Jun 28, 2013

Playing the 'Demonstrated Interest' Game

Kent Barnds, who is the executive vice president of Augustana College in Illinois, has done the college advising industry a huge favor.

As a college admissions insider and an enrollment management expert, Barnds laid out in the plainest terms possible a detailed explanation of “demonstrated interest” for all of us to consider and factor into the advice we give to college-bound students and their families.

In an article posted on Huffington Post, Barnds describes the college version of “big data” and details ways admissions offices “…spend substantial money, devote considerable human resources and rely on big data to help them do their job and bring clarity to a cloudy crystal ball.”

He outlines how admissions gathers information and makes assumptions based on data trails left behind by prospective applicants. 

This information is fed into “enrollment management” software and various decisions—admissions as well as financial aid—are made based on the likelihood that a student will actually accept an offer of admission should one be forthcoming.

And the conclusion is clear:  the more interest a student demonstrates, the more likely it is that an offer will be made—at many colleges. 

Make no mistake.  It’s all about the yield—or what has become a numeric proxy for institutional popularity and a metric for ranking in US News.  Yield (the percent of admitted students who matriculate) is vital to the economic health of institutions needing to be able to precisely predict how many students will sign on the dotted line and ultimately enroll.

A number of admissions professionals like to distance themselves from the concept of demonstrated interest and many claim that nothing substantial has changed in the admissions world for decades.

But with the amount of money being invested by colleges anxious to get inside the heads of prospective applicants, it’s never been more important for students to establish a trail of demonstrated interest throughout the college admissions process.

Here is the takeaway from the Barnds article along with some tips for playing the demonstrated interest game:

Data Mining
Colleges purchase names from the College Board, ACT, and various online student recruitment organizations that collect huge amounts of information every time you complete a registration form.  Colleges also gather very important financial information if you’ve identified yourself while completing a net price calculator.  And they even get a heads up from the Common Application (CA) unless you specifically tell the CA not to share information with institutions on your working list of colleges.  Once accumulated, schools know a great deal about your academic performance, possible major, outside activities, test scores, and financial situation.

Tip:  Allowing certain organizations to share your information with colleges enables them to contact you and begin the recruitment process.  It’s an opportunity to begin a conversation.  But don’t be deceived into thinking that just because a college is emailing you or sending packages of information, the school is either a good fit or even interested in you.  And be careful of how much information you provide.  Take charge of your profile and feel free to skip questions you feel uncomfortable answering regardless of who is doing the asking.

Making Initial Contact
According to Kent Barnds, colleges track how they first learn about a student and use this information to predict the likelihood of a student applying and ultimately enrolling.  A student who takes the initiative to contact a college is considered a good prospect.

Tip:  You can reach out to a college by completing an online “request for information” form or by emailing questions to the admissions office.  But once you get on an email list, you have to sort through tons of spam and keep an eye out for communications to which you really should reply.  And note that this is not a license to stalk admissions staff.  Be respectful and adult in your communications or risk doing more harm than good.

Targeted Communication
It’s no secret that colleges have invested in sophisticated computer-based systems for tracking demonstrated interest.  This may include tracking every form of communication the student initiates, interview outcomes, campus visits, email exchanges, references on Twitter, Facebook engagement or any other contact that can be checked off, quantified, or fed into a computer.

Tip:  By all means visit campuses, schedule interviews, request an overnight or visit a class.  But be very careful of your internet footprint.  Publicly-stated interest in a particular college can signal disinterest to other institutions.

FAFSA Pitfalls
One of the more eyebrow-raising revelations contained in the Barnds article is the extent to which colleges use information provided on the FAFSA form to determine a student’s level of interest.  Not only does FAFSA sharing with the admissions office give the deciders a good look at the other colleges to which you are applying but it also signals how important a college is relative to other schools on the list.  Students (families) placing a college in the first position on the FAFSA are perceived as those more likely to enroll.  They might be the first to receive financial aid awards and a little more personal attention.

Tip:  Although you can’t deliberately leave colleges off your FAFSA list without risking losing aid offers from those schools, you can take care with how you rank them.  And evidently, that’s a good idea.

Early Applications
When a student applies early speaks volumes about level of interest.  Those who apply earliest in the process are often the most interested and most likely to enroll.  Barnds suggests that these students “might receive more attention throughout the process, and even special invitations to events and priority consideration for scholarships and financial aid.” 

Tip: Regardless of how you decide to apply—binding Early Decision, nonbinding Early Action, or Regular Decision—get the application completed and sent as soon as possible.   Getting the entire application package together takes time and some coordination of test scores, recommendations, and transcripts.  Don’t wait until 15 minutes before deadline to push the button, as procrastination is apparently interpreted as disinterest.

Colleges vary enormously in terms of how much attention they pay to the trail of data crumbs you leave behind.  But make no mistake, most collect it in one form or other.   

And even if they don’t use sophisticated algorithms or make hatch marks on a sheet of paper to document contacts, admissions staff take note of a sincere thank you, a firm handshake, or a well-written essay.

Jun 26, 2013

Virginia Tech gets a new Scent

Virginia Tech (Wikipedia)

The vote is in.  Virginia Tech will be joining an exclusive group of colleges with their very own “signature scents” thanks to a promotion sponsored by Masik Collegiate Fragrances in which Tech students selected their favorite fragrances from among three specially-formulated women’s perfumes and three men’s colognes.

In a market dominated by sweatpants and t-shirts, Masik has taken logo wear to an all new level.  Since 2008, the high-end perfume manufacturer has been introducing a line of signature scents for some of the biggest names in higher education including Penn State, the University of North Carolina, Florida State, Auburn, and the University of Georgia.

And based on a “fragrance brief” describing elements of the school and its traditions, Masik’s expert team of perfumers, along with a little help from the Tech student body, has come up with two distinctive scents—one for men and one for women—designed to evoke memories of Blacksburg and its storied university.

"I think it's a great idea,” said David Wilson, associate director of the Tech bookstore, in a local TV interview. “Virginia Tech is a big brand. There's lots of merchandise. This is something that up till now hasn't been there."

To create just the right combination of fragrance and memory, Masik conducted campus visits, engaged in discussions with students and alums, and completed extensive independent research. 

And distinctive school-based characteristics that typically serve as inspiration for each university’s “signature scent” include:
  • School colors
  • Mascot spirit
  • Traditions and history
  • Landmarks and architectural style
  • Campus trees and flowers
  • Mission statements
  • College town character
  • Themes in the alma mater and fight songs
Sound familiar?  It appears that the perfume-making industry could easily provide a road map for prospective undergrads investigating college “fit.”

For Virginia Tech, Masik’s school-specific brief explored school colors described as Chicago maroon (red aromatics: apple, pomegranate) and burnt orange (mandarin citrus with smoky leather) and considered the HokieBird mascot, noted as one of the top college football mascots in the U.S.  Tech’s neo-Gothic architecture together with the traditions inspired by Skipper the Cannon and the annual Ring Dance were determined to add a backdrop of elegance and drama.

And so for men, the perfumers decided to test a blend of burnt orange aromatics (mandarin, orange blossom, ginger) and Virginia cedar or other wood aromatics.  The fragrance “feel” was designed to reflect the campus—dramatic architecture (bold aromatics such as peppercorn and patchouli), but also fresh aromatics for lightness of stone (crisp bergamot).

The women’s fragrances focused on a blend of soft wood and maroon inspired aromatics (sparkling red apple, pomegranate, rose, red hibiscus). In addition to bold aromatics (tamarind and jasmine) reflecting architecture and fresh aromatics for lightness of stone, a touch of elegance was added to honor the tradition of the ring ceremony (violet leaf or juicy white cherry).

And the winners as labeled in the bookstore competition were VT Strong (Virginia Tech for Him) and I Heart VT (Virginia Tech for Her).

In addition to Virginia Tech, Masik Collegiate Fragrances will be adding the University of South Carolina, Clemson, NC State, Ole Miss, Texas A and M, and the University of Kentucky to the line.  All will be launching on August 18 in campus bookstores—just in time for freshman move-in day.

Jun 24, 2013

Electronic Applications go Off Line for Retooling

Johns Hopkins University
Both the Common Application and the Universal College Application (UCA) will be going off line this summer for the purpose of clearing the boards and retooling. 

And both will be back in action just in time for the official start of the 2013-14 college application season.

On Friday, July 12, at 11:59 pm Eastern Time, the 2012-13 Common Application will be closing in preparation for the August 1 debut of CA4—the new Common Application software.   

All current application accounts will be deleted, and students will not be able to save previously-entered information. For record keeping, students are welcome to download and print out a .pdf version of the application using the “preview” function.

Anyone applying to Common App member schools with rolling deadlines or deadlines after July 12 may still use the paper version and submit via regular mail.

Between June 24 and July 1, the UCA system will be unavailable because of scheduled annual maintenance. Accounts from 2012-13 will be deleted, and that data will no longer be available.

Students wishing to use the UCA to apply to any of several colleges still accepting applications for fall of 2013 can take one of two routes.  They may use the “Print Preview” function to print out the form before June 24 with already-entered information, and then complete missing fields by hand and mail the paper version to the college.  

OR, they can simply wait until July 1st, when the UCA goes back online for the 2013-14 season, open a new account, and complete the application electronically and specify a fall 2013 start.

While application providers get ready for the new year, rising seniors may want to get generally familiar with both electronic forms by visiting their respective websites.

Make note of which colleges use which form and determine where there may be some overlap on your college list.

Although it’s fair to say that the Common Application has a numbers advantage with 527 members, Harvard, Marquette, RPI, and Johns Hopkins University use both forms allowing the individual applicant to decide which best suits their needs.

And there are some technical differences between the two applications.

With the launch of CA4, the Common Application will have a new look and make use of “smart” technology to improve the “experience” of completing the application form.  UCA has been using similar technology for the past year and is already compatible with mobile/touchscreen devices.

And although the Common App and the UCA ask the same basic questions, there are some important differences. For example, the UCA is less directive than the Common App with regard to the personal statement and plans to retain a broad “topic of your choice” question.  The Common App has developed five specific essay prompts which may change from year-to-year. 

The UCA will allow the personal statement to be uploaded with word limits guided by character count; CA4 will only permit text-entry with hard cut-offs and limited formatting options.  UCA also permits uploads of resumes and other documents in the additional information section, while the CA4 restricts additional information to text-entry with little to no provision for resumes or research papers (only by college request in the CA4 Writing Supplement).

The CA4 also plans to limit the number of personal statement versions a student may create to three, while the UCA provides for unlimited application edits including changes to the personal statement. 

UCA also makes it possible for teachers and guidance counselors to “tailor” recommendations to particular colleges.  Tailoring will only be possible through the Common Application if paper recommendations are submitted.

The biggest difference between the two online forms, however, remains the availability of UCA’s live multimedia link, which is embedded within the form. Students using the UCA may easily link to online content without sending application readers scurrying around for CD’s, DVD’s, or portfolios. And that's a good thing!

For the record, you choose to submit one form or the other—not both!  And keep in mind many schools use their own electronic forms or forms developed specifically for use by state systems such as those in California and Texas. 

Jun 22, 2013

Richmond to offer Free Tuition, Room and Board to Qualified Virginia Students with Families earning less than $60,000

University of Richmond
Beginning next year, the University of Richmond will raise the family income amount at which incoming first-year students from Virginia will qualify for free tuition, room and board—without assuming the burden of loans.

Virginia students from families whose total household income is less than $60,000 will be eligible for the program, with the new income level to take effect for University of Richmond freshmen entering in fall 2014. Previously, the full tuition, room and board assistance was available to families whose total family income totaled $40,000 or less.

The need-based financial assistance will make a high quality college education affordable and accessible for more Virginians and places Richmond in a league with some of the biggest names in higher education in terms of generosity targeted to low and moderate income students.

Effective this year, Harvard also raised its income cut-off to accommodate more students, as families with incomes currently below $65,000 are not expected to contribute to college costs. And at Stanford University, students from families that make less than $60,000 receive free tuition and room and board, while families making less than $100,000 don’t pay tuition.

“We know that many families are seeking to secure a quality college education for their children within a challenging economic environment,” said Nanci Tessier, Richmond's vice president for enrollment management. “By broadening the income parameters of this program, we can expand the reach of the University of Richmond to become a destination for more talented students from middle-class Virginian families.”

Richmond’s announcement runs somewhat counter to recent trends in which previously-generous tuition assistance programs have been withdrawn or limited.  Dartmouth, Williams, Carlton and Claremont McKenna Colleges restored loans in financial aid packages of some students, and Yale, Cornell and MIT scaled back the generosity of their programs.

But despite difficult economic conditions, both the University of Richmond and the University of Virginia have managed to maintain strong financial commitments to low income students.  Under AccessUVa, UVa  replaces need-based loans with grants in the financial aid packages of low-income students who are Pell eligible.

The catch with any of these programs is that students must meet basic entrance requirements and be admitted to the schools.  This has proven challenging, and colleges committed to increasing access among low and moderate income students typically have to step-up outreach efforts to encourage applications from qualified students with low family incomes.

For admissions information or more details on Richmond’s new financial assistance program, visit the University of Richmond website or contact the Admissions Office directly.