The Numbers Game at UMass


A recent report issued by the Pioneer Institute, a conservative-leaning, Boston-based think tank, brought a new wave of criticism to the admissions practices at the University of Massachusetts and its flagship campus in Amherst, but what it really did — we hope — is open some eyes to some of the alarming trends in higher education today.

The report, released late last month, revealed that out-of-state applicants are often getting in at the expense of in-state residents with higher grade-point averages and SAT scores. The average GPA for admitted out-of-state students was 3.78, while for Massachusetts students it was 3.97.

Stating the blatantly obvious, Mary Connaughton, co-author of the report, said it isn’t supposed to be this way. “It’s actually heartbreaking,” she told the Boston Globe. “We don’t want our kids left out in the cold.”

Indeed, we don’t. But we need a much deeper analysis of the numbers and, more importantly, some aggressive action taken by the state elected leaders to perhaps reverse them.

Out-of-state students are preferred in this environment because they pay higher rates. Meanwhile, competition for those students (and all students, for that matter) is especially keen as high-school graduating classes continue to shrink in size, and that’s why out-of-state applicants are getting admitted to the Amherst campus with lower GPAs than young people in Chicopee, Lowell, and Fall River.

As the Pioneer Institute said, in essence, that’s bad — because this is the state university we’re talking about. It’s there, primarily, to serve state residents, especially as a lower-cost alternative to the many, many exemplary private colleges and universities in this and other states.

Through the decades, it has filled this role well, even as its stature has increased and it has become much more than a ‘fall-back school’ — a phrase used by so many who went there in the ’70s and ’80s to capture how it became their choice after they couldn’t get into, or couldn’t afford, those aforementioned private schools.

But in recent years, changing financial conditions have forced changes in admission policies, and we choose those words carefully. As the state’s commitment to higher education wavered, the university was seemingly left with little choice but to favor out-of-state students and the higher tuitions they paid.

There are other reasons for admitting out-of-students; for starters, they want to come here because of the excellence of the programs, which is a good thing, but the school also wants to create needed diversity by admitting students from other parts of the country and other parts of the world.

But mostly, it’s about money. The estimated cost of attending UMass Amherst for an in-state resident is just under $30,000; conversely, for an out-of-state resident, it’s between $47,600 and $49,000. You can do the math.

And so can the people trying to administer programs at the flagship campus. They would appear to have two choices: admit more in-state residents and incur losses in revenue that threaten quality of programs and perhaps the existence of others, or admit more out-of-state students.

The latter has been the course, and in 2016, the school actually gave more admissions to students who lived outside the state than to those who called the Baystate home — although, overall, more than 75% of those attending the school are from Massachusetts.

School officials believe that’s a good number. The Pioneer Institute doesn’t, and Connaughton believes the state should consider a cap — perhaps 18%, the number used by some other states — on out-of-state admissions so that deserving state residents don’t lose out.

We have a better idea — stronger support of higher education at the state level so those reviewing admissions applications don’t have to make the amount of tuition a student can pay the first number they look at.

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