Last Monday, at the 2012 College Board Regional Forum in Chicago, I co-presented (with Joan O’Connell from Cretin Derham Hall High School) a session titled “Up, up and away: Unbridled growth in freshman applications.”
Jon McGee, VP for Planning and Public Affairs, of the College of Saint Benedict/Saint John’s University, capably moderated the session.
The session was designed to open up a dialog about the impact application growth is having on the guidance counseling and admissions professions. Joan did an excellent job of describing the impact this growth is having on students, parents and guidance counselors and raised some serious issues as professionals and partners we need to consider.
I was asked to offer some context o the college side to describe why this might be happening. In addition, I took some time to outline what I believe are both positive and negative developments that correspond to the growth in freshman applications. What follows is an edited version of my comments and observations. I hope you will find them insightful.
W. Kent Barnds @bowtieadmission
Up, up and away: Unbridled growth in freshman applications
Let me begin by offering a few disclosures:
- I have successfully used a “fast application” program for more than ten years at two different institutions. At each institution, beyond simply, growing the applicant pool, we were able to expand multicultural and geographic diversity, improve/maintain academic quality and grow overall enrollment.
- I have sought and gained membership in the Common Application at two institutions because I believe in the mission of the Common Application and think it is among the best tools we have to promote access and choice to students from all backgrounds. The Common Application also helped both institutions accomplish many of the same goals described above and offers a uniformity in the process which is desirable.
- I Believe that institutional/admission “quality” measures changed considerably in the late-1990’s and early 2000’s when selectivity, campus diversity and demand (size of the applicant pool) became measures of institutional quality (opposed to more traditional measures like test scores, academic qualifications, proportion of the students ranked in x part of the graduating class, etc.
- Believe in “the cylinder,” opposed to the funnel, but know it’s not realistic. Furthermore, I think the profession has periodically punished those who believe in “the cylinder” with the criticism of binding early decision programs, etc.
- Finally, I am not convinced that the “unbridled” growth has resulted in poor college decisions/choices. This is important and is what matters most. While the growth my be placing pressure on processes and people (guidance and admissions counselors, alike), I am not sure the growth has really hurt the system and have yet to see clear evidence that students choice is being negatively impacted.
I think there are some pretty clear-cut reasons for the growth in applicant pools and I’ve listed them below.
- We operate in a world of “savvier shoppers” and many who are looking to hedge their bets in an increasingly competitive world, in regard to selectivity and financial fit. The savvy shopper is going to look around, explore options and shop. This should not come as a surprise to any of us.
- Some colleges and some very smart marketers intentionally of marketing elements into the application and application process. Those admissions offices on the front end of this wave began to view the application as something other than a hurdle and began to use terms like “we want you” and “you can be a start here.” These colleges made the application easier and inviting, rather than hard and intimidating.
- Other college began using fast application programs in an attempt to seize “control” over the stealth applicant (those who they don’t know much about until and application is received) by reaching out to more students, more frequently. Many have heard the refrain, “count it as an application, treat it like and inquiry.” It’s a good refrain and reinforces that if a college does not know about an interested students, it’s hard to recruit the students. Making it easy to apply has allowed some colleges to be more proactive in inviting students into the recruitment/applicant pool.
- I believe that when US News decided to eliminate yield from their formula really changed college admissions and many shifted their emphasis to building a large applicant pool and improving selectivity, since efficiency and conversion were no longer “important.”
- I also believe the psychological need, on the part of Offices of Admissions and Colleges and Universities, to emphasize something really great happening every year within a world of shrinking resources and shifting demographics forced colleges to focus on having “the largest applicant pool ever.” (While there are some noteworthy exceptions, I think most folks look to improve over the previous year).
- There has been incredible increased pressure from presidents and board members to “grow demand,” which is euphemistic for expanding the applicant pool.
- Finally, I think the rise of and access of consultants to presidents and trustees has made a difference. It’s more acceptable to use third-parties and those who have a good story to tell and great results are now part of the recruitment teams on many campuses.
This is why I think it’s happened. And, I do think this “unbridled” growth has impacted students/families, colleges and our profession. But, I don’t think all of the impact is bad, as you will see below where I’ve offered (-) and (+) to assess the impact.
Impact on students and families
- We’ve created a very confusing process for students and families (-)
- The associated expense of applying to more colleges (app fees) (-)
- We’ve introduced dramatically different timetables and scads of directions to follow (-)
- Fewer strong counseling relationships are developed between family and college representative (-)
- Anxiety about increasing “selectivity” EVERYWHERE has placed more stress on students and families (-)
- Introduction to new, perhaps better college options (+)
- More options from which to choose in a world where choice should be valued (+)
- Increased direct marketing from colleges to students (+)
Impact on an Office of Admissions
- Dramatic increases in application and counseling load (-)
- Fewer strong counseling relationship developed between student/family and college representative (-)
- Inability to predict yield (-)
- Increased marketing expenses (-)
- Increased chances to “make the class” (+)
- Ability to grow something each year (+)
- Ability to more effectively target populations with a proven tool (men and multicultural applicants) (+)
- Make the Bond Raters and Board members happy (+)
- Ability (real or not) to improve selectivity (+)
Impact on the profession & ethics
- Lots of finger pointing and blaming (blame the colleges, colleges think the counselors are lazy, etc.)
- Increased accusations about violations of the SPGP because of ever-evolving methods to attract applicants, etc.
- Less emphasis on counseling because of workload for all involved
- No longer able to really tell what is and what is not an application
- A loss of control of the processes we’d like to control more effectively (less deliberate, timed, orderly process)
- Breakdown in relationships between college and admissions counselor
One can draw their own conclusion regarding the positive and negative developments, but it’s hard to argue that there is more than one side to this story.
I am not sure what the future holds, but I suspect there is the possibility of stalemate, civil disobedience, or maybe even revolt if admissions and college counselors don’t continue to engage in dialog about this. Both parties will also benefit from a better understanding of the context, which includes why colleges are trying to grow pools and what that means to the day-to-day work for our college counseling partners.
I hope we will all, admissions and college counselors alike, remember we are obligated to put the student and family first and is it not our duty to help them make the best final choice, regardless of the messiness of the process.
I closed my comments by suggesting that before we criticize one of the involved parties we’d benefit to remember that we (all of us) started this and we work in a complex sector where we often have competing goals.
All of this reminds of the classic Pogo cartoon, in which it is declared, “We’ve met the enemy and he is us.”