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In Admissions, Many Shades of ‘Uncertainty’


The Chronicle of Higher Education - October 25, 2012 

The application boom that colleges have seen over the last decade can’t possibly continue, right? Wrong.

On Thursday morning here at the College Board Forum, Seth Allen, vice president and dean of admissions and financial aid at Pomona College, suggested that several trends driving application increases were unlikely to reverse themselves.

“As we get to a juncture where smart people … might say applications are going to level out or even decrease,” he said, “there’s some phenomenon that seems to push them up even higher.”

For one thing, colleges are marketing more aggressively and recruiting more broadly than ever before. (Don’t hold your breath waiting for those recruitment e-mails to stop flooding Junior’s inbox.)

Over the next decade, perhaps no trend will prove more significant than the rising number of international students applying to American colleges—and the colleges’ interest in enrolling more of them. At Pomona, applications from international students have grown by 400 percent over the last seven years.

It’s a prevalent notion in academe that recruiting more students from faraway shores can fix a college’s revenue problems. Foreign students, Mr. Allen said, are the latest incarnation of the “next great thing” that promises to solve enrollment challenges. He warned his audience, however, that such thinking could distract college officials from frank discussions about their rising costs.

“When are we actually going to have this conversation?,” Mr. Allen asked. “Because I don’t think the next great thing is around the corner for us.”

Moreover, there may be a flip side to the internationalization of college admissions. If other nations can devise a low-cost, high-quality model, Mr. Allen said, more American families might consider sending their sons and daughters to overseas institutions.

As the ensuing discussion confirmed, application surges are both a cause and a symbol of the uncertainty in the admissions profession, leading to what Mr. Allen called the “paperless paradox.” As more admissions offices have gone digital, he asked, have they become more effective? Or has it just led to more work?

As they have turned to electronic recruitment, admissions officers have found, to their frustration, that many teenagers have become less responsive to e-mail. “It’s hard to get in front of them,” Mr. Allen said. “There’s greater uncertainty about what’s actually working out there.”

One could easily imagine admissions officers buried under a mountain of data. SAT scores, grade-point averages, and class ranks: Each year, many numbers attach themselves to ever-growing hordes of applicants.

Sally Lindsley, senior associate director of admission at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, said that as applications have increased, her staff had become even more interested in qualitative evaluations that could help put all those numbers in context. “We’re looking for nuances,” she said, “trying to build that story, build that picture.”

In other words, determining who stands out requires more work than ever before.

You might lament the rise of “stealth applicants,” whose applications represent their first contact with colleges. Nonetheless, the frequency of such applicants is just one indication of how consumers’ expectations have changed, said Marc L. Harding, chief enrollment officer at the University of Pittsburgh. Today’s applicants want things to happen on their terms.

Previously, Mr. Harding worked at Iowa State University, which has adopted a self-reported application. That document permits students to fill in crucial information, such as their grade-point averages, without sending a transcript (the admissions office verifies the information, for students who send deposits, later in the process). The new system allows the university to render admissions decisions quickly.

In a nation in love with, Mr. Harding said, the appetite for customization is here to stay: “We’re all about speed and transparency now.”

Mr. Harding reminded his audience that parents were engaged in their own sort of marketing campaigns, which often begin when their children are very young. He showed a slide containing photographs of babies, each clad in a shirt bearing a college logo, presumably those of their parents’ alma maters. (Hey, no pressure, kid.)

“We’re going to have nursery tours soon,” he joked, “I know it.”