If we had to distill the college admissions process down to one key conundrum this year, it would be the lack of predictability. That seems to be the source of most of the important trends and concerns among admission officers, counselors, and families.
Lack of predictability fuels and is fueled by the increasing numbers of students applying to colleges, the demographics of the applicant pool, the higher number of applications they are filing, the deepening worries over college costs, and the drive toward binding early decision (ED) and alternative early programs--just to name a few of the current issues. But let's go through some of the more important trends we observed this past year, discuss what we might expect for the future, and consider some ways in which college leaders and administrators can help mitigate these difficulties.
There's no way around it: More students continue to graduate high school and more are applying to college. And because more students than ever are finishing high school, guidance counselors are having a hard time keeping up with their case loads and providing sound individual advice to a larger senior class. Then too, because of the lack of security in today's economy, more students are looking to higher education to provide long-term job security and flexibility. This includes a growing number of adult learners, whose ranks have outpaced those of traditional college-bound students.
It's no wonder that colleges are having trouble predicting the size of their applicant pool, the likelihood of students enrolling, and the standards to set to ensure a large enough (but not overly filled) entering class. Just the sheer number of students available is proving to be both boon and bane for many colleges. Certainly, selective schools can have their pick of many strong students, but they have increasing difficulty sorting out each year's class. And many colleges express their frustration over students choosing the college to attend based on name brand or rankings rather than appropriateness of fit. In order to address these issues, colleges need to improve their communications strategies with families and high schools, data and enrollment management techniques, and personal relations with students.
Driven by the uncertainty in the admission process, students are filing more applications to a more varied list of public and private institutions. The process appears simpler yet more confusing than ever to them. On the one hand, they use the common application and online applications to file quickly and to multiple colleges at the same time. But they face countless college-specific rules and requests, which can mean differences in standardized test/essay requirements and particular admission plans. They also must deal with multiple deadlines, which make the process complex and variable. Colleges can help families by conforming to standard admission and enrollment practices, as set by the National Association for College Admission Counseling (www.nacac.com), adopting the Common Application (www.commonapp.org), and, early in the high school years, educating parents and students about their own admission standards and requirements. Colleges can focus on attracting, enrolling, and retaining as many appropriate and qualified applicants as necessary, rather than blanketing the planet with admissions literature that may serve only to attract inquiries and applications from students unlikely ever to set foot on campus. Colleges should be clearer in presenting a picture of what type of student flourishes in their community.
With students uncertain where they will get in, and colleges uncertain who will enroll, the trend toward early decision applications is not surprising. Many students are convinced they'll never be accepted if they do not apply ED. And many colleges are enticed by ED's promise of securing commitments from a third, half, or more of the entering class by December or February. Students continue to start the process by stating that they want to be into college by December. Parents confide that they would love for the in-home stress to be relieved by then, too. College admissions officers have perhaps too much work to do between November and December, but then they have less to worry about during the regular admission process. To be sure, most colleges do not offer an ED option, but many selective institutions do, leading to a great deal of early pressure on families and a lot of strategic decision-making that is not necessarily in the student's best interest. We encourage colleges to think carefully about their ED program if they have one, or about the ramifications of creating one for the college's main student constituency. For those colleges that do give preference to ED applicants over regular-admission candidates, it does help families to hear that is the case. It also helps them to hear about the average profile of admitted ED applicants and why ED may not be the right choice for everyone. Finally, consider the Round II ED plan because of the greater time line it gives students to consider colleges and prepare applications.
To put it simply, misperception of college costs creates stress, exasperation, and disengagement with the college process on the part of students and their families. As we researched and produced our latest book and PBS program on Paying for College, we confirmed a clear information gap between what colleges and families know about financial aid. Colleges continue to reassure families that a lot of funds are available to help them pay for college, but many families are convinced that costs have escalated and will climb to a degree that makes college unaffordable for them. This leads many to question the value and feasibility of pursuing a college degree. Most stories in the mass media continue to focus on percentage increases in tuition rather than overall college costs and the amount of need- and non-need-based aid available. Colleges must counter this trend by educating families and the news media about financial aid opportunities, actual college costs, average net tuition costs after typical discounts, and what constitutes a reasonable amount of loan debt. Many low- and middle-income students are turning away from college, especially private colleges and universities, because they either do not understand what is available to them, perceive themselves as unqualified applicants, or simply do not know how to talk with college financial aid officers. Placing knowledgeable financial aid counselors with an open door policy on your front lines of presentation to families will help keep them engaged in college planning.
We are talking with more colleges about the renewed availability of on-campus and alumni-interviewing programs. In the face of greater uncertainty about numbers and intentions, interviews present an excellent way to reach out to students, educate them about your institution, and assess their academic and personal qualifications and fit for your college. As examples, the University of Denver has made a notable effort to get every applicant to interview with an admissions, alumni, and faculty committee in the field. And Vanderbilt (TN) and Wake Forest (NC) have also moved toward a stronger alumni interviewing process. To get families of prospective students beyond statistics, colleges should encourage them to spend time on campus.
In fact, interviewing helped some outstanding students we worked with this year to stand out from the pack and to gain a deeper sense of the college they wished to attend. What's more, the opportunity to meet people beyond the Admissions Department--faculty in the arts, sciences, and humanities--was very helpful as well. We find that creating a more holistic and forthright admissions process certainly helps colleges over the long term. Yes, merit awards helped to attract some students this year but, in our experience, only when there was an overall admission approach that helped the student connect to the college.
Be aware that families can become quite angry with colleges that overstate the academic and extracurricular qualifications of admitted applicants during interviews or information sessions. Are you impressing students, or just intimidating families who may walk away discouraged? Today, the last thing colleges should want potential applicants to think is that the admissions decisions are highly quantitatively based ("We'll never get in here without these numbers...").
One of the most surprising trends for families to hear about is the predominance of girls in the college admissions process today. They don't realize that well over half of college students are female, and that at many colleges 60 percent of students are young women. This major societal shift has crept up on us and has led to cultural changes on most if not all campuses. Former "old-boy" schools are different places today, yet they often battle against dated reputations from 30 years back. Technical and engineering-oriented institutions seem to be the last places where men outnumber women, but even they may reach parity as they continue their efforts to attract female students to campus with sustained effort. We need not get into the long-term implications of the gender trends, but let's acknowledge that the shift will present opportunities and challenges for colleges and universities. Certainly, IHEs should present the many choices available to young women, and the different, more female-friendly campus cultures that are developing. But they must also seek out talented young men and work to enroll and retain them. This is particularly true for students of color, where the gender imbalance is even greater. Otherwise, we risk creating a generation of male adults with limited job skills, career flexibility, and intellectual and personal development.
Confusion is already in the works, but it's going to get worse in fall and spring as the new SAT debuts in March 2005. Families, teachers, counselors, and even admission officers are not clear about what is changing in the SAT I and SAT II Subject Test program, and misinformation is stressing families who don't need more to worry about. Colleges need to read up on changes to the SAT program (and the ACT program) and do all they can to educate families in their information sessions, on their Web sites, and in mailings. Students need to know they should be concentrating on improving their reading and writing skills and taking Algebra II in order to do well on these tests and qualify for admission and merit-based financial awards. Questions about the new SAT will undoubtedly surpass even concerns about college costs next year. We are advising those in the class of 2006 not to take the old SAT, but rather to take the new test in the spring of 2005. Students who plan to apply to colleges that require the SAT IIs need to find out as soon as possible which schools will still require three tests, which will only require two, and which will continue to ask for the Writing test. (Which in our opinion has now been made superfluous by the addition of the writing section to the new SAT I.) We are encouraging students who take the ACT to complete the new writing section, since many public and private institutions are likely to require that as well.
As with all of these trends, colleges can help families and themselves by trying as much as possible to lessen the uncertainty--that pervading lack of predictability--which surrounds the whole college admissions process. We believe that those colleges and universities that convey a sense that the student--not the college-- is the client, will gain many appreciative friends of the institution and enroll outstanding classes in future years.
Howard Greene and Matthew Greene are independent education consultants, and the authors of the Greenes' Guides to Educational Planning. To contact them, visit www.greenesguides.com.