Apr 18, 2022

Managing the Tension of Selectivity vs Accessibility

About two summers ago, we were busy here at ISA putting together a thought leader video series about the future of education. Specifically we were focused on the impact of the pandemic on shaping the future of education. During that series, I did a podcast and video with Dr. Paul LeBlanc, the innovative president from Southern New Hampshire University. In that segment, Paul shared a simple thought that really shook me:

“We don’t like some students more than others.”

—Paul LeBlanc, President of Southern New Hampshire University

His simple comment hit the heart of an age-old problem in education: selectivity. Why is it that we value selectivity in admission programs so much? Most schools and colleges seek to promote the illusion that they educate only the best students in the region, country, or globe. And, yet, what are they really saying when they promote this? Are they selling status? Exclusivity? Elitism? Each of those concepts seems to run completely the opposite of their stated intention of being inclusive and accessible.

I am not sure how the education got to this place, but it has managed to box itself into a corner. In an effort to appeal to the most elite of society, most private institutions have sold the concept of selectivity in admissions. And, that concept has often triggered other selective behaviors, such as high prices, limited housing, and inflexible systems and schedules. And, on the other hand, they have promoted accessibility in their product. While their communities are actually not that diverse, given their selectivity and price point, they have promoted that they are accessble and inclusive to all members of society.

Is it not possible to have a best in class product that is available and achievable by all? Apple does not seem to value some customers over others. In North America, Apple has penetrated just about every segment on the socioeconomic ladder. Sure, the poorest in our nation do not have new phones, or many Apple products, but they still often carry a version of the same product that the wealthy carry, as well.

This dilemma has created a great challenge especially for private schools and colleges. They have often sought selectivity as a holy grail of their value as an institution in the eyes of the marketplace, not understanding how much of a paradox that has created in terms of creating strategies that are inclusive and accessible to wider populations. And, now they are stuck with trying to reconcile this paradox – developing strategies that continue to promote selectivity and yet reconcile a greater need for accessibility. It is a bit like a country club – an organization that by category relies, by definition, on exclusivity and selling status – to reconcile their lack of access or inclusivity.

The age-old dilemma of selectivity vs accessibility is just another of many #edufails that we will continue to chronicle over the spring and summer. Our next article will focus more deeply on how schools and colleges have focused narrowly on selling status and outcomes.

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  1. John Gulla on July 11, 2022 at 12:38 pm

    Yup, some things make me go "hmmm…", like this posting. While it is certainly the case that many schools, elementary/secondary and higher ed. explicitly exploit selectivity, others simply offer something that is highly desirable that is fixed in supply (because the size of the community matters) and selectivity is unavoidable. And the LeBlanc quotation is provocative but what works for SNHU that can scale its remote experience without bound is meaningless in an 9-12 Upper School or a liberal arts college that is committed to capping enrollment at 500 or 2000.

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