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?


  1. Who's sorry now? High school counselors, admissions staff, students, parents.
    Who's not? College search engines, enrollment management firms, marketing & branding companies, CRM providers - to name a few.

    1. You hit the nail on the head! These companies are making a fortune.