Approaching Admissions Today: Perspective and advice for enrollment management and admissions leaders

It seems like a geological age ago when admissions officers considered themselves educators first and foremost, with a penchant for interacting on a personal basis with adolescents, their parents, and professional counselors in the high schools.

The greater portion of their time was spent interviewing prospective applicants on campus or at their high school, where time was also taken with the counselors to make them aware of their new admission policies, as well as new programs and facilities. In the 1960s and through the 1970s, the central themes were diversification of the student body, financial aid, and, in a number of instances, coeducation. A good portion of the school visit was intended to build or continue a relationship of trust and good will with the folks who dealt directly with the surge of aspirants for a college education.

We all know these times are gone, most likely forever. Could we imagine trading in the engines of today’s national and international admissions programs—namely, the computer as an information and management tool and the internet as the vital means of communicating and marketing to the greater numbers of student applicants?

The following observations and recommendations are offered through our lens as independent educational counselors to high school youth and their parents, and to many school counselors. The feedback we receive from these sources and the actions that ultimately accrue are the basis for the following counsel. We hope these suggestions will ring true to those experienced admissions officers who have spent a career in the academy building class after class, as well as be helpful to the next generation of younger admissions professionals just starting out.

Today’s college-bound individuals approach the college search with far greater awareness, sophistication (relatively speaking), and wariness than preceding generations, thanks to the ubiquitous flow of information from colleges’ websites, organizations both nonprofit and for-profit, rankings lists, student blogs, and media coverage of trends and issues in higher education. As a result, applicants and their parents expect a good deal more than heart-in-their-hands visits to campus or interaction with staff and alumni interviews on home ground.

It is incumbent on colleges to focus holistically on the admissions process and to understand the impressions, intentional and otherwise, made on each new round of candidates.

A broad group of college administrators should maintain an explicit discussion of the power for good and bad that the interview, information session, and tour guides can exert on the prospective family (and we include parents and students together here intentionally). In an increasing number of cases, faculty and coaches also play an admissions role, often without adequate training or oversight. The same holds for alumni interviewers, who make a greater impression than you might possibly recognize.

While most colleges seem to have picked up on the differences in application numbers and yield that result from campus visits and interactions, families are often stunned by the apparent lack of preparation and poor selection, training, and oversight of staff and student volunteers. Families do not generally differentiate among college representatives, but rather group them as a whole and have both specific recollections about colleges and overall impressions. Once these are formed, it is quite hard to break them (and when we hear ones that sound off kilter, we do indeed try to challenge them!). So, while much time and money is spent on coaxing students to campus, visits can result in highly successful fulfillment of expectations, or complete disillusionment.

Make sure that all those who represent the institution are educated and comfortable with the mission of your school and how it plays out in the educational, social, and extracurricular realms. Recruitment is an ongoing, collegewide effort, in which the whole college community can and should work together to attract, enroll, and retain the evergreen freshman class of next year. This includes both “formal” groups, paid or volunteer, who are tapped to communicate with prospective applicants, and “informal”— students, faculty, administrators, and alumni, whose words and writing may seem more “real” and valid because of a lack of official standing.

Communication regarding the above must be better tuned to parents, who are the most significant influence in their child’s selection of colleges to consider and enter. Sometimes we see institutions dedicate all or most of the language, visuals, and pieces of their whole presentation toward adolescents. Such colleges may ignore the concerns and questions of parents, or shunt them to a small corner of a website or admissions office. The same may hold true for information that would directly help counselors.

Bravo to the institutions that are actively presenting to students, parents, and counselors up front and on an ongoing basis. We have found print and e-mail counselor newsletters to be of great help in learning about a college’s new programs and goals. We also utilize them to walk families through an understanding of a college’s incoming class and overall institutional profile.

In an era of increasing concern about rising costs, changes in financial aid, and complicated need- and non-need-based aid, families are also seeking greater understanding of the bottom line associated with any college. As all institutions will be required to put a net price calculator online in the near future, a discussion of financial aid transparency is incumbent upon administrators.

We encourage colleges to increase the availability of financial aid officers during visits and by e-mail and web contact. That is in addition to presenting clear information about merit aid guidelines, need-based aid estimates, and other data relevant to your students and your approach to financial assistance. In the long run, you will reduce much time, wasted energy, second guessing, and loss of attractive candidates. Each family has its unique set of circumstances, from family structure to finances, and thus needs more individualized information.

As colleges work to bring greater numbers of students of nontraditional backgrounds (first-generation, English as a foreign language speakers, international students, older first-time, and returning students) to campus, there is a greater need to educate them in the economics of paying for college, taking on loans, and setting expectations for post-graduation that are more realistic in the present economy. The counselor as advisor must wear many hats, and field questions requiring a greater financial understanding, even as he or she works in tandem with financial aid officers.

What seems an ever-declining level of communication with high school college counselors regarding admissions standards and the status of active applications is a serious problem today. It creates the impression of aloofness, if not downright arrogance.

Having admissions and aid staff block out one or two hours every day for telephone and e-mail correspondence with school counselors regarding their counselees will build trust, help cut down on the ever rising number of inappropriate student applications, and in the long run save on your office budget. Such productive interaction is challenged by the turnover in both high school counseling and college admission offices, let alone the lack of adequate counseling in many public high schools in the first place. Many students are being served instead, or additionally, by independent counselors or third-party non-profit groups with a variety of missions to support college access and success. These contacts can be the source of other crucial long-term relationships.

We believe that the more colleges promote the idea of admissions work as a long-term career track, the better they will be able to attract and retain talented individuals who will build alliances with their school and non-school counterparts. Many admissions officers begin their careers as recent graduates who find a place where they can continue working at their alma mater. They may be “people people,” with backgrounds in communication, English, psychology, business, marketing, or any number of fields. The admissions career requires a mix of many such disciplines, from the sales and human resources interviewing tasks of traveling the world to see many high schools, to the crunching of numbers, forecasts, and enrollment management models, to the writing of admissions materials in print and online, and the reading and interpretation of applications and essays.

It’s not an easy job, especially as application numbers have jumped in recent years, and many admissions offices have cut staff or frozen hiring in the wake of the economic downturn and its ensuing budget constraints. We have watched as attendance at educational and association conferences has declined in many instances as colleges have cut support for professional development and networking. We encourage every admission office to take a close look at its budget and raise questions about where the money is being spent and to what effect: Where, when, and why is admissions travel taking place? Are more applications better, or are better applications worth more?

As the Tip O’Neill adage has it, all politics are local. So is the choice of the right college and the admissions process for the several million young men and women each year who have to decide what their educational future will be and where it will take place. The more personal the process as suggested here, the more likely there will be a win-win result.

This holds true for accessibility in terms of interviewing on and off campus, responding to e-mail queries and phone calls, and sending out good old-fashioned letters. We don’t believe that some of the crowding onto Facebook, Twitter, or other social networking outlets is likely to have much of an impact on admissions results, especially compared to the work of finding and creating, and then responding to, appropriate admissions audiences for your institution. The latter efforts can require serious data gathering and analysis on the front end, evaluating and understanding your institution’s unique mission and position in the educational landscape, and, over the long-term, careful relationship building in key communities that will be the source of your future matriculants.

Finally, a plea for ratcheting down one of the most insidious elements of the current admissions process and turning toward a more productive approach. Instead of creating massive waiting lists each year with the expectation of accepting a limited number, if any, at the end of the process, why not offer more of the applicants you were impressed by the opportunity to enroll in January or the following fall? We have found that those students with such an option have appreciated this offer and have, in time, understood what a unique advantage they have had to work, travel, pursue special interests, and mature. We suspect that the on-time graduation rate is statistically higher for this cohort of enrolled undergraduates.

We’d love to see some data from institutions such as Harvard, Cornell, Hamilton College (N.Y.), Middlebury College (Vt.), Colby College (Maine), and others that have engaged in this practice. For those who are highly unlikely to be offered a spot from the waiting list in any event, please deny them outright. They will appreciate it more in many cases, and this will move the admissions process to completion more quickly.

It’s our hope that colleges will not only take institutional priorities into account when considering their admissions goals and tactics, but also will focus on what is best for students and their families. In our experience, such an emphasis will more than pay off, so to speak, in terms of positive long-term outcomes for colleges.

link to University Business Magazine