I regret two things about my beloved profession of college admissions: First, the way college admissions is portrayed in the media; and, next, the limited understanding most people have about the profession.
Because there is so much focus on a very small number of institutions that are outrageously selective, far too many people (even some who are quite close to the profession, like some college counselors) believe that admissions professionals are cutthroats, sitting in the ultimate seat of judgment, looking for reasons to wait list or deny otherwise qualified students. For most of us this is completely removed from the reality of college admissions. In fact, modern day admissions counseling, for the vast majority of admissions offices and counselors, is less about choosing than it is about being chosen.
It’s inarguable that college admissions is more complex than ever before. Admissions success or failure is probably more important to a college’s financial health than ever before, too. For some, this certainly increases the stakes and has changed what was once a fairly folksy profession to one that is more professional and even occasionally corporate using terms like “demand, revenue, and data-driven.” Competition for students is fierce, marketing is overwhelming, application submission levels have increased to a rate well beyond what is necessary, and, admissions staffs have become a permanent and professional part of the higher education landscape. All of this is widely documented and much is made each year of reports about increasingly “selectivity” and how many “equally qualified” students are denied or wait listed at Ivy League or Flagship Public Universities. The attention to these outliers or fringe players, when considered within the universe of colleges and universities, completely distorts college admissions for the public and doesn’t even come close to representing the reality of college admissions for the rest of us.
Too many constituents on- and off-campus continue to believe most admissions offices are in the choosing business because of these overstated depictions, when reality suggests that the choosing (i.e. selecting and admitting students) part is a far more straightforward process than in decades past. Many admissions officers have perpetuated this by emphasizing larger applicant pools and increasing selectivity. (I am guilty of this). However, increasing demand and larger applicant pools has enabled admissions offices to actually admit more students while providing the impression that it’s harder to get it. So, if we are in the choosing business; most of us are actually choosing more students than ever before.
I don’t want to discount the choosing part of the job. I love reviewing application and consider application review to be the most important work we do. But, my review is always done with an eye toward what can I find that will allow me to admit this student. I continue to believe that the vast majority of college admissions offices and officers approach application review in the same exact way. (although you wouldn’t know that as a result of what is reported in the media or discussed on online discussion board, which frequently leave one with the impression that admissions offices and officers are doing everything they can to disadvantage students)
The work of the modern day admissions office and admissions counselor is really about getting chosen. This is what admissions for the rest of us is all about; getting chosen. That’s right, working with students post-offer of admission to illustrate advantages, differences, hooks, etc. that might lead a prospective student to choose the college we represent.
I’ve often compared the work of the vast majority of today’s admissions officers to the work of a campaign manager; rather than a candidate to be elected on Election Day, we have a college we want students to choose. We have a certain number of prospective students who we need to choose our college by May 1. We’ve also taken notice that we need to expand the universe of students who are available to talk into choosing our college, which is why applicant pools have expanded and more students have more offers of admissions from which to choose than at any other time in history. Again, it’s about being chosen, rather than choosing.
There is plenty of evidence of this shift from choosing to being chosen, but too many people ignore it because they’d prefer to define college admissions by the actions of the fringe players. All one needs to understand admissions for the rest of us is consider what’s happened to yield rates (conversion of admitted students to enrolled students) over the course of the last ten years.
You might be asking what exactly does this chart mean? Here’s what it means:
- It’s not about who a college chooses, it’s all about who chooses a college.
- Public universities used to be able to count on enrolling about 1 of every 2 students offered admission, but now enroll 1 out of 2.
- Private universities used to be able to count on enrolling about 4 of every 10 students offered admission, but not enroll closer to 2 of every 10.
- Admissions officers are in competition to be chosen, rather than doing the choosing. The real work for admissions officers is getting chosen, rather than choosing. And, it looks like that work is getting more difficult!
This is the dynamic (getting chosen) that defines modern day college admissions for the rest of us. It’s not about ridiculous selectivity rates, burgeoning demand, nit-picky assessment of a student’s application, evaluation of an applicant’s social media footprint or creating barriers for access to college. In fact, most college admissions officers and counselors are going to do everything possible to create the conditions to be chosen, rather than create barriers to being chosen.
Finally, when I think about some of the depictions of admissions officers and admissions strategy, I am saddened. Once again, these depictions bear no resemblance to what I see when I think about college admissions for the rest of us. Rather than the cold, calculating, institution-before-students caricatures one frequently encounters; the admissions professionals I know are some of the best people in the world. The people I know are warm, caring, empathetic professionals who want to balance what is best for the student with what’s best for the college. They show a deep respect for students and demonstrate a love for their institution. And, they work incredibly hard to get their institution chosen.
College admissions for the rest of us is the reality that the majority of prospective students and families encounter and should be what defines the profession, rather than what happens at the outliers.
W. Kent Barnds @bowtieadmission