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The Secret Sauce of College Admissions

Moody’s issued a report recently pointing to a basic discrepancy in how we view college admissions that underscores the collapse of the college tuition-dependent finance model.

In its report, Moody’s noted that applications to private colleges rose 70 percent from 2004 to last year but the annual total of new high school graduates rose only 5 percent. The credit rating agency argued that the rise in applications created a perception of far greater selectivity than actually occurred at many colleges and universities.

While the argument made centered upon private colleges and universities, the same may be said for many public sector institutions. Indeed, it seems that the only group isolated from this perception was a handful of the most selective colleges and universities, whether private or public. In these cases, global branding, consumer perceptions, alumni “feeder” and job placement networks, and financial aid policies may play a larger role to assure more broadly based, genuinely highly selective admission classes.

The truth is that selectivity is often based on how you measure and value it. Many colleges and universities have “carved out,” “conditionally accepted,” or wait listed graduates lined up to create the illusion of far greater selectivity than actually exists. Thus, while the aggregate applicants/admit number may be correct, the route to acceptance may vary widely depending on what each candidate brings to the table.

Let’s illustrate through an example.

American colleges and universities build their admissions classes through a series of building blocks that vary based in part upon the market, the strength of the college’s brand, traditions of alumni support, the level of intercollegiate athletic investment, transfer agreements with community colleges and with how the college develops its admissions profile strategically. As expected, the secret sauce that produces a strong first-year class varies greatly by the college and university.

It raises a number of interesting questions. Are “national” liberal arts colleges and universities genuinely national if they draw the majority of their applicants from within a three-hour radius of the institution? Further, is “national” defined by the undergraduate population at research universities or by adding to this group the more diverse students that populate graduate and professional programs?

In our example, imagine a university that admits about 1000 students into their first-year class. Let’s assume that the university has a strong interest in building alumni networks and therefore maintains an active legacy preference program. Additionally, the university has a strong intercollegiate athletic program, often providing the added benefit of balancing gender ratios given the size of some male-dominated sports teams like football whose coaches maintain large rosters. This same university may have commitments to programs that support underserved populations, tied to their commitment to build diversity in all forms in the strategic plan.

What is the result of the admission effort?

In this hypothetical example, when an admissions dean deducts legacies, student-athletes who populate 15 to 25 intercollegiate sports on average, and “set asides” that balance or meet institutional goals and who would normally commit to the college, a first-year class of 1000 students may only have room for 300 students who are admitted through normal review.

If the admissions dean rounds out the number with transfer students and uses wait list candidates to complete the class and account for “summer melt” of accepted students who withdraw, then it is possible to build a class principally off legacies, athletes, transfers, set-asides and the wait list. If admissions offices run like well-oiled machines, the patterns of recruiting can be attentive without being especially inventive. And, on the surface, the reported numbers make a college — often inbred, local and sports-centered — seem like a highly selective place.

Or so it used to be before the collapse of the tuition-pricing model. In post-recessionary America, discounts now stand at 50 percent of every tuition dollar received and at best half of the surveyed institutions met their internal first-year admissions goal. Additionally, half of the American college-going population begins at community colleges.

The numbers suggest that the older ways of recruiting a class must change quickly if tuition-dependent institutions are to continue to be viable. They speak to the power and importance of intercollegiate sports at every division level. The numbers suggest a need to bridge the gap between community and four-year colleges to create robust transfer arrangements. And, they highlight the importance of better combinations of admissions recruiting software, new recruiting strategies, consortial recruiting by like-minded colleges with complementary programs, much more attention to the communication about quality academics, and a sharper focus on outputs like persistence and graduation rates.

Perhaps most importantly, the dismal first-year admission numbers, supported by deepening discount rates, and the archaic admission practices that create these classes point to a cold and inescapable fact. It’s not working. This is not a problem from which colleges can duck, hide or wait out.

For many colleges and universities, their future will depend on how they identify, recruit, pay for, support and place their students. The most promising colleges and universities will look different in the future. Just maybe they might even look more like the rest of America.

It’s too late to lamely explain that when it comes to admissions recruitment, “We’ve never done it that way before.” It’s time to spice up the secret sauce. The vitality and viability of many colleges and universities ― public and private ― will depend on it.

Dr. Brian C. Mitchell is president of Brian Mitchell Associates and a director of the Edvance Foundation. He is the retired president of Bucknell University and former president of Washington & Jefferson College.

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