A pre­dic­tion predica­ment

Furor at UC Irvine un­der­scores guess­work in stu­dent en­roll­ment

Los Angeles Times - - FRONT PAGE - teresa.watan­abe@la­times.com Twit­ter: @tere­sawatan­abe rosanna.xia@la­times.com Twit­ter: @rosan­naxia

A flood of stu­dents un­ex­pect­edly ac­cepted ad­mis­sion of­fers. A UC cam­pus was caught off guard. Ad­min­is­tra­tors scoured the files of the ad­mit­ted and took a hard line on those who had failed to meet pa­per­work dead­lines. They with­drew more than 500 of­fers, caus­ing a furor.

The year was 2015, the cam­pus Santa Cruz.

The storm that UC Irvine re­cently unleashed when it took a sim­i­lar ap­proach to ov­eren­roll­ment was un­usual but hardly un­heard of on the na­tion’s col­lege cam­puses. Ex­perts say the two UC cases and oth­ers like them at Tem­ple Univer­sity in Philadel­phia and St. Mary’s Col­lege of Mary­land un­der­score the va­garies of en­roll­ment pre­dic­tion — a dis­ci­pline that aims to meld the sci­ence of data analysis with the guess­work of an­tic­i­pat­ing teenage whims.

Cal Poly San

Luis Obispo also mis­cal­cu­lated its num­bers this year, with about 700 more stu­dents say­ing yes to its of­fers than ex­pected. One curve­ball was a cam­pus de­ci­sion to elim­i­nate the op­tion for ap­pli­cants to make an early, bind­ing com­mit­ment to en­roll, which boosts their chances of ad­mis­sion but was seen as ad­van­ta­geous to the wealth­ier stu­dents who did not need to wait for fi­nan­cial aid pack­ages.

The move made a dif­fer­ence, with a 30% in­crease in the in­com­ing fresh­man class of low-in­come and un­der­rep­re­sented mi­nor­ity stu­dents. But it also made the process more un­pre­dictable, be­cause early com­mit­ments pre­vi­ously had locked in nearly a quar­ter of the en­roll­ment early on, said James Mar­aviglia, the as­so­ci­ate vice provost who over­sees the ad­mis­sions process.

It wasn’t just fresh­men who ac­cepted ad­mis­sion of­fers at a far higher rate — 34.6% this year com­pared with 29.5% last year. Four hun­dred more cur­rent stu­dents than an­tic­i­pated said they were plan­ning to re­turn to cam­pus, many of whom ben­e­fited from en­hanced aca­demic sup­port and coun­sel­ing to keep from drop­ping out, said Mary Ped­er­sen, se­nior vice provost of aca­demic plan­ning and pro­grams.

Un­like Irvine, how­ever, the pop­u­lar Cal­i­for­nia State Univer­sity cam­pus did not face the crunch by try­ing to find ways to with­draw more ad­mis­sion of­fers. In­stead, it is work­ing to ac­com­mo­date the ex­tra stu­dents by re­con­fig­ur­ing dorms to add 1,000 more beds and hir­ing ad­di­tional fac­ulty.

“En­roll­ment man­age­ment is an art, not an ac­tu­ar­ial sci­ence,” Mar­aviglia said. “One vari­able can change and to­tally change your mix.”

He and oth­ers said pre­dic­tions have be­come even trick­ier since the ad­vent of on­line ap­pli­ca­tions has made it eas­ier for stu­dents to ap­ply to mul­ti­ple cam­puses.

Tom Green, a col­lege en­roll­ment man­age­ment ex­pert who has con­sulted with sev­eral Cal State cam­puses, said Cal­i­for­nia pre­dic­tions are made par­tic­u­larly dif­fi­cult by the sheer size of its three higher ed­u­ca­tion sys­tems, which col­lec­tively ed­u­cate 2.9 mil­lion stu­dents.

“How do you try to pre­dict things ... when you are so much larger than any­body else that there’s no other model like you?” said Green, as­so­ci­ate ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the Amer­i­can Assn. of Col­le­giate Regis­trars and Ad­mis­sions Of­fi­cers. “Try­ing to man­age en­roll­ment and re­sources at that scale is re­ally chal­leng­ing.”

UC Irvine, in the end, has had to re­verse course. Stung by pub­lic out­rage over its abrupt can­cel­la­tion of nearly 500 ad­mis­sion of­fers af­ter 850 more stu­dents than ex­pected said they would at­tend, the school an­nounced last week that it would read­mit most of those af­fected. Chan­cel­lor Howard Gill­man apol­o­gized and an­nounced that he had di­rected the in­ter­nal au­di­tor to re­view the ad­mis­sions process to try to un­der­stand how of­fi­cials so badly un­der­es­ti­mated the en­roll­ment, why stu­dents who got the notices were poorly treated when they in­quired about them and how to avoid re­peat­ing the mis­takes.

UC Santa Cruz launched a sim­i­lar re­view af­ter its 2015 fi­asco, which prompted some out­raged par­ents to con­tact their state leg­is­la­tors to de­mand an­swers and changes in pro­ce­dure. The cam­pus sub­se­quently over­hauled not only how it pre­dicts its en­roll­ment num­bers, but also how it pub­licly ex­plains its ad­mis­sion process and han­dles those who fail to meet pa­per­work dead­lines, said Michelle Whit­ting­ham, as­so­ci­ate vice chan­cel­lor of en­roll­ment man­age­ment.

Those changes seem to have made a dif­fer­ence, she said. UC Santa Cruz missed its mark by 366 stu­dents in 2015 — but by only one in 2016 and seven in 2017. And thanks to more for­giv­ing poli­cies adopted last year, cam­pus of­fi­cials this year re­voked only 31 ad­mis­sion of­fers for pa­per­work prob­lems, such as miss­ing dead­lines for sub­mit­ting tran­scripts. “We rec­og­nize this was ex­cep­tion­ally dev­as­tat­ing to stu­dents and fam­i­lies,” Whit­ting­ham said of the 2015 can­cel­la­tions. “We re­ally tried to dis­sect ev­ery piece of our process and do ev­ery­thing we can do to make sure noth­ing like that ever hap­pens again.”

For starters, the cam­pus ze­roed in on weak­nesses in its fore­cast­ing model. Most cam­puses start with en­roll­ment tar­gets and work back­wards, cal­cu­lat­ing how many stu­dents need to be ad­mit­ted to reach them by look­ing at such fac­tors as pre­vi­ous rates of ac­cep­tance, known as yield, and of stu­dents who ini­tially ac­cept but then de­cide to en­roll else­where.

At Santa Cruz, of­fi­cials used to pre­dict group be­hav­ior. Now their model looks at each ap­pli­cant, cal­cu­lat­ing the like­li­hood that a stu­dent will come based on such vari­ables as their grades and test scores, ZIP Codes, in­tended ma­jors and cam­pus vis­its.

Those con­sid­ered more likely to at­tend UC Santa Cruz gen­er­ally live closer to cam­pus, visit more fre­quently be­fore de­cid­ing and have a weighted grade point av­er­age that is some­where around 3.9. Stu­dents plan­ning to ma­jor in engi­neer­ing, film and com­pu­ta­tional me­dia are more likely to at­tend than those fo­cused on mu­sic or fem­i­nist stud­ies.

Not that the care­fully crafted fore­cast­ing model can ac­count for all teen de­ci­sions.

When Whit­ting­ham asked stu­dents why they chose UC Santa Cruz, one told her “oxy­gen lev­els,” and an­other said the cam­pus was close to Seat­tle.

“One of the things you can’t lose sight of is that lit­er­ally we’re pre­dict­ing the be­hav­ior of 17- and 18-yearolds,” she said. “I can’t pre­dict my own son’s be­hav­ior.”

The cam­pus model has a built-in mar­gin of er­ror that ad­mits fewer stu­dents and places more on a wait­ing list. That way, over-en­roll­ment is less likely and wait-listed stu­dents fill the gap in cases of un­der­en­roll­ment, Whit­ting­ham said.

Other cam­puses also rely heav­ily on wait­ing lists, though some use them dif­fer­ently. Cal State Fuller­ton, for in­stance, of­fers those who miss pa­per­work dead­lines spots on the wait­ing list rather than com­pletely pulling their of­fers. The cam­pus needs to en­force dead­lines be­cause it’s so pop­u­lar and, for years, has had to turn away thou­sands of el­i­gi­ble stu­dents, said Dar­ren Bush, in­terim as­so­ci­ate vice pres­i­dent of stu­dent af­fairs. With the help of reg­u­lar data up­dates, of­fi­cials have fine-tuned their fore­cast­ing model to be on tar­get this year.

More in­for­ma­tion shar­ing be­tween the UC and Cal State sys­tems would be help­ful, Whit­ting­ham said, since all of the schools are af­fected by the ac­tions of their com­peti­tors. Santa Cruz’s lower-than-ex­pected yield rate this year might have been af­fected by Cal Poly San Luis Obispo’s elim­i­na­tion of the early de­ci­sion op­tion and sub­se­quent en­roll­ment surge, she said.

Since 2015, of­fi­cials from UC cam­puses have gath­ered at an an­nual sum­mit to share their en­roll­ment tar­gets and fore­cast­ing strate­gies.

That’s helped with plan­ning, Whit­ting­ham said. When UCLA and UC Berke­ley an­nounced they would in­crease ad­mis­sion of­fers last year as part of the UC sys­tem’s pledge to add 5,000 Cal­i­for­nia fresh­men, she knew fewer ap­pli­cants would ac­cept of­fers from her less-se­lec­tive cam­pus.

To im­prove its process, Santa Cruz also has stepped up its out­reach to stu­dents, par­ents and high school coun­selors, send­ing out more re­minders about pa­per­work dead­lines and be­ing less se­vere about them.

The cam­pus ex­tends the July 1 dead­line for tran­scripts to Aug. 10 for those who need more time, for in­stance, and has restarted mail­ing re­minders to par­ents af­ter many said they never saw the elec­tronic in­for­ma­tion sent to stu­dents’ on­line por­tals and email ac­counts.

That said, no amount of plan­ning is fail-safe.

“Peo­ple spend years try­ing to cre­ate pre­dictabil­ity out of un­pre­dictabil­ity,” Whit­ting­ham said. “So much of this work is il­log­i­cal.”

‘En­roll­ment man­age­ment is an art, not an ac­tu­ar­ial sci­ence. One vari­able can change and to­tally change your mix.’ — James Mar­aviglia, as­so­ci­ate vice provost at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo

Allen J. Sch­aben Los An­ge­les Times By Teresa Watan­abe and Rosanna Xia

A STU­DENT vis­its the ad­mis­sions of­fice at UC Irvine, which drew out­rage last month when it re­scinded nearly 500 ad­mis­sion of­fers.

Allen J. Sch­aben Los An­ge­les Times

A TOUR GUIDE leads a group through the UC Irvine cam­pus on Wed­nes­day. Af­ter re­scind­ing hun­dreds of ad­mis­sion of­fers, the school re­versed course last week, say­ing it would read­mit most of the af­fected stu­dents and con­duct an au­dit of the ad­mis­sions process.

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