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IHE Graduate Receives National Dissertation Award

Noble Jones

Noble Jones’ (PhD, 2018) dissertation is one of two selected to receive the 2019 Outstanding Dissertation Award given by the American Education Research Association (AERA), Division J. One of the leading research societies, AERA - Division J, is part of a community of postsecondary education researchers who promote the use of research to improve education and serve the public good.

Jones’ dissertation, Inside the black box: The garbage can model of decision-making in selective college admissions, was praised by the AERA selection committee “for its emphasis on such a critically important issue in higher education." The members commended Jones for “the enormous richness of [his] findings that [he] presented in such an engaging manner.” 

“It means a tremendous amount to be recognized by the field for your work, and I am truly honored to receive this award,” says Jones. “I remain indebted to my IHE committee members for the thoughtful guidance and encouragement they offered throughout my dissertation process, and in particular to my major professor, Jim Hearn, who devoted hours of thought and reflection as my research design unfolded, took shape, and became real. Personally, I'm excited to share my research more broadly and always welcome a conversation.”

Much literature has been written on why certain students are admitted at the expense of others, while Jones’ research gives distinctive insight into how selective college admissions decisions are made. What justifications, motivations, and factors enter into each decision relative to the institutionally-specific problems they might address? What external pressures from other units within the college or beyond play into the calculus of decisions?

“The ambiguous work of a college’s admissions committee can yield inexplicable and unpredictable decisions,” states Jones. “As I encourage in the implications of my findings, though, understanding how these decisions are made requires an appreciation for the highly complex nature of this work. To comprehensively understand any of the organization’s decisions requires an understanding of the competing alternatives from which the decision-makers might choose, the goals they hope to achieve, an acknowledgment of the unclear technologies available to them, and the constraints under which they operate—at both the personal and institutional levels.” 

Jones’ study was designed to open up the black box of college admissions decision-making and was guided by two research questions. First, to what extent can the garbage can model (GCM) of organizational choice explain how admissions decisions are made at a selective, private liberal arts college? Second, to what extent do alternative theories, such as political power, resource dependence, and bureaucratic rational theory, explain these decisions?

Jones explains, “It is a human and subjective process, and one in which context matters greatly: both the organizational context of any given institution, but critically, the context of each student’s lived and learned reality from which she applies. And at the end of the day, the GCM might not satisfy those who want to know why certain decisions occurred—but I feel my research offers rare insight into, and the GCM a compelling explanation of, how admissions committees at selective colleges make decisions.”

The findings of this study confirm the need for future research into the college admissions decision-making process to meet both the institutional mission and organizational needs of universities and colleges.


Jones will receive the award at the annual AERA conference in Toronto in April. He will join an impressive list of past recipients who have become respected leaders in the field of higher education.

Type of News/Audience:


PhD, 2018

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