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Admissions Administrators Speak Out

Three top admissions officials consider early admissions, need-based aid, and more in a special virtual roundtable.
University Business, Jan 2007

In 2006, the buzz surrounding college admissions grew into a quiet roar. From Harvard's decision to end its nonbinding Early Action option to the release of Daniel Golden's book on admissions for the rich and famous, several events turned admissions offices on campus into some of the busiest and most interesting departments around.

With so much to discuss, University Business asked three administrators from very different institutions about their current practices, trends in the field, and the year's controversial happenings. Ted Spencer, associate vice provost and executive director of Undergraduate Admissions at the University of Michigan; Lee Stetson, dean of Admissions at the University of Pennsylvania; and Mary Beth Carey, dean of College Admissions and Financial Assistance at Drew University (N.J.), provided us with interesting insights into the state of admissions as 2007 begins.

Ted Spencer, associate vice provost and executive director of Undergraduate Admissions at the University of Michigan

Read on to see what these influential administrators from a large public university, a midsize Ivy League school, and a small private university had to say.

Lee Stetson: Early programs have been and will continue to be a major part of many colleges' and universities' admissions options. Used properly, they can be very helpful and responsive to both the needs of students and institutions.

Penn has had a binding Early Decision program for decades. We plan to continue with this successful option since it brings many students to Penn, for whom it is their first choice.

Mary Beth Carey: We tell students upfront that an ED application is the strongest statement they can make about their interest in Drew and as a result, they are given special consideration for admission. In addition to their being part of a smaller applicant pool and receiving an earlier decision, they also receive earlier consideration for financial aid funds.

Ted Spencer: For several years we've looked at both the advantages and disadvantages of early programs. Each year, we review our admissions process to see if it is achieving our goals, and to make adjustments as necessary. Currently we use a modified rolling admissions system, in which students apply between mid-August and February 1 and are notified of our decision in batches at various points throughout the admissions cycle beginning in November. Our offer of admission is nonbinding.

T.S.: It doesn't appear that it will have a widespread impact-in as much as schools like Georgetown, Penn, Dartmouth, Yale, and other schools that currently use both Early Decision and Early Action have not followed suit.

"The population of prospective students in the next five to 10 years will become more diverse and represent greater numbers of students from minority backgrounds." -Lee Stetson, University of Pennsylvania

L.S.: The elimination of early programs will most likely prompt ongoing discussions of the advisability of these options. However, I don't believe there will be a major change of the landscape.

L.S.: I would be inclined to recommend Early Decision since it allows students to finalize their choice during the middle of their senior year. I've heard it said by proponents that it "clears the deck" a bit and allows them to focus on their senior year experience.

M.B.C.: From the students' perspective the ideal would be to offer early admissions but not have it be binding until May 1. This would allow them to receive all the necessary financial aid information before they would have to commit.

T.S.: The best form of early admissions would be for colleges to not admit the majority of their students during the early deadlines, thereby leaving spaces for kids who are minorities or low socioeconomic status, to apply either early or during the regular deadline periods. And also, to have a program that is non-binding.

T.S.: We have taken substantial steps over the past few years to ensure that low-income, in-state students can attend the university with little or no loan burden. At the same time we seek students who are academically excellent or who possess certain talents, so we feel that merit aid is also part of building a great educational community.

M.B.C.: Drew welcomed our 11th president last year-Dr. Robert Weisbuch-who has been outspoken on this issue. This has been one of his and the school's most important agenda items this past year. The discussion is unfortunate because it implies that some aid isn't meritorious. At Drew we believe that all students who receive aid are meritorious-otherwise we wouldn't give it. It is our goal to increase accessibility to Drew.

T.S.: We have a very aggressive policy that begins with communications, visits to high schools, and campus visitation programs as early as the sophomore year, and kicks into high gear in August and September of the student's senior year. We strive to integrate all our recruiting efforts to ensure students understand what we call the Michigan Difference, and we involve parents in a number of our programs. Financial aid representatives participate in most of our programs.

L.S.: All 21 of our admissions officers are dedicated to saturating the market of students of color. We visit these students wherever they live and wherever they are interested in our programs. It is a very important part of our total admissions program.

M.B.C.: Again, this has been a major priority for the president and enrollment management at Drew. We recently hired a dedicated coordinator for multicultural recruitment. Last year we established an outreach program called the Multicultural Student Outreach Committee. Current Drew students representing diverse backgrounds reach out to high school students both on and off campus.

M.B.C.: We've enhanced our programs for special tours for high schools in pertinent geographic areas. For several years, Drew has been a member of the Ventures Scholars Program consortium, a wonderful program that helps us recruit under-represented populations with an interest in the sciences and health professions.

Over the last few years we have revisited all our communications efforts, both printed and online, and have redesigned them to make them more pertinent to diverse populations.

L.S.: Penn's admissions officers visit over 1,000 high schools each year, many in areas where low- and middle-income students live. Also, we offer 150+ evening programs for parents and students in key areas of the country. By reaching out to these areas we are experiencing an encouraging increase in applications from these students.

T.S.: We've used a CRM product from RightNow Technologies for a number of years to help us manage e-mails. It is a knowledge-base program that has significantly reduced the number of e-mails we have to respond to, and has improved both the quality and quantity of information available to students, parents, counselors, and alumni. It also has an IM function that we use.

We've also implemented blogs and podcasts this year to help students through the application process and to get a sense of life on campus from current students. We're particularly excited about a new partnership with ConnectEdu that will allow us to receive electronic transcripts and letters of recommendations that will go directly into our student information system, not PDFs that go into our imaging system. We think this is the direction admissions will go in the future as we transition from a paper-based process, to an image and data process, to strictly a data process over the next five to 10 years. There is so much you can do to manage your admissions process better and to analyze retention when you have data in your student information system.

"The best form of early admissions would be for colleges to not admit the majority of their students during the early deadlines." -Ted Spencer, University of Michigan

M.B.C.: At Drew we've been increasing our use of online technologies with every year. We have created a special online application program. We have redesigned our website to make it more attractive and easier to navigate. And we increasingly rely on the internet to send out invitations and information about Drew. We recently established a relationship with a vendor who has been working with Drew to design a series of online communications programs. These will target specific audiences at different points in the search, recruitment, yield, and enrollment cycles.

M.B.C.: Drew does use customized applications. We see only benefits to doing so. Drew has always been known for its one-on-one relationships with students. It is all about relationship building these days and customization is definitely a valuable tool.

L.S.: Highly selective colleges and universities, such as Penn, have been viewed by many prospective students as inaccessible. Our recruitment efforts have been surrounding the notion of encouraging access while explaining the challenges of our criteria, and also the fact that our financial aid programs can make an expensive education quite affordable.

M.B.C.: Our new president's energy and imagination have already produced dynamic changes at Drew. Last year we instituted our SAT Optional Policy. We recently hired a new provost who supports Drew's new vision to increase both the quality and diversity of the Drew community while at the same time ensuring students who attend will enjoy the highest quality learning and social environment.

M.B.C.: When we launched this new policy last fall, the application season had already begun. Approximately 16 percent of our applicants and 27 percent of our enrolled students opted not to submit standardized test scores but to submit a graded high school paper instead. I can tell you that I received nothing but 100 percent positive feedback from the guidance community as well as from prospective families and our own alumni. The media was very positive as well. Now that we've had an entire year to get the word out, I expect that the number of students who opt out of sending us SATs will be even higher this year.

M.B.C.: Yes. Just look at the growing number of schools that are going SAT optional.

L.S.: Despite the fact that some institutions are making standardized tests optional, I think the value of these tests continues to be helpful in comparing one student to another. They are not, however, the center focus of the decision-making process. I believe the new SAT and ACT with a writing section is a step in the right direction and will help motivate high school students to hone their verbal skills more precisely.

M.B.C.: Will it ever go away completely? Probably not. At Drew, we are all about treating students equally. I think given all the recent attention on the topic, more and more schools will be reevaluating their policies.

T.S.: Let me begin by saying, as a public university, our mission has always been to offer an uncommon and affordable education to the citizens of Michigan, as well as the nation. While it is true that some students are given preference in the admissions process, the overwhelming majority of students, at least at Michigan, are evaluated on their achievements throughout high school, both in and out of the classroom.

L.S.: In the private school arena, in which Penn sits, our alumni are our taxpayers. We will continue to allow some preference for the children and grandchildren of our graduates. Development cases, although small in number, will probably always be a part of the process.

M.B.C.: Increased emphasis on accessibility and a call to reassess financial aid on a national level. Increasing commitments to expanding the diversity of student populations, including more outreach to international students.

L.S.: The population of prospective students in the next five to 10 years will become more diverse and represent greater numbers of students from minority backgrounds. We will continue to heavily recruit these students.

"Approximately 16 percent of our applicants and 27 percent of our enrolled students opted not to submit standardized test scores but to submit a graded high school paper instead." -Mary Beth Carey, Drew University

T.S.: I think the customer relationship management (CRM) and student relationship management (SRM) initiatives will allow colleges to communicate better with students, parents, and counselors, as well as track a student from the time of initial contact through the time of application. It will enable us to work much smarter in identifying, attracting, and encouraging enrollment of all students.

T.S.: The growing trend to deny access to the demographic populations with the highest birth rates to the most selective colleges in the country is extremely troublesome to me.

L.S.: The pressure on young people today to "package" themselves into a profile-that inhibits some of their personal development. We need to calm the process down.

M.B.C.: The increasing competitiveness in higher ed, because it distracts from the real focus, which should be helping students find the right school for their particular needs and goals.

L.S.: From the time I entered this field, nearly 40 years ago, I've enjoyed working with high school and college-age students and their families. It is very satisfying to see many of them successfully navigate the process and flourish in college and beyond.

M.B.C.: The impact that an admissions officer can have on a student's life and future is awesome. Ultimately, we contribute to the future of this planet one student at a time.

T.S.: The opportunity to work with terrific people both within the university and external to the university, in K-12 and higher ed, is extremely rewarding. The challenges and opportunities associated with attracting the brightest and best students to the university of Michigan keeps me motivated.