College Admissions Officials Face Host of New Challenges
Kevin Kelly says a student’s grades and the difficulty of his or her high-school courses are the best predictors of college success.
Despite popular opinion that one exists, there is simply no magic formula for colleges and universities to use when deciding which candidates to admit, decline, or put on a waiting list.
Instead, there is a mix of quantitative and qualitative analysis, say those who work in the field known as enrollment management, and, in the end, a search for the right fit, however it is defined.
“It takes a combination of good grades and good courses, and the best predictor of future success is the degree of success students have had in high school,” said Kevin Kelly, director of undergraduate admissions at UMass Amherst. “We are looking for students who have taken the most challenging curriculum they can find and done well with it.”
And though this usually grueling process has always been like this, some changes in the procedures, coupled with a rise in student and parental expectations, have transformed the climate and created an atmosphere that is challenging for everyone involved.
Teens in high school are exploring options as early as their freshman year because taking the right courses can result in acceptance at a number of quality institutions.
“We’re seeing more and more families who start the process earlier,” said Charles Pollack, vice president for enrollment management at Western New England University. “We’re giving tours to high-school freshmen and holding open houses for juniors.”
Mary DeAngelo, director of enrollment at Springfield College, concurs. She said the school recently held seven programs for juniors in three weeks. “The whole process is accelerated as students narrow down the schools they’re interested in,” she noted.
However, even when students who have been accepted attend open houses, they are asking questions about job opportunities, internships, and experiential learning that will lead to employment at the end of their college career. “Families are much more proactive in seeking out information,” she went on.
During a recent event at Springfield College, a panel of graduates addressed potential freshmen and spoke about what the school had done to help them transition into careers. “Believe me, people were paying attention,” DeAngelo told BusinessWest. “In the past, students weren’t worried about the end of the experience, but now they are definitely thinking about it before they even start.”
Julie Richardson, dean of admissions and financial aid at Hampshire College, has been in the field for more than 20 years and agrees there has been a climate change. “I love helping students figure out how to get into the right college and pay for it. But students are applying to more colleges than ever before,” she said, adding that many have submitted applications to 10 or more colleges. As a result, students with good grades are often accepted at a number of institutions, which can make it confusing and difficult to decide where they really want to go.
Kelly said UMass Amherst set a new record with almost 36,500 applicants this year, and the numbers have been rising since 2006. As a result, the review process has become a double-edged sword, as admission officials cull through a growing tide of applications, then find themselves having to compete for candidates from the 98% of 18.6 million high-school graduates who have applied or will be applying to institutions of higher learning next fall. And until a student actually begins classes, nothing can be taken for granted.
“Some students go to an orientation during the summer, then change their mind about the college they have chosen,” Pollack said, adding that WNEU receives late applications as a result and admits students at the last minute whenever possible.
DeAngelo said that’s why it’s important for high-school students and their families to visit schools and talk to people on campus in advance to determine the best fit from an academic, co-curricular, and financial standpoint.
Charles Pollack says he’s seeing families start the college-application process earlier than ever before.
The Common Application for Undergraduate College Admission, first established in 1975, provides a standardized form for students, and is used today by close to 500 colleges across the country as well as two international institutions. And, thanks to the Internet, it has become easier than ever for students to apply to a multitude of schools using this format.
Last year almost 2.5 million applications were submitted online, and many colleges depend exclusively on the Common Application.
But it creates an overwhelming amount of work, because students’ credentials must be examined on an individual basis. “The Common Application makes it so easy for students to apply that it can be difficult to tell who has the most interest in your college,” said DeAngelo, adding that Springfield College does not use the format.
Last year, WNEU had 6,400 applicants and admitted 906 students. Pollack said the institution’s name change — from college to university — yielded an increase in applicants from across the country as well as overseas. “At one time, our students were predominantly from the Northeast. But now they are from states ranging from Florida to Hawaii.”
In 2005, UMass Amherst admitted 80% of applicants, while last year the number shrunk to 63%. “We are being more selective,” Kelly said. “But we did admit 1,500 more students for the fall of 2013 than last year.”
When asked how the school goes about deciding which students to admit, Kelly said the process is both an art and a science, with some math thrown in as well.
Indeed, many schools recalculate a student’s grade point average and use only college-preparatory courses to determine that number, although honors and advanced-placement courses are given extra weight.
“We’re looking for trends such as whether the student started out well, then tapered off in their senior year,” Kelly said.
It’s also critical for students to have taken the necessary prerequisites for their majors. “But there is no rating system; we judge each student on their own merits, although there are differences in high schools,” he explained, adding that, even though he and other officials look at extracurricular activities, academic qualifications are far more important than anything done outside of the classroom.
SAT and ACT scores are also considered, but many schools don’t pay attention to the written portion of the exam because it is subjective and doesn’t have a direct correlation to college writing assignments.
DeAngelo said Springfield College considers how much students know about their school, but their personal statement and whether they have demonstrated leadership in high school can be a deciding factor. “Many of our applicants have a pretty strong record of community service, which is important to us because we have a lot of opportunities for students to continue that work. Our small community makes it easy for students to get involved in clubs and organizations, and we have several hundred who are volunteering in the community.”
Personal recommendations also play heavily into the equation at Springfield College, especially in physical therapy, occupational therapy, and physican assistant programs, where spots are very limited. “We have a lot of students who are very strong academically, so we need other factors to look at,” DeAngelo said, noting that interest continues to grow in all health-related professions due to the future job outlook.
But, in the end, it all boils down to grades.
“Participation in clubs, sports, and co-curricular activities makes a student well-rounded, and we like to see it, but it is secondary to their academic record. We analyze every transcript, but only look at college-preparatory classes,” Pollack said. “Many students don’t understand what our coursework will involve, and attending college is first and foremost an academic pursuit, although our students are also exposed to leadership skills to prepare them for graduate school or the world of work.”
Hampshire College is one of the many schools using the Common Application. “It makes it so much easier for students. The college search process is fraught with enough tough decisions and stress,” Richardson said. However, Hampshire asks students to submit an additional page that contains information about recent books they have read, other campuses they have visited, and why they believe Hampshire is a good fit for them.
This is critical since the school doesn’t have grades or majors, but encourages interdisciplinary work. “We want to make sure they know about our model and have taken steps to research us. We’re looking for students who are inquisitive and articulate, and we want to know what they are interested in,” she said. “A lot of students we admit are interested in sustainability or want to make the world a better place.”
Although Hampshire admits two out of every three applicants, last year it set a record with a 20% increase in applications, which has continued this year.
And despite the fact that the Common Application contributes to the growing tide of applicants, local admission officials are quick to cite the merits of their schools as a contributing factor.
Pollack said the number of students WNEU admits is carefully calculated due to space restrictions, because it doesn’t want more than two students in a dorm room, and most live on campus.
“But we also pride ourselves on personal attention and don’t have any teaching assistants, even in our labs. It is not our intention to ever become a large institution,” he told BusinessWest. However, he points with pride to the school’s new professional degree programs in pharmacy and civil engineering, which account for the largest recent growth areas.
“And there is more and more recognition of the depth and breadth of our programs, which are attracting students from overseas,” he continued, adding that there is strong interest in the business program, which has attained accreditation from the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business, granted to fewer than 5% of business programs.
In some schools, such as UMass Amherst, students may not be admitted to their first program choice, especially in the fields of management, nursing, or engineering. But many are offered another track, even though they may not be able to switch to their desired major within a given time period.
Still, Kelly said every application is carefully reviewed, and every candidate has to submit at least one letter of recommendation and an essay. “There is no pre-screening done by the computer. We read them all,” he said, adding that the University subscribes to what many schools call a ‘holistic’ review process.
State colleges and universities can cost less than private institutions, but Kelly said it’s not the only reason students want to enter UMass. “It’s our academic reputation, the quality of our majors, and the overall value we offer.”
But any student’s decision about which school to attend can be tenuous. “In the end, it becomes like the tiger chasing its tail, because the more students a school tries to bring in, the more students they have with the possibility to go elsewhere,” Richardson said.
The competition to attract high-quality students has intensified in recent years, and the Internet will continue to allow families to research institutions and their requirements more carefully than they ever did in the past.
“Students are trying to get a leg up on what they need to do to become competitive, and they want to make certain that they are making solid choices,” DeAngelo said.
In the end, however, it’s all about the right fit.
“The most important thing families can do is to be really judicious about the schools their children apply to,” Richardson said. “They should stretch their dreams and apply to the schools that really meet their needs.”