run tours 364 days out of the year, present at college fairs, visit high schools and yes, we try to get the names of as many college-bound students as we possibly can. I guess we could place giant advertisements in publications like Bloomberg, but I doubt that would result in an appreciable return. And while the College Board is the only provider mentioned in the story, there are many others that schools routinely use in order to enlarge their mailing lists such as Cappex, Peterson's and Zinch. And why do we go through all this effort? Because I happen to think we are the best liberal arts college in the country and every student in high school should learn more about us because what we do is very, very special indeed.

While I understand that it's always a good thing to make news, sometimes there just isn't news to make out of the pieces that you're trying to put together.

In response to being asked whether I thought our increase in selectivity as well as our rise in U.S. News & World Report coincided with making the SAT optional, my response was that if it were that easy I would quit my job as a college president and go hit the road as a consultant and make millions offering that rather simplistic and reductionist advice. Trust me. Success never comes without substantive effort.

When I arrived as president in 2002, Pitzer was ranked 70th by U.S. News. We saw a dramatic jump the following year, not due to the fact that we had made the SAT optional, but because we had actually started filling out the forms and sending them back. Go figure. The reason that probably holds the most water in terms of our dramatic increase of 31 percent in the total number of applications over the last nine years, which has translated into making us one of the most selective colleges in the U.S., has to do with several factors. Perhaps making the SAT optional did encourage additional applications, however, at the same time, there was an increase in the demographic of high school aged students entering college and the common application went online, which allows students with a click of the button to apply to not just one or two but 10 to 15 institutions.

Simultaneously, Pitzer College engaged in a sustainable building program, which will ultimately make all our residence halls gold and platinum LEED certified, that has garnered an enormous amount of attention from the media and for the past six years we have been ranked number one for Fulbright Fellowships per thousand students. We have exciting academic programs such as our socially responsible documentary filmmaking program and our environmental analysis program. All of these aspects work together to create an institution that students become excited about and want to attend.

So, was I disappointed in the story? Not really. It was evident to me from the start what the angle was. Never fear, if you are interested in hearing a really great story drop by Pitzer College for a visit because anyone who loves the liberal arts is always welcome to my party.