Admissions Marketing in a Digital World: Have we lost our way?
Ok, I’ll just say it: I am worried about the use (abuse) of social media platforms in marketing colleges and universities to high school school students. There! I feel better already!
The use of technology in student recruitment is moving so fast that one dare not take a nap for fear of missing out on the latest trend. For my own sanity, I’d like to slow down for a moment, however, to reflect upon where we have been, where we are today and where we might be going.
I grew up in college admissions in the mid-’70s and 1980s. In 2009, after 35 years, I left admissions to head up marketing and communications at my son’s alma mater. I thought I knew it all. Boy, was I wrong!
From our first four-color viewbooks and admissions videos in the late ’70s, to the emergence of the web as a strategic marketing tool in the late ’90s, to multi-channel marketing strategies in the 2000s, my goal had always been to convey important information on academic programs, majors, and outcomes, while helping prospective students visualize themselves on campus. Our methods were pretty straightforward– story-telling, testimonials, data, requirements and showcasing faculty, current student and successful alumni. Information and anecdotes had to be “current,” of course. But in my world, “current” meant within the past year. That, I reasoned, made for an authentic representation of what our college offered and who we claimed to be. Today, of course, “current” means 16 minutes ago!
Along the way, viewbooks became glitzier, technology allowed data mining to personalize print brochures to student interests, and personal URLs delivered targeted content on the web. Still, the focus was on programs and outcomes, while providing a glimpse of life on a residential campus as the marketing folks would portray it. The college could, in many ways, control the message (so we thought) or at least influence prospective student perceptions.
As the web became more interactive in the mid-2000s, college review websites like “College Confidential” gained in popularity. Here anyone could comment on the experiences they had in their college search, or simply state an opinion on a college for the whole world to see. “Control” of the message was slipping away. Anonymity fueled irresponsibility in postings, and damage control — asking current students or parents to post rebuttals — became one order of business.
Enter Facebook, YouTube, Twitter and others in the mid- to late-2000s, and user generated content exploded. Recognizing the power of social media, colleges and universities slowly began their own presence on these sites. At first, these platforms were used simply as another way to push out institutional messages. But not so slowly, we began to realize the power of social media to reach our audiences — especially high school students, but also current students and alumni. If harnessed well and with integrity, these channels could serve our audiences and the institutions well.
What can happen, however, is that social media channels can become a “free-for-all,” used primarily to create buzz and engage in fun. We do want to show that our place has heart as well as a sense of humor, of course. But we must be careful not to crowd the these popular channels with scores of gimmicks while neglecting to get across important messages about our programs, our approach, student experiences, and outcomes.
Today, it seems like colleges and universities are trying to outdo each other with photo-contests, flash-mob videos to go viral, humorous presidential videos or blogs, “get the most tweets and win lunch with the dean of admissions” — the list goes on. With all of this “noise” bombarding our prospective students daily, we must — our success depends on it — find a way to break through the clutter and effectively convey our messages as well as our institutional personality .
While I can lament what I see to be the dilution of the higher education message in favor of an approach that reminds me of the popular ’60s jingle for Palisades Amusement Park (“swings all day and after dark”), I must remind myself that my entire career in admissions was devoted to attempts at out-marketing peer colleges in the quest for the best students. Whether it was a new recruitment video, an “edgy” viewbook, catchy taglines, or on-campus programs that went the extra mile, there was always a goal of being better than our overlap schools to “win” a higher percentage of admitted students or to attract more qualified applicants. Today is really no different.
Social media can be used effectively to convey the college’s programs and outcomes — its brand messages. It can also be used to create excitement and enhance community — to give prospective students a real sense of what it is like to be a part of our community and to engage alumni and current students in the excitement of being on campus. We must be careful to be genuine and measured in our approach, though, lest our messages get lost. And while we certainly cannot control what our “friends” or “fans” say, we can balance our institutional use of social media in a responsible and strategic way.
Above all, we must recognize that social media platforms are not ends unto themselves. They just provide another way to spread the word about our college or university. What that “word” is must be crafted as it always has been — through careful analysis, research and planning. Then, having “fun” on social media will produce real dividends for our colleges.
July 12, 2013
As a chief admissions/enrollment officer for 22 years, my fingernails would become predictably short during April. Enrollment projection models, built on the average of the previous three years experience, did little to cure me of sleepless nights heading up to May 1. With the exception of the first half of the 1990s and the final two years (2008-09), my tenure as a dean and then vice president for enrollment was admittedly (and fortunately) in times of demographic and economic growth.
Nevertheless, concerns about missing the numbers of new students as well as net revenue targets were real. Being over target was not desirable (though tolerable, especially when counting up net revenue gains), but coming in short was something to be avoided at all costs. In fact, during the time I oversaw enrollment at two different institutions, I undershot only once by (4%) and that was in a year when we attempted to shave 15 percentage points off of our acceptance rate. I should have known better; that under-enrollment didn’t “just happen.” It occurred because our success in the two previous years resulted in a major increase in applications that in turn gave us a false sense of security – that we could move the needle on academic quality without financial consequence. It just doesn’t work that way.
Recently, Inside Higher Ed ran a story about Loyola of New Orleans “Coming Up Short” (http://www.insidehighered.com/news/2013/07/12/loyola-new-orleans-enrollment-shortfall-will-mean-large-budget-cuts). The university missed its first year enrollment target by 30%; a month earlier, St. Mary’s of Maryland announced a decline of almost 25% from their target. The story said that these experiences “raise(d) the specter of a more widespread dropoff in higher education enrollments and revenue that college administrators have feared since the 2008 recession.”
Perhaps. But the key, I believe, is in what Loyola’s president, Rev. Kevin Wildes, told the IHE reporter. He said that the university tried to lower its discount rate and increase net revenue per student. “My intuition is that [we] did a much more draconian drop in financial aid than we should have. And I think the market reacted.” Indeed it did!
At St. Mary’s, while an earlier IHE story said the college was looking into the reasons for their drop, officials did say that they experienced a 14% increase in applications. When that happens, colleges are tempted to lower their acceptance rate significantly (US News likes that!), but that move often results in a lower yield. I don’t know if that is what happened at St. Mary’s, but that certainly was my experience in the year I presided over a smaller entering class.
Indeed, the price tag of a four-year degree –public or private – has grown significantly while the proportion of families who are able to afford most or all of the charges has dropped. This puts enormous pressures on institutions. But enrollment declines in one year of the magnitude experienced by Loyola, New Orleans and St. Mary’s, Maryland are not simply the result of market trends. More likely, these declines resulted from a fundamental misunderstanding of how the market would react to significant changes in admission (acceptance rates) and financial aid (discount rates) policy changes.
There is no question that colleges and universities must find creative ways to reduce their costs and to provide new alternatives to help families finance educational expenses. The status quo will not work for too much longer. But to avoid significant drops in enrollment and revenues from one year to the next, institutions must carefully assess, through modeling and consultation with colleagues, the projected impact of policy changes before implementation. We simply cannot afford to proceed any other way.
Robert J. Massa was dean of enrollment at Johns Hopkins University and vice president for enrollment at Dickinson College. He currently serves as vice president for communications at Lafayette College.
May 18, 2013
The Future is Now
Robert J. Massa
May 18, 2013
Thirty-nine years ago this month, I earned a masters degree in educational psychology from the University of Rochester and was offered a position in the admissions and financial aid office at Teachers College, Columbia University, where I would simultaneously pursue a doctorate in higher education. As I begin my fortieth year in college administration, doctorate long in hand, and with senior-level experiences at three colleges and one university, I have been witness to—indeed a part of – enormous change and growth in higher education.
During my years as dean of enrollment at Johns Hopkins University in the late 1980s and the 1990s, the Justice Department intervened to end the sharing of unit record financial aid data among “overlap” institutions, unwittingly fueling price wars that would inflate the cost of a college education and increase the price charged to all. But colleges and universities were not simply “victims” of federal intrusion through this and countless regulatory requirements that also increased the cost of delivering education. We paid close attention to the popular rankings – most notably USNews & World Report. We added faculty to keep our student/faculty ratio low, and administrators to recruit more applicants so we could appear more selective, to raise more money while focusing on a high alumni participation level, and to keep our students comfortable and happy with food court choices, suite-style living and the iconic “climbing wall.” In other words, we made our “product” (undergraduate education) more expensive to “produce” and “deliver.”
From 1999-2009, I had the privilege of serving Dickinson College as Vice President for Enrollment and College Relations. We had some “catch-up” work to do there – a newly renovated library, a fitness center, residence hall additions, a global education center, new science buildings, a home for our popular international business program, and a facility for a new Center for Sustainability. The buildings, and the programs and people that filled them, certainly made Dickinson more competitive and its undergraduate programs more in demand – but it also added to the cost of running the college. And of course, Dickinson was not the only college or university spending its way toward excellence. I cannot think of a single college president in the past four decades who was content with being just “ok.” All of us want to get better, and “better” costs.
Today, I serve my son’s alma mater, Lafayette College, as its Vice President for Communications. That’s a bit ironic, isn’t it? Every position I occupied in higher education since 1987 was a position that did not exist before I served in that role. Was there a “vice president for communications” at any college or university when I began my journey in 1974? I doubt it. But today, how we position ourselves in the public eye influences prestige, and prestige influences rankings, and rankings influence applications and selectivity, as well as alumni support. Someone had better be coordinating, in a strategic way, what we say about ourselves. Someone needs to manage communications in a crisis, as we learned all too well after Virginia Tech and Penn State, among others. And so it goes – we spend more money to hire more people to teach our students at “high touch” institutions, more folks to advance the resources of the college or university, and more to deliver services to students. No wonder the National Center for Education Statistics reported that the price for undergraduate tuition, fees, room and board at public institutions rose 42 percent, and at private colleges and universities, 31% from academic years 2001 to 2011 – in inflation adjusted dollars!
All of this makes perfect sense to someone who has been a part of this growth for his entire adult life. But to families of college-age children, the question of value plays a more important role than ever before in college selection. While “college cost” has been an issue for many years, the pitch of the concern has accelerated in the press and in the voices of parents heard by our staff members at college fairs, high school visits and college symposia. Worry about structural issues in our economy, and the resulting un- or under- employment, fuel the public’s angst about increasing college costs and higher student loan debt. College executives and boards are, of course, becoming increasingly concerned about the future, as they should be. ( As an aside, I recently read a New Yorker Magazine cartoon showing two business men talking. One said to the other, “In this economy, it is advisable to start each sentence with, ‘In this economy’…” How true!)
And of course, technology has inflated college costs significantly – just ask the college that finished a multi-year installation of fiber cables throughout the campus, only to find upon completion that it is now obsolete and a wireless network must be installed. Our insatiable appetite for more and better technology is clearly a cost driver today. But just around the corner – actually now at the front door – is on-line education and how that can be blended into traditional pedagogy to enhance quality at a lower price. Will the delivery of “free” content threaten the business model of every college and university? Or will consortia of like-minded college band together to deliver introductory, basic course content more efficiently. Either way, we are poised to see major changes in colleges and universities as we know them today.
It could be, for example, that not every college in a group of similar institutions needs to offer every program – that on-line sharing could compensate for each college needing to hire a specialist in a particular field. But what would this do to the student/faculty ratio, and how would USNews react? This is certainly an issue for college presidents and provosts who are trying to control costs while still being committed to quality.
When concerns about “college costs” were raised in the past, the “affordability” discussion typically focused not on how to reduce the cost, but on how to fund it through increased scholarships and financial aid. We are also taking deliberate steps to “communicate value,” as if a convincing spin of the benefits of a college education can hide the fact that it is so darn expensive. And while both of these strategies are necessary – help students through aid and demonstrate the value of the investment — they are hardly sufficient in addressing the meteoric rise in costs incurred and prices charged. The expense side of the equation must be addressed.
We are about to come to a jumping off point. How can college and universities control the growth in cost using technology and cooperation among like-minded schools (dare I say, “competitors”) to stabilize or perhaps decrease the rate of growth in the price we charge? Who will be strong and confident enough to ignore the impact of these important decisions on the rankings? Who will take a risk and reduce staff efforts to collect more and more applicants, and to discount heavily to impact enrollment choice and quality, again for the rankings? And who will cut back on all but the necessary student support services that address health, safety and academic preparedness? These are tough questions for which – as easy as they are to ask – I have no real answers. But I commend to you a recent publication from the Institute for Public Policy Research in Great Britain entitled An Avalanche is Coming: Higher Education and the Revolution Ahead (http://www.ippr.org/images/media/files/publication/2013/04/avalanche-is-coming_Mar2013_10432.pdf) by Michael Barber, Katelyn Donnelly and Saad Rizvi, with a foreword by Harvard President Emeritus Larry Summers.
Summers summarizes the issue quite succinctly:
The fundamental question in An Avalanche is Coming is whether a university education is a good preparation for working life and citizenship in the 21st century or, more precisely, whether it will continue to be seen as good value, given the remorseless rise in the cost of a university education over recent decades. For students, the question is immediate and challenging given the growing anxiety around the world about youth unemployment, even among college graduates. For policymakers, all kinds of new challenges are raised: how to promote meritocracy; how to regulate a sector that used to be national and is increasingly becoming global; how to ensure universities of the right sort combine with great cities to fuel innovation and economic growth; and how to break the rigid link – at least in people’s perceptions – between cost and quality.
For university leaders, the questions are more profound still. The authors argue that the obvious strategy – steady as she goes – is doomed to fail; the one thing you don’t do in the path of an avalanche is stand still! But what should you do? Does the curriculum need complete overhaul? What are the right models of teaching and learning now that the traditional lecture seems obsolete? Which students should be targeted? What global allowances will be necessary?
The authors of An Avalanche is Coming don’t answer these questions definitively but they most certainly put them on the agenda. Furthermore, Michael Barber’s argument about unbundling (NB: for example, content can be delivered from multiple sources; research can be conducted outside of the academy, community engagement can be offered outside of the university setting) needs to be studied and acted on by university leaders around the world. Those involved in thinking through the prospects for university education in the 21st century will find much to interest and provoke them here.
Just like the authors of “Avalanche,” I have no silver bullet to offer. So much for four decades of my life’s work! But I continue to be convinced that the American system of higher education is strong because it is diverse and it is expensive because we are motivated to become better and better at what we do. What we have done in higher education over the last forty years mirrors what we have experienced in our lives – a world without pay phones, printed street maps, typewriters, board games, record players – even CD players! The world has become a more expensive place in which to live in part because our lives are no longer as simple as they once were ( ok, I admit, the ‘70s aren’t really the good old days, but you get the point!).
But just because higher education has followed the trends in our society and in our economy doesn’t mean that those things that worked well in the 20th century will continue to work well in the 21st. We must begin to make the difficult decisions now, before we are forced to act. As Summers reflects: “…the obvious strategy – steady as she goes – is doomed to fail; the one thing you don’t do in the path of an avalanche is stand still!” The time for bold and creative leadership is upon us.
Robert J. Massa has served as Vice President for Communications at Lafayette College since July, 2009. In the two decades prior to joining his son’s alma mater, he was Dean of Enrollment at Johns Hopkins University and Vice President for Enrollment and College Relations at Dickinson College. Before that, he served in various admissions, financial aid and student services positions at Colgate University and Union College.
December 14, 2012
Dr. Massa is the vice president for communications at Lafayette College in Easton, Pa. He is a former dean of admissions and enrollment at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore and a former vice president for enrollment and college relations at Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pa.
When I speak with high school students and when I read press reports of the angst surrounding college admission, I sigh with an insider’s knowledge. I have worked in and around college admissions for almost 40 years. Parents and students need not be overly nervous about the college admission process unless the student decides to apply to a college for the wrong reason — because it’s “hard to get in,” or because everyone will be impressed.
What constitutes a more appropriate reason to apply?
Applicants may well achieve some degree of serenity by asking themselves — or permitting their families or teachers or friends to ask them — a question that is so obvious yet often overlooked: What is your learning style?
While there are several good inventories online that can help students understand how they learn best (see, for example, www.learning-styles-online.com/), high school students can also fashion such a questionnaire for themselves. What they discover in the process can then inform them as they set about identifying colleges and universities that might best match their learning needs..
Here are some good starter questions to prime that pump:
- How Do You Learn Best?
Are you an independent learner or do you need direction? Do you prefer to work alone or in teams? Who was your favorite teacher and why? Do you feel you learn best in big settings, like lecture halls, or smaller venues, like seminar rooms?
- How Do You Interact With Others?
Are you an initiator or a follower? What causes stress in your life and what results in enjoyment and productivity? Are you open and tolerant of differences, or do you prefer to be with people like you?
- What Are Your General Objectives?
You don’t have to know what you want to major in, or even what you want to do after college. But you should know what you enjoy learning about.
Answers to these three simple questions will help you understand yourself, and represent the first step in selecting the right college application set.
Once you understand yourself, it is important to find out how colleges approach teaching and learning in and out of the classroom.
So how do you cut through the college marketing clutter to discover this important characteristic?
- · Avoid ‘Shortcut Sources’
Never rely exclusively on one source, particularly shortcut sources such as rankings, guidebooks, and popular college review Web sites.
- · Drill Down Into the College Web Site
Glean all of the information you can from the main levels of the college’s Web site, but to really discover a college’s personality, drill down to the academic and social departmental level. Learn what the faculty members are doing in their classes and what projects they assign to students. And learn about how students run their own organizations by visiting the actual Web sites of those organizations.
- · Contact the College
After searching the college’s Web site, e-mail some faculty members and students who are doing things that interest you. Also use e-mail to contact your regional (or academic major area) admissions representative and introduce yourself by asking a well-researched question.
- · Follow Along Online
Follow events on campus and what students and prospective students are saying about the college, its programs and its people by reading the student newspaper online and experiencing the college through Facebook.
- · Visit the Campus
Once you have done your homework, visit. Stay overnight, talk with students about their experiences, speak with faculty about what they expect from their students and how they involve students in their work, and of course, speak with your admissions counselor.
The college selection process does not have to be stressful if you focus on what is really important, embarking on a fearless path of self-discovery and a probing assessment of institutional characteristics. Once you have done this well, your application set will not only make sense, but you will find that your choices in April are broader and more acceptable than you would ever have imagined.
November 9, 2012
Every year, almost 10,000 women in Pennsylvania are diagnosed with breast cancer. The PA Breast Cancer Coalition was formed to provide support and education for women with breast cancer. In addition, PBCC is also constantly working towards a cure.
Founded by a group of breast cancer survivors almost 20 years ago, the PA Breast Cancer Coalition holds a variety of events and programs in the service of the cause. One event is the annual Take a Swing Against Breast Cancer Home Derby. This event has raised over $400,000 for women. Another event is the Traveling Photo Exhibit, which is funded by the Pennsylvania Department of Health. This itinerant art project, which travels to each of the 67 counties in Pennsylvania, celebrates and tells the stories of the lives of breast cancer survivors.
Finally, each year in October, PBCC holds an annual conference in Harrisburg, hosting workshops by physicians, surgeons, bio-medical researchers, public health officials, lawyers, and fundraising advocates. The conference affords survivors and newly diagnosed patients alike the opportunity to learn, network, and get involved. The PBCC offers a limited number of travel grants, as well as full and partial Cary Massa Memorial Scholarships for the PA Breast Cancer Coalition Conference. They encourage anyone who needs assistance in paying for attendance to the conference to apply, although priority is given to breast cancer survivors. More information can be found at http://www.pabreastcancer.org/annual_conf/scholarships.
About Robert Massa: Dr. Massa became a passionate advocate for breast cancer charities after losing his wife of 27 years to the disease in 2006.
October 22, 2012
Because it spans a cross-section of complex university activities including student recruitment and retention, academic services, alumni relations, budgeting and physical plant, enrollment management requires thorough planning and a commitment from the highest levels of the university. The strategic enrollment management (SEM) handbook produced by the Educational Policy Institute provides useful guidelines for planning by dividing the process into six phases (see http://www.educationalpolicy.org/publications/default.htm). Executing a properly completed plan should result in a stable enrollment of students who are “right” for the institution and who, in the aggregate, provide the net revenue required to meet budgetary demands.
During the first phase, the contours of a plan are established. These contours help to guide the process towards a formal strategic plan for enrollment management. The second phase consists of molding the plan contours to fit the institution’s framework of core beliefs and value systems. Tactical moves, necessary to make the plan operational, begin in the next phase with an institutional self-assessment through a SWOT analysis. The fourth phase consists of developing a vision that combines the first two phases together and tempers it with the reality developed during the SWOT analysis.
Subsequent phases are concerned with developing operational details. Thus, the fifth phase crystallizes the vision developed during the earlier phases into a set of tasks, and the final phase consists of “operationalizing” those tasks by assigning them to various stakeholders and departments, and by designating budget targets for each task.
All plans must have appropriate benchmarks and assessment methods, and must be revised based on these assessments and the cost to achieve the desired goals. For more information on Strategic Enrollment Management, see http://robertmassa1.wordpress.com/2012/05/31/strategic-enrollment-management-a-review/.
About the author:
Having worked in the field for four decades, Robert J. Massa is an expert on enrollment management practice and techniques.
October 10, 2012
By Robert J. Massa
This week, the Supreme Court will take up the issue of affirmative action in college admissions. It will not be the first time. Time and again, from the original Bakke case in the 1970s to the University of Michigan case in the 2000s, the Supreme Court has held that race may be one factor in college admissions, especially (as in the Michigan case) when an affirmative action policy is narrowly tailored to address past discrimination.
Unquestionably, race continues to be a charged issue in our society. Use it as one factor to determine who is admitted to a college, and tempers flare. Cries of “FOUL” can be heard everywhere. Lawsuits are filed.
The plaintiff in the University of Texas case, herself a Texan, could not qualify for admission based on being in the top 10% of her high school class. Three-quarters of the undergraduates at the University of Texas are admitted that way. Instead, she competed for a spot in the freshman class of 2008 on a “holistic basis” with other students who ranked lower in their high school class. Here, many other factors are considered outside of grades and test scores. Diversity of the student body is likely one goal that is sought through this candidate evaluation.
I have been an administrator at private colleges and universities for almost four decades. Granted, admissions offices at private colleges operate under a somewhat different mandate than those at public institutions. But the principles are similar. We are trying to admit not only the “best class” academically, but one that is vibrant, exciting, diverse and talented. Diverse, of course, means not only skin color, but geographic diversity, diversity of interests and diversity of talents. Basically, we attempt to build a community of individuals who will learn from and with each other. When we are different from one another, our traditional beliefs are challenged, our comfort zone is stretched and our learning is deepened.
Admission to college has never been exclusively about curriculum, grades and test scores. Are these important factors? You bet they are. We surely do not want to admit students whose background ill prepares them for what they will encounter in college. But among those students who can be successful at our institutions are those with special talents (a quarterback or a oboe player), those who bring a different geographic perspective (an east coast college seeking Nebraskans or students from center city Philadelphia), those who are underrepresented in certain fields (women in engineering) and, dare I say it, those who have a family connection. Typically there are no “quotas,” but rather a guiding admissions philosophy that seeks to “sculpt” an interesting and well-qualified class out of qualified applicants.
Affirmative Action can certainly be abused. But when used appropriately, as I believe it is in a vast majority of institutions, Affirmative Action policies can provide opportunities to qualified and highly motivated students who have grown up without access to advantages afforded to others from wealthier families. When we have diversity in all of its forms on the nation’s college campuses, we all benefit.
Robert J. Massa is Vice President for Communications at Lafayette College. Prior to joining Lafayette, Robert Massa spent a decade as Dean of Enrollment at Johns Hopkins University and another ten years as the VP for Enrollment and College Relations at Dickinson College.
August 19, 2012
by Robert J. Massa
(Adapted from a chapter written by the author in College Unranked, Lloyd Thacker, ed., The Education Conservancy, 2004)
I have worked in an around college admissions for almost 40 years at some excellent schools—Colgate University and Union College in New York, Johns Hopkins University in Maryland, and Dickinson and Lafayette Colleges in Pennsylvania.
I also had the parental experience of going through the college admission process with my two children, nine and eleven years ago. Neither of my children took SAT prep courses and neither were uptight about the college admissions process. So why did I not pressure my kids to the max, to strive for the “top of the top,” and to position themselves to the so-called “best” colleges? Because I know that of the 2400 four-year colleges and universities in this country, there are at least 50 schools that would be great places for my children – where they could grow and develop; where they can engage; where, with the help[ of a caring faculty, they can find a voice that will serve them well in their future and where they can do so in an environment that encourages risk without the fear of “blowing it.” And these schools do not necessarily coincide with the top 10 as ranked by US News and World Report. My childfree and their parents were more interested in substance than in status.
By the way, my son taught me the importance of substance early in his college search when a scheduling conflict forced him to make a decision about AP vs regular calculus. His SATs and grades were strong, and even though I knew colleges would prefer to see the AP class, I encouraged him to make his choice based on what he wanted to do. Ultimately, he chose to take the class that conflicted with AP calculus. “Look, Dad,” he said. “If a college isn’t going to admit me because I took regular calculus rather than AP, then I don’t want to go to that college!” Case closed. He was “walking the walk,” and I was pleased.
When I speak with high school students and when I read press reports of the angst surrounding college admission, I sigh with an insider’s knowledge of the process at some pretty selective schools. There is absolutely no reason for parents and students to be nervous about the college admission process unless the student decides to apply to a college for the wrong reason—because its “hard to get in,” or because every one will be impressed. What a terrible way to pursue a higher education, and what a misguided definition of success we have developed as a society! Is it more important to look impressive than to be impressive? Is it more valuable to have a “wow” window sticker than to make the most out of a college experience that actually fits your personality, learning style and educational objectives?
“To be, rather than to seem,” was the family motto of John Dickinson, the 18th century Pennsylvania governor for whom Dickinson College was named. I fear that too many students and parents are concerned about “seeming” rather than “being.” I do not think they even realize this, but their behavior – stressing admission to the “best” colleges, prepping for the all-important SAT, pushing grades, AP classes and activities as a means rather than an end, applying undue pressure to win the “prize – belies the fact.
US News is not the cause of the problem, though their ranking system that has become the quick fix of the admission world is partially to blame. Rather, we as parents reinforce the image of success in our children that results in an obsession with name brands from cars to clothes to colleges. How can we halt this?
Know yourself first
So obvious, yet so often overlooked, self-knowledge is really the first step in the college selection process. While there are several good learning style inventories on line (see one for free at www.learning-styles-online.com/ ), simply asking and answering a few key questions will help get a student started on this essential step.
1. How do you learn best?
Are you an independent learner or do you need direction?
Example: When your history teacher assigns a paper, do you prefer a general topic that lets you explore and go in any direction you want? OR, do you prefer specific instructions such as, “ the introduction must be at least a page long in which you state your thesis, followed by three pages of developing your argument, three pages of defining your thesis, and a one page conclusion?”
*Are you inquisitive or accepting?
Example: If a teacher makes a statement in class, or describes a mathematical formula or proof, do you write it down and move on, OR do you prefer to think about it and question the teacher if it doesn’t make sense to you?
*Do you prefer to work alone or in teams?
Example: Do you find that working with a lab partner, where you can learn from each other (but where you are graded by your joint work) is more productive than studying and memorizing lab notes?
*Are you an active or passive learner?
Example: Do you learn more by being engaged in the process, where you have to think and are often “put on the spot” by teachers? OR, do you prefer the teacher to simply tell you what you must know to do well on the exam?
*Do you prefer a structured or an unstructured learning environment?
Example: Do you need the teacher to tell you exactly what to do and when, in order to pace yourself and learn? OR, do you learn best when the teacher gives you a broad overview of what the class objectives are and leaves it to you to figure out how to get there, asking for direction only when you must?
2. How do you interact with others?
*Are you an initiator or a follower?
Example: If you are interested in the martial arts, but your school does not have a club, will you start one by getting support from other students and the school? OR, will you be content to join the wrestling club?
*What causes stress in your life and what results in enjoyment and productivity?
Example: Are you fulfilled when there are not enough hours in the day to do everything you want to do, or does that stress you out?
*Do you prefer to interact in organized groups with a purpose, or informal groups to “hang out?”
Example: Would you rather be with a few friends and figure out what to do together, or do you prefer organized activities?
*Are you open and tolerant of differences, or do you prefer to be with “people like me?”
Example: If you are a “heavy metal” fan, are you likely to go to an orchestra concert just to experience it?
3. What are your general objectives?
*You don’t have to know what you want to major in, or even what you want to do after college. You should, however, know what you enjoy learning about.
Example: Are you more verbal, enjoying more subjective areas such as literature or history, or do you prefer the more “concrete” or quantitative areas of study?
*Who (not what) do you want to be?
Example: Who we are is determined long before we go to college, but we have a chance to further develop that “who” in college. Is service important to you? How about an appreciation for the arts? Do things international excite you? Knowing who you want to become makes it easier to find a college that will fully help you to become that person.
Answers to these three simple questions — how you learn best; how you interact with others; what are your objectives – will help you understand yourself, and represent the first step in selecting the right set of colleges or universities.
Get to know a college’s “personality”
Colleges and universities have “personalities” like we do. Among the typical characteristics:
Small or large / public or private
Residential or commuter / rural, urban, suburban
Teaching or research focus
Undergraduate or graduate student focus
Nurturing or competitive environment
Hands on learning, small seminars and community engagement, or lectures
Diverse or homogeneous population
Big-time athletics or emphasis on varsity “student athlete”
Large fraternity/sorority presence or predominantly “independent” campus
These are obvious enough, but it is legitimate to ask, particularly with so much being sent to students by colleges, “How do I discover a college’s personality?”
1. Use multiple sources
Example: Never rely exclusively on one source, particularly shortcut siources sources such as rankings, guidebooks, word of mouth and college review web sites such as “College Confidential” and “College Prowler.”
2. Counselors and teachers
Example: They can help you develop a list of possible colleges that fit your interests, your style and your academic profile.
3. Use the College’s Website
Example: Among other things, the Web is a marketing tool, so be careful. Glean all of the information you can from the main levels of the college’s website, but to really discover a college’s personality, drill down to the academic and social departmental level. Learn what the English faculty are doing in their classes and what students majoring in public policy do as their projects. See how faculty and students do cutting edge research together. Get a sense of how teachers teach and how students learn. And learn about how students run their own organizations by visiting the actual websites of those organizations.
4. Use email to your advantage
Example: After searching the college’s website, email some faculty and students who are doing things that interest you. Also use email to contact your regional (or academic major area) admissions representative and introduce yourself by asking a well researched question.
5. “Like” the college’s Facebook pages
Example: Follow events on campus and what students and prospective students are saying about the college, its programs and its people. Just like reading the student newspaper on-line, experiencing the college through Facebook can give prospective students a real sense of what it is like to be on campus.
6. Once you have done your homework, VISIT
Example: After you have a reasonably good picture of how the personality and the program of a college or university matches your style and the needs, get yourself to campus. Stay overnight, talk with students about their experiences, speak with faculty about their expectations of their students and how they involve students in their work, and of course, speak with your admissions counselor. If you go to a program sponsored by the admissions office, take some time to speak with students and faculty who are NOT a part of the program. This will help you determine whether what you are seeing from the program the program translates to reality on campus.
7. Be subjective in your assessments
Example: Don’t include or exclude a college from your list because of a good or bad tour guide, because of what your friends say, or because your uncle “never heard of that school.” You must look at the college or university as a whole — looking at all of its resources – to see how it meets your objectives.
8. Choose six to eight “first choices”
Example: One of my good college counseling colleagues advised her students that they should not select a college until a college selects them. It makes little sense, therefore, to rank order your applicant group. Instead, select the colleges to which you will apply knowing you would be thrilled to attend any one of them if you are admitted (and if it is affordable). There is plenty of time to rank order after admission, but if you select your colleges right, you can’t go wrong when the final decision is in your hands.
A final word
Nation-wide, only about half of the students entering a four-year college or university graduate. While the rate is typically much higher at highly selective colleges, it nevertheless tells us that many students select colleges for the wrong reasons. The substance of the experience, and how a particular institution fits student needs, should be of paramount concern. For example, so many students never consider a small liberal arts college (vs. a large university) because even the “best” of these smaller institutions are much less visible than their university counterparts. These schools aren’t for everyone, to be sure, but they would undoubtedly benefit far more students than ever apply.
I did not discuss Early Decision in this essay – that is a topic in an of itself. For comments on ED, see my recent New York Times op ed piece at http://thechoice.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/12/13/the-case-for-early-decision/ . Suffice it to say that if a student does what I have recommended, a number one choice could certainly emerge early. If it does, ED may be appropriate – but only if the student has been thorough in his or her work.
The college selection process does not have to be stressful if students and parents focus on what is really important. In fact, while the “top” universities may be the right match, you are unlikely to know that for sure unless you embark on a fearless path of self-discovery and a probing assessment of institutional characteristics. Once you have done this well, your application set will not only make sense, but you will find that your choices in April are broader and more acceptable than you would ever have imagined.
July 10, 2012
adapted from Lafayette Magazine, Summer 2012
More on Value
Five years before I arrived as the VP for Communications, my son chose to attend Lafayette over another very fine liberal arts college. As a high school student, he was bright, and his academic performance showed it, but he was interested as much in hanging out as in studying. At Lafayette, my son Dan underwent a transformation, helped most especially by his adviser, who invited him to apply to the EXCEL Scholars program, and then by two emeriti professors, in their labs. These great professor-mentors helped Dan develop a passion for solving problems, working with others in cross-disciplinary teams, and writing his observations for publication in professional journals. Dan also experienced choral and a capella music, club volleyball, and admissions work. He landed a job immediately after graduation and embarked on a career and a way of living that makes it easy to see why the value of a Lafayette education is real to me.
But don’t take my word for it. In its College Salary Report this year, PayScale, the Seattle-based compensation data company, places Lafayette fifth in starting median salary among the nation’s liberal arts colleges. And this spring, Bloomberg Businessweek’s in-depth report on the value of a college degree places Lafayette 17th among 1,248 colleges and universities nationally, and 2nd among liberal arts colleges, in net 30-year return on investment. Lafayette’s personalized, “hand-tooled” education that crosses disciplinary boundaries pays handsome dividends. And of course, the value is not only in the salaries our graduates earn, but in the quality of life they enjoy.
A recent national survey commissioned by the Annapolis Group also shows that graduates of liberal arts colleges offer a strong and demonstrable yes to three big questions in the current discussion about higher education: Is it worth the cost? Does the residential learning experience matter? Does a college degree make a difference in the job hunt and career advancement?
As a parent of a graduate and a member of the college administration, I am proud to say that Lafayette and liberal arts colleges nationally continue to position themselves as an excellent value in higher education.
Robert J. Massa
Vice President for Communications
June 15, 2012
by Robert J. Massa
Ten college and university presidents met with Vice President Biden at the White House earlier this month to announce their voluntary endorsement of a uniform financial aid award letter that would provide students with clearer, more transparent and accurate information about how much they will have to pay – now, and in the future — for their college education.
The initiative is an effort to discourage students from financially over-extending themselves, and beginning in the 2013-14 school year students applying to any of these institutions will be given a one-page cost or “shopping sheet” prepared by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. The sheet will include the full price of a year at college, including an estimate for books and personal expenses. This is nothing revolutionary as far as I’m concerned, as I’ve always worked for colleges that disclosed this information. But what will be of value is the part that breaks out grants from loans and work-study income, and shows students the long-term implications of borrowing by estimating monthly payments after graduation.
This initiative has received a lot of press recently. While its intentions toward financial transparency are good, it’s still, as Neil Armstrong once said, only “one small step.” But it is a step in the right direction.
One can argue that even standardized forms can be confusing, especially those created by government agencies (I know; hard to believe, but true). What’s not included on the standardized form is how much the college has determined a family should pay toward annual costs after analyzing their financial aid application (FAFSA or PROFILE). Therefore, the first item on the form might read:
“Based on the information provided on your application for financial aid, your family contribution for the coming year is $X. This leaves a remaining need of $X, based on the cost of attendance listed below. This letter will outline your options in meeting the remaining need.”
Here’s what else needs to be changed:
1. The form calculates how much a family will pay for one year by subtracting the total grant and scholarship amount from the full cost (including books and personal expense estimates) of attending the institution. This is not quite accurate as loans reduce the amount owed out-of pocket for that year. A better descriptor might be “Price after Grants and Scholarships.”
2. The form lists loans and work-study options. To lessen confusion, it would be more accurate to include ONLY subsidized loans that would be part of a need-based financial aid package. Unsubsidized student loans and parent loans should be listed as “optional.”
3. The “How much you owe after graduation” section should first provide an estimate of the monthly payments a student would make if the full amount of a subsidized student loan is borrowed in each of the four years. Rather than lumping together all loans, federal unsubsidized and private loans should be listed separately as they are discretionary and not used to meet need (unless gaps are built into the financial package). Estimates should be made for those payments, separate from the need-based loans, acknowledging that it is often a family choice to borrow to fund all or part of the expected family contribution.
Finally, although the above suggestions would give families a clearer understanding of their total financial obligation, they are simply tweaks of a disclosure statement that is fundamentally a good one. If we really want to address the issue of student debt, however, we need to start with addressing the always-increasing price tag of a four-year degree. This will require a “giant leap” that can occur only when colleges take control of their own rising costs. Some costs, such as heath care and energy, are out of the colleges’ control. But others, such as pinpointing programs and services to discontinue before adding new ones, must be tackled. Campus politics often work against this, but consumer pocketbooks will force the issue.
For many, it will be a “giant leap” of faith into a brave new world.
Robert Massa is vice president for communications at Lafayette College in Easton, PA. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and not necessarily those of the College.