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Feeling the Heat: The 2013 Survey of College and University Admissions

09/20/2013

Inside Higher Ed. September 18, 2013.  Filling a class is the job of admissions, and the 2013 Inside Higher Ed Survey of College and University Admissions Directors shows just how hard that job has become.

Just under 60 percent of admissions directors reported, for example, that they had not met their enrollment goals for this fall by May 1, the end of the traditional period of courtship of admitted applicants by colleges. It is of course common for community colleges to attract students right up to the point that classes start (if not after), and so it's no surprise that two-thirds of those institutions hadn't met their annual enrollment targets on May 1.

But this was true as well for 59 percent of private bachelor's institutions, and 77 percent of public master's or bachelor's institutions. (It was the doctoral institutions that were more likely to have met their targets.)

Among all admissions directors, 46 percent reported that they were "very concerned" about meeting their targets this year, and another 30 percent were "moderately concerned."

About the Survey

Inside Higher Ed's 2013 Survey of College and University Admissions Officers was conducted in conjunction with researchers from Gallup. Inside Higher Ed regularlysurveys key higher ed professionals on a range of topics.

On Oct. 10, Inside Higher Ed will present a free webinar to discuss the results of the survey. Editor Scott Jaschik will share and analyze the findings and answer readers' questions. To register for the webinar, please click here.

The Inside Higher Ed survey of admissions directors was made possible in part by advertising from Hobsons, ELS, Jenzabar and CUnet.

And in a sign of how desperate some institutions may be, 29 percent of admissions directors admitted that they recruited applicants -- after May 1 -- who had committed to other colleges. (The Statement of Principles of Good Practice of the National Association for College Admissions Counseling bans such efforts, and hints that some colleges have been violating that rule have been seen as a sign of the increasing pressures on admissions offices to produce a class that will meet the academic and financial goals of colleges.

The survey was conducted by Gallup based on questions developed by Inside Higher Ed. Responses were received by 381 admissions directors, which allows Gallup to say with 95 percent confidence that the results are accurate within 5 percentage points. Subgroups (public and private for example) are provided only where sample sizes are large enough for results to be valid, but margins of error may be larger for those groups. All of those surveyed were assured of full confidentiality.

The results are being released as admissions directors and high school guidance counselors gather this week in Toronto for the annual meeting of NACAC. A full survey booklet, with all the tables, may be downloaded here.

Among other highlights:

  • Despite the higher bar set in June by the U.S. Supreme Court for justifying the consideration of race or ethnicity in admissions, very few colleges and universities are considering changing their policies at this time.
  • Despite the criticism by many families and some politicians of the use of private student loans to finance higher education, and of college aid packages that rely on "gapping" (not meeting full financial need), officials at many colleges say they will continue such practices.
  • In a shift of attitudes among admissions leaders on a highly contentious issue, a majority now back a proposed NACAC policy change that would allow members to use international recruiting agents who are paid in part on commission -- a major shift for the association and one that, apparently, its members could embrace.
  • While few admissions directors admit to providing false information to U.S. News & World Report and other rankings entities, they overwhelmingly believe that others do so -- and that there is no reliable system to prevent such abuses.
  • One-fourth of admissions directors now favor asking applicants voluntary questions about sexual orientation and gender identity.

The various questions and the admissions directors' responses in many ways run counter to the admissions narrative one reads every year about the relatively small number of elite institutions that have a seemingly endless supply of applicants -- and the heartbreak faced by graduates of Choate or Bronx Science who didn't get into Harvard. These days in admissions, colleges are as nervous about being accepted by those they admit as they are about whom to admit.

Increasingly, this year, colleges that have failed to meet enrollment targets have paid a price. Midway College, in Kentucky, announced an 18 percent enrollment drop last week -- and announced faculty layoffs at the same time. Well-known colleges such as Loyola University New Orleans and St. Mary's College in Maryland this year were stunned when they were off freshman enrollment targets by large margins -- Loyola down almost 300 students from a target of 875, although additional efforts over the summer brought that deficit down to 240 students. (NOTE: This paragraph and the one that follows have been updated based on additional information from Loyola.)

Indeed, the issue of colleges trying to poach other institutions after May 1 -- which a healthy minority of 29 percent of admissions directors admitted to doing -- surfaced when The New York Times quoted a Loyola official as saying it was doing so (something Loyola then denied, prompting a correction in the Times even as many high school counselors reported that students were being recruited by a range of institutions after May 1).

David Hawkins, director of public policy and research for NACAC, said that the survey results reflect "uncertainty and fear" among many admissions directors. "And that uncertainty now extends well beyond May 1."

Based on the responses from the admissions directors, most are pushing ahead with strategies to attract more students, and more students who may pay more. Consider these responses on strategies on the groups on which they will focus more recruitment energy in the year ahead. (The figures show those who strongly agree or agree that these will be targets of focus.)

Targets for Increased Recruiting Efforts by Colleges in Year Ahead

Target Public Private
Students recruited with merit scholarships 53% 63%
International students 50% 61%
Transfer students 63% 71%
Out-of-state students 53% 65%
Full-pay students 42% 56%

The figures above are striking in that these are strategies colleges have been using now for several years and yet they feel they can go further with them. Also notable is that most of these strategies involve efforts to attract more students who can pay a larger share of the sticker price. And public and private strategies are much closer than many might predict.

Transfer admissions has historically been a public college focus, but increasingly private colleges are boasting of their articulation agreements with community colleges. Non-need-based scholarships -- perhaps pioneered by private colleges -- are very much part of the strategy of public institutions.

When it comes to financial aid, however, the results show that public and private institutions are not thinking alike. Inside Higher Ed asked admissions directors -- amid national debate about whether debt levels are too high -- about how much aid was reasonable for an undergraduate to accumulate over a four-year period. For public admissions directors, the most popular answer was $10,000 to less than $20,000. For private admissions directors, the figure was $10,000 higher.

What Admissions Directors See as Reasonable Debt Levels

Debt Level Public Private
No debt at all 2% 2%
Under $5,000 2% 1%
$5,000 to less than $10,000 11% 3%
$10,000 to less than $20,000 36% 18%
$20,000 to less than $30,000 33% 48%
$30,000 to less than $40,000 12% 18%
$40,000 to less than $50,000 3% 6%
$50,000 and more 1% 2%

Looking at these figures in other ways, 26 percent of private college admissions directors believe that it is reasonable to borrow more than $30,000 over four years (the national average is about $26,000), but only 16 percent of their public sector counterparts do. A majority of public admissions directors believe debt levels shouldn't top $20,000, but only 24 percent of private admissions directors share that view.

Differences also remain evident between public and private admissions directors on "gapping," the practice of offering admitted applicants a package that is not large enough to meet their demonstrated financial need. In many cases, students who are gapped must take out expensive private loans (which lack many of the protections of other student loans), and in other cases, they find partway through their college education that they just don't have enough money.

Asked if they engage in gapping, 38 percent of public college admissions directors said that they did, compared to 65 percent of those at private institutions. Asked if gapping was ethical, 53 percent of public admissions directors said it was, while 74 percent of admissions directors at private colleges said so.

Calculators and Other Tools

Amid the growing complaints from families that they find the financial aid process confusing, the Obama administration and Congress have introduced several initiatives: net price calculators, through which colleges allow prospective students to determine how much aid they could receive; the Shopping Sheet, which allows for comparisons and analysis of aid offers; and the College Scorecard, which provides data on key performance measures of colleges.

Generally, college admissions directors don't seem that impressed with these efforts, with "somewhat helpful" being the most popular response when asked to evaluate the utility of these new tools, although support is stronger in the public sector than the private. (Note: The survey took place before President Obama made his most recent aid proposals, which strives to eventually link the size of Pell Grants to some outcome measures, similar perhaps to those on the College Scorecard. But these results are based on reacting to the Scorecard without any link to financial aid.)

Admissions Directors on New Tools

  Public Private
Net Price Calculator    
--Very helpful 15% 10%
--Somewhat helpful 54% 52%
--Not too helpful 24% 28%
--Not at all helpful 7% 9%
The Shopping Sheet    
--Very helpful 5% 3%
--Somewhat helpful 46% 53%
--Not too helpful 35% 51%
--Not at all helpful 13% 12%
The College Scorecard    
--Very helpful 5% 2%
--Somewhat helpful 50% 36%
--Not too helpful 33% 48%
--Not at all helpful 13% 15%

International Recruiting: Open to Agents

One of the big issues at this week's NACAC meeting will be discussion and a vote on a proposed new policy on agents who recruit international students abroad. NACAC leaders appear to have moved on the issue in the last two years -- and the Inside Higher Ed survey suggests that many admissions directors have moved as well.

Two years ago and this year, the survey asked admissions directors what they thought of draft NACAC policies on agents who are paid in part based on commission. The draft policy under consideration two years ago would have banned the practice, and kept policy consistent for those who recruit in the United States (who are barred by federal law from receiving commission-based pay) and those abroad (who are not covered by U.S. law, but for whom NACAC has applied its ethics code). This year in Toronto, NACAC leaders will vote on a very different policy draft: one that permits the use of commission-based agents, while urging that they be held to high ethical standards.

A solid majority (65 percent) backed the NACAC draft then (opposed to agents), but a majority today (58 percent) backs the new draft NACAC policy (to permit agents).

Advocates for the use of commission-paid agents say that they are needed in parts of the world where most American colleges can't afford to regularly send their own recruiters. And these advocates generally say that the only way to prevent ethical problems is to regulate the field, not to ban it. (Notably, many American colleges haven't waited for NACAC's approval, and have moved ahead with using agents).

Critics, however, say that there is an inherent conflict of interest when a recruiter has a financial incentive to send a student to one colleges instead of another. And critics point to numerous ethical lapses involving agents.

In fact, even as admissions directors surveyed favored a policy that would permit the use of agents, the college officials seem well aware of the challenges of promoting integrity in international admissions. Sixty-one percent of admissions directors answered Yes when asked if they believed that agents play a direct role in helping international applicants fabricate parts of their applications.

Hawkins of NACAC said that he is not surprised by the shift in opinion on agents. He said that extensive public discussion may have provided information that some admissions directors didn't previously have. Further, he noted that more and more colleges each year announce that one of their strategies is to recruit more international students. As a result, institutions are coming to think about "the complexity" of such recruiting, and many find themselves attracted to using agents. He said that "internationalization is going to challenge a lot of assumptions we've had."

For a critical analysis of the shift of opinion, see the World View blog on this site, which argues that "the rationale for using agents is simply a justification for a recruitment shortcut that will hurt international students in the long run."

Affirmative Action: Holding Pattern

In June, the U.S. Supreme Court surprised many by issuing a ruling on affirmative action that did not resolve in any definitive way whether colleges can consider race in admissions. The Supreme Court didn't reject the idea, but suggested a high bar for colleges to show that they have "narrowly tailored" their affirmative action plans to achieve education goals.

The first test of this new standard may be when a federal appeals court or district court considers the University of Texas at Austin case that came to the Supreme Court -- so it's not yet clear how the ruling will play out. Critics of affirmative action (and some defenders of the practice) believe that the Supreme Court has set a bar that will be high for many colleges to get over to defend their consideration of race. But most colleges that consider race in admissions appear not to be worried.

Asked whether they were "confident" that their institution could "successfully meet the 'narrowly tailored' standard set by the Supreme Court," 92 percent of admissions directors said yes. (The numbers were slightly higher at private institutions than at publics, 93 vs. 90 percent.)

And only a small minority of institutions showed any inclination to change affirmative action policies in the wake of the Supreme Court ruling. One percent of both public and private institutions were "very likely" to change policies, and 4 percent of public and 8 percent of private institutions were somewhat likely to change them.

Asking About Sexual Orientation

When advocates for gay students starting urging colleges a few years ago to add voluntary questions to applications about sexual orientation and gender identity, initial reaction was less than enthusiastic.  Then in 2011 Elmhurst College did so, and a few others started to follow.

Advocates for adding the question say that it sends a positive message of inclusiveness. Further, they say that only by collecting such information can colleges track their success at recruiting and retaining students of different sexual orientations and gender identities.

Adding such questions is still not the standard by any means, but the survey suggests support is growing (arguably beyond the level at which colleges have actually adopted the policies). Twenty-five percent of admissions directors said that they favored adding such questions. That's up from 22 percent a year ago. Both last year and this year, support was higher at public institutions than at privates.

Shane Windmeyer, executive director of Campus Pride, an organization that advocates on behalf of gay students, predicted that there would be more growth in support for the idea. He said he is consulting with a dozen colleges in the next month about adopting such policies. He said of the idea of adding the question that "at the end of the day the issue is simple and straightforward -- higher education is responsible to track retention rates and academic success." Colleges track other at-risk groups, by group, to identify problems and strategies that work, and the same should be the case for gay students, he said.

How Should Admissions Director Be Evaluated?

At last year's NACAC meeting, several admissions leaders suggested adding a question this year about how admissions directors are evaluated. The fear they expressed was that many would report that they were judged only on financial related matters (attracting full pay students, for example).

The results may encourage those admissions directors. Academic matters and the "fit" of students to colleges were reported by admissions directors to be the most important factors in how they are evaluated. At the same time, however, plenty reported that they are also evaluated based on the percentage of full-pay students, improvements in the rankings, and the ability to create the class without going over on financial aid.

But far more reported being judged on the diversity of the class they helped produce than on the more purely financial measures.

Factors Admissions Directors Say Are Used by Their Bosses in Evaluating Them

  Public Private
Academic measures of admitted students (grades, test scores, etc.)    
--Very important 30% 35%
--Somewhat important 37% 50%
--Not very important 9% 10%
--Not at all important 24% 5%
Diversity of students    
--Very important 25% 28%
--Somewhat important 51% 47%
--Not very important 11% 18%
--Not at all important 13% 6%
Percentage of full pay students    
--Very important 4% 9%
--Somewhat important 19% 32%
--Not very important 31% 38%
--Not at all important 45% 22%
Ability to admit class without overspending on financial aid    
--Very important 23% 53%
--Somewhat important 25% 35%
--Not very important 16% 6%
--Not at all important 37% 6%
Changes in rankings    
--Very important 10% 8%
--Somewhat important 27% 25%
--Not very important 24% 41%
--Not at all important 40% 26%
"Fit" between new students and institution    
--Very important 30% 47%
--Somewhat important 35% 39%
--Not very important 15% 9%
--Not at all important 21% 5%

Hawkins said he was pleased that the results show his members are being judged -- at least first -- by measures that the admissions profession values, such as academics and "fit." He said he wished that there was less pressure on admissions directors to focus on attracting wealthy students or moving up in the rankings, but he said that there is a dual role facing most admissions leaders.

Admissions directors have "a mission-driven mission" where they focus on finding those students who would most benefit from and contribute to a college, where they look for ways to help such students afford college, and so forth. But he also said that admissions directors are under constant scrutiny for far less idealistic goals. "You have to fill seats every year," he said.

Unreliable Rankings?

The last two years have seen a series of embarrassing scandals in which colleges have admitted to supplying U.S. News & World Report and other producers of rankings with inaccurate information, typically designed to make the institutions look better. The survey results suggest that more colleges may yet be coming forward. Asked if their institutions had ever submitted false admissions data, 1 percent of public admissions directors and 2 percent of private institutions said yes. Well over 90 percent of admissions directors believe that others do so.

This year, the survey also asked whether the admissions directors believed that rankings producers have "reliable systems" in place to prevent fabrication of data. Only 7 percent of admissions directors believe that such systems are in place, and 93 percent disagree.

Robert Morse, director of the rankings at U.S. News, did not respond to e-mail requests for comment.