“Undermining” Pell

March 30, 2016

Danielle Douglas-Gabriel’s recent Washington Post story, “These colleges expect poor families to pay more than half their earnings to cover costs,” (March 16, 2016) makes a simple, yet critical point to all concerned about access in higher education: colleges and universities may admit students from low income families, and they may even provide generous financial aid – grants from federal, state, private and institutional resources as well as maximum subsidized federal loans and work/study – but unless that aid meets a student’s need, they will be forced to borrow more at unsubsidized rates in order to pay college costs. In fact, Stephen Burd from the New America Foundation, whose work is cited in the Post story, writes in his report, Undermining Pell: Vol. III , that many colleges and universities expect students from families earning less than $30,000 a year to spend half of their annual income on college costs.


The argument is also put forth in the story and in Burd’s work that wealthier colleges, with endowments in excess of $250 million, are pumping money into so-called “merit scholarships,” awarded to students with no or low financial need in order to increase their academic profile and thus their rankings, when in fact — according to the critics — they should be meeting a higher percentage of student needs. While there is no doubt that merit aid helps to enroll top students who might go elsewhere, the fact is they bring net revenue to the institution that helps to pay for grant aid to needy students. Without a discounted price, some of these low-need “merit” students would not have enrolled and revenue from them would be zero. As the airlines understand, a discounted seat that is full is better than a full-price seat that is empty.


That said, there are institutions that heavily discount just about every student in order to maximize enrollment, but who “cap” institutional grant amounts to needy students, resulting in “gaps” as much as $20,000 or more (a “gap” is the difference in the amount of money a student needs, determined by the federal formula, and the amount of money awarded to that student). If those students choose to enroll with the “hope” that they can borrow to make up the difference or that the university will eventually come through with more grant money, they tend to drop out at a much higher rate than those whose financial needs were lower and met.


Before changing its financial aid strategy this year, my institution – Drew University – found that students with financial gaps in excess of $13,000 dropped out at a rate that was 33 percent higher than those with lower or no gaps. With that knowledge at hand, we cut non-need based merit aid by almost 50% and increased need-based aid by a similar amount. Gaps will not be eliminated, but will rarely exceed $10,000 as opposed to $20,000 in years past. I expect this will increase the percentage of lower income students choosing to enroll at Drew as well as their retention and graduation rates – all good results.


Prior to Drew, I served as the chief admissions and enrollment officer at a major national research university and a top liberal arts college for a total of 21 years. While I was there, these institutions were committed to meeting the full demonstrated need of every student admitted. So there were no “gaps” as defined above. But our applicant pools were large and deep, which meant we could deny admission to some marginally qualified students because we could not meet their needs had we admitted them. In the admissions world, this is known as “need-aware” admission. Some would think this disgraceful – denying admission to students because they can’t pay (of course, we did not do that for the bulk of the candidates who were needy and well-qualified). But these institutions believed it was far more humane to make a full commitment to those students they could afford to assist, than a partial commitment to everyone. There is a better outcome for the enrolled student (they actually graduate, and with moderate debt), but also for the student who is not admitted and enrolls at another good college with the aid he or she needs.


So there’s the rub – do we deny admission to some (lower) qualified applicants because we cannot afford to meet their full needs, or do we admit all those we would like to admit, without regard to their need, understanding that we may have a “gap” the very needy students? Most institutions cannot afford to be “need-blind” in admission AND meet the full financial need of everyone they admit. Generally speaking, only the uber-selective and wealthiest institutions can do this.


The Pell Grant is the major federal student financial aid grant program, providing about $32 billion in grants of up to $5730 per year to about 10 million low income students. In their July, 2013 report (“Measure Twice: The Impact in Graduation Rates of serving Pell Grant Recipients”) the Advisory Committee on Student Financial Assistance reported that “Overall, as the percent of students (at a college) who are Pell recipients rises and endowment per student falls, average 6-year graduation rate falls from 85% to 33% (in private 4-year colleges)…(and)..from 67% to 28% (in public 4-year colleges).”


What this means is that the more financially challenged an institution, the less selective it can be, the more low income students it attracts, and because these schools need to accept as many students as they can, the more they tend to “gap” low income students, making them borrow beyond the maximum subsidized federal loans for which they are eligible.


Understanding that there are wealthy institutions that can meet full need and be need-blind in admission, that there is a strong second tier that are need-aware in admission but meet full need, and that there are many under-endowed private and public institutions that admit needy students without meeting their full needs, it is clearly not accurate to paint higher education with the broad brush of retrenching on access. In fact Burd does acknowledge that some wealthy institutions are doing a good job of meeting full need and enrolling a healthy percentage of low income students. But in many ways, less well endowed private institutions and many publics are caught between the proverbial rock and a hard place. Their costs have risen as their students demand more technology and modern facilities, as salaries escalate to remain competitive and as government regulatory requirements balloon.

But unless they represent a “name brand” or have outstanding regional reputations in certain professional fields, many families are unwilling to pay the full price without a discount. This limits the options these institutions have to fully fund very needy students. Its not that these colleges want to gap low income students, forcing them to borrow heavily if they enroll. I would submit that they simply do not see a way around it.


Unless the cost of educating a student declines and/or federal and state aid increases, the gapping practice is sure to continue. What may be of great help, however, is training college counselors to help guide low-income students to a “financial aid fit” college. In those low income school districts, where counselors have responsibility for over 600 students each, a federal-state partnership could provide funding for guidance in matching a student to a college with the right financial fit. This could go a long way to controlling student debt and assuring access.


Let’s stop implying that commitment to access is measured solely by the percentage of Pell Grant recipients an institution enrolls and by the percentage of need it meets, but rather by the percentage of low income students it graduates with debt levels that are similar to the national average or lower. If we do, our dialogue will move from finger pointing to helping students make good choices for their future.


My colleague at Drew University  Chris Teare, writes a weekly blog on college admissions for Forbes.  This week, he asked me to be his guest.  The post can be found the link listed below and is also re-posted here.   rjm



On the eve of the annual gathering of members of the National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC) in September, 2015, the “Coalition for Access, Affordability, and Success,” a group of about 80 of the most selective colleges and universities in the country, announced their intent to create a new admission application process. The plan included, among other things, the creation of a “virtual locker” where students, starting in the ninth grade, could add examples of their best high school work that could be used to enhance their future college application.


The members of the Coalition had a noble goal – to provide students more access to college by engaging them in the preparation process earlier. The college admission process had become complex and overwhelming, and excluded too many students. The Coalition sought to change this. The announcement was met with much opposition, especially from high school counselors who felt totally left out of the discussion and skeptical about the details.


The debate over the admissions process and what it creates for students, parents, counselor and colleges is not new. In 1974, the Common Application began with a small group of highly selective colleges seeking to simplify the process. Concern was expressed that this elitist group would dominate the admissions scene. Today, the Common Application has almost 600 members and while it has contributed to the ease of applying to college, it also has helped to inflate the number of applications per student submitted. That in turn has led to increasing competition among colleges for students and among students for admission.


In 2002, former college counselor Lloyd Thacker started the Education Conservancy, to “help students, colleges and high schools overcome commercial interference in college admissions.” His 2004 book, “College Unranked,” sought to restore sanity and purpose in college admissions.   Yet more than a decade later, the same issues exist.


The Coalition’s plans to take on the process has brought a new urgency to the reform conversation that has continued to brew since Thacker’s book was published. In a working paper still in progress entitled, “The College Admission Process: A Call for Reform,” Willard Dix, a college counselor with InGenius Prep, and his colleagues claim that the Coalition for Access, Affordability, and Success presented their proposal as

“a fait accompli…despite the fact that Coalition members themselves admitted it was not truly ready and they did not really know what would happen once it was in place. It was met with instant and often bitter criticism from counselors, who felt the college admission process was already complex enough and that the plan had been presented without any significant input from counselors who work with students daily.”


Further, Dix and his colleagues allege that the new Coalition application process would become harder and more stressful because of the ninth grade start of a “virtual locker,” with unequal access to the technology and assistance necessary to use it.


For this reason and others, they call on counselors and admission officers to work together to reform college admissions. Among the points they advocate:


  1. Streamlining the college admission process to relieve some of students’ burdens of preparing for college entrance;
  2. More collaboration between high schools and colleges
  3. A halt to indiscriminate marketing that floods students with “invitations” to apply, replaced by more targeted efforts based on realistic assessments;
  4. An approach to the college application process that supports counselor/student as well as technology/student interactions.


In addition, Dix and his colleagues call for a “comprehensive study” of the college admissions process and its impact on students, parents, schools and colleges.


I applaud the work the Will Dix and others are doing to articulate the issues, though their suggestions are not new. The Education Conservancy advocated similar principles 12 years ago, and with leadership from several college presidents, numerous higher education leaders signed on to boycott the US News peer assessment survey. Despite presidential signatures, there was no uniform movement by colleges representing a broad spectrum of institutions nationwide to come up with a “solution” to “college admissions hype” and other application process issues.


So if the new wave of interest in reform, spawned by the Coalition’s new process, is to succeed in actually making substantive changes to college admissions, what must be done?   Studies will not result in change without broad participation on a national scale. To that end, I would call on the leadership of NACAC to immediately:


  1.  Create a Task Force of college admission and school counseling personnel to evaluate and propose change the college admissions in the direction called for in the Dix et. al. paper.
  2.  Determine the make-up of this national group of colleges and schools – assuring representatives from all sectors and degrees of selectivity and from a socio-economically diverse collection of schools.
  3.  Create a process whereby representatives on the Task Force are elected by the NACAC membership. Those interested in serving on this national Task Force can petition for candidacy. A chair would be elected by the membership of the Task Force
  4.  Develop a timeline for task completion with feedback requested along the way.


In all my years in higher education, one thing I have learned is that studies and discussions are necessary for progress, but they are hardly sufficient. Very little can be accomplished unless a broadly representative and generally accepted group of professionals work together on a solution. In doing so, however, we must be mindful of the young lives we are impacting and sensitive to the needs of all students seeking to further their education. So let’s take organized action now using our national association to structure a representative group to address the issues around college admission. If we do so, successful change will have a fighting chance.

In about a week, US News will release it’s all important college rankings to inform the public about colleges that lost or gained a tenth of a point and dropped or increased five spaces in the rankings as a result. I have written countless times about the absurdity of the arbitrary weighting of certain characteristics in the rankings, so I’ll not take time to do that here. But rankings fever and the competition it breeds among colleges (let alone giving incomplete short-hand information to students), contributes to ridiculous headlines in the wake of the decision by the Department of Education to hide from colleges’ view the list of colleges to which students are submitting the FAFSA.  The assumption here is that if colleges see their position on the list (number 1 through 10), this will influence an admission or financial aid decision.

On August 17, my friend Lynn O’Shaunessy penned a story that cbsnews.com titled, ” Feds to stop tipping off colleges on student choice.”
(http://www.cbsnews.com/news/feds-to-stop-tipping-off-colleges-on-student-choices/). While Lynn used the phrase “tipping off” in her story, her account was mostly balanced. The headline, however, implied widespread abuse of this information. Having served as the chief enrollment officer at three institutions over the past 27 years, I can say that abuse of “FAFSA position” is hardly widespread, as far as I know.

First of all, the vast majority of the nation’s 2400 non-profit private and public undergraduate universities are not selective. Perhaps no more than 5 percent of them admit fewer than half of the students who apply. Most cannot afford to deny admission or give less aid to a student who positions them low or high on the FAFSA list, because they need the student, no matter the odds of enrollment.

Secondly, schools with strong demand and strong applicant pools do not need to use their position on the FAFSA to impact a particular admission or aid decision. They have plenty of demand at just about any price point.

Over the past fifteen years, students have applied to more and more colleges because of perceived competitiveness and the need to have an affordable option. Colleges have aided this frenzy to be sure, in an effort to be more selective and to improve in the rankings, but mainly to assure that they can meet their enrollment goals.

During this time, predictive modeling has emerged to help enrollment leaders predict how many students (not individually whom) to admit at what level of financial aid in order to meet enrollment and net revenue goals. In some cases, if there is predictive value, FAFSA position may be used as one characteristic among many that — in the aggregate — can predict total enrollment. But an individual characteristic alone cannot predict behavior, and even taken in the aggregate, characteristics can only assign a probability of enrollment between zero and one for an individual.

When I say “characteristics,” I am referring to things students can impact (such as grades, test scores, campus visits, FAFSA position, leadership experience, strength of curriculum) and things that the student cannot control (gender, race, state or country of residence, socio-economic status).

To suggest that institutions make individual decisions based on their listed position on the FAFSA, and to remove this data because of a suspicion that a handful of colleges may be using the information inappropriately, would be like requiring students to visit campus under an alias, so schools would not know who is really interested. Interest, after all, predicts enrollment. Or since lower grades predict enrollment at a selective college, perhaps we admit all with low grades, since they are likely to enroll,  and deny those with high grades as they are least likely to enroll.  Absurd, right?

The point is, using a single characteristic to make an enrollment or aid decision raises not only ethical questions, but demonstrates a lack of understanding on how to use predictive models. These models should never be used for individual decisions — only to inform in the aggregate how many students can be admitted at what level of financial aid — in total — in order to reach our goals.

It is a shame that the Department of Education yielded to uninformed pressure to remove this data element from the FAFSA.  Of course, this is not the end of the world, as a college’s position on the FAFSA is just one element in a predictive model. But the implication that colleges are sinister in using this information against students is as absurd as it is insulting. My colleagues and I deserve better.

In the New York Times today, Professor Paul Campos from the University of Colorado made the case that public funding for higher education has not declined over the past several decades, but has in fact increased significantly. The number of institutions and certainly the number of students pursuing post high school education has soared, and while per capita funding may be down, the states and federal governments are providing more funding than ever.


Fair enough. But why then has tuition increased so much (if the average price of a car had increased in the past 40 years as much as tuition, Campos claims the average car price would be $80,000!)? In part, he claims, because of the vast increase in administrators and their salaries – a 60 percent increase in positions between 1993 and 2009, while faculty positions grew only modestly. He does not address the decline in teaching loads for faculty, but that has also contributed to increased costs. He also cites the increasing numbers of students served and their demands for amenities as reasons for the price increase. He does say that both the increase in administration to handle increasing numbers of student is – in theory at least – defensible.


What he doesn’t say is that the price increase is fueled by an INCREDIBLY competitive marketplace for students, which now includes over 1500 for-profit schools offering real degrees. This is a major cost driver and it needs to be acknowledged as a primary reason for price increases.


Even within the traditional non-profit sector, the competition is intense — amenities for students (including food everywhere, anytime and top quality); study abroad which loses money for a college (tuition goes out, as does aid); and competition for top administrators and professors (high salaries and reduced teaching loads) – all of this drives up price. It is interesting to note that competition in the private sector typically results in decreased prices (less of a profit margin). In the non-profit world, competition typically increases prices as someone has to pay for the “enhanced” product.


And finally, just like cars (where prices haven’t risen as fast, mainly because there is economy of scale in production that one doesn’t have in education) a college education today is not what it was in 1970.  Study abroad, off campus study programs (such as Drew University’s four programs in NYC — Wall St, UN, Communications and Theater/Arts), internships, interdisciplinary field work programs — all of these cost more.


Add to this the fixed costs of technology improvements on a daily basis, benefits such as health insurance (which every industry has), federal regulations that have to be carefully monitored and executed, and an increasingly litigious society, and it totals to a cost explosion.  And a little told fact — since most financial aid is NOT endowed or funded, colleges have to charge more in order to have the money to underwrite those who cannot pay.  Back when I started in admissions and financial aid at Colgate 40 years ago, 30 percent of our students received aid.  Now at schools like Drew, Dickinson, Hopkins and Colgate, 60 percent are receiving financial aid.  And, on top of everything else mentioned above, that costs!


With all of this, one still must ask, is there value in what colleges and universities provide? I just have to look at my University of Rochester graduate daughter and my Lafayette College graduate son to answer that one – a resounding yes. I have written on value before and I will certainly do so again. We do need to contain our costs as much as possible, but in my book, the value is still convincingly there.


Pell Grant and Higher Education Access: It’s not as simple as it seems

The Pell Grant is the major federal student financial aid program in Title IV of the Higher Education Act. What began in 1972 as the Basic Opportunity Grant, worth just several hundred dollars a year, has grown into a $32 billion program providing grants of up to $5730 per year to about 10 million low income students.

Various ranking publications, as well as the White House and Education Department, look at the percentage of Pell Grant recipients enrolled at a particular college as an indication of that institution’s commitment to access and to socioeconomic diversity. This simple but misleading measurement is further complicated, when making a case for a college’s commitment to access, by the use of the undefined term “need blind” (as in not being aware of financial need when a college makes an admission decision on a student). Both criteria are flawed — an institution’s financial strength, or lack thereof, must be considered along with their aid practices before judging an institution’s true commitment to access.

Last month, the Lehigh Valley’s (PA) major newspaper, the “Morning Call,” published a story about area colleges and their commitment to access as measured by the number of Pell Grant recipients enrolled and the practice of being “need blind” or “need aware” in admission (http://touch.mcall.com/#section/1742/article/p2p-81851011/). The author praised public institutions like Kutztown University for enrolling a large percentage of Pell recipients (32%) and private colleges like Cedar Crest (43%) and Moravian (30%) for their tremendous efforts as well. Conversely, the author implied that Muhlenberg (8%) and Lafayette (11%) were clearly not as committed to access and, unlike the others, were also not need blind in admission meaning that “a mediocre applicant may be accepted because of his or her family’s wealth, while an equivalent student with less money would be rejected.” Horrible! Unconscionable! Not so fast.. It isn’t that simple!

Let’s understand this: there are only three types of institutions that do not take financial need into consideration at some point (for selective colleges, usually the last 10% or so of the spaces available) in the admissions process:
1) the wealthiest colleges and universities in the nation, with strong market position, endowments that pay for most if not all of the scholarship and grant aid, and a commitment to fully fund every needy student, leaving no gap (as the institutions in 2 and 3 below do) between what a student needs to attend and what the college provides in financial aid;
2) private institutions with below average endowments and weak market position because they cannot afford to deny qualified students and risk being under capacity…AND because they do not meet a student’s full financial need with institutional grant (which means it doesn’t “cost” the institution any additional aid to admit another needy student); and
3) public institutions, because most do not provide institutional grant aid, so whatever federal or state money a student gets is all they will get, regardless of financial need.

The bulk of the other private colleges — those with strong market position and resources but not in the very top group – neither “gap” students (they meet full need) nor do they accept very needy, marginally qualified students toward the end of the admission process. They believe it is far better to make a commitment to needy students by fully funding those they admit (so that they can graduate on time with manageable debt) than by admitting more students than they can afford to assist, thereby leaving them to fend for themselves should they decide to attend. These students typically wind up borrowing more than they should to fund their education and their attrition rate is typically high.

I have a great deal of respect for my colleague Tom Mortenson, who has devoted his career to the advancement of post secondary opportunity. But I take great issue with his statement to the “Morning Call” in their story on local colleges and Pell enrollments. “…schools with high tuition and a very low percentage of Pell Grant students are not committed to serving low income students. They are committed to maximizing tuition revenue.” In most cases, this is simply not true, though I would say that these schools do need to maximize tuition revenue in order to fully fund low income students since, unlike the wealthiest colleges in number 1 above, their scholarships are not primarily funded through the endowment but, indeed, through tuition revenue. In other words, you have to collect the revenue in order to give it away.

I also appreciate what the chief enrollment officers at Lafayette and Muhlenberg said in the story– that they choose to define economic opportunity more broadly than only by those eligible for the Pell Grant; that they partner with community-based organizations to identify students for whom their institutions would be a financial reach; that they are committed, too, to helping students from lower middle income families who may not be eligible for the Pell Grant but who are increasingly squeezed out of private higher education.

So, those colleges with a high percentage of Pell recipients are committed to enrolling low income students and those who have lower enrollment percentages are not? Hardly. What the numbers don’t tell us is this — although there are some exceptions, in general:

1) Colleges with significant resources to meet full need AND to enroll a high percentage of Pell recipients will meet the needs of those students without excessive reliance on loans.
2) Those institutions with significant resources to meet full need, but that are need aware in admission because their resources are not sufficient to meet the needs of all qualified applicants, may enroll a lower percentage of Pell recipients, but those enrolled will have their full needs met without excessive reliance on loans.
3) On the other hand, under-endowed, private and public institutions that enroll a large percentage of Pell recipients will, more often than not, provide aid that does not meet full need, thereby forcing students to rely on large loans to bridge the gap between costs and affordability.

Further, in their July, 2013 report (“Measure Twice: The Impact in Graduation Rates of serving Pell Grant Recipients”) the Advisory Committee on Student Financial Assistance reported that “Overall, as the percent of students who are Pell recipients rises and endowment per student falls, average 6-year graduation rate falls from 85% to 33% (in private 4-year colleges)…(and)..from 67% to 28% (in public 4-year colleges)”

Although the institutions in number 3 above appear as though they are committed to access of low-income students as suggested by the percentage of Pell recipients they enroll, one has to ask the question, “Access to what?” If those students are either not graduating, or are graduating with debts way above the average class of 2012 student loan debt of $29,400, they will enter the work force in a financial position that is significantly behind those low income students who attended colleges with lower Pell enrollments, but higher institutional grant aid and lower loans to those Pell eligible students.

Let’s stop implying that commitment to access is measured solely by the percentage of Pell Grant recipients an institution enrolls, but rather by the percentage of Pell recipients it graduates with debt levels that are similar to the national average or lower. And let’s look at a college’s ability and willingness to meet full need without over-reliance on loans as the true indicator of commitment to low income students. If we do, our dialogue will move from finger pointing to helping students make good choices for their future.

July 1, 2014 marked the 40th anniversary of my career as a college administrator.  In 1974, I started working full time in the admissions and financial aid office at Teachers College, Columbia University, where at the ripe old age of 22, I was pursuing a doctorate in higher education administration.  Little did I know that 40 years later, I would still be excited about my work.

I have had the privilege of serving some really remarkable institutions — Colgate University where I would learn how admissions and financial aid come together to enroll a class; Union College where I first became a director and also learned about student life outside of the ‘view book;”  Johns Hopkins where I served as dean of enrollment for a decade; and Dickinson College, where an energetic new president put his faith in me to manage a large division that impacted students from the time they were looking at the college through their alumni years.  I took early retirement from that tremendous experience after ten years of service and proceeded to accept an invitation from my son’s alma mater, Lafayette College, to serve as their first VP for Communications.  I have just stepped down from that position after five years.

Looking back and peeking ahead 

During the past five years, I learned quite a bit from my colleagues in college communications.  While I oversaw this area at Dickinson as the VP for Enrollment and College Relations,  and developed a brand strategy that served that college well, I did not get into the nitty gritty — day in and day out — of how to position the institution best.  At Lafayette, I learned about web management, televised athletic contests, story editing, crisis communication, design elements, the rapidly changing and emerging field of social media — the list goes on.  As an admissions officer, I certainly knew how to promote my institution, but my work with the professionals at Lafayette gave me a new appreciation for the work that is involved to reinforce the college brand in everything we do — from brochures to web to tweets to design to media relations.  I have developed an enormous respect for these “behind the scenes” professionals.  They are not in front of crowds of prospective students or alumni.  They do not enroll the class or bring in the bucks.  But they are every bit as responsible for a college’s success in admissions and development as are the troops on the road.

In my last post, I spoke about how social media is changing the ways in which we recruit students, engage alumni and communicate with one another.  I issued a caution about that, urging us to be substantive in our messaging while retaining the “fun” aspect of the medium.  But the challenges of communicating in 140 characters or less pale in comparison to the substantive challenges created by the “culture of more” that has infiltrated higher education with a vengeance.

Since 1983, higher education has watched as popular rankings took hold and began to influence our behavior.  We try to influence reputation by flooding presidential mailboxes with expensive publications touting our college’s excellence, we generate more applications so we can become more selective, we hire more faculty so we can lower the student/faculty ratio, we care about alumni participation in the annual fund as much as the dollars we raise because that is a measurement of alumni satisfaction, and we spend more money on academic and social facilities to remain competitive and attract more students and donors.  One could certainly argue that colleges and universities ought to be doing these things anyway — that strong institutions want to get stronger.  But one consequence of the “culture of more” is that it drives up costs and thus price.  And today, everyone from the President to the working class parent is complaining about the high cost of higher education.  Indeed, today’s four year degree costs more than it did twenty years ago not only because of labor costs, technology, and general inflation, but because we are providing more to students — more services, more labs, more study abroad, more field trips, more internships, more research opportunities, more facilities, more choices for food….more, more, more.

So far, parents have been demanding more and willing to pay, at least for some of what we offer.  For years, the “solution” to a high price tag has been to — somehow — provide more financial aid.  That is still part of the answer.  But the basic dilemma of “more” needs to be addressed.  When we add, what can we subtract?  I do not have an answer to this question, but in 25 years as a senior administrator at three institutions, I have found it to be a question seldom asked and never really answered.

The rise of on-line education and the increasing example outside of higher education for  “unbundling services” threaten the traditional four-year, residential education model.  I will not get into this issue here, other than to say that “unbundling” could pose a threat to some colleges and universities that have not made a strong case for the value of what they offer.  While taking just what one needs to meet the minimum requirements for a credential will always cost less than the full package toward a degree, I believe from my own experience that what we learn from one another in direct class and out-of-class interaction adds great value that will make a huge difference in career and in personal satisfaction over a lifetime.

What’s next?

As I begin by fifth decade in higher education, I am humbled by my experiences, but not ready to hang out a shingle just yet. I have accepted an invitation from Lafayette to help raise a total of $400 million in a capital campaign that will be launched in New York City on November 21, 2014 — one day before Lafayette and Lehigh will meet for the 150th time on the gridiron with Yankee Stadium serving as the venue for this historic game.  If those two events were the only backdrop, it would be an exciting time to be active and engaged in my profession.  But there is much more of course, as we discussed above.

The most obvious is that I will be learning a new system. While I am no stranger to building the relationships that would be required for effective fund raising, I will be learning new skills and systems that are necessary in order to manage prospective donors efficiently and effectively and to contribute to the success of Lafayette’s campaign.  A life without learning is not really a life at all, so I am looking forward to being teachable and to “doing” something new.

A last comment

With all of the changes I have seen over forty years — from how we promote ourselves, to how we interact, to the programs and services we provide — one thing has remained constant as I moved from Colgate to Union to Hopkins to Dickinson and now to Lafayette.  The educational experience of the student is at the core of what we do and my administrative colleagues and I remain committed to supporting the faculty in their work to prepare our students to make important contributions to our world, and to helping the many other campus professionals who teach students leadership and responsibility in their daily lives.  As he accepted the position of Commissioner of Education in the Carter administration, Ernest Boyer simply said, “Education is still the most important activity of life.”  I have kept that quote on my office wall since it was said.  And that is one other thing that has not changed over the past forty years.


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.


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.

The Future is Now

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.




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:

  1. 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?

  1. 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?

  1. 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.



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