Scorecards and the new admission strategy

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At the undergraduate level, colleges and universities have always relied upon first-time, first year students as the foundation of their freshman class. Historically, these students were drawn from four categories: legacies, student athletes, students seeking admission to a well-differentiated academic program, and qualified students who came in “over the transom” as part of a general college-wide recruiting process.

At some level, the ethos and cultural climate on campus further solidified the connection. For whatever reason, most students accepted admission because they felt a bond and lasting connection to the institution.

The mix varied, of course, from college to college. At highly selective institutions with strong alumni support, legacies have always been a critical building block. Many colleges use recruitment of student athletes to balance gender, increase diversity, expand an admissions footprint, and enhance their residential learning experience.

Competition and shifting demographics now call into question the ability of America’s colleges and universities to rely upon older models. The development of for-profit institutions, the promise in the early stirrings of MOOC’s, and the increasing support for blended learning are compromising admission models based on the traditional mix of students, likely for the better over the long term.

President Obama’s “accountability bus tour” during which he laid out rough parameters for a new ratings system based upon outcome measures among students and at institutions gives voice to a new higher education agenda already in place, whatever the outcome of specific proposals. The first significant players, including Republican state lawmakers, major foundations supporting higher education, policy think tanks, and the US Department of Education, will not only advocate program and policy changes but will also likely redefine how colleges “do” admissions.

Put in other terms, shifts in emphasis to student and institutional outcomes will quickly reverberate throughout admissions, dramatically redefining how colleges recruit their admission classes. It will become something of a perfect storm as admission officers seek to bring in classes that test well against scorecard rankings. Their actions will be judged against the mission and financial health of the institution itself, at which federal support is only one contributor to a balanced budget.

How students come will become as important as why they are there. College admission officers need to be prepared for this new reality. In particular, they must educate their campuses where older financial aid models are collapsing as the gap widens at most institutions between sticker price and the willingness of families to pay the difference between sticker price and the financial aid package offered.

In the harsh internal reality not always understood outside traditional higher education leadership, labor, capital, consumer preference, regulatory reporting requirements, and recurring technology costs largely shape institutional discretion. With fixed costs so high, most colleges and universities have shockingly little discretion available.

This will require hard choices in admission offices.

One casualty will likely be the four-color, glossy brochure. Students will learn about a college in the same way that they acquire knowledge generally – through web-based research and social media. Additional pressures, illustrated by shifting demographics as traditional recruiting pools decline, will accelerate the pace of change as admission officers scramble to adjust.

In these first years of heightened change, the most important duty of admission leadership will be to educate college constituencies that the look, feel and needs of new admission classes will likely be remarkably different inside and outside the classroom. This adjusted reality will be based largely upon new building blocks added to the foundation of legacies and student athletes.

Practically, the first addition to this group will be transfer students from two-year institutions, especially graduates from public community colleges. Fifty percent of the college going population in America attends community college. Yet only 11 percent of those community college students who indicate that they started their college career with the intent of earning a four-year degree ever do so.

The market is obvious for upper division colleges and universities. Current articulation agreements – while well intended and with a number of exceptions – hinder seamless transition between two-year and four-year institutions. Four-year admission leadership must focus on the student and less on institutional strategy to open the market.

A second building block will be foreign nationals, often full-pay students, who seek an American education. They value the degree and access to internships, externships and employment opportunities at graduation. The presence of foreign students on campus as a new building block will effectively globalize myopic, inward looking campus cultures, especially if foreign students are fully integrated into the learning experience.

The impact of a new admissions paradigm based on legacies, student athletes, generally admitted students, transfers, and foreign nationals will challenge traditional pedagogical and support services. Most forward-thinking college campuses will look less white and young. They will shift to blended learning platforms and more sharply differentiated majors, maintain core liberal arts traditions that provide the breath and depth to an envied educational experience, and develop employment linkages closely tied to the needs of the global workforce.

If the new admission strategy relies upon expanded building blocks to establish a foundation, the outcome will likely be good for America. The coming shift in attention to outcomes based rating and funding will accelerate the process of change. American colleges and universities must not adopt a Luddite response to it.

It begins with how American colleges and universities recruit students. Whatever happens long-term, the days of an incremental admission strategy are over.

Higher education must anticipate, prepare for and welcome what’s coming.

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