Monday, March 28, 2011

Ten Trends in Higher Education

The economy is limping along and college applications are up. What’s the connection? There may be none or perhaps the increase is driven by students’ concern about not having financial options. More likely the application trend is related to technology, the burgeoning use of social media in admissions and colleges’ obsession with creative marketing as a means to attract students. Whether or not the economy and college admission trends are correlated, both offer insights on what we can expect in the higher education realm in the future. In the absence of a crystal ball, I offer up what I see as 10 notable trends in admission and the strategic paths that colleges have begun to pursue.

- Ivy League and other highly competitive colleges are becoming even more selective, as the number of applications continues to rise at double digit rates. Preliminary reports released several weeks ago were startling, indicating that six of the eight Ivies will admit fewer than 10% of their applicants this year, achieving new all time lows. There are no signs on the horizon that this trend will reverse in the near term.

- Applications across the board are up substantially, despite the fact that the number of students applying has leveled off. Why are students applying to so many schools? The answer is largely that it is easy to submit multiple applications given today's technology, with the rise also fueled by the erroneous belief that more applications improve one's odds of admission. The list of colleges that use the Common Application expands each year and many schools are now making use of “fast” applications. Students are invited to apply by a certain deadline and colleges will waive the application fee AND the essay! What better incentive is there to apply?!

- More students are choosing to know and even commit as soon as possible, taking advantage of early decision and early action applications. Harvard, Princeton and the University of Virginia each recently announced plans to reinstate single-choice early action which they had abandoned just a few years before. Cynics see this move as a reaction to losing high achieving students, especially minorities, to other Ivy League schools that were able to hook desirable candidates earlier in the process. Expect to see the pressure to apply early continue, despite the fact that it may not be the right way to go for every student.

- Social media continues to change the way that students learn about schools and connect with others. Colleges today all have Facebook pages and are taking advantage of social sites to reach out to potential and admitted students. The corollary to this is that students need to be even more careful about what they post on these sites, even on their personal pages!

- The gap year is not just about college readiness anymore. Taking a gap year was literally a foreign concept just a few years ago and was far more common in Europe, but today many students seek outdoor adventure, travel and language study programs, community service, or work experience before pursuing their college degree. The number of organized programs, both nationally and internationally, has proliferated, and opportunities are available at many different price points. Students use the time to do good, mature and pursue something personally fulfilling. Most claim that these sojourns have tremendously enriched their college experiences.

- January admission is an idea that is catching on, and is one way that colleges are choosing to manage enrollment and fill the beds of students taking a spring semester abroad. Many colleges now offer January admission to students who might otherwise be waitlisted or rejected, and the list of schools is rapidly growing. University of Southern California, Northeastern, University of Rochester and the University of Miami are just a handful leading this trend. Students accepted to their dream school as a January admit need to ask themselves: do I want to go to this school even if I must begin mid-year or is it better to enroll for the fall at another college along with the rest of the freshman class? Some schools actually offer the option to start later. At Middlebury College in Vermont a February start date is by choice. By having a separate February admission pool, Middlebury hopes to encourage more to take a gap semester and explore a different type of experience before entering college.

- Enrollment management is here to stay. Colleges can no longer ignore the fact that assembling a class has major bottom line implications. As a result, schools are continually experimenting with new tools to attract and enroll students. Merit aid, also known as tuition discounting, is still the favorite carrot to garner the interest of students they hope will round out the class.

- Demonstrating interest is important to many colleges at all levels of admission selectivity (though many of the most selective do not track this). If yield is important, it follows that being able to gauge student interest is a valuable tool to colleges. Technology today enables colleges to track contact and to record every interaction that students initiate…even if and when they open the e-mails they receive from the school!

- The classroom is now virtual; online programs are proliferating, and not just at for-profit institutions. Just today Fordham announced that it is starting an online masters degree in social work. While online learning programs are primarily at the graduate level, it is only a matter of time before distance learning college degrees become more commonplace and gain greater acceptance.

- Dwindling government support is prompting public universities to question the value of state ties. Several are seeking greater autonomy, especially in the areas of tuition setting, procurement, and public/private partnerships. Flagships in Wisconsin, Oregon and Louisiana have proposed such separation, while the State University of New York (SUNY) frequently revisits the issue, especially in years when state support is cut. While many educators believe that eliminating a bureaucratic layer will reduce costs and improve delivery, critics are concerned that these moves will be detrimental to state systems as a whole. It’s not clear how this will play out, but I think we can expect to see some greater autonomy over the next few years.

You may have noticed that my list of 10 does not include ever-increasing tuition costs and the ongoing endowment pressures at the nation’s colleges. These are driving some of the other trends I've noted. Expect the higher education landscape to continually evolve as colleges develop new ways to manage admissions, their budgets and how they deliver their product.