During the recruitment cycle for Fall 2012 entry, admissions officers and college counselors alike witnessed students and families approach the college search with a new level of concern and diligence—and a laser focus on cost that higher education enrollment managers couldn’t afford to ignore.
“While colleges and universities are often accused of being somehow out of touch with the economic situation and realities families face, I think this past year drove home the fact that we have no choice but to be affected by what’s happening in the larger world around us,” notes Thyra Briggs, vice president for admission and financial aid at Harvey Mudd College (California).
Value was families’ foremost concern during all stages of the college selection process.
“I believe most admissions and financial aid offices not only felt the challenges of doing more with less this year, but also the pressure from families to up our own games in regard to what we can provide for students, whether in the form of amenities, financial aid, or new and innovative programs,” Briggs reflects.
As a result, many admissions offices found themselves working well into the long, hot summer to yield their incoming classes. Still, several chief enrollment officers like Briggs found a bright side:
“The best by-product of this,” she says, “is that we, like the rest of the country, have had to have the difficult conversations about what actually matters.”
Finances: Front and Center
High school college counselors with a ground-level view of families’ college search processes noted a distinct shift in emphasis during the past year, as Carolyn Blair, director of college counseling at Clayton High School (Missouri) explains.
Clayton students come from a range of economic backgrounds, but in the shadow of St. Louis’ Washington University, nearly all of them are college-bound. Historically, three-quarters of Clayton families have had few economic parameters for their college searches, according to Blair. And if finances were a part of the discussion, it was usually later, during the decision-making phase. Even then, for most Clayton families, cost took a back seat to other issues, such as name brand and academic reputation.
“But this was the year when finances took center stage,” says Blair. “It was a huge part of the conversation.”
Families had begun asking more questions during the previous two admissions cycles, and the Clayton counseling staff responded by making a more concerted effort to address the issue earlier. They hosted a financial aid workshop in November, walked through the FAFSA line by line, emphasized the difference between need-blind and need-aware, and educated families about gapping. “We really pushed families to take finances into consideration much earlier to avoid students working so hard and falling in love with a college, only to find out in the end that it wasn’t a good financial fit,” she says.
Tom Willoughby, vice president for enrollment at the University of Denver (Colorado), agrees that this year felt decidedly different due to a shift in how families were making the “purchase” of higher education.
“We saw families being much more practical in their approach across the spectrum of the process,” he says. From where to apply and what academic programs made the most sense in terms of future career income to how much debt was wise and ultimately the decision of which institution to attend, his staff noted a new level of stress and prudence in families. “And they were taking as much time as they needed to make their decisions—even if it was closer and closer to May 1,” notes Willoughby.
At Skidmore College (New York), Director of Financial Aid Beth Post-Lundquist noted a surprising large increase in the percentage of applicants requesting financial aid. “It was dramatically higher this year than any other year, even compared to last year. It’s not that we had a spike in the number of those applying for admission and financial aid, so much as we had a drop in the number of applicants who fit the demographic segment that doesn’t request or require financial aid,” she explains.
Post-Lundquist, who is active in her state’s association of financial aid administrators, reported hearing of increases in the percentage of accepted students applying for financial aid at her counterparts’ institutions, too. “Which makes sense,” she notes, “because as the cost of college continues to increase, the number of people who even qualify for financial aid will increase. But growth in financial aid budgets is a symptom of the real problem, which is unsustainable price increases.”
This past year, Director of Counseling David Oglesby observed more thought among the families at Jesuit College Preparatory School of Dallas (Texas), as well, about how to finance college costs.
“The downturn in the economy came later to Dallas than the rest of the nation, and we didn’t see the first effects until the spring of 2010 when students were making decisions about where to go,” says Oglesby. But for the class of 2012, cost was the driving issue above anything else. “Economic factors influenced the college search to the largest extent I have seen in the past 25 years,” he says.
Naturally, the degree to which finances determined college choice depended a lot on the student’s economic background. At one end of the spectrum, Oglesby works with families who still have not been impacted by the economy, and their approach to the college search was much as it would have been in the past.
At the other end are the young men who attend Jesuit on a work grant program and often will be first-generation college students. “They are more wary of any type of loan obligation,” says Oglesby, “and private schools that require significant loans do not appeal to them.” These seniors looked primarily at low-cost state schools or community colleges for their options.
But it was in the “middle” group at Jesuit Dallas where Oglesby noticed the most change. “By most definitions, these families would still be considered affluent,” he says, “but they became noticeably more cost-conscious and pragmatic this year.”
“They were looking for merit money, loan-free options, and the best cost factor,” Oglesby says. These families were assessing whether they should spend more on the undergraduate degree or preserve capital for graduate school.
The majority of students with whom Director of Guidance for the Academy of Science in Loudoun County (Virginia) Jayne Fonash works have plans to pursue graduate studies immediately or soon after completion of their undergraduate degrees. “Most of the parents I serve see a clear and convincing value in their child’s college education and are willing to pay within their means to make that education a reality,” she says. “But family conversations about the cost of college for these students include a look at the bigger picture of education costs for a total of eight to 10 years of study.”
Blair at Clayton High School recalls how just a few years ago if she had suggested looking at a state school, most Clayton parents would have been offended. “Now it’s sort of become the standard of measure: Is this private education ‘worth’ double the state school?” she says. “We still have families that will pay for certain names, but the school has to be seen as being ‘worthy’ of the price. Parents are starting to prefer to skip a non-name-brand school and instead choose a public school.”
Oglesby at Jesuit Dallas reports families are beginning to set an upper limit on what a prestigious college can cost and still fit their perception of “worth it,” no matter how much quality and value the college provides in return—and this year that comprehensive annual price point was around $60,000. “Even when the institution is one of a handful of select names, families found it more difficult to justify the value at that cost, even if they could afford it,” he says. Case in point: Jesuit Dallas’ top graduates in 2011 and 2012 have matriculated to the Honors Program at the University of Texas, despite having been accepted to Brown, Swarthmore, and the like.
It’s About Jobs, Stupid
As executive director of the non-profit Colleges That Change Lives (CTCL), Martha O’Connell interfaces with college-bound students and families nationwide, and she says that families are no longer just asking how to get into college or about campus safety statistics.
“Parents are looking for guarantees that their children will be able to take their place in the world immediately after college,” O’Connell notes. “The notion of a college degree being the ticket to success is no longer accepted amidst stories of college grads returning to their parents’ homes—with no job prospects but plenty of loan debt.”
Clayton’s Blair agrees. “Sometimes parents make a joke about it—’Just make sure my student doesn’t end up living in my basement after they graduate’—but I think the fear is real,” she says.
Consequently, Jesuit Dallas’ Oglesby finds families being more prudent as they plan a college route that will pay off afterwards. For example, he says more families are utilizing aptitude inventory services before or during the college search.
“Parents are wary that their sons will finish college and not have any good options,” he says. “They are more concerned now with helping their sons focus on what they want to do and on finding majors that seem more practical—either for getting a job immediately or for preparing them for graduate and professional school.”
O’Connell says the challenge of explaining the value of a liberal arts education as training for a lifetime of work, not just the first job out, is a daunting, unrelenting task. “Families are questioning everything—why they have to pay such high costs, why the process is so complicated, why there isn’t more transparency,” she says. “And during the search process, if parents can’t easily find the answers to these questions plus proof of good outcomes, they move on to colleges that do provide this data.”
Speaking Up About Results
“Not surprisingly, we have put a greater emphasis on our outcomes,” says Harvey Mudd’s Briggs. As a liberal arts college where the emphasis is on science, engineering, and mathematics, Harvey Mudd is routinely distinguished by having some of the highest starting and mid-career salaries of all top liberal arts college graduates in the country.
An admissions veteran of more than 20 years, Briggs notes her team is now doing some things differently from the way they once were done. “Often there was an element of holding back some impressive statistic to essentially ‘seal the deal’ with families after their students had been admitted,” she says. “Now, we can’t afford to wait [to share outcomes stories] that late in the process.”
Mike Sexton, vice president for enrollment management at Santa Clara University (California), also sees families making more careful decisions and applying a new level of scrutiny to the process. “When I do parent programs and have them look at the data, they are learning that schools that they thought were ‘good’ schools aren’t actually that good,” says Sexton. “All the press about graduation rates is having an impact. People are finally putting four years [at Santa Clara] versus five years at Cal Berkeley into the equation.”
He believes parents realize they can no longer take for granted what they think they know, and that a more thorough search process is here to stay—and that could bode well for a lot of private colleges.
The Struggle to Make a Class
Interviews for this article generated a range of responses among enrollment managers about what stood out during the past year in admissions, but the general tenor of those conversations was surprisingly optimistic on some accounts. Most reported having had an uptick in interest as well as in applications. Two examples include Santa Clara University, which has seen a 41 percent increase in applications in the past three years, and Harvey Mudd College, where applications have risen by 35 percent in recent years.
Applications also have gone up by 9 percent in each of the last two admissions cycles at the University of Richmond (Virginia), where Vice President for Enrollment Management Nanci Tessier believes this may be due in part to regular decision applicants casting a wider net than in the past. “Five years ago applicants to Richmond had an average of eight applications,” she says. “And in 2011-12, it was 12.”
These stories have become the fodder for media reports about the “escalating arms race” in college admissions, with applications and selectivity both on the rise, and a lot of students left in the lurch. But in reality, these cases seem to be the exception more than the rule, according to The Common Application Executive Director Rob Killion. His organization’s statistics tell a different story: The average number of applications submitted by Common App users has remained a very steady four in each cycle of the past decade. While he does see variations based on geographic region and school type—an average of 5.26 applications per user in the Northeast, for example—Killion says, “Our stats don’t show the kind of growth that we continue to hear about anecdotally.”
And while strong inquiry and application flows are helpful, those numbers don’t always show the complete picture, as Karen Foust, executive vice president for strategic initiatives and vice president for enrollment at Hendrix College (Arkansas), notes. After all, in the end the stat that really matters is yield.
To an outside observer, Hendrix had a very good year in admissions. It began with the second highest increase in applications in the college’s history and concluded by yielding a class similar in size to the previous year’s, with a strong academic profile and great geographic representation.
“It may have been a ‘good’ year in relationship to all the things we have had to deal with,” says Foust. “But five years ago I wouldn’t have described a year like this as a ‘success.’ ”
Foust explains that despite having more applications—and solid ones at that—it wasn’t clear how the new class would shape up until late into the summer. She fears this may be the norm for a while to come. “The cumulative effects of the downturn in the economy seem to have caught up with even more families,” she says, “and the impact on yielding a class this past year was palpable.”
Colby College (Maine) likewise wrapped up the year on a good note, according to Terry Cowdrey, vice president and dean of admissions and financial aid—although a closer look reveals the impact of the marketplace on the college’s enrollment processes. In 2010-11, Colby posted a 23 percent increase in applications, and in 2011-12 they increased another 2 percent. However, Cowdrey reports that the increase was primarily from international students who were not seeking aid.
“We continue to be challenged by the student whose family does not qualify for need-based aid, but for whom our cost is really difficult,” she says. “We rarely yield those students and will be reviewing our institutional methodology to assess whether our approach to need analysis is as fair as it can be.”
As CTCL director, O’Connell’s take on admissions in the last year is a direct result not of being in an enrollment role but of observing those who are. She frequently heard, from college admissions colleagues all over the country on both sides of the desk, variations of the statement, “This was the most challenging year I’ve ever experienced in my career”—including from many who are nearing retirement age. She says, “On the college side, I believe that the stress of yielding a class and hitting both the enrollment and net tuition goals, while at the same time keeping an eye on rankings, is taking a toll on many in the profession.”
Skidmore’s Post-Lundquist acknowledges that juggling a set of sometimes competing needs is becoming more and more stressful for financial aid administrators, who are responsible not only for the freshman class in enrollment management, but also for students throughout their time in college. “The more pressure there is to use financial aid to help enroll the incoming class, the less flexibility there is to continue to help students as they go through their sophomore, junior, and senior years. And the pressure point for that can press right at the desk of the financial aid administrator,” she explains.
Hendrix’s Foust agrees that the economic slump coupled with a demographic decline of high school graduates in many regions of the country, on top of the unrelenting questions about the value of a college education, has created a new level of stress in the profession. “The work of our division is a team effort, and it’s tireless,” she says. “We are all working harder to build each class, and the enrollment leaders (at both the vice president and director levels) are additionally responsible for ensuring that each person is fully resourced and supported in their work.”
“When we finished 2010-11, I said it had been the hardest year in my career,” she says. “But now, a year later, I believe this year was even harder.”
The Ripple Effect of Wait Lists
The enrollment team at the University of Richmond maintained a rigorous strategy to bring in its class, even with the year off to a good start. Its Early Decision applications were up, and Tessier reports it was their strongest pool in years. “As a result, we admitted more ED students than in the past, leaving fewer spaces to complete the class,” she recalls.
In the end, Richmond’s yield was higher than anticipated, less than 15 students came off the wait list (which the admissions office carried as a way to protect the university in shaping the class), and summer melt was low. The incoming class was slightly larger than the target. But Tessier admits it could have gone differently.
“Our work is challenging because we are predicting high school student behavior based on what other high school students have done in the past two or three years,” she says, “not to mention dealing with the influences that result from one’s competitor set.”
Lee Ann Afton-Backlund, dean of admission and financial aid at Sewanee: The University of the South (Tennessee), also acknowledges the unpredictable nature of the admissions cycle in recent years, particularly with respect to wait lists.
“It’s been an interesting couple of years when we think about how schools are banking on protecting their admit rates while still making their class with a wait list,” says Afton-Backlund.
According to her, Sewanee overlaps with institutions that put thousands of applicants on a wait list. “Those of us in the middle of the food chain found ourselves reacting to others’ wait lists not only throughout the spring but late into summer,” she says.
Hendrix College found itself in a similar predicament, according to Foust. “Hendrix applicants are highly self-selective, so we traditionally have a high yield and a very modest wait list—not something we use to fill a class by any means,” she says. “We also know students have decisions to make, so we clear our wait list at least a month before May 1. But we had a few last-minute changes to our class in August as a result of deposited students getting wait list calls from other institutions.”
These three institutions successfully made their classes, but their experiences in 2011-12 may well result in a different approach to how they use the wait list in the coming year.
“We are in growth mode, and having a deeper wait list this past year could have helped us as we dealt with other wait lists,” says Sewanee’s Afton-Backlund. Still, she doesn’t anticipate it growing dramatically. “Wait lists make families uneasy because they want to know whether or not they’ll have a chance to attend the school. A wait list needs to be small enough that those students really do have a chance.”
Technology vs. Personal Touch
The University of Denver is considering how technology can create greater efficiencies for its enrollment division. “We try to stay in tune not only with prospective students and their families but also with the staff to understand their day-to-day challenges and how that changes from one year to the next,” says Willoughby.
During an annual summer session, Willoughby asks the enrollment division staff to evaluate what they do, why they do it, and how well they do it. Many of the responses this summer were related to technology processes, including the application file review, communicating admission decisions to students, online checklists for students, and utilizing iPads to gather student information and directly upload it to a central database to eliminate the duplication of data entry.
As technology is further integrated into the admissions process, enrollment officers are mindful of the importance of direct contact with families. “We are trying to tread that line between using technology where it can help us be more efficient or reach a broader audience (webinars, chat, online file reading), but not relying on it so much that we miss the chance to engage students physically on our campus and with our community,” says Harvey Mudd’s Briggs.
“The changes we have made in recent years have tried to strike a balance between using technology to reach greater numbers of students but at the same time realizing that in order to have the best chance of enrolling a student, we are better off simply getting them on our campus,” she says. “We are increasing the opportunities students have to actually spend time on campus because ultimately, as a small community, our most compelling selling points are not what we offer in terms of bells and whistles but our faculty and students.”
Sewanee’s Afton-Backlund shares the same philosophy. “This is the kind of place you have to see to believe, and we want as many visitors to campus as we can get,” she says. “Our counselors’ main objective when out on the road is to get students to see the campus firsthand.”
When Sewanee announced it was lowering tuition in spring 2011, it put the university in the national spotlight and campus visits went up 60 percent. “Our challenge for 2011-12 was to maintain the same number of visitors,” says Afton-Backlund.
To draw more families to campus and make their visits more meaningful, Sewanee customizes them with options that go beyond the traditional tour, information session, and class visit. “We try to do different things to make the visit a little more interesting,” says Afton-Backlund. “One example is our nature hike through the countryside. It gives students a taste of what it’s like to be part of a campus community with 13,000 acres.” When all was said and done, the number of visitors to the university rose 6 percent over the previous year’s record.
At the University of Richmond, the career center was moved to a more prominent location on campus four years ago, and tour guides make a point of emphasizing that faculty and staff expect students to be connected and engaged with the career services office from the get-go.
“Every person looking at higher education sees it as an investment, and that’s been true for 25 years,” says Richmond’s Tessier. “But now they’re looking at it more carefully, and in our role today we can’t wait for people to ask about that—we have to expect that and deliver the information they need to assess the value of our education.”
Harvey Mudd’s Briggs agrees: “We have such a great story to tell [about successful outcomes], and we would be foolish not to tell it early and often.”
Leadership and Looking Ahead
While Harvey Mudd College sees itself as one of the new kids on the block, with a very short history but an amazing story to tell, Briggs believes it’s that shared sense of “being in it together” that keeps the institution moving onward.
“I am fortunate that both our mission and our strategic plan give us some fairly concrete guidelines as to when we would be straying from our original purpose,” she says. Harvey Mudd trustees demand hard, fast data to support changes in policies and practice, she notes, so Briggs spends a great deal of time presenting marketplace research results to them.
Willoughby at the University of Denver does the same. “We keep faculty and board members informed, so there are no surprises,” he says. “I’m with trustees almost monthly, and I see the faculty senate and deans regularly. I want them to see what we see—to understand the challenges facing us.”
And Denver’s board “gets it,” he says. Under its leadership, the university is exploring ways to reduce costs and increase productivity, possibly through technology. “Everyone here is realistic that the current model is not sustainable,” says Willoughby. “Together we are looking at all the options to sustain the university without compromising quality or taking shortcuts.”
Sexton at Santa Clara says he always looks forward to new trustee orientation and “getting them when they are fresh.” With bylaws that require eight trustees who are Jesuit, Santa Clara’s board often contains presidents of other Jesuit institutions. “When I have discussions with them about policies or issues, they know exactly where I’m coming from. And as a university in Silicon Valley, we are lighter on our feet here—things are decided and done in a snap; we don’t committee things to death. It’s delightful from an administrator’s viewpoint, because if it’s worth doing we just do it. This board is very responsive to new ideas.”
Still, Sexton notes it’s the Jesuit mission that really guides Santa Clara’s trustees. “For example, when the economic conditions changed, since it’s not the nature of Jesuits to cut people, instead everyone had a salary freeze for two years. We didn’t have pay raises, but no one lost their job.”
After a recruitment cycle of scrambling to meet the demands of the marketplace of prospective students, Harvey Mudd’s Briggs, too, appreciates a board that takes the long view in response to future uncertainty in the higher education industry. She reports feeling fortunate to be at an institution where the question “How would this support our mission?” is frequently asked in cabinet and trustee meetings.
“If we can’t answer that,” she says, “then we know it’s not the best place to put our resources.”
Sidebar: Concordia St. Paul Embraces “Perception Is Reality” for Many Families
Like most private institutions, Concordia University, St. Paul (Minnesota) is acutely aware that sticker price is a big hurdle in today’s college marketplace—and that the hurdle has become more like an obstacle for families in recent years.
“Six years ago, we conducted price sensitivity research and found that people were making decisions in their college search based on their assumptions that Concordia was too expensive,” says Kristin Vogel, director of undergraduate admissions. Even though the majority of Concordia students receive substantial discounts on their tuition, too many prospects never even made it to the stage when they could discover the reality of what their net cost would be, because they were stopped by the perception of unaffordability created by Concordia’s sticker price.
When the University repeated the same study a year ago, the results showed the gap (between what prospective students expected they would need to pay and what their actual net cost would be) was even wider.
“Every year it was a bigger and bigger challenge for us to get those individuals to even consider us,” says Eric LaMott, senior vice president and chief operating officer. “The high discount wasn’t fixing the problem, because they didn’t even look.”
So Concordia’s leadership decided to do something that would bring families’ price assumptions closer to reality: It approved a $10,000 tuition reduction for all new and returning undergraduate students beginning in fall of 2013. This 33 percent drop, from $29,700 to $19,700, effectively “reset” tuition to what it was a decade ago—and in the process, reset families’ perceptions of whether or not they could afford Concordia.
Vogel explains that because the University has had a history of being fiscally conservative, steady revenue streams from degree-completion and graduate programs, and solid enrollment numbers for its traditional undergraduate programs, “we had the operating capacity to move from a high-tuition/high-discount model to a low-tuition/low-discount model without sacrificing the quality of education or reducing any programs and services.”
Since institutional scholarship and grant amounts will be reduced along with tuition, most students who qualify for need- and merit-based financial aid will find their net cost only slightly improved. But while the reality of actual price changes little for these students, Concordia is betting that changed perceptions will remove an obstacle to finding out about actual price.
Meanwhile, families with higher income can potentially experience a significant drop in their out-of-pocket cost due to the tuition reset—creating more willingness to pay for Concordia’s private Christian college education among those who have the ability to pay.
The reaction to Concordia’s tuition reset announcement has been exceedingly positive, according to Vogel. “Current students and alumni both are very proud of their institution for responding to the marketplace,” she says. “We are excited about talking to more prospective students who might find Concordia isn’t just their ‘best fit’ college, but their ‘financial first choice,’ too.”