Today's Admission Office Budget: In this era of limited resources, where should the dollars go?

We delved into the topic of admissions office budgets with a plan to feature the diminishing resources available to college admissions offices and how that situation has impacted enrollment efforts. But as it turns out, admissions counselors are also concentrating on the limited resources of their institutions as a whole, and, concurrently, the financial challenges faced by prospective and current students and parents.

Thus, even as college admissions offices focus on how to manage their staff and resources in an era of flat or shrinking budgets, many are also seeking to maximize the kinds of programs and partnerships available to students once they reach campus, and the financial aid resources to help them get there, and stay there.

How bad is the budgetary situation nationally? If your institution has been seeing flat or declining budgets during the last few admissions cycles, you are not alone.

Writing in their summary of the National Association for College Admission Counseling’s admissions survey results from the 2008-2009 admission cycle, Melissa Clinedinst and David Hawkins noted: “For the foreseeable future, the main concern of all involved in the admission process will focus around continued effects of the economic downturn on the prospects of students transitioning to college and the counselors and institutions of higher education that serve them.” The survey found that more than a third of admissions offices had already experienced budget cuts averaging 9 percent, with most offices expecting stagnant or decreased budgets for the following year.

Meanwhile, a number of conflicting trends were indicated:

increasing applications, both for admissions and financial aid; increasing Early Decision and Early Action applications; and some declining enrollments and yield rates. Colleges reported responding in a variety of ways, most commonly by accepting more applicants, and then offering grant aid to more students and in larger amounts.

NACAC’s 2010 report showed continued increases among colleges reporting rises in ED/EA applications—and increases in the numbers of students accepted through ED/EA. About half of colleges reported placing, and admitting, more students on waiting lists.

In terms of admissions office personnel, the survey reported an average of 368 applications per admission officer at private colleges, and an astounding 949 per officer at public institutions. While application numbers, requests for financial aid, and complicated enrollment strategies continued to increase across the board, overall admission office budgets trended lower, with 28 percent of offices reporting decreased budgets in 2009 versus 2008, 44 percent reporting no change, and 29 percent reporting an increase (compared to 42 percent reporting an increase from 2007 to 2008).

In the realm of public colleges and universities, which enroll the large majority of students, we know that the 2008 recession “dramatically reduced state revenue and ended the growth in state and local support achieved between 2004 and 2008,” as stated in the 2009 finance report from the State Higher Education Executive Officers. Federal funds were used in some cases to supplement the loss of state dollars, but states saw an increased reliance on tuition revenue.

Coping Strategies

In handling such trends and challenges, admission offices have adopted a number of strategies. These include enrollment efforts based on “snap apps” marketed to vast numbers of students, decreased travel (to meet potential students as well as their peers at conferences), increasing use of technology and web applications versus fancy new viewbooks, outreach to independent counselors, and new financial aid initiatives.

At Lake Forest College (Ill.), there have been efforts to fully integrate online applications into the admissions database, shares Bill Motzer, vice president for admissions and career services. Putting money up front into technology, officials believe, can save time and staff resources in the future. Lake Forest has been using a more extensive network of alumni volunteers, helping to limit staff travel time, and the college has established an admissions representative in Denver, covering the Rocky Mountain region and the West Coast.

Colorado College admissions officials are also working through travel issues. Mark Hatch, vice president for enrollment management, says his budget has forced continued pull-back on administrator travel. It’s a reality admissions officers can feel torn over. “We are deeply passionate about the kids in our backyard, and are beating the bushes there, but we also recognize that students in other areas have a lot of choices and we can’t neglect those markets,” he says.

Spending Wisely

Recruitment dollars being spent today must be spent wisely. From our perspective working with families on a daily basis, certain admissions and enrollment strategies seem to be particularly effective in capturing the attention of students and parents, attracting them to follow up with a college, and continuing to help them progress through the application and matriculation processes.

First and foremost, personalization should be the ultimate goal of any admissions office. Certainly at one end of the spectrum, that can mean making one-on-one interviews available on campus for all who request the opportunity. Even at the other extreme, personalization can involve carefully crafted e-mail and mail communications that address a student by name and according to a relevant interest. Both kinds of strategies can backfire if carried out haphazardly or inappropriately. Of considerable importance is your institution’s level and rate of responsiveness.

Here are two recent examples of good intentions gone astray:

• A senior applying to a highly selective liberal arts college received a letter inviting him to consider a specialized science program at the college. The content of the mailing was appropriate, given this student’s interest in science and medicine. He had already visited and interviewed at the college, so this was not a “cold-call” to say the least, and the college had already provided a very personal experience for him on campus. The problem? The envelope was addressed to the student correctly on the outside, but inside was addressed by name to another student. The family was left wondering if the mailing was indeed intended for the right student, and, in any event, what could such an error say about how the college might function if the student enrolled there? Students report these kinds of errors quite often, sometimes laughing them off and other times deciding to discontinue the admissions process at that college.

• A well-meaning selective liberal arts college sent an admissions officer to conduct some offsite one-on-one interviews recently, in response to a high level of demand for meetings in a particular geographic area. Great – that’s very helpful and shows good intentions of maintaining an open and inviting admissions process. The problem? The interviewer was overwhelmed by the number of back-to-back meetings, and a senior who met with her reported that she barely listened to him at all during the conversation in a crowded coffee shop. After he had finished a lengthy presentation about himself and his interests, she apparently asked him to please tell her a bit about himself. He was forced to repeat the exercise. Again, he was left wondering about the college’s level of interest in him, and its overall level of professionalism.

We have written about the importance of training tour guides and other admissions representatives, and clearly in a tight budget environment, skimping on staff and volunteer training is not a good idea. It runs the risk of biting off one’s nose and degrading the overall quality of admissions efforts. In a competitive admissions landscape and era of economic retrenchment, there is even more need for high quality, detail-oriented programming and marketing efforts.

Getting back to personalization, we would encourage admissions offices to do everything in their power to make the experience of the family, both student and parents, as friendly, professional, and responsive as possible. Low-cost efforts—including going over communications materials with a fine-toothed comb; constantly training and working at best-practice approaches to conducting tours, and interviews if your institution is able to offer them and philosophically inclined to do so; and responding to inquiries by prospective applicants—can go a long way.

Here’s an example from one institution. A student reported back this year after the completion of a series of college visits that his best experience was at a particular small liberal arts college. Why? When a tour guide was unavailable, a senior admissions officer offered to take the student (by himself) around campus. After an hour and a half of walking and talking, the student realized he had just been interviewed as well as guided through an excellent campus tour. The result? “I’m definitely applying. I really got a good feel for the place, and it showed a lot of personal attention that the dean would spend that time with me.”

Now, many readers might justifiably conclude that most colleges don’t have the time or resources of the smaller selective institutions to work in this manner.

But take the example of Wake Forest University (N.C.), which recently did a 180-degree turn by dropping its standardized testing requirement and strongly encouraging (and facilitating) on-campus and remote interviews via phone, Skype, and even instant messaging. The result, according to a presentation at last year’s NACAC meeting, was a far more informative and personalized admissions process, one that, from the feedback we’re hearing from students, is a huge success in terms of helping students get to know the university, helping the university get to know them, and convincing them to apply.

A recent Chronicle of Higher Education article noted that more colleges are focusing on regional admissions officers to better connect with students in different geographical areas. This can be a great strategy to maintain a known field representative, particularly in locations that have been or could be sources of good applicants.

A local representative, perhaps an alum, can get to know various towns and public and private schools, networking with guidance counselors and spending more time with students and parents. This may save money on overall admissions office travel, and access local talented individuals, perhaps those interested in working part-time.

Technology should continue to make communications with these representatives easier and more productive. Bringing them back to campus regularly, and training them well, will be important to maintain quality and consistency of message, and ensure that they know the college and can represent it effectively.

Another strategy that caught our eye is the specialized open house. Union College (N.Y.) recently held its first “Multicultural Open House.” The college offered bus transportation from New York, Boston, and New Jersey. Other colleges have had an excellent track record with these kinds of events, and we have seen them even offer train and air transport for some students wishing to attend them.

We’ve received strongly positive feedback from underrepresented minority students who have attended such sessions, where they have met students from similar and many different backgrounds, heard about multicultural programming on campus, and learned about financial aid opportunities.

Such specialized open houses should not be limited to multicultural recruiting efforts. Union plans a special engineering open house, and other institutions have offered business school, pre-medical, women in science, and arts-oriented programming. Such targeted recruiting efforts seem a good use of resources to attract not just more applicants, but more appropriate, interested, knowledgeable, and committed candidates.

Indirect communication with prospective students should also be executed with budget dollars in mind. We’ve noticed a growth in outreach to the counselor community. The profiles that colleges prepare for independent and high school guidance counselors are very helpful sources of information that we use regularly with students. These need not be fancy brochures—even basic data pieces provide nice reminders of new programs, enrollment trends, and availability for meetings with admissions representatives. E-mail newsletters also work well. We’ve been getting helpful mailings from such diverse places as The University of Iowa, Syracuse, Lawrence University (Wis.), Washington University in St. Louis, Muhlenberg College (Pa.), and Boston University.

In an admissions world of increasing complexity and uncertainty, with a lot of turnover on both sides of the admissions desks, communicating regularly with counselors can help inform your key constituencies over the short and long terms.

Remember, all members of an institution—from administrators to faculty, alumni, and current students—should play a role in enrollment. Technology can track faculty and administrative travel, for example, and put these highly knowledgeable representatives of your school to work in the field. Parents and students enjoy connecting directly with people who can speak in depth about a part of a college or an overall environment. Current students and recent grads traveling home can serve as excellent representatives on school panels or as recruiters talking to high school students. Some of the most powerful presentations we’ve seen on admissions and particular colleges have come from students speaking to their own experiences on campus.

On a final note, we laud the emphasis at many institutions on program quality and clarity of offerings. Using your total institutional resources well seems an excellent way of providing value for families who have become ever more “critical consumers” of education.

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