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Yesterday I participated in a webinar hosted by Inside Higher Ed to discuss the findings from their survey of college and university admissions directors.  Their report on the survey, issued last month, has already received a lot of attention in the press, including this panel discussion on the Diane Rehm show.  (Confidential to Inside Higher Ed:  Please schedule your webinars to occur soon after your report is issued.)

Let me put my conclusion at the top:  Everything is getting harder for everybody.  As higher education credentials become increasingly required in the workplace, competition for the most attractive credentials becomes increasingly more fierce.  As public-sector funding gets tighter, colleges and universities must become creative in seeking additional revenue.  Everybody’s cheese is moving like crazy, and market distortions are being created to accommodate that ever-moving cheese.  I think it will be a while (and a wild ride) before things settle into a recognizable “new normal.”

A quick summary of the survey and its methodology:  It was administered electronically via email link sent to the highest ranking admissions officers of 1,840 colleges and universities in the U.S.  Two-year institutions were included in the survey sample, but for-profit institutions were not.  The survey focused on undergraduate admissions only. Over 462 responses were received, for a respectable response rate of 25%.  You can download the entire survey report here.  Leading the webinar were the author of the survey report, Scott Jaschik of Inside Higher Ed, and Jerry Lucido of the University of Southern California.

Here are the most interesting points I picked up from the webinar and from the survey report:

  • Colleges and universities are ramping up their recruitment of “full-pay” students, international students (who themselves are “full-pay”), and out-of-state students.  In the past, international and out-of-state students were recruited to create a more diverse student body.  And recruiting from out-of-state has long been a critical strategy for institutions of less populous states, making it possible for them to serve a larger student body and thus offer a broader range of educational programs. However, institutions generally acknowledge that their current increased focus on these groups is motivated by the higher tuitions they pay.  Public schools that have traditionally placed caps on out-of-state enrollments are now experiencing pressure from state leadership to bring in more tuition revenue to cover expenses.  The implication here is that, as more seats are given to these groups, there are fewer seats available to in-state students and to disadvantaged students.  As Lucido asked, to what extent does this strategy undermine the missions of these institutions—particularly public institutions?
  • Over a third of admissions directors of four-year institutions reported that their schools have increased their discount rate (as achieved through institutional, merit-based scholarships) in order to enroll more students.  Lucido posed this question:  Are we using merit aid money to defer the costs of students who can afford to pay at the expense of those who cannot?  The presenters pointed out that institutions are coping with conflicting mindsets with regard to aid:  Receiving merit scholarships is very attractive to middle- and upper-income students and can influence their choice of schools.  Meanwhile, lower-income and first generation students are much more influenced by sticker shock and tend to select a school based on the lowest tuition rate, regardless of assurances that aid is available.
  • Several groups were identified as being admitted in spite of lower grades and test scores:  minorities, athletes, legacies, full-pay students, and men.  Lowering the bar for men is getting a lot of attention these days, and 11% of admissions directors of four-year institutions reported admitting men with lower grades and test scores.  The practice is prompted by institutions’ understandable desire for a student body that is evenly balanced by gender.  However, it creates a situation where female students genuinely do have to be better than the men to receive the same benefits.  (Jezebel.com covered the issue here.)
  • Also of interest in the affirmative action recruitment is the preference for full-pay students in spite of lower grades and test scores.  Ten percent of admissions directors at four-year colleges and universities report admitting full-pay categories with grades and test scores that are on average lower than those of the other admissions.  As the webinar presenters pointed out, this preference is clearly and unambiguously not about diversity.
  • Within the four-year colleges and universities, most admissions directors indicated that they oppose the use of agents to assist in international recruiting.  (Half reported their suspicion that agents help potential students falsify their applications.)  However, 22% of directors indicate their institutions use agents, and another 34.5% are considering it—suggesting it is at the initiative of institutional leadership outside the admissions office.
  • One quarter of respondents from four-year institutions indicated that plagiarism of admissions essays was a serious problem.  Jaschik and Lucido drew the interesting connection between plagiarism of admissions essays and schools’ pursuit of increased prestige:  as institutions work harder to market their image and be more competitive; students respond by doing more to market their own image to be more competitive.
  • Among the admissions directors of community colleges, nearly 64% reported feeling competition from for-profit institutions.  Lucido noted that for-profits have learned how to offer online learning efficiently.  They build their curricula “backwards,” focusing specifically on workforce needs and the associate learning outcomes to design their educational programs.  He predicted that programs that blend classroom and online learning will form the higher education model of the future.