Apr 13, 2011

The New ‘Business’ of College Admissions

In recent remarks before an audience of independent and school-based counselors, Christopher Hooker-Haring, Muhlenberg’s outspoken dean of admission and financial aid, reflected on trends he sees emerging in the ‘business’ of college admissions.

“It’s not just a numbers game anymore,” said Hooker-Haring. “Increasingly colleges feel nobody is ‘owed’ admissions.”

Hooker-Haring suggests that admissions offices are now forced to make decisions that pit interests of students against interests of institutions, as colleges struggle to deal with demographic and economic realities in a battle for survival and institutional health.

What does this mean? Counselors, students, and parents are having a harder time navigating the system and predicting outcomes.

To help counselors in their advice to families, Hooker-Haring outlined some of the forces driving admissions offices and offered suggestions on how to come to terms with them:

Demonstrated Interest

In a crowded, competitive marketplace, “interest counts.” Unlike a generation ago, students are likely to be applying to 8 to 10 colleges, and admissions offices are having a hard time discriminating among those who have sincere interest in attending their institutions and those who are submitting applications because it's easy.

As a result, they are taking note of the extent to which students make an effort to establish contact or get to know their schools. Taking the time to register and visit a campus, if within a reasonable distance, is very important and definitely figures into admissions decisions. And, “If the admission office doesn’t know that the student has been on campus, the visit doesn’t count.”

Early Admission

The reemergence of early admission programs—specifically Early Decision (ED)—at highly selective institutions is part of movement toward minimizing institutional risk and controlling the admissions marketplace. At an increasing number of colleges, students have “about double” the chance of admission if they apply under ED.

And colleges that formerly backed the goals of the Education Conservancy are quietly making changes in admissions policies that are more supportive of institutional need to control outcomes than student need for a less pressured process.

The “Hook”

Colleges want to see what students can bring to the campus to make it a more “interesting, vibrant” place. With continued growth in the overall applicant pool—particularly at the middle—to move from qualified to selected, students increasingly need to demonstrate a particular passion or skill. This can be anything from involvement in community service or sports to a specific talent in music or art.

Hooker-Haring routinely tells high school juniors, “If you don’t have a passion, you have about six months to get one.”

Institutional Health

A divide is opening between colleges that are financially healthy and those that are not. Students need to be aware there is a possibility that the “college” experience available today may not be there four years from now.

This means families must be prepared to become better consumers and ask hard questions like, “Have there been any layoffs in the past 3 to 4 years” or “Has the college recently dropped any sports or academic programs.” Hooker-Haring points out quality of maintenance and upkeep might be symptoms of financial instability.

But most important is the ability of the college to guarantee the “integrity” of financial aid. Students should know what’s going to happen to their financial aid packages over four years before signing on to a program that could very well diminish or go away.


As the courtship between students and colleges becomes more complicated, it’s important to keep in mind that institutional “fit” works in two directions.

While the goal should be for the college to “fit” the student, it’s clear that colleges are increasingly concerned that students also “fit” their needs in the way of responsiveness, willingness to commit early, potential contributions to campus life, and possible ability to pay.

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