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Georgetown University’s Newspaper of Record since 1920

The Hoya

Georgetown University’s Newspaper of Record since 1920

The Hoya

Admissions Dean Talks Staying Competitive

Charles Deacon has served as dean of admissions for four formative decades at Georgetown.
Charles Deacon has served as dean of admissions for four formative decades at Georgetown.

Charles Deacon (CAS ’64, GRD ’69) has served as dean of undergraduate admissions for four decades. In that time, Deacon, a first-generation college graduate, has helped transform Georgetown from a school that barely stood out in Washington to an elite national university. As admission season kicks into gear with the early action deadline Nov. 1, Deacon sat down Friday with Hoya Editor-in-Chief Danny Funt to discuss the state of Georgetown admissions and the challenges it faces in an ultra-competitive collegiate environment. Below is an edited transcript.

I’ve heard you say that, simply put, you’re looking for applicants who have exceptional records with scores to back it up. But is there one value specific to Georgetown’s character that you’re looking for in applications?

That’s one of the reasons why we feel constrained by what the Common Application gives you. We’re encouraging students to express themselves to us, rather than to a common process. That’s always a hard question, though: “Who is the right student?” Obviously, at a place like Georgetown, there is no specific right student. We’ve been able to draw people with lots of different interests and aspirations, and we want a mix of people who reflect the country we’re in and, to some degree, the world.

I think we have the good fortune here of attracting people to Georgetown and Washington who will lead in virtually ever field because they see all roads at some point leading through here. We don’t want to oversell Washington, and we don’t want to undersell it, either. We want to make it clear that Georgetown students will get the best of both worlds if they want to. There will be people who live their entire life within the four walls, but then there will be people who spend most of their time on Capitol Hill and all places in between.

Georgetown is a Jesuit university, and some of the principles that drive us are extremely important –cura personalis, concern for others, social justice. I think that when you look at history, John Carroll founding Georgetown for the country rather than for immigrant Catholic families who were being denied opportunities — as was the background for most Catholic universities — created a chance for Georgetown to be more than just a university that served a Catholic community. With the importance of religion in today’s world, Georgetown is uniquely positioned to talk about that because we can attract students from a wide range of backgrounds.

Fr. O’Donovan once told me of a time when a tour guide was heard saying, “Don’t worry about it being too Catholic.” That riled up the campus ministry, so Fr. O’Donovan, when he was president back in the 90s before Jack DeGioia, came and talked to the tour guides about the history of the Jesuits. Then one person got up and said, “Father, that’s really great, but when I’m walking around with a group of people and I don’t know their religious background, what do I say when they say, ‘What does it mean that Georgetown’s a Catholic University?’” Fr. O’Donovan thought about it and said, “Well, I understand your problem. I think I would say that what makes Georgetown special is that you don’t have to leave your religion at the gates.” That’s a great asset for Georgetown.

Georgetown is also very undergraduate-oriented. When you look at Georgetown we’re more like say, a Dartmouth, Princeton or Brown. These are elite universities with great professional and graduate programs, but they’re not dominated by them. They’re still student-centered, whereas a Harvard or Stanford is bit different.

The growth that took place in higher education really starting with the G.I. bill, and then with the escalation of competition in the world followed by affirmative action creating opportunity. We’ve built a huge network of universities in this country and built a middle class. We encountered high-tech, and then we encountered high cost. I would say we’re at the end of growth unless it becomes global; unless we start taking a large number of students from abroad. The population that we now need to continue grow is largely students from minority backgrounds and who are largely poor. We’ve gone from being accessible to being a high-cost institution. It enabled Georgetown to build up its campus and its faculty, but it gave us a sticker price that’s out of reach for many. What Georgetown has done for 35 years, thankfully, is maintain a need-blind financial aid policy that keeps the door open. It doesn’t mean a wide population comes to the door because the sticker price drives away a lot of people. One of the big issues is whether poor kids are coming as rapidly as they could. The question for us is if they did, how would we afford them?

What was it like when you became dean?

The G.I. Bill was basically the beginning of building a college attendance pattern. Georgetown never really had an admissions department until 1963. The Ivies started the admissions office as a separate entity in the 50s. You’re talking about a relatively new profession responding to a changing world. What happened at Georgetown was that each of our undergraduate schools had a registrar who also doubled as an admissions officer. In 1963, Georgetown centralized admissions. They were smart enough to go the Harvard admissions office to hear about how college admissions should be done, and they were able to bring back a lot of the ideas that developed admissions at Georgetown. When I first worked in admissions as graduate students and worked to build the alumni interview program, that was one idea that was brought back. There were three of us in the admissions office in this same place in White-Gravenor. We didn’t really begin to grow until the early 70s when Georgetown faced a budget crisis that they wanted to solve by enrollment. That was the beginning of competitive admissions during the 60s and 70s. They asked us to build a national reputation, and that was when we began to move away from being more narrowly Catholic and became a more national university. When I first got the job, the university officially compared itself to American, George Washington, Catholic, Boston College, Notre Dame and Holy Cross. We began to broaden that, and when Fr. Healy became president and Jesuits were freer outside the university, that enhanced our move upward. We joined an organization that allowed us to share data, so suddenly we could know all the data of Harvard applicants. We found out that Georgetown compared pretty well, and we began to reorient ourselves to be compared among the Ivies, Stanford, and Chicago.

By that time we were in Georgetown’s second stage of evolution in the modern world. The first stage was creating a little distance between ourselves and the Catholic schools so we weren’t seen as serving a narrower population. We used to all recruit as a group, and when we stepped away and started to do our own thing that created a lot of criticism in the Catholic community. The second step was separating ourselves from the schools in D.C., and that only began in the 1970s. We were facing questions of how do you become a great university then. That’s 40 years, and I can look back over those 40 years and see the stages it took to get here.

Athletics came along, too. The Big East came along, and suddenly Patrick Ewing came along and Georgetown was in the national basketball championship. That was exciting, and that was a broadening. It allowed us to see ourselves more like those great universities – not narrowly Ivy, more like the Stanfords or the Dukes that having great academics but also a great athletic experience. Athletics is a way bigger part of the American way than it probably should be. And I think that those great universities have benefited by also being on the national stage in sports.

There were so many factors to consider last year regarding changes to the Big East conference. Do you think Georgetown properly kept in mind how athletic visibility affects admissions?

We were really in between a rock and a hard place. I was one of the people who was concerned about what was happening very quickly. It happened out of what we see as a necessity. But it had the potential of taking us off of the bigger stage. For better or worse, the Big East was a big stage which has now imploded. The schools that left essentially finished the job of imploding that league. Hopefully, the day will come when a model will work with like-minded institutions. If we had to give up the Big East as we knew it and say, “Where is it most likely that Georgetown will compete?” the answer is the Ivy League. But the Ivy League’s not asking us to join them! (Laughs).

Is that true? I’ve heard a rumor that the Ivy League has asked Georgetown to join if it abandoned its Catholic identity.

I don’t think so. I don’t think we were ever in a serious discussion about that. There are a couple of stories there that you could tell. I know that was wishful thinking, but back in those days, there was no argument to be made, really.

Today there actually is an argument to be made. Our highest overlap is in that group. Our football program plays Ivy League schools now, and we have the same philosophy. The one sport that the Ivy probably would like to play bigger in is basketball, which they can. I think that one could argue that we’re one of the few places out there that could fit because we have Division II football, which is the cornerstone of the Ivies.

TV drives all this, and ESPN certainly sees the Washington market. I don’t discount the possibility that there could exist another possibility down the road. But I don’t think that’s being talked about by anybody, probably because the last thing we want to do at this moment in time is to leave any doubt about our decision.

From an institutional basis, the only negative is that we probably are taking a step backward in the national spotlight. Now, the Big East itself could be extraordinarily successful, but the institutions we’re associating with are now all mid-major institutions. I’m not saying that a school like Louisville is a major institution, except that it is in the context of athletics.

In the four decades you’ve been here, so much has changed — not just admissions policy, but also the general admissions culture. Has what we’re looking for changed, too?

No, I don’t think so. The world has changed, and the students have changed with the world, but all that is neither here nor there. Students who come here are looking to make a difference on a national or international level. Whether they’re big dreams or something on a local level, or whether it be in politics or business, or education or whatever, that’s what people come here for. They don’t come here if they just were going to get a college degree and go to work.

Now, the problem in answering that question is that we have admissions committees, and we have a lot of people on the committees. They include faculty, deans and students, and they come from the different schools and multiple committees. They’re reading what’s in the application and each person may have a different view of what’s important, but the consensus, I think, makes a difference.

Do you ever get directives from the top of the university administration, whether they’re saying “lower the acceptance rate” or “get more Catholics”?

No, I don’t. It may be because I’ve been here for so long, or it may be that we’ve been able to develop a process that gives confidence to those at the university’s highest level. Obviously the provost is learning, and he’s very interested in what’s going on in admissions because he comes from a background of statistics (Robert Groves was previously director of the U.S. Census). He’s very interested in the numbers and he’s fascinated about what we do and how we do it. But he’s brand new. He’s learning Georgetown. I’ve known the president since he came here, so he’s a good friend, and he’s very supportive. And the board – I know lots of people on the board, and they feel good about the big question that we feel drives us.

I’ll give you a great example: it’s the University of Chicago right now. They had a new president who came in and said, “You know, Chicago’s got this quirky admissions situation where they’re getting the ideal college students going through the process. But Chicago is as good as Columbia, and we only get 10,000 applications and they get 30,000, so we need 30,000 applications.” So they changed everything. Chicago was driven by trying to compare itself to Columbia, and they made that a big part of their application. And now, Johns Hopkins is being driven by having compare itself to Chicago.

We don’t have any particular school to compare ourselves to that causes us to have to act. If our pull is 10,000, that’d be one thing, but Georgetown has a great brand, great popularity and a very strong position. There has been no zealousness to just simply drive the numbers up for the sake of appearance, which we could easily do. Right now, we take a very responsible approach to who we even invite – we only write to about 40,000 people. Whereas obviously, Chicago is writing to much, much more than that. If we went to the common application, my guess is we’d add 10,000 people, because they would be people who’d say, “Oh, Georgetown? Yeah, it’s a high profile institution. I’ll check the box.” We’d only be adding people who otherwise wouldn’t have gone to the effort. They would look really good because their other options are Harvard, Princeton and Yale, but somebody who might have gone through the effort might end on our waiting list. How does that help anybody?

And yet, many students still choose their college based on its ranking. Would Georgetown have a better yield for top-end applicants if it deflated its acceptance rate?

Around the edges, maybe. But as a fundamental reason to do something? I would say no. It becomes a reflection of the ambition of boards or presidents to somehow improve their own status. I love the fact that President DeGioia will say that he thinks Georgetown admission is the most ethical admissions operations in the country. We don’t succumb to the false gods. U.S. News rankings are not going to move much based on the number of applications. What does happen, however, is the number of applications get used by schools to lower the admit rate. That’s the world we’re living in. You don’t see many more deans of admission, you see vice presidents of enrollment management. The private sector shouldn’t drive the process, but now that’s what’s happening.

Can you measure what percentage of accepted students had Georgetown as a so-called reach or safety school?

There’s really no way of measuring that. The student body is made up of a number of components; it’s not a free-for-all competition. There are recruited student athletes, kids with a legacy tip, kids with a family employee tip and kids who might have gotten a tip because they applied from one of the elite prep schools, so the pure competitive number is probably about 70 percent. What we see is that a lot of those kids could interchangeably have been admitted to any of the top schools. We know who we tend to win from. We’ll win eight or 10 admitted applicants from Harvard and lose 100, while we’ll win 300 from Boston College and lose 25. We are only up against a small number of elite schools where we’re not going to compete well. We’re only going to lose dramatically to Harvard, Yale, Princeton and Stanford. We win dramatically against many elite schools, including at least three ranked above us by U.S. News.

Manipulative applicants can undermine almost every element of the application. Has one component of our app taken the biggest hit in today’s crazed admissions culture?

It’s hard to ever be able to assess that. We don’t begin reading essays by wondering if the student wrote it. We don’t run them through a test; we basically take them at face value. Now, an essay, for all that it’s touted, is not likely to be the most important thing in an application. It may be a particular recommendation or something an alumni interviewer said, or how they reflect on what specifics things they do well. The Common Application has four essay prompts and they’re known in advance, so could you imagine how much they’re affected?

It’s still possible to ask some quirky questions in the Common App supplement, but what’s the purpose of that? Who’s going to read that and make a value judgment on a student’s admission status? We’re doing the best we can to compare the 20,000 applicant stories we get, and what’s interesting may be that you grew up on a ranch in Wyoming. We’re lucky enough to have a lot of those stories in our pool. If you grew up in Greenwich, Conn., it’s harder to differentiate themselves.

What happened is that colleges, Georgetown among them, took value in diversifying the student population. They moved from being East Coast affluent-community centered into being a much more diverse set of institutions by having students come from all different backgrounds from around the world. The losers would have been from the places that historically had a control over acceptance, so the pressure gets really high to get into the right grade school to help you get into the right college. There are some great kids who come from some very fortunate backgrounds, but that shouldn’t give you an edge and we look at how to level that playing field. One of our most satisfying things over the last 10 years has been the move to attention toward first-generation, low-income kids.

What we think is important is being able to recognize the dramatic imbalance in our student population. We know that kids born in the bottom quintile have very little chance of moving up, and if they do move up there’s a very small chance that they graduate college. If a Georgetown or an Ivy league school can open that door and enhance it with supportive networking, that can be a successful way to level the playing field for these kids who have to overcome situations that other students at Georgetown don’t.

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    wendell c robinsonMar 15, 2021 at 11:45 am

    Mr. Deacon has always been great gentlemen and a major reason for GU’S success, not only when I was student there, but after my graduation.