Admissions Officers Speak Out
Spring means warmer temperatures and longer days, offers of admission flying to mailboxes and inboxes across the land, and acceptances coming back. We peeked behind the admissions curtain and connected with four top administrators at a range of institutions—small and large, public and private, West Coast to East Coast, and in between—to learn more about what is changing in their world. These professionals shared their thoughts with us on the economy’s recent impact, the way they use technology to sharpen their work, strategic use of resources, and the ability to make effective decisions in outreach and admissions by being bold. Read on to hear insider perspective from: David Burge, executive director of the Office of Undergraduate Admissions at Arizona State University; Chuck Bachman, senior associate director of Admissions at Lafayette College (Pa.); Stacy Ramsey, interim director of Admissions at Illinois State University; and Julie McCulloh, dean of Admission at Gonzaga University (Wash.).
The economy is improving, although not dramatically. How is this economic climate affecting admissions and your department’s work?
Burge: The psychological impact on students who were emerging into their teens and watched their families tested by the loss of a job, or home, in the latter part of the previous decade continues to have an impact on college choice. Students and parents are cautious, deliberate, and looking to make an informed decision. More than ever, our admissions officers are having detailed conversations with families regarding financial aid options, and new plans have been put in place to be proactive with this information. Further, the systemic support for providing this detailed information to students and parents in an online environment has been expanded.
Bachman: We have seen applications rise again. Last year, we had a 16 percent increase in applications. This year, we were 1 percent ahead of where we were last year. We did something a little unique, a little bit retro: We re-established some networking relationships. A lot of schools are cutting back on their travel. We did the opposite. We went from 750 high school visits to about 1,100. The goal was to increase the applicant pool size, and of course, then, increase the selectivity by having a deeper and wider pool from which to draw. We also re-established a West Coast representative.
Ramsey: It is concerning as far as transfers matriculating in four-year universities. We have seen a dip the past couple of years. The application trends, at least for us and for several of my other state university colleagues, have been declining for community college transfer students.
I also think scholarships and discounting generally have really changed—it’s almost becoming an expectation that every university will give an award of some amount. Every university is different, though, and making students still feel like you want them to be a part of your university, but not being able to award them the same monetary award as another institution, can be difficult.
McCulloh: I think any economic effect will be a few years away. I am more worried about the sequester making people hesitant. I also believe that the recession has changed people’s behavior with regards to spending—especially financially significant investments. People are more cautious, gathering more data prior to decision making and taking longer to make the decision, in my opinion.
Cost containment must be top of mind for admissions offices. What cost challenges are you experiencing—and efficiencies?
Burge: Waste is something to be minimized when creating an effective marketing, recruitment, and enrollment operation, and old strategies continued for the wrong reasons need to be revisited. Technological advancements in the electronic receipt and processing of academic documents, the creative use of self-reported information to render a decision, and the rise in self-help service tools have allowed admissions offices to examine staffing models and third-party investments. Finally, the free and open social space should allow colleges to be present in the marketplace and revisit budgets relative to their print pieces.
Bachman: We certainly use technology to read online, and we engage in social media, but we’re also looking for ways to do not what everybody else is doing, but what identifies who we are. This involves a lot more nights on the road, but it’s a relationship with secondary school counselors, breakfast receptions, meetings with alumni. We’re not doing things haphazardly; we’re always judicious. We’re trying to be quite strategic.
Ramsey: We’re trying to do our best with our communications plan to streamline, and use our data to better communicate with students a bit more electronically, so we’re not sending out as many paper materials. We’re not going completely away from paper, because they like that too.
Many colleges are looking to expand access. How is your office connecting with and supporting students from a variety of backgrounds?
Burge: Each year, we expand the number of contacts targeted at parents and guardians. In fact, we collect parent email addresses on nearly 75 percent of our applicants. For first-generation and low-income students, this approach of involving the entire family in the decision is essential to success. We take pride in the fact that we seek out talent in all income levels and that the number of students enrolling at ASU and receiving a Pell Grant has increased dramatically.
Bachman: It’s clearly a sense of focus for us, and diversity is defined in many different ways. We have a person on campus who is specifically designated to work with veterans. We’ve established formal articulation agreements with nearby community colleges. We meet 100 percent of demonstrated need for applicants provided that their paperwork is filed on time. We have different fly-in programs from around the country. We’ve attended LGBT-focused college fairs. We do a variety of different things, which are probably not so unique to Lafayette, but it’s market segmentation.
We also do a lot of work with community-based organizations and networks.We work with Posse [Foundation] scholars out of New York City and Washington, Mastery Charter Schools in Philadelphia, the Noble Network of Charter Schools, and Schuler Scholars Foundation in Chicago. There’s also YES Prep and KIPP charter schools. We are all looking for students who will bring and add a lot to our campuses.
Ramsey: We started connecting with students earlier, even in our own community. We started doing some middle school programs, trying to basically put the thought of college in students’ minds at an earlier time. We work a lot to help students get here to visit, because it is important to us to get the students to campus to experience what it is like at college. We also have staff members who will speak at programs for parents and students, not just spreading the Illinois State message but talking about going to college, the application process—the concerns parents have because this is their first child to apply to college.
McCulloh: Gonzaga primarily focuses on the traditionally-aged population at the undergraduate level, however we are trying to serve more transfer students and to serve them better. We are looking at two initiatives with regard to undergraduate transfers: the American Honors College, an initiative to create honors programs at community colleges and track them to four-year institutions, and how we can better serve veteran populations.
There are increasingly more effective ways to connect with applicants. What aspect of customer relationship management (CRM) technology has been a boon to your ability to attract and admit students?
Burge: It’s right there in the title, relationship managment. Being able to collect all information about a student’s record in one location, especially transcripts
of email exchanges and phone calls, has changed our business.
Recruiters are able to manage more relationships at once, increasing the ratio of applicants to staff, and management is able to gain high-level insight into the status of thousands of relationships at once. The biggest change in the way we did business from two to three years ago is the speed at which we respond to a change in the status of a lead. While we have previously had rapid responses generated automatically through electronic communication flows, our CRM allows us to leverage our human resources through phone contact faster than we could before.
Bachman: We do not use CRM yet, but we have vendors coming in this summer. Certainly it is a cost investment, but it’s a question of looking at benefit. We’re really looking forward to it to make our lives a little easier. We’re very eager to head that way.
Ramsey: It’s definitely changed the way we communicate and when. You can now strategically communicate with different messages. So if we have our high school sophomore group, for example, we can send a special communication to them.
In the past, it was a general communication to whoever happened to be in our system. Now we can have targeted messages, and those messages are attractive. They have pictures, they are visually appealing, and they have links or a video. Even when we’re sending out printed material—if there are certain places in your funnel (of contacts) you want to target, you can. That saves on budget, too.
So as we wrap up, let’s take a look at where things are headed for your admissions office. What is your institution doing that is bold?
Burge: ASU has been increasing the number of Pell-eligible students each year in an effort to truly reflect the socioeconomic landscape of our state.
Bachman: We use a very holistic admissions process. And we’re not the first, but we’ve invested in physically putting a staff member on the West Coast. I myself visited 157 high schools this year, up from 110 the year before. We also still encourage personal interviews.
Ramsey: We went a little bold this year and decided to go to an optional academic personal statement instead of required. That has made an impact on the number of applications we’ve seen this year.
McCulloh: At Gonzaga, we have continued to emphasize a holistic review, but have focused on success on strength of curriculum as the best academic tell for a student’s potential success in college.