Most colleges and universities believe that they serve particular types of students particularly well. Only a few make an effort to serve only those students. Highly selective schools do, of course, admit only students with stellar academic and co-curricular records. And some specialized colleges do as well. Rhode Island School of Design would not admit an inept painter. The Berklee School of Music would deny admission to a tone deaf singer.
Outside of elite and niche schools, though, most colleges admit anyone who meets their (often minimal) admission requirements. What is more, many of them go out of their way to enroll students from a broad range of financial and educational backgrounds and with a wide range of educational goals. They do this in part because they are pursuing variety and in part because their financial aid methods require a broad disparity of students in order to meet headcount and tuition revenue goals. This practice is exacerbated by their natural desire to feature outlier students--the entering freshman with a perfect SAT score, the world class athlete at a DII school, the initially marginal student who grows into a student leader. And it is exacerbated by the ever-more-challenging task of filling the class.
For these reasons it makes sense to admit and enroll all sorts of students. But for two key reasons it makes no sense at all. The first is fit. Among the most common bit of college-choosing advice is to tell students to enroll where they fit. This is good advice, since good fit, all things being equal, leads to engagement and success. But schools do a poor job of helping prospective students understand fit. (They also do a poor job of understanding fit themselves.) The common version of fit is often nothing more than feeling comfortable on a campus visit and being able to afford the tuition--certainly something that could happen at any of hundreds of campuses, if only prospective students could visit them. And fit may be focused on superficial things. A student may like the residence halls and enjoy the orientation leaders and not fit at all in the academic culture or the broader community. The admission practices of most institutions are incapable of determining whether a student really fits, and reticent about informing prospective students that, in the school’s eyes, the fit isn’t good. (I understand this reticence given that racial and religious discrimination has traditionally been hidden under the phrase “bad fit.”
But enrolling a bad fit student, especially when doing so demands that that student take on significant debt, has its own moral failings now being borne heavily among the disadvantaged.)
The second reason that it makes little sense to admit and enroll all sorts of students is that colleges, especially small ones, are incapable of serving those students while maintaining coherence themselves. In fact, nearly every sector of the college is less able to develop expertise and excellence because of its intentionally various student body. Faculty members, for instance, labor to support learning in a class that contains many excellent and many weak students. Deans struggle to schedule courses and manage workload when academic programs (and their associated students) proliferate. Student support staff get drawn to the margins--giving out-sized attention to remarkable and unsuitable students, missing those in-between, and barely holding things together themselves. Event planners offer many events each week, each under-attended. Marketers can communicate little of substance about the college to the public (besides the empty promise that you can find a bit of everything here), the college’s mission becomes indistinguishable from hundreds of others, and, to close the circle, the admissions staff now finds itself obligated to seek out more various students from across many spectra to feed the sprawl that variety started in the first place. And so, if you accept this model, and if you acknowledge that enrollment will be ever more of a challenge in the future, then you are committed to a long-term lack of focus.
It is healthy (if not easy) then, to ask the question “Who would you not admit to your college?” Elite schools already have, and by so doing, created coherence in their student bodies around which they have built strong, impressive, and financially healthy institutions. Their retention and graduation measures are excellent, their visions clear, and their brands resonant. For those of us whose schools lack these things, figuring out the ethics and practice of not admitting students is a first step towards the distinctiveness we need to survive.