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Quirky No More

News & Features | February 21, 2017

On January 18, the New York Times published an article titled “Some Colleges Have More Students From the Top 1 Percent Than the Bottom 60. Find Yours.” As it happens, Tufts ranked 10 out of 38 selective colleges with more students (18.6 percent) from the top 1 percent than the bottom 60 percent (11.8 percent), socioeconomically speaking. These figures reflected the makeup of the class of 2013.

At the same time, the University’s admission rate shrinks every year. The admission rate during the 2009-2010 academic year was 27 percent. By the 2011-2012 academic year, this number decreased to 22 percent, and by 2014 only 19 percent of applicants earned spots in the class of 2017. Indeed, the Tufts Daily reported that the class of 2019 held the “lowest acceptance rate in university history” at 16 percent. The class of 2020’s official profile reveals, unsurprisingly, a new record-low admit rate at 14 percent. This same profile, however, does not reveal any information regarding socioeconomic demographics within the incoming class.

Though the Tufts admissions website says that the University “is proud to meet 100 percent of the full demonstrated need of all admitted students” by means of student loans, grants, scholarships, work study, and ROTC, Tufts is not a need-blind institution.  A prospective student’s ability to pay tuition is a consideration in the admissions process. Moreover, performance on standardized tests, often dependent upon costly preparation in the form of tutoring services, also influences an applicant’s chances, and therefore advantages wealthy students in the application process.

Simultaneously, Tufts Student Action (TSA) is working to halt tuition hikes for the 2017-2018 school year. Shockingly, tuition for the 2003-2004 academic year was $38,269 (including room and board); tuition has risen every year since, and the current tuition is $68,200 (also including room and board).

Taken together, these statistics raise questions about what the Tufts student body will look like in years to come. An increasingly competitive applicant pool coupled with an admissions process that doesn’t favor applicants from working or middle class backgrounds leaves many students wondering whether the University is working to fix the problems laid out by the New York Times—problems that are tangible in the campus culture. What cost is Tufts willing to pay for prestige and near-Ivy status?

Karen Richardson, Dean of Admissions and Enrollment Management, said that Tufts is ever more competitive partly due to rising numbers of qualified applicants each admissions cycle. Compared to the 15,042 applicants in 2010, Tufts Admissions received 18,419 in 2014. The class of 2020 was selected from 20,223 applicants, and roughly 21,000 applied this spring.

“At the same time, we have intentionally chosen to maintain the current size of the student body,” Richardson said. “So, just by sheer numbers, it follows that the admit rate will be lower. That said, over the past several years we’ve also seen that the number of applicants who are highly prepared is growing steadily. As a result, we have to say ‘no’ to more students who fit the academic profile well and who would be great students here, but for whom we just don’t have the room. That’s not something we boast about—rather, we have to make some very difficult decisions, and we never take pride in having to say no to a student.”

In addressing the striking wealth inequality within the University, Richardson discussed a four-year fundraising campaign led by President Anthony Monaco that raised $95 million for scholarships and “enabled the University to budget a record $19.278 million in need-based grants for the undergraduate class of 2020.”

“As for the New York Times story, as an institution that is committed to inclusion, diversity, and equity, we care deeply about the gap identified by the study. We strive to make a Tufts education possible for students from all socioeconomic backgrounds. We are proud to be one of a small number of universities committed to meeting the demonstrated financial need of all undergraduate students…We recognize that there is much to do to make a Tufts education more accessible,” Richardson explained.

To this point, the New York Times article also revealed that “at elite colleges, the share of students from the bottom 40 percent has remained mostly flat for a decade.” It will likely take more than four years of fundraising to rectify institutional inequalities on campus.

Some student tour guides recognize both patterns and changes in the prospective students visiting campus. Sophomore Charlie Zhen, who has been a tour guide since he was a first-year, noted that his tour groups are consistently and “overwhelmingly” White.

“I haven’t really noticed much of an increase of people of color on tours. Though, I think Tufts is moving towards trying to achieve racial diversity at the cost of socioeconomic diversity, and I think those numbers are reflected in the class of 2020,” he said.

Not much has changed, however, in terms of racial diversity at Tufts over the past few years. In the fall of 2013, 55.8 percent of all undergraduates in the School of Arts and Sciences were White, and in the fall of 2014, that number rose to 56.8 percent. About 67 percent of all undergraduates in the School of Arts and Sciences in the fall of 2015 were White. The official profile of the class of 2020 shows that 33 percent of first-years are American students of color. Of the 1,340 members of the class, 133 are first generation college students and 145 are international students. This profile does not reveal a total percentage for incoming White students.

Junior Nihaarika Sharma, also a tour guide since her first year at Tufts, worked as a full-time tour guide this past summer. She echoed Zhen’s observations about tour demographics, and she also discussed a shift she has seen in the kinds of questions posed by students on her tours.

“My tours have always been very predominantly White. They have been filled with, from appearance, upper middle class or upper class people. I think when I got started I got a lot more questions from prospective students on my tours about student life, about what it’s like to do extra-curriculars on campus. And I feel like a lot of my questions have shifted to, ‘what was your SAT score?’, ‘what is this professor like?’, ‘what is this department like?’ Obviously, I can’t generalize if that has to do with how Tufts admissions markets itself or because it’s getting more competitive so now students are more concerned with their chances of getting in. I’m not sure what it is, but that’s definitely a difference I have found,” Sharma said.

Junior Avery Spratt, who has been a tour guide since her sophomore year, also commented on the types of students she finds on her tours. She said that she definitely feels a shift in who attends her tours and who, ultimately, enrolls at Tufts.

“Not in my direct experience with admissions but in my experience seeing how the student body has changed recently, it seems like admissions is looking for something different. It seems like, for example, more students are interested in Greek life, whereas my freshman year it didn’t seem like everyone was getting involved…I think there is a very consistent change in who’s here,” Spratt explained.

Spratt’s comments are supported by the fact that student involvement in Greek life has risen from 13 percent in 2013 to 24 percent in 2016, according to the Tufts Daily.

There exists a sense, among some students, that the student body is simultaneously stagnant in terms of racial and socioeconomic diversity, and undergoing a shift in sensibility and personality type. In addition, the institution itself seems to be facing an identity crisis of sorts. Sharma said that the messaging at information sessions—led by members of the admissions department—has changed since she began tour guiding.

“[When I started tour guiding] it was more like, ‘Tufts is this friendly school where students will fit in and be accepted,’ and I feel like the information session I went to over the summer was all about Tufts’ research grants, the kinds of professors we have, the kinds of cool research we’re doing, and it’s less about being a place of acceptance for everyone. I don’t think it was necessarily super intentional, but there’s definitely a shift in showing Tufts as this big, reputable institution rather than just a place for students. That’s what I’ve noticed with several people in the admissions office—they were all kind of emphasizing the same thing,” Sharma said.

Richardson, however, believes Tufts falls somewhere in between a small liberal arts college and larger research institutions. She said that Tufts considers its peer institutions to exist on both sides of this spectrum.

“We sit in an interesting place because we are part of NESCAC and tend to have a smaller liberal arts college feel,” she said. “But, at the same time, we are a top tier student-centered research university. So, we do see overlap in applications with both NESCAC schools and major research universities.”

In a similar vein, Tufts admissions has dropped its “quirky” branding strategy and opted for “passionate” as the word to characterize the Tufts student body, according to Zhen.

“They basically said that quirky had a bad connotation and wasn’t part of the Tufts brand that they were trying to market. I think passionate just has better connotations in their minds,” Zhen said.

Sharma added that the admissions team discourages the use of “quirky” on tours because it detracts from the University’s desired rigor and seriousness.

“They’re very strict on ‘don’t use the word quirky on your tour,’ I guess because they think it gives Tufts this image of being this weird school and we’re supposed to be in line academically with Ivy Leagues. I think the word ‘quirky’ makes Tufts look silly in a lot of ways and they don’t want us to look like we’re a school full of really odd people.” She continued to explain that she believed admissions would like to project that “Tufts students are serious but passionate about what they do,” she said.

Spratt, on the other hand, believes that Tufts Admissions seeks to bolster its applicant pool and sense of inclusivity in the discontinuation of its use of  “quirky.”

“They want it to be inclusive and if you don’t feel like a ‘quirky’ person they want you to feel like you still have a place here at Tufts. I think it’s an effort to make Tufts more appealing to every applicant. I think they want it to be represented as ‘we have a lot of diverse interests’—they don’t want it to be like ‘we’re weird, and if you’re not weird then don’t bother.’ My first training, they were like, ‘Don’t say quirky, don’t try and make it seem weird.’ I didn’t like that. I think quirky is an appropriate term to use to represent Tufts’ student body.” Spratt continued, “I feel like there’s a lot in admissions that tour guides are not a part of. There feels like there’s some kind of shifting of priorities going on.”

The focus on lowering the acceptance rate does not lend itself to increasing socioeconomic diversity. There seems to be dissonance between what Tufts purports to value and the steps, or lack thereof, it takes to foster palpable change within the student population. Perhaps, as colleges and universities vie to become increasingly exclusive, Tufts might muddle its priorities and lose its unique character in the process.