How CMC Recruits Applicants, and Why We Need to Reform the Process


When I first started applying to colleges, CMC was nothing more to me than another school ranked by US News & World Report. It was only a fluke that my father’s friend of a friend had a son who had gone here, leading my dad to encourage me to take another look at applying. Reflecting on this fact last semester, I was surprised to hear that most of my friends, even those not from California, had high school counselors with strong ties to CMC or even had a CMC admissions officer visit their school. Now, I went to a pretty small public school in suburban Ohio, so it makes sense why they did not visit my high school. Nevertheless , I was still curious about the types of schools that the admissions office was visiting. While there is no official reported list, I checked the Off Campus Recruitment Events page a few times throughout last semester and noted all the schools in the US where CMC was holding events. Of course, these events do not provide a comprehensive overview of all the outreach and engagement that admissions conducts. Even so , I am fairly confident that the list of 126 schools I found provides some strong insight into where and to whom CMC markets itself.

And, looking at that list, I realized that there were two main factors that explained why CMC did not have some sort of relationship with my school (besides the fact that it is located in Ohio): I did not attend a private high school, and I do not live in a Super Zip.

A Super Zip is a zip code ranked among the top five percent of all US zip codes based on its levels of household income and college education. Using the Washington Post’s collection of data, I found that CMC admissions officers largely visit schools located in Super Zips, or almost-Super Zips. The most commonly visited zip code percentile was the 99th, and the median was an 88th percentile zip code. Only seven of the visits took place in zip codes within the bottom half of all American zip codes.

In a similar vein, about two-thirds of the visits took place in private schools, even though 90 percent of American high school students attend public high schools. These private schools also account for most of the middle or lower income zip codes that CMC visited, suggesting that even within the non-Super Zips, CMC was still targeting wealthier students. It is important to note that these trends hold both within California and throughout the rest of the US.

Perhaps I am overestimating how much CMC’s outreach is reflected in these school visits, but it seems pretty clear to me that this list is a good indicator of the types of students that CMC wants and/or thinks will succeed here. The CMC Office of Admission did note during one ASCMC Senate session that the high schools initiate some of their visits, and that CMC has other programs working to improve socioeconomic diversity. Yet, if you are a student from a less well-off public school district and you discover that most off-campus events are held at private schools or in wealthy towns, you may reasonably believe that you are not what CMC is looking for. It is true that there may be a higher concentration of students who would qualify academically for CMC at the schools that admissions officers do visit. But, in making that calculation, we are providing the most engagement to the students who already have the most resources and school support throughout their college search.

A troubling outcome of this targeted outreach toward wealthier schools and students is the heavy emphasis placed on applying Early Decision here. In recent years, more than half of each entering class has been admitted through Early Decision, with an acceptance rate that is more than three times as high as the regular rate. While it is great to see a large number of students who are so enthusiastic about CMC (and who are able to increase our yield rate and US News ranking), it is troubling that this happens through the mechanism of Early Decision. Because of its binding nature, Early Decision is logically more attractive to students who know that they will be able to pay the full cost of CMC and who are not worried about comparing financial aid packages from different colleges (Avery, Fairbanks, and Zeckhauser (2003). Additionally, CMC’s very own Antecol and Smith (2012) find that Early Decision programs reduce a school’s overall socioeconomic and racial diversity.

If we truly want CMC to be a place where different perspectives and backgrounds are represented in the classroom and the quad, then we have to change our recruiting process and the resulting bias it promotes. Besides the issue of geographical diversity, zip codes and private school attendance are also quite strongly correlated with socioeconomic, racial, and ethnic groups. So, if we want to attract a diverse student body, we must market CMC in a variety of locations and institutions, and expose students from lower and middle-income communities to the opportunities available at CMC. And based on the recent New York Times report that describes the significant income inequality among the CMC student population, this is evidently not occurring at a significant level.

Each school that CMC visits likely provides no more than one or two students for each entering class. If a CMC admissions officer had visited my high school, or one like it, I would be quite comfortable assuming that a similar number of qualified students would have applied to CMC last year and chosen to attend if accepted. I understand that CMC has a limited number of resources at its disposal in terms of where it sends staff, but there are certainly ways that we can better balance our outreach that I strongly encourage admissions staff to explore. For example, admissions officers could visit one or two fewer private schools in a city, and instead organize a session at the local public school or magnet institution. Or, they could schedule an extra day and visit some of the middle-income suburban public schools outside of Chicago or New York City in addition to the Lake Forests and the Millburns. To reiterate a previous sentiment, we have to make it clear that a successful CMCer does not have to come from a wealthy background or a Top 100 high school.

To close, I want to acknowledge that many of these students who CMC targets pay higher tuition costs that subsidize financial aid for students who otherwise would not be able to afford to attend CMC. But, as I have noted previously, student fees comprise a relatively small portion of our overall revenues. In the end, this comes down to prioritizing other projects over increasing financial aid or attracting a more diverse student body. The CMC community needs to have a frank conversation about our goals as an institution and how the decisions made by different departments impact those goals. To delay this conversation will only cause more conflict in the future and leave CMC in a worse position overall.