The last few days have seen an interesting juxtaposition of stories in Inside Higher Ed. A little more than a week ago, news broke that the president of Northwest College in Wyoming sent a letter to 1,000 Mormon high-school students arguing that the college was a good fit for LDS students and offered a Mormon-friendly environment. The letter itself doesn’t offer any improper admissions advantages for Mormons and merely notes the existence of an extensive local Mormon community. Yet this was enough to send Americans United for Separation of Church and State into a tizzy:
Rob Boston, senior policy analyst for Americans United for Separation of Church and State, said the letters create some real problems.
“The president’s actions are completely inappropriate,” he said. “A public university shouldn’t even know what religious backgrounds its students are coming from.”
With all due respect for Mr. Boston, the college president’s letter hardly violates the letter or spirit of the Establishment Clause. Also, given the fact that universities are frequently hostile to Mormons (faculty members often disdain Mormons and Evangelicals), a message to applicants indicating that the college offers a welcoming environment can make sound business sense for a college in a community with a high Mormon population.
Three days after Inside Higher Ed wrote about Mormon recruitment in Wyoming, it ran a largely flattering piece about the University of Pennsylvania’s new outreach to “gay applicants.” The article begins:
At many colleges, it’s a standard part of the recruiting process once applicants are admitted. Current students who share individual traits or academic interests help reach out to prospective students with similar backgrounds or interests. So the young woman who expresses an interest in engineering will hear from a female junior in engineering. A black admit might hear from a black student, and so forth. The idea is that these students may be uniquely well positioned to answer questions and to make the case that the college is a good place to be a female engineer, a black undergrad, or whatever.
I would also note that targeted outreach is common well before students are admitted, with universities who are particularly proactive developing relationships with high schools and developing a number of targeted outreach programs to create a “diverse” student body. Acknowledging that there is a significant public/private difference between Penn and Northwest College, it strikes me that the efforts are remarkably similar. In both cases, the college identifies a population that it deems significant enough (either in numbers or to create “diversity”) to specifically identify as worth recruiting, and the college reaches out to describe available opportunities — not to create special advantages. And yet it looks like the Penn program may be replicated (Dartmouth is already doing something similar), while Northwest College is not only discontinuing its program, donors are reimbursing the college for the cost of the letters.
Too bad. I thought Northwest College had the right idea.