Thursday, May 19, 2011

You Think the Admission Process is Tough? – Just Ask the Dean!

As parents of high school students who will soon embark upon or have just completed the application cycle, we tend to have a myopic view of the admission process. It is all about us (and hopefully our children are included in that plural first person pronoun). We succumb to the anxiety that the admission process can create, and pray that the outcome will be relief and joy rather than disappointment. Would it surprise you to learn that college admission folk are equally stressed this time of year? No, I am not na├»ve enough to believe I am preaching to a sympathetic audience. However, I think it is useful to see the colleges’ perspective in order to better comprehend how it drives their decision processes.

Eric Hoover, a staff writer for the Chronicle of Higher Education, addressed the topic of greater admission uncertainty in his May 8, 2011 article, “Admissions Deans Feel Crunched by the Numbers.” Through interviews with deans and staff at five colleges, Hoover explored some of the global issues confronting universities and how these institutions are managing in such uncertain times. The bottom line: colleges, like all businesses, must hit their numbers in order to survive. Any shortfall in enrollment, especially without a comparable reduction in costs, can have consequences with material implications for future financial health.

The question facing all universities today is how to instill predictability in a system that has become anything but certain. Larger waitlists and other strategies have been designed to counter the effects of the almost inevitable “summer melt.” Villanova, just one of many such examples, offered a waitlist spot to nearly 5,000 candidates, more than three times the size of its expected freshmen class. Colleges know that they have not finalized the class by the May 1 National Tuition Deposit Day. There will always be students who change their minds mid to late summer because they get off a first-choice waitlist, finally make a late decision after double depositing (which, by the way, runs counter to the National Association for College Admission Counseling’s Statement of Principles of Good Practice), or simply choose to withdraw due to late stage reservations or financial concerns.

So in addition to larger waitlists, colleges are pursuing strategies to discourage double depositing and to increase predictability, evidenced by Beloit College’s decision to increase its deposit fee from $200 to $500 last year. The result: the college’s summer melt shrank by 60%. In its quest for more certainty, Beloit also decided to capitalize on its reputation for having a quirky, offbeat culture. Rather than marketing to everyone, the college is taking the opposite tack; it makes no apologies for consciously not waiving application fees and actually discourages students who probably would not find Beloit the right fit. Theoretically this should be a win for the college while also benefiting students. Applicants are more likely to self select; they apply because they see themselves fitting in, not because it is an easy additional application to submit. With fewer, though more serious applicants, colleges like Beloit that are clear about who they are may have a higher admit rate. Yet they are hopeful that this will translate into a more robust yield too.

Others schools such as the University of Mary Washington in Virginia have adopted a strategy to seek out a group of less traditional applicants: transfer students. As community college enrollment increases due to students' personal financial limitations, colleges such as Mary Washington have begun to establish credit-transfer agreements with certain two-year institutions. The community college route is gaining respectability as a more cost efficient means to a four-year college degree and Mary Washington is capitalizing on that trend.

Land grant universities, which were established to educate in-state residents, are exploring new ways to counter severe budget cuts, including the enrollment of more out-of-state students who pay higher tuition. One university, Colorado State, has begun to offer three levels of scholarships specifically for non-residents who meet certain academic benchmarks. This tuition discounting strategy is designed to attract more out-of-state candidates who will still pay more than their in-state classmates, yet will have the opportunity to attend a desirable state university at a more reasonable cost.

Mr. Hoover’s research reveals ways that colleges are taking a more strategic approach to enrollment in order to effectively navigate an environment of uncertainty and re-focus their recruitment. How does this impact our students and us, as parents? As we help our children through the college admission process and also strive for greater certainty and less stress, making the effort to understand a college’s message, objectives and whether it is the right fit can also lead to better and more predictable outcomes for our kids.