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 ( 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” (  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 ( 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,, 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.


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

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.

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 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

About the author:

Having worked in the field for four decades, Robert J. Massa is an expert on enrollment management practice and techniques.

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.


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 ), 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 . 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.


Good luck!





















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