Sep 29, 2014

Colleges are thinking outside the box

Goucher College
Maybe they’re rebelling against the death of ‘holistic’ admissions and the baffling role technology now plays in the admissions process, or perhaps they’re reacting to demographic realities suggesting a diminished domestic applicant pool and consumer complaints about price. 

Regardless of reasoning, admissions offices are looking for more creative ways to assess high school performance and admit applicants to their campuses.

In the past year, no less than 14 colleges have announced new policies designed to reduce the role of standardized testing in the admissions process and joined the FairTest list of test-optional/test-flexible colleges.

Others are using upgraded application software to provide for the submission of resumes or graded papers to supplement more traditionally required documents.  And many are asking for creative responses to imaginative essay prompts.

Three colleges have taken the process to a whole new level by looking for ways to get at an applicant’s less “measurable” qualities:

Bard College
In 2013, Bard College introduced something really new in admissions:  The Bard Entrance Examination.  This application option is designed to give motivated students an alternative to the traditional admission process by allowing juniors and seniors to complete an online test consisting of four essays, chosen from among 21 questions.  The suggested length for each of the four essays is 2,500 words, with the exception of the math questions and the question that asks for a musical composition.

For the record, all the information needed to answer the questions is on the examination platform.  But applicants may bring in other resources as long as they are properly cited.  It’s not so much about what you already know as how you demonstrate “close reading, critical thinking, and the interpret problems.”

Free to all, the exam became available on June 2 and is due on November 1, with notification of results by the end of December. Candidates scoring B+ or higher will receive an offer of admission.

Bennington College
Already a member of the Common Application, Bennington College recently introduced an alternative application option for students applying for fall 2015.  The “Dimensional Application” requires students to “demonstrate a record of academic achievement, a capacity for growth, contributions to their classrooms and communities, and the ability to articulate original ideas or insights” in any way they choose.  In other words, Bennington is asking applicants to create an individual application through which they will decide what materials best represent their academic achievements and how they will contribute to the college community.

And students can choose just about anything to include with their application.  They can submit more traditional materials such as a high school transcript, standardized test scores or recommendations OR they can submit other work they feel demonstrates academic ability.  There is no suggested format, only the call “to be bold” and to “bring your own dimension to the college application.”

A panel of faculty members and Bennington alumni will be in charge of reviewing applications submitted this way.  They will be looking for evidence that the applicant is creative, inventive, and motivated and has both written and computational abilities along with other competencies considered central to a Bennington education.

Students who wish to apply using this option should contact Bennington College’s admissions office at 800.833.6845 or

Goucher College
While still accepting both the Universal College Application and the Common App, Goucher has upped the ante by introducing the “Goucher Video App” to provide another opportunity for students show “what makes them unique, why they would flourish at Goucher, and how they will fit into our community of learners.” 

Although other colleges including Hampshire and George Mason are inviting videos, Goucher goes a step further by allowing a two-minute video to substitute for traditional requirements such as test scores, transcripts and essays.  Applicants will be required to submit two pieces of work from high school (one a graded paper), but the video alone will provide the main basis for the admissions decision.

Guidelines for format and contents are provided on the Goucher website.  Videos will not be evaluated on “production quality,” but rather on “the thoughtfulness of the response.” Flashy special effects will not trump your ability to provide a sincere connection between you and Goucher College.

Video App submissions are due by December 1, and notifications mail on February 1.  And really, you don’t have to submit a transcript—check out the video!

Sep 26, 2014

The Common App will no longer require member colleges to conduct ‘holistic’ reviews of applicants

A member of the Big Ten, Purdue joined the Common App last year.
Perhaps the biggest news to come out of the National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC) annual conference held last week in Indianapolis was the announcement that the Common Application will no longer require member institutions to conduct “holistic” reviews of applicants.

The new policy, which goes into effect for 2015-16, reflects a basic change in mission statement and will allow colleges that do not require an essay and/or recommendations to join the 549-member organization.

The announcement was made by Paul Mott, the Common App’s interim chief executive officer, during a members-only meeting early in the week.   The change in mission statement had been previously voted on by the Common App’s board of directors, but had not been communicated to the membership prior to the meeting.

The current 77-word mission statement limits membership to “colleges and universities that promote access by evaluating students using a holistic selection process.”  This was defined as requiring
  • an untimed writing sample of at least 250 words, and
  • at least one recommendation from a school-based counselor or academic teacher.
The new mission statement has been streamlined to read simply

 “The Common Application is a not-for-profit member organization committed to the pursuit of access, equity, and integrity in the college application process.”

In an interview with the Chronicle of Higher Education, Mott justified the change in terms of feedback he and the board received from admissions officers and counselors.  “Our membership has said unequivocally that we must do more to increase access and this is reducing these barriers to access and pointless friction.” 

Mott considers removing the writing and recommendation requirements a step toward increasing access.

But others think the change in mission statement is a business strategy designed to appeal to less selective or larger institutions.

During a later session open to all NACAC members, Mott indicated that with the support of Censeo, a DC-based management consulting firm, the Common App took “a good hard look” at the failures of the previous year and is now building “a business plan for moving forward” which entails constructing “an efficient if not elegant online application system.”

And there’s no doubt that by loosening membership requirements, the Common App will be able to attract institutions less concerned with an applicant’s “story” as with their numbers.”

While the Common App has been successful in bringing in some big fish like Purdue, Michigan, and Virginia Commonwealth University, the membership seemed to stall a bit as a result of glitches in the system last year and at least one large member--Towson University--left.

As these technical issues have largely been addressed, the management team can once again turn attention to marketing and seems to be moving aggressively in that direction by making it much easier for colleges to join the association.

And some members agree that the new mission statement was more of a business decision than a change in philosophy.

“It didn’t surprise me.  Colleges are doing so many different things to meet their enrollment goals…it seems like a simple business decision to keep [the Common Application] as least complicated as possible to use their service,” said one east coast admissions dean.  “[My] university will still read essays and letters of recommendation and use these in our decision-making.”

Jon Boeckenstedt, of DePaul University agrees.  “I’m generally supportive of letting colleges determine the best way to evaluate applicants.”

An even more practical response suggested, “We see Common App as a servicing center/processing center only.”

This brings us back the issue of “mission.”  As the Common App works hard to attract new and varied colleges and universities both in the U.S. and abroad, the ability to micromanage their various application processes and enrollment management priorities would be nothing less than impossible.

The Common App board and management recognize this reality, and they are making adjustments to position the organization for the future.

Those colleges having a problem opening the Common App to members not sharing the founding philosophy of “holistic review” are free to go elsewhere or they can form their own collaboratives based on commonalities such as size, geography or mission.  

But as the Common App evolves under its new leadership away from the vision of the original 15 member institutions 40 years ago, what we’re really talking about is not so much a common application as a common application software, which stands it in direct competition with other for-profit products with missions not too different from the revised Common App statement.

And as the Common App continues to move in this direction, the related issues of market share, pricing policies and nonprofit status may be called more into question by those same competitors.

Sep 24, 2014

Well over half the nation’s 4-year colleges struggle to fill classes

An amazing amount of publicity goes to a handful of increasingly selective colleges.

But despite what you read, last year was extremely challenging for a surprising number of colleges and universities trying to fill classes for fall of 2014.  

According to the 2014 Inside Higher Ed Survey of College and Admissions Directors, 61 percent failed to meet enrollment goals by May 1—up from 60 percent the year before.  

Among private institutions responding to the survey, the situation was particularly grim.  For fall 2013, 59 percent reported not meeting targets.  This year, 71 percent fell short of enrollment goals.

“This has been a tough year in admissions,” explained Scott Jaschik, editor of Inside Higher Ed, during a panel session at the National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC) annual conference held last week in Indianapolis.

And in an interesting ethical twist, 32 percent of college admissions directors responding to the Inside Higher Ed survey reported that they continued to recruit students, who had already committed to attend other institutions, after May 1—a direct violation of NACAC’s Statement of Principles of Good Practice.

“The enrollment cycle now extends well into summer,” Jaschik added, while panel member David Hawkins, NACAC’s director of public policy and research, countered by suggesting fault possibly rests less with unethical admissions offices and more with unethical students who “double deposit.”

The annual Inside Higher Ed survey was conducted in conjunction with researchers from Gallup and collected information from 406 admissions directors.  Questions have evolved over the years with input from NACAC conference attendees at similar sessions during previous years.

Further confirming the pressure felt by admissions directors, Jaschik reported that 79 percent of those surveyed were concerned or very concerned about meeting next year’s enrollment goals.  Only five percent were not concerned at all. 
So how do the admissions professionals propose to fix the problem?  The results of the survey suggest that for many colleges, the top priority will be to recruit students who can bring money and/or prestige to the college. 

Asked about priority populations for the year ahead, 55 percent of the admissions directors agreed or strongly agreed that they would focus efforts on those who receive “merit” scholarships, a strategy used to lure outstanding students away from competing colleges.

But at the same time, directors expressed high levels of interest in strategies directed toward enrolling more “full pay” applicants including out-of-state and international students.  In fact, 57 percent of those representing private institutions indicated they will be targeting more attention on full-pay students.

Along the same lines, 53 percent of the publics and 63 percent of those representing private institutions agreed that international students will be the focus of recruitment efforts.  And among public institutions, 60 percent will be targeting additional attention on out-of-state students. 

As a corollary to the issue of finding students who can afford or are otherwise willing to incur debt to cover increasingly high tuition, admissions directors are surprisingly candid about their “gapping” policies.  Colleges “gap” admitted students by not giving them enough financial aid to enroll, which often results in students taking out high-interest loans to fill in the gap.

More than three-fourths (77 percent) of the directors believe they are losing potential applicants due to concerns about accumulating debt during college.  Yet, 39 percent of the publics and 72 percent of the private institutions practice gapping.

And most of the respondents think it’s just fine to gap—46 percent of the public institution directors and 75 percent of those from private institutions believe gapping is ethical.

So there’s good news and bad news for this year’s applicants.  The good news is that there are lots of colleges hungry to admit them for next year.  But the bad news is that most of these colleges are hoping for students with money in their pockets and won’t mind asking them to take on debt if funding isn’t immediately available.

Sep 22, 2014

Who’s sorry now?

INDIANAPOLIS—If high school seniors think the college admissions process is stressful, they should only hear the stories from the other side of the desk.

Last week, the National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC) hosted its annual conference in Indianapolis.  

And tales of woe permeated discussions ranging from high-tech student recruitment strategies to the unrelenting expectations of trustees and presidents for bigger, better and wealthier freshman classes.

Opening with an unmistakably slick trade show hawking the latest in industry-related software products and ending with a crowded college fair targeted solely to counseling professionals, the NACAC conference attracted an eclectic group of vendors, college administrators, and counselors—both independent and school-based.

But unlike last year when the talk was all about the failures of the Common Application and how students were affected by overly complex and faulty application systems, this year’s conference seemed to be all about how hard it is to be an admissions professional.

And those of us who routinely work with students were supposed to feel sorry for the folks who created a squirrel’s nest of unnecessarily complicated application requirements supported by incentives entirely benefitting colleges and their various enrollment strategies.

It was a little difficult at times to witness the subtle switch from student-centered concerns to unapologetic enrollment management complaints.  But the message was clear.  We all need to get with the program or leave the field.  And that means getting a handle on technology.

As counselors, we know about demographic shifts, declining incomes, and the impact of rising tuition on students and families.  We live with these realities daily.  

But we also see how recruitment strategies, marketing games, college rankings, computer-driven admissions decisions and financial aid trickery pollute the process of trying to match students with colleges.

Over the course of three days, there was much discussion about enrollment and admissions leaders who have lost their jobs for failing to live up to unrealistic expectations in the front office.  And we heard how young people are leaving the field in droves.

At the same time, we were introduced to the concept of “predictive modeling” and saw how colleges increase efficiency and save money by selectively targeting computer-generated prospects with lots of love.  

We also learned how colleges work to manage the admissions “funnel,” which takes the application process from prospects to inquiries and from application to enrollment.

And this is less about staff and more about technology.

In this world, college-bound students become customers who can be manipulated, tracked and hopefully controlled.

Yet anyone who works with adolescents knows the science here is faulty—they don’t always behave in predictable ways.

From the enrollment management perspective, the “customers” are applying to too many different kinds of colleges, not sending clear enough signals about their intentions, asking for too much money, and engaging in dubious practices such as double-depositing or breaking enrollment contracts.

The system encourages these kinds of behaviors.  But instead of trying to fix the system, enrollment managers spend precious dollars to add more layers of technology, change application requirements annually and complain about how stressful the process has become for them.

No doubt good and talented admissions professionals have left the industry.  But as long as the industry continues to see admissions as a cold science and not a humane art, survival will be determined by how well you can work with technology to manipulate metrics and produce the results expected by presidents and trustees.

For the twenty-first century admissions staff there is little time for growing business the old fashioned way by mentoring, counseling, and showing concern for the whole student.  

But for the record, neither applicants nor their advisers created this system.  We just live with it.

And who’s sorry now?