Podcast: Marie Bigham: Equity and Access in College Admissions

Marie Bigham, Founder & Executive Director of ACCEPT, joins to talk with us about issues of equity and access in college admissions, and the work that her non-profit has undertaken to make the system work better for everyone.

TRANSCRIPT

Marie Bigham: 

So we’ve built this entire mythology, including put up these false barriers that create a false sense of scarcity, right? I think that one of the best ways to really understand the college admissions process are in sneakers and because I have a little bit of a sneaker habit, I get it. You know, Nike has cornered this market. They are the brand name now, do they produce the best? Nope. Most Creative know best materials?No, absolutely not. They have created a false sense of scarcity that is utterly remarkable.

Sheila Akbar: 

Hi, everyone,welcome back to Don’t Force It. Today, I get to sit down with Marie Bigham, who is the founder and executive director of ACCEPT, which stands for admissions community cultivating equity and peace today. It’s an advocacy group and community that centers racial justice in the college admissions process and profession. Now, Marie is an amazing person who’s had a long career in college admissions.And she has such a clear view of the problems in college admissions and the challenges and is actually trying to do something about them. So I have tremendous respect for this woman. She’s also just a lot of fun to talk to. So I hope you’ll tune in and learn a little bit about the equity issues tied up in college admissions, and start to envision maybe a better,simpler, less stressful way that we could go about educating our young people. Marie, thank you so much for spending some time with me today and sharing your story. I know you a little bit.And I’m excited to get to know more of the story. Why don’t we start there. Tell us a little bit about your career, about what you do now. And what you’re hoping to achieve through ACCEPT.

Marie Bigham: 

Well, thank you so much for having me. I’m really excited. I’m excited about this,and I’m excited that we get to talk as to you know, Asian women in the United States going through this really weird college process from a professional perspective. So thank you. I’m really honored to be here. So I’m Marie Begum,she/her. I, how did I get into college admissions. So I attended Washington U, in St.Louis. So I graduated from there, it’s my alma mater. I transferred there. I started at Tulane in New Orleans, and transfer for many reasons don’t regret either. And I always like say this, I think folks think about transferring with like a side eye, like some askance, as I was like a failure or something, right? There were lots of reasons I went to Tulane and lots of reasons I left and lots of reasons I chose WashU.And lots of reasons, I’m happy that I didn’t start there. But I think when I think about that journey, I became a smart and thoughtful and more intellectual person when I was at WashU. But I became an interesting person when I was at Tulane, and I will never, ever give up either of those parts of my education. So that’s a little bit of I my higher ed journey path.

Sheila Akbar: 

Before you continue, I definitely want to hear more. But that’s such an interesting way of phrasing it.Because in the US in particular,we do think about all of those things you mentioned, becoming,you know, more of an intellectual person, gaining knowledge, becoming interested in kind of figuring out who you are. We see those as components of a good education, but certainly in other places, those are not part of the equation. So I think it’s great when you can really quantify in those ways, I got this from here, and I got this from there. And it’s all working together.

Marie Bigham: 

Yeah, that’s all important. I think one of the things that I really learned in that transfer process was about me, about my needs, specifically as a learner, as someone who was seeking education, like I approach that very differently.I think most importantly, as I learned how to make mistakes,and pick myself up. I learned how to find a pathway and to find the resources and the tools to help me get there. But without my parents having to step in. And that was so invaluable. And, and I’m grateful for that there are times I’m sure when I was 19/20,like I really wish they would have but it was out there anything. So that was my higher ed journey. So then graduated from college in ’95, and worked in politics and public relations. And I worked in, I love saying this, I worked for the St. Louis Rams their first season, the season that they moved in 1995, was my first job out of college. And so as a Women’s Studies and Political Science major with a glassblowing minor, I manage the St. Louis Rams cheerleaders as my first job out of college, and that was a thing, but it was really it was an amazing opportunity and amazing experience. And I wouldn’t again not trade that for anything. But after a couple of years of working in PR and with an NFL team and in politics. I said I need to go to graduate school at some point. But I’m not, but I gotta do something for a second.I gotta figure something out,right? And so I stayed in admissions at Washington you for seven years. Then worked at four different independent schools around the US. So first at Riverdale country school in New York, then at Bishop School in La Jolla, California, then Green Hill School in Dallas, Texas.And then finally in Monument School. Here in New Orleans. As I said, at the top of this, I’m a woman of color, I’m Vietnamese and white. Racial Equity has always been something that’s been on my mind and something that I’ve fought for sometimes without as much intention perhaps, but it’s something that’s always been important to me, it’s always been a major part of my my value, something that I wanted to fight for, but my life and my viewpoint of that really changed. I think the moment for me of just pain and clarity was seeing, you know,for how many hundreds plus days of Mike Brown’s friends protesting in St. Louis, and realizing, you know, even from the first day that it was all happening, that those were the,they were kids who were the same age as the students that I was working with. They were high school seniors, they were 17 1819, they were kids. And what was the biggest difference between those kids and the kids that I worked every day was race and wealth, access to resource and just feeling just a real strong and dignity and responsibility that changed a lot of how I wanted to approach the world and the work. And I tried to find different ways of doing that. I served on the board of NACAC in our professional association and got really involved in a lot of different things and was doing a lot of media stuff about these topics. But I feel like I wasn’t like getting anywhere. And like in a moment of anger and middle of the night, seven years ago now, which is crazy. started a Facebook group that had Kevin would have seen me at the time.So sorry, to Facebook groups ended up being called ACCEPT -admissions community cultivating equity and peace today, I truly thought when I started it, that it was going to be like 40 or 50friends from this profession,who would want a place to gather and think about ideas and ways that we can support each other,but ways that we can help create sense of belonging, you know,fight for racial justice. So that was why I started ACCEPT I really, I really, truly thought it’d be like 40 or 50 people.After launching it the first night, I think we were at 800 in24 hours like something crazy like that. At our peak, we’ve had about 7000 folks who’ve been involved. So we started this Facebook group. And for the first three years of it, it was very much a Facebook group and this organic community in this grassroots community doing a lot of learning and a lot of teaching and really pushing conversations in the profession.And it was almost like a guerilla way where we were, you know, using social media using as many of the platforms as we could in person and on in person to really push this conversation. And I’m really proud of what we were able to do, I think in the admission space of centering racial equity and justice in so many of the conversations that we have as a profession. Now, I don’t think that was seven years ago, that was where we were. And then gosh, 2019, I left schoolwork and launched ACCEPT as a full time job, but as a nonprofit organization and got it together in that way and started to really think about our mission and our work and realize we had this model that, you know, our theory of change is that you build community that centers this work, people who care about that, then take it to their institutions. And when institutions grow together in this space of caring about racial justice, it becomes systemic change. And I think that was for a long time, how we were pushing that, if what we really came to learn is that institutional and systemic change takes a lot takes a whole lot. It takes a lot of intentionality. And so now there’s a lot less emphasis on the Facebook group for ACCEPT we still have that, and we have a nice community. But in terms of where we see change really happening. It’s been on public policy level, its being able to be engaged with civil rights organizations, and legal organizations and policymakers and researchers. So a lot of our work now is on a state and federal level and like pushing,pushing systemic change in a lot of ways. So it’s a very long story. But that’s a little bit about ACCEPT.

Sheila Akbar: 

But a really amazing one. And thank goodness,you had that moment of anger that started this entire work.Anger can be a gift in so many ways.

Marie Bigham: 

Honestly, like I and I will quote a therapist from mine who said, you know,your anger is righteous and deserved because you get so often as women, as Asian women,like we’re told to like supplant our feelings and to shut them down. And when you think about professionalism, like that doesn’t come into why you do things. But now that that anger and that sense of outrage that as a profession that’s committed to children and higher ed, and we say that we care about the transformational power of that of a bachelor’s degree like to not really focus on or care about access a lot was just not okay anymore. It’s been a journey.

Sheila Akbar: 

Yeah. But tell me,tell me some of the initiatives that you guys have been working on?

Marie Bigham: 

Yeah. So go way back to the beginning. One of the first things that we did,like I said, I was compelled to start ACCEPT the night of a shooting and it was in Dallas, a city where I had lived I have moved the year before it El Centro Community College, so it was a shooting that was downtown. But some of the activity occurred at this community college. And there was a community college that had a really specific student body because it was the one part of Dallas where all of the public transportation met. And it’s a city where there’s very little or no metropolitan area where there’s not a lot of public transportation. That was where someone could go to you didn’t have access. And so they tended to be an older crowd, immigrant crowd, a lot of English, the second or third or fourth language. So when that place became a crime scene, they had to shut down the campus. And the easy fix at the time was, well,we’ll just have students go to other campuses. So we reached out to the development office and said, I remember saying,like, I’m sure that everyone is calling you today to see how they can help. And she’s like,nope, you’re the first one kind of shocking. And we’ll brainstorm on ways to help students and she was a person who drew my attention to like the specific student body there and what they would need. And so we raise money like that week to pay for bus passes, or to pay for bus shuttles, like specific shuttles, where someone who took classes there could take their transportation there to that space, and then take it to the other campus that wouldn’t have public transportation. So that kept people. So that was like the first thing that we did that first, like grassroots effort.Gosh, we’ve done all kinds of things ranging from we had over100 meetups, prior to the lockdown, we did over 80 online programs, events, affinity spaces during lockdown. Our first really big project was called hack the gates radically reimagine admissions. It was another thing that happened in the world that will led to another late night text message.So the varsity blues story broke the scandal about you know, rich people buying new exciting ways into selective college. Right.And Dr. OiYan Poon, a remarkable person texted me and said, you know, people in your profession ever talk about like, stripping this whole thing down and rebuilding it, like in light of something like this, and my text back was like, No, but my husband, I were literally just talking about that, we should totally do it. And the thing about OiYan is when you say we should totally do it, like a week later, you are left with an Assignment List of this grant proposal you’re doing. And then you get $88,000 from the Joyce Foundation. So from middle of March to November 3 of 2019, we took that little time to put on110 person conference, in person. We had online learning beforehand, developed like a framework, invited people, got them to DC to do a day and a half of just thinking about ways to strip this thing down and rebuild it. From that came eight policy papers written by 10Fantastic academics, and one of them written by Dr. Ted Thornhill, which is about communication audits and ensuring equitable communication patterns with with prospective students. This was the unexpected when he and I turned that into a tech company and there, he and I are co founders for profit tech company that we’re launching in like three months. These are not words I understand, right? So strange.But we took this great idea like we did with all those papers,like what could happen next. And then you know, pandemic hit, and all kinds of things happened next. But that was our first really big splash. And I think the coolest thing about that was we got people in the room who typically don’t talk to each other. So it was folks who work in admissions in any number of parts of our ecosystem. It was policymakers, it was researchers, it was students and parents, it was just this array of folks, people from different organizations have scholarships that are from government agencies, and just to sit down and be like, so why, why are we wed to some of these things? So that was really cool. It was really, really cool.

Sheila Akbar: 

That’s amazing.This is one of the things I want to ask you about, do you feel any hope for any of the ideas that came out of hack the gates to actually come to fruition?

Marie Bigham: 

Yeah, so one of the papers that we had in the hack, the gates group was a continuation of a study written by Jennifer Delaney and Taylor Odle. Jennifer is at University of Illinois, and Taylor is at Penn. And they did a study examining the direct admissions program that was happening in the state of Idaho. And it was a radically different way of thinking of admissions. What they showed in that study in this whole system was that by the public institutions of Idaho had enough information about the students in their state that they didn’t need applications or anything to make decisions they had it already. So essentially,with that idea of how they do direct admissions. Students in Idaho, when they begin their senior year of high school, they start high school with a letter from the State Higher Ed, that says, of our eight public institutions, you’ve already been admitted to six of them,and that tickets good for three years. So you don’t have to do mission service. If you need to work if you just want to do other things for a little bit like that’s still there. And that has really helped tremendously to keep students in state more students have enrolled, and they’ve tweaked it along the way. But that was a paper that we had, like early in the iterations of it, that process has morphed into a number of different things out when we hear direct missions in some ways that are different than this. So this was kind of changed a little bit, the bigger picture, that idea of college is already have enough information to make decisions and so whether the students were applying, we just send you an invitation that’s picking up in a lot of places and a lot of states as policy in consortiums of schools. Like, I think that’s really cool. I think that’s a great idea. So that’s something that’s happening, is it from hack the gates, you know, test paper, like we’re a tech company now, it was that one, which is a little nuts, the paper that Dr.Aaron Corbett did about college programs that are in prison systems, like she’s been able to utilize to continue growing her grants and her research, she runs a nonprofit as opposed to being an academic researcher. So she has a little bit of a different path. And that’s been helpful for her to continue that work that way. So yeah, like these papers have continued and that’s been really exciting. And when I get super frustrated and annoyed by how slow it is, to cause, you know, to change systems, I just remember like ideas seemed absolutely impossible in this space became known necessary and implemented in days. And so if there’s a will there’s a way and sometimes that way is forced so.

Sheila Akbar: 

Yeah, exactly. I mean, I think you’re talking about the removal of standardized testing requirements when COVID hit.

Marie Bigham: 

Testing. Well, you know, but even this one and this, I’m sad, this didn’t stick. But one of the things that accepted at the very, very beginning of the pandemic, now,the beginning of lockdown was what, March 10th, March 11th. So it was college decisions were rolling in, and colleges were still sticking to May 1st the deadline. And we had no idea how long lockdown was going to be or what the impact was going to be.But we knew right away that people were losing jobs, we knew that everything was up ended.And so one of the first things that we did was to a big grassroots push to ask colleges to change that deposit deadline.And I think through our research, we figured out it was about 900 colleges that were wed to that we got close to over 700colleges to change either to extend the deadline past June 1,but at least in that heart of the spring of 2020 convinced colleges that you can do this,and it was possible, and you could still make all the milestones and accounting things and everything can still happen the way it needs to. And they did, I’d hoped that they would still continue that flexibility that that ended because that deadline is actually very advantageous for colleges for many reasons. But that was again, one of those moments where like, this is something that y’all have always said is impossible is immovable for so many reasons. But if you scratch the surface, gently, you realize it’s one of those barriers. So yes, here is testing is the big one. But there were other things, too, that we did.

Sheila Akbar: 

Yeah, absolutely.And it just kind of goes to show you that there are so many perverse incentives. And also University is one of the oldest continuous institutions we’ve had in the modern age. So of course, it’s gonna be the slowest thing to change. And this brings me to one of the questions I think I might have emailed you before we started,in the United States. Certainly the higher education system was built for landowning white people and the population we are now trying to educate is not the same. So how much of the barriers and problems that we see with access and affordability and all of these things do you think are still tied to that founding premise?Of we need an educated class of landed gentry to rule the nation? And how much of it is

Marie Bigham: 

The white Christian landowning men?

Sheila Akbar: 

Yeah, yeah. Let’s be specific about that landowning men, and how much of it is from other things? And I don’t know exactly what I mean by other things, but it feels to me like a lot can be traced back to just that founding premise.

Marie Bigham: 

I mean, it’s hard to not get right back there,right? And I think it’s why I’m so eager as we think about the admissions process, like why I’m so just irreverence and not in a comedy way, but lacking in reverence towards these things that we, you know, circling call holistic admissions or these parts of the process, right,like, okay, standardized testing, like sets a level well,no, like it is again, that was that’s basic eugenics. So how’s that ever going to be fair, if it’s something that the very foundation was based on eugenics, all right. The idea character, we care about a good fit and character, the whole idea of fit and character, was coded language to keep Jewish people and to keep Irish and Italian immigrants out of college, that people like us do certain activities, and we value those activities. So now we want to see that on your college list activities. I always think about that as an example that people think of is like fairly benign and meaningless. And I’m like,No, here’s a direct way how that reflects whiteness as a value.It has taken until fairly recently in the college admissions, conversation at selective colleges, for colleges to say, We value your part time work and caring for your family,in the same way we value you being captain of the lacrosse team, right. And we know,immigrant families might not value joining a sports team nearly as much as they value working in a family business. Or the requirement there of the necessity thereof, you could look at any part of the process that we we think of as benign and the admissions process and be like, No, all of that was all of it’s a way to exclude, like,truly, that’s the job of it,right? Exclusion, but it is rooted in racialized immigrant based exclusion. That’s very intentional. And we really gotta examine that, like, when I hear people say, let’s reform things about admissions. I’m like can you reform something that’s so rotted at the core?

Sheila Akbar: 

Well, there are so many things I want to talk to you about. But one of the things that we had talked about previously, when you joined the panel that I had put together on race conscious admissions was your own experience. Growing up in a mixed family where there were these aunties whispering ideas that I think were probably meant for your mom, but you certainly heard and they had an impact on you, and an impact on the way you approached education or your mom wanted you to approach education. So tell me tell us more about that.

Marie Bigham: 

Totally. And I think there is certainly a generational component to this that is, I don’t know, maybe a little bit of part of this, I hope, this change. I don’t know,though. So I am, I am 50 years old, like I am Gen X. So I went through this process in 1990 and started college in 1991. We had no internet, we had another things, we just had whisper networks of everything. And that was right around the time that where at Connolly was having so many conversations in California, about killing affirmative action, like the conversation about affirmative action, and specifically in the Asian community that was really bubbling at that time, really,truly bubbling. So I’m wondering if that’s happening in that cultural moment. So those were the aunties in California, who were in Orange County, who were living in essentially, little Saigon, like they were immersed in the community. I was raised in St. Louis, Missouri. And when I was born, we lived in my dad’s tiny farming rural hometown in deep southern Illinois, where my mom and I, and later my brother,were the only people of color to live in the town and might still be the only people of color to have lived in the town. By the time I was applying to college,you know, we were living in the city, I was at a private school that had, you know, college counselor sharing information,but I did not grow up with a lot, certainly not a lot of Vietnamese, certainly not a lot of mixed race Asian people, some Asian people, but all of them of a very educated class. Right? My mom was a professor at Washington U at the time too, so we were in the thick of higher ed and, and a community that knew about it. And the fear that being Asian or looking Asian might hurt us was real. And by real, I mean, the fear of it,and the stories and you should do this, and you shouldn’t do this. And I remember my auntie saying something to my mom, like to the effect of, you know,telling your kids not to check the box that they’re Asian, or even mix like just pick white,tell them not to use their Vietnamese, like, my middle name is like, don’t use that, like,don’t tip that off. And mo being in higher ed was like, that doesn’t make sense. That’s not what I see how we do things. And on the other hand, she’s not in healthcare, she’s not in this community that’s like, immersed in these conversations. And you throw that in, like being multiracial. And it’s like,you’re always questioning identity as it is. And then suddenly, to be faced with a form that is asking you to make these declarations for the first time, kind of in this way, in all these voices coming at you saying, Be proud of who you are,but only in a whisper hide who you are in this way. It’s better for this ultimate goal, like,you know, hide who you are to get this goal in it making that value that was kept getting repeated over and over again,that education was so important that you couldn’t be who you are. And that for some of us,especially you couldn’t that was really it was hard. It was harmful.

Sheila Akbar: 

Yeah and extremely confusing. I mean, my brother’s name is Jason. And my name is Sheila. And we grew up in a very small town in rural Michigan,where we were also the only people of color. And it’s very clear to me why my parents chose the names they did. Now, there are also South Asians Sheila’s,so they kind of like moved a little bit towards like, okay,this could work in both contexts, when they named me but certainly not for my brother.And they were of a generation of immigrants that thought the best thing to do was just blend in,hide, assimilate as much as possible.

Marie Bigham: 

If you keep your head down, and you’re quiet,people won’t notice you. They won’t throw rocks through your windows anymore.

Sheila Akbar: 

Exactly.

Marie Bigham: 

Which happened to me when I was a little kid. And it’s really one of my most like,strong, striking memories and just being told, like, we’re not telling anybody that this happened, like, you just keep your head down, and you stay quiet.

Sheila Akbar: 

Yeah. And it’s such a trauma response. And part of it, I want to take this back to what you were saying about the extracurricular list. There are certain activities that we do the upper class, and we want to see those things on your activity list now, too. I think this is a real thing that happens in communities of color as well. When parents really are invested in their child’s education and they have this desire to go to quote unquote,the best colleges, they start having students play certain instruments, try to do certain sports get involved with certain types of extracurriculars,because they’re trying to reproduce that. And I think that’s another way of hiding our identity. Because instead of letting a child explore and figure out the things that are actually meaningful and exciting and enriching to their lives.We’re saying these are the things you can do and choose off of a menu, because this is the menu of things that successful white people do.

Marie Bigham: 

Right, and because, especially in immigrant families, like we think that we can’t read the code, but we don’t like we don’t know, the code and the unspoken part and the parts that are never shown to us, right. And so it seems formulaic, and you try to reproduce the formula, and then you realize the part that you can’t see that you can’t understand the part that’s like spoken in rooms where you’re not, oh, that’s actually a part.

Sheila Akbar: 

Right. And it’s a thing that you can’t change.It’s your own identity and ethnicity, color and the things that you have no control over.And that.

Marie Bigham: 

Well, I mean, I’m thinking like you mean, about,like legacy admissions, right?Like, you can look at that formula. Oh, you know, those kids, like, they took those classes, and they got those grades, and they did those activities, and they got those places, like that’s what it seems like from the outside. But the part that you don’t know is Oh, and they had five generations attend that place.And they have three buildings named after them, you try to replicate the parts that you can write and without realizing oh,that’s not that’s not it?

Sheila Akbar: 

Right. Which is why I think one of the other things you said on the panel has stuck with me and is a line that I’m repeating so much to other people, when they asked about this is that the college admissions process is certainly not a meritocracy. And it’s not about the individual student and giving them the best opportunity for an education. It’s about a business fulfilling its needs to continue being the business it wants to be. But you know,coming back to that idea that education is so important that it’s worth hiding who you are,it’s worth dictating maybe the way you parent, right, dictating how a child uses their time and what they allow themselves to be interested in. Feels like such a, you know, backwards set of priorities. Why do you think that myth persists, that the higher education system is about educating our young people?

Marie Bigham: 

Oh, God, because if we didn’t have that myth, and we didn’t believe in it, no one would pay this much money for this product, right? Like,there’s some very tangible benefits to your college degree.That’s absolutely true. But the differential that people seem to think exists between two year four years, some degrees of some major some degrees of other majors, institution institution,like there’s very, very little that differentiates that. And so we’ve built this entire mythology, including put up these false barriers that create a false sense of scarcity,right? I think that one of the best ways to really understand the college admissions process are in sneakers, and because I have a little bit of a sneaker habit, I get it. You know, Nike has cornered this market. They are the brand name now, do they produce the best? Nope. Most Creative know best materials?No, absolutely not. They have created a false sense of scarcity that is utterly remarkable. And the hoops that people will jump through and the inflated prices that people will pay for a commodity that is open source, right? Which is his brand new Gladiola SB dunk by Nike that I have arriving today that I entered seven raffles for, will it protect my feet any better than anything else? Nope.Will it? Make me talk? Nope,we’ll do any of the things that a shoe is supposed to do?Absolutely, we’ll do better than seminars, probably not. And you know how many people will be impressed by it when I take them out of the box? Maybe one out of21 out of 50. But for some reason, that commodity has become so romanticized in this way that we do it for that one person of 50 Right, but all those other things, I think colleges, we’ve done it the same way you could get you know, of the 2800 4 year colleges, the majority of them are not selective, right? There’s no scarcity of this and you think when I hear people say like the teaching is better one place the other. I don’t think anyone could really say that no one’s really measuring that and frankly, I don’t think that that’s what the consumer is looking for anyhow, you know, so what is it and it comes to that romanticism you know, it’s the the experience the fit there in some of those pieces like that is tangible and real but for something’s gonna cost you$90,000 a year you know, so I think the way that like we got to survey the romanticism of it just look at college like strictly like the cold hard terms of this is an expensive consumer good.

Sheila Akbar: 

Yeah, right. We have a lot of parents who are like, You know what, my kid is stressed out. There’s too much anxiety. There are mental health, multiple mental health crises happening right now. And I don’t want my kid to burn the candle at both ends and sacrifice a quality life just to say, I got into this school or I graduated as valedictorian or you know, whatever it is, at the same time, that feeling of scarcity is so real, that they feel like I’m a bad parent if I don’t push them for these kinds of schools. And it’s a really hard place, I think for a parent to balance those two things. But I think the reality that you just sort of laid bare is it is not a scarce commodity. And you should actually probably get clear on what you are trying to accomplish, so that you can choose the right place, the right investment for your particular situation.

Marie Bigham: 

My favorite book along these lines is The Price You Pay for College by Ron Lever. I love that book. And what I love about it is that even though ostensibly it’s about paying for college, right,I think it’s actually the best framework for college search that I’ve seen anywhere, like just for the college search,because what he says is you are and it’s so straightforward, but true. You are giving resources to an institution? What are you expecting back? What do you value? How do you quantify and research that thing that you value? And how do you hold these colleges accountable for providing that value? And what resources again, are you willing to give? And I think it’s such a clear cut, interesting way of looking at it. And it really frames it like resources aren’t just your dollars, like this is the resource of your time, your effort, your emotional commitment, you’re going to pick up and move in some cases,right? Like, how do you look at that and say, let’s say a family says, you know, the most important thing from a college education is access to a network that has a specific path to a specific career. Okay, great.How do we find that? If you find a place that says they do that?How do you how do you make sure and how do you hold them accountable? But it really requires drilling in and saying,this is what I’m looking for,this is what I’m actually paying for, and sometimes pushing people on that to say, It’s okay, we’re looking for prestige, we’re looking for the biggest value, you know, name brand that is valued, like,again, sneaker collector, I get that, you know, I like a good handbag, I get that too. But understanding what exactly that it is. And once you figure out what you value, and what resources you’re willing to give, like, the process gets a lot clearer, I think it just strips away some of the romanticism, I think that people like, again, we’ve buried it so deep.

Sheila Akbar: 

Yeah. And not only does that make the process a little clearer, you know, where you want to apply, because you understand the outcome that you’re looking for, and you’re confident that these places can deliver that it also takes that element of comparison that can be so detrimental to a student to family dynamics, it takes that out of the equation,because every student is looking for a different mix of outcomes.And so you’re not all competing for the same spot, to that one college and whether so and so does this over their summer, or,you know, gets that score, it really is irrelevant, because you’re aiming for a different set of things.

Marie Bigham: 

Exactly. You have different things that you value,you know, the resources that you have to expend, you know, the resources they require to be there like it’s it’s much more clear cut think in that way. But to your earlier point about if I do this, and I do this, and I do this, it happens like that,again, goes back to the idea that students, applicants, like y’all are not the star of the show, right? Like you could do everything you want in the world that fulfills all the things you value, et cetera, et cetera. But if that’s, if the resource that you have to offer is not the resource they are seeking, it doesn’t matter, you know, and I think about my, one of my very dear friends, Aaron Timmons,who’s the debate coach at Green Hill School in Dallas, which was one of the very best debate programs in the United States.And at that level, like debates terrifying, the intensity is whoa is real, it is as real as anything could be. And there was a school in Texas, we did not have a good football team at Green Hill, we have the greatest debate team. And those debaters were that kind of like blue chip talent that some of those Texas football players are. But it’s a difference that I would talk to our great debate coach about is that unless a place was actively seeking debaters, if they had a strong debate program, if there was something about that they valued that it didn’t matter. We couldn’t make a college care about it in the way that they wanted us to. And that was just a hard story to tell. It’s like,yeah, what this kid is doing is extraordinary. Their accomplishments are absolutely extraordinary. They’re at the top of the heap like literally in the world, this college, they don’t care about debate. They think it’s really cool that you spent time on that and they think it’s really cool that you’ve committed to something in the event but it’s not that piece that moves you in the superselective places and that was always just kind of a hard pill to swallow.

Sheila Akbar: 

Yeah, it’s a really hard thing. I think for people to wrap their heads around because they feel like well, I’m at the top of this thing. So why isn’t that good enough? And I always like to say, well, it’s not about you being good enough. It’s about what they need. And only they know that, unfortunately, only they know that in a real way.And they don’t owe you an explanation beyond that.

Marie Bigham: 

Right. But it isn’t that so much of how selection just happens in the rest of our lives forever,right? Like, there’s what you can control. There’s what you can seek. But if that is not what something else is looking for, then it doesn’t work out.Sometimes I want it really bad is not the reason that something happens. I want to be tall I do.

Sheila Akbar: 

I mean, there are things you can do to get taller,but yea, if you’re willing to make those sacrifices. Yeah.

Marie Bigham: 

Right. There are things I do that are in my control, and some that are absolutely terrifying, if I’m willing to make that kind of sacrifice, but really like I can’t wish I can’t want five two to be five eight, it just doesn’t happen.

Sheila Akbar: 

I like to use. I know you love the cars and the sneakers. I also like to use dating as a good analogy for this, because you may be just totally crushing on somebody,and it may seem perfect in the way that you have observed them.Maybe you get to go on a date with them. And you do your best to make a great impression. But they’re just like, No, I don’t think so. And you could take that as a value judgment of you’re not good enough. But I would hope you see that as you dodged a bullet, because you’re awesome. You’re already amazing.And if they can’t see that,that’s their loss. But maybe they were looking for something else. You don’t know what it is,but you’re just not it.

Marie Bigham: 

Right. Sometimes there is a scarcity of space.Sometimes someone wants to pick out the space to date one person, sometimes I got the space today too, you know, this has been going way off the rails. But there’s just so many factors in this that are so far out of the students control out of the parents control out of accounts, out of literally anybody’s control sometimes of the admissions office control,right, like something that I think is hard for students or parents to like, explain to this way. We talked about like scarcity of space. So when I worked at Wash U, typically, we were trying to bring in 15-1600freshmen, I think that was, the class has grown maybe a little bit more. So regardless of how many students applied, that’s the room that we had on campus for that many freshmen. And we required on campus living for a minimum of two years. And our students really preferred mostly live on campus the whole time they were there. So we knew we had a limitation in space. So we had a great year at admissions,yay. And more students said yes to us than not, or other than not, but more than we had planned. And by more I mean,like 40 or 50 not a huge number.So like whenever kids or like parents, like they can just take one more. Okay, so this is, you know, impact 40 or 50 heads, the ripple effect with housing was who we had to ask some, like 50or 60, upperclassmen to move off campus that the university paid for that we covered their housing expenses and other expenses. Okay, so there’s a big chunk of money that we’ve just screwed up there. Now we’ve traded this housing bubble that will be with us at least two, if not three to four years. So we started to hear reports about what this was due for advising how many more freshman writing faculty would have to be hired?And I just I haven’t reached the point in my career where I was privy to those conversations where I wouldn’t have been before and in my mind, you know,early in my career, would it be like, Oh, it’s just under 50kids. No, no, like seeing the impact, like another 50 kids that was? Who know, we can’t have that cannot have that. And then the flip of that you have places where you’re 50 under,okay, what does that do the revenue, who loses jobs, right?And so, so much of this, like art slash science of enrollment management, that I think, again,students have no reason to know or want to appreciate, right?But the impact is so real and so intense that it’s just, it’s hard. It’s hard for everyone. So even those things that at while admissions might be in control of everything, even they are not in control of everything. And there are lots of forces. So how the end of the day is all about late stage capitalism being the worst, all of it.

Sheila Akbar: 

Well, I think that’s a pretty good place to leave it. Thank you for such a rich and entertaining discussion, Marie. As always, I would love to have you back at some point.

Marie Bigham: 

Thank you, dear.So good to see you.

Sheila Akbar: 

You too. We’ll talk soon. I hope you enjoyed that conversation with Marie as much as I clearly did. I’ll definitely look to have her back on the program. Until then, keep your head up. Let’s get through this together and come back for another listen next week.

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