Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Money, Value and Pink Floyd


Money
So they say
Is the root of all evil today
But if you ask for a raise
It's no surprise that they're giving none away
Pink Floyd, Money

 

Now that you’ve started to get acceptances from your schools, the reality of how you’ll afford to go to them has surely set in.  If you read any major newspaper or watch TV news, you’ve no doubt heard that money is truly the “root of all evil” in higher education.  Stories about high tuition, poor graduation rates, crushing student debt, and unemployed college graduates are common, and enough to make anyone nervous about the future.  There are certainly examples of schools and programs that are not successful in graduating students with marketable skills, but the truth of the matter is that the value of a college degree – and a liberal arts education – has never been more important.

What these stories focus on is how much a college education costs, as if it were a consumer good like buying a car.  What they often fail to include is the value of the investment.  If you have been looking at going to college in a narrow, career focused way, as a means to getting your first job, than perhaps you should question the cost of the education.  But going to college has never really been about only your first job.  Going to college is about developing the skills, experiences, perspectives, and opportunities that prepare you for the rest of your life, which will include your first job.  At the University of San Diego, we don’t view the four years you’ll spend with us as a vocational path toward a job.  During your time here we expect to help you grow academically, to view the world and your place in it differently, and to help prepare you to be an educated, compassionate, and more engaged citizen of the world.  The skills and experiences you gain here, as well as the connections you make with faculty and students, will help you find your first job, but more importantly, will help shape the trajectory of the rest of your life. 

Now, as a parent who also pays tuition, I don’t mean to minimalize how much college costs, including USD.  It is a big investment.  But to consider the cost without considering the value of the education over a lifetime misses the point.  As you weigh your options over the next few weeks, we’d like to spend some time talking about the value of this educational experience.  To do that, we have asked some of our faculty to talk about what they believe is the real value of going to college, of exploring the liberal arts, and of using these four years as a time of growth and development.  Their stories will appear on our website over the next several weeks, and we hope you’ll read them and reflect upon what you hope to get out of the next four years.

Money isn’t really the root of all evil in higher education, unless it’s the only thing we pay attention to. Fortunately, at USD, the value of our education extends long after the first job. Enjoy the stories and good luck with your decisions.


Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Better Things


Today is a sad day at USD and represents the really difficult side of selective college admissions.  It is the day we begin sending out deny letters to our freshman applicants.  For thousands of students, the dreaded “small envelop” will mean disappointment and one less option they can consider. 

USD received over 14,200 applications for our freshman class this year.  Since we can only hope to enroll about 1120, our admissions team has had to make some very difficult decisions.  Choosing a class from so many wonderful young people is hard and, unfortunately, we often turn away students who certainly look “admissible,” meaning they have grades, scores, and experiences that might indicate that they could be successful here.  USD, like all schools, is trying to enroll a class that has many types of students – students from different places, with different academic interests, with different personal characteristics, and who have different skills and talents.  All of these differences help form the foundation of our community and enrich the classroom, the residence hall, and entire campus. 

Selecting a class is an imperfect process, and I know that finding out you weren’t admitted to a school you were interested in can hurt.  I’ve experienced this in my work over the past thirty years, but I’ve also experienced it as a parent, seeing the disappointment in my own kids.  There is little I can do or say that will make that hurt and disappointment go away.  But I can tell you that it will pass, and there will be good news that comes your way.  More often than not, students end up loving the school they end up at, even if it might not have been their first choice. 

As I thought about this day, and the impact our decisions (and those of many other schools) will have on students as they receive the news, I thought of an old tune from a band called the Kinks – a British band that has been around almost as long as I have (mid-60’s).  As you start getting your decisions from colleges – big envelop or small – I hope you’ll keep these lyrics in mind, and know that this sentiment comes from all of us who do this work:



“Here’s hoping all the days ahead
Won’t be as bitter as the ones behind you.
Be an optimist instead,
And somehow happiness will find you.
Forget what happened yesterday,
I know that better things are on the way.
“I know tomorrow you’ll find better things…”
- Ray Davies, The Kinks


Please know that we still have a lot of decisions to make, including more admit decisions.  We hope to be done by the end of next week.  But whatever happens, we wish you well, and thank you for your sincere interest in USD.  Never stop looking for better things.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Help!

Given the 50th anniversary of the Beatles arrival in the US, and where we are in the college admissions cycle, that title seems appropriate to open a new series of blogs for the Class of 2018.  Each of the past few falls or winters, I have taken to the "blogosphere" to try and share some information with parents, students and counselors about the process of applying to and selecting a college.  If you review some of the past entries, you'll notice a theme - song titles from my youth that "help" frame the conversation.  As my wife repeatedly reminds me, I tend to use "classic rock" - or "old music" - because that's what I know.  I think it's good music, so hopefully students may discover some good tunes, and I think parents and counselors will appreciate the trip down memory lane.  In any event, I hope all will find the information and conversation here worthwhile and helpful.

In conversations with our applicants and their parents, the song title "Help" seems to be just below the surface of so many questions and comments.  Even for parents who went to college themselves, today's process is so different - more competitive, more expensive, and more pressure-packed than ever.  It doesn't help that almost every story about higher education paints a bleak picture of students graduating with huge debt and no job.  Some have even questioned the merits of higher education entirely, suggesting that it is not worth the cost.

The fact of the matter is that going to college, and benefiting from a broad based, liberal arts education has never been more valuable or important.  Another fact is that most students - especially those that graduate from USD - have reasonable amounts of students loans, graduate on time, and have job offers by the time they walk across the stage at graduation.

We are very excited that you've applied to USD and appreciate all you have done in your preparation to get to this point.  We also recognize that not everyone will be accepted, and of those that are accepted, not everyone will either want to or be able to enroll.  Regardless of how the process turns out, we hope that the blogs that follow will help all of you "get your feet back on the ground," as the song says.  Over the next few weeks leading up to May 1 you will be able to read about:

  • Affording college and what you should be doing now to prepare
  • The value of a liberal arts education with faculty and students addressing some of the misperceptions surrounding this education as well as specific outcomes that employers and graduate schools value
  • Why you might want to choose USD over the other excellent options you have
  • Helpful tips about getting ready for May 1 and beyond - from students who experienced exactly what you are feeling now
There will be information for parents too, so be sure to let them know about it (and ask them if they ever heard of some of the music references).  In the meantime, remember to enjoy your senior year.   Think carefully about what you hope to get out of college - beyond your first job.  And remember these lyrics:

And now my life has changed in oh so many ways
  My independence seems to vanish in the haze
  But every now and then I feel so insecure
   I know that I just need you like I've never done before

If any of those feelings of insecurity creep in, we're here to Help.


Monday, October 1, 2012

Running Against the Wind...

"Well those drifter's days are past me now
I've got so much more to think about
Deadlines and commitments
What to leave in, what to leave out..."
- Bob Seger & the Silver Bullet Band

After my last post, and the subsequent articles that resulted from our decision to drop our early action program, I received many comments from counselors and parents that were very supportive of our decision (thank you for the kind words and messages). However, I also had more than a few comments from readers who were surprised at the notion of  “shaping our class”, a reference I made regarding the process of trying to recruit, admit and ultimately enroll students with a variety of personal characteristics. This appeared to some as a dubious activity at best – providing an unfair advantage to some at worst. In reflecting about these comments, I realize that for many students, parents and even counselors, the concept of “enrollment management” and how it affects an institution's admission and financial aid policies is not widely understood. Even on our own campuses, I suspect not everyone could clearly define what it is we do. So I thought I would take this opportunity, with the help of Bob Seger, to try and explain why managing enrollment is so important and what we as enrollment managers hope to accomplish.


The profession of enrollment management is a relatively new one, appearing on campuses in the mid to late 70’s, mostly in response to dramatic changes in demographics and a poor economy that put many colleges and universities in financial trouble (sounds somewhat familiar, doesn’t it?). Its history is often traced back to Boston College, and a mathematical physics professor named Jack Maguire. He was also the Dean of Admissions at the time and in order to help rescue BC from what was a financial crisis at the time, he and his colleagues began to apply concepts such as market research, predictive modeling, financial aid leveraging and many other activities that are still being used today. The basic idea was that colleges and universities needed to behave more like businesses – very special kinds of businesses – but they had a bottom line and needed to take in enough revenue (tuition) in order to fund the buildings, classrooms, faculty, and staff that it took to enroll and graduate its students. In order to do that it had to manage its enrollment – from how many students were interested in the school, to how many and who it was going to admit, to how much aid was required to make it possible for students to enroll, to how services across the campus worked together to ensure that students made it through to graduation. All of these things were being done already, but in very disparate and uncoordinated ways. Enrollment management sought to bring a level of intention to the way schools did business.

Since then, the world of higher education has changed, like most things, in some dramatic ways. But fundamentally, colleges are still struggling with that basic issue: how to manage its enrollment in such a way that it remains competitive in a consumer driven marketplace, that it enrolls enough students and generates enough revenue to provide the education and the outcomes that it intends. To some, that may seem like a very cynical approach to education, but the fact is that in order to keep the doors open, it is essential that enrollment is managed in an effective way. When done well, the decisions that drive the enrollment process – from recruitment through graduation – are rooted in the institution’s mission and academic values. But whether done well or not, all institutions – public and private – manage their enrollment by applying many of those same business practices used back at Boston College in the ‘70’s.

At the University of San Diego, we manage our enrollment by connecting our activities with the mission and strategic directions that have been formed by the campus and approved by the Board of Trustees, President, faculty, and other community members. You can see our strategic directions at http://www.sandiego.edu/strategicdirections/. Through our Mission, our core values, and vision statement, our community has defined who we are, what kind of education we are going to offer and what we want our students to become. The strategic directions provide us all with a set of priorities that support those definitions. From the enrollment management perspective, we formulate our goals, plans, marketing, financial aid and student service strategies with those objectives in mind. Enrollment management is where the institution’s mission meets the realities of the marketplace, and at that intersection, it can sometimes get a little messy.

Enrollment managers have to balance institutional aspiration with a whole set of market forces that often are working against those aspirations. Whatever an institution may think about itself, or the direction it is going, parents, students and counselors have a perception of the school that may not align with that vision. Attracting students with the qualities and characteristics that will ultimately support the mission and vision of the institution is challenging. Admitting students who will not only be successful in our classrooms, but who will help us achieve our institutional goals requires careful training and execution. Enrolling enough students to fill our classrooms and providing them with enough financial aid requires incredible amounts of data analysis, financial planning and modeling, as well as regulatory navigation. Ensuring that students receive the advising, support, and career counseling they need to persist and graduate requires careful coordination and planning. While not all enrollment managers are directly responsible for all of these things, we are all impacted by how well and consistently they are done. Balancing all of these competing priorities with the staffing and budget constraints found on most campuses can often feel like…well, running against the wind.

This is not meant to make anyone feel bad for the work that we do – I could not have a more challenging and satisfying job and I know that most of my colleagues feel the same way. Instead, I want to help people understand that all of these things – marketing, admissions, financial aid, and student services – don’t just happen. They are carefully balanced, managed, and coordinated activities and they have a great deal to do with how an admissions office recruits, who gets in and who doesn’t, and how financial aid is awarded. They involve tradeoffs and decisions about “what to leave in, what to leave out”.

Over the next several posts, I will look more closely at each of these areas: marketing, admissions, financial aid, and student services. In doing so, I hope I can help explain how these things influence prospective students and parents, and how counselors can better understand an institution’s policies by looking at them through this broader lens. Things have gotten much more complicated since I joined the profession 26 years ago. Like Seger sang, “wish I didn’t know now what I didn’t know then… I am much older now, but still running against the wind…”

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

The Waiting is the Hardest Part: The Story of Early Action

"You can't always get what you want, but if you try sometimes, you just might find you get what you need..."
- The Rolling Stones

I turn to the British Invasion for my musical inspiration this week as I talk about our decision to eliminate our early action application deadline.  As most of you know, most colleges have several application options available.  The most common are early action, which allows you to apply early and get a decision earlier but does not commit you to attend and early decision, which does carry with it an obligation to enroll if you are accepted under that plan.  These multiple application options have complicated an already difficult process and, in the opinion of many - especially on the high school side - have further advanced the notion that there is a game to be played by the savvy consumer.  The belief is that taking advantage of these early options implies a greater chance of acceptance and therefore students and parents are applying to more and more places earlier and earlier.

How much of that is true may be up for debate, but what seems to be very clear is that these early programs have become so popular that most schools are seeing a significant portion of their applicant pools come in through the early option.  At the University of San Diego, our early action applications increased over 52% since 2010.  That year we received just over 28% of our total applications through early action.  In 2012, the 5280 early applications represented over 32% of our total.  These students tended to be stronger academically, more female, more white, and less geographically diverse than our overall application pool. 

Having more students who are academically stronger apply to your school would seem to be good news for the admissions office.  So why in the world would we consider ending such a program?  Well, here's where those lyrics from the Rolling Stones come in.  Building our class each year is a complex and difficult exercise and requires us - and all selective schools - to make tradeoffs.  It would be far easier if we knew with certainty how many applications we were going to get, what the quality and characteristics of that pool was going to be, and who was most interested.  We could make our decisions and have a reasonable idea about who was actually going to enroll.

We can't always get what we want, however.  As a relatively small school (5200 undergraduates) without the capacity to grow the size of our freshman class very much, we are very cautious about how many students we admit. In addition to wanting more academically strong students, we also want to enroll students with more diverse backgrounds - ethnically, geographically, gender and religious, socioeconomically, etc.  Our application pool, like many other private schools in the west, has grown tremendously over the past few years - 57% in the last five years including a 20% increase last year alone.  With so many families facing economic challenges, the uncertainty surrounding our public universities, and more and more schools using the Common Application, students are applying to more places.  With all of these factors fueling the application growth, it is more and more difficult for us to decide who to admit and how many to admit in order to arrive at the "right" number and mix of students that we would like.

As a result, what we found was that we admitted the strongest students who applied early, but because of this uncertainty about how the overall applicant pool was going to look, we ended up defering to the regular pool increasingly large numbers of students.  This meant making them wait until March when we made the rest of our decisions.  In addition, because we didn't know how large or how strong the pool was going to be, it became increasingly difficult to offer merit scholarships to the early action students (without exploding our budget) and so even if we offered them acceptance in December, they had to wait until March to find out whether they qualified or not.  With or without a merit award, many of these early action admits and their families needed to wait for our financial aid award in March before they could make a decision on whether to attend. 

The impact of what I have described above was becoming a real challenge for our office.  Starting in November, the admissions staff began reviewing the early action applications.  We tried our best to get as many admit decisions out to students before the Christmas holiday, although that became increasingly difficult given the numbers.  By mid-January, our early decisions were all made and the staff could finally begin reading the thousands of regular decision applications.  During this time, however, we planned campus events for the early admits, had students and alumni make congratulatory calls, sent mailings, and did our best to "convert" these admits into enrolling students.  This took precious time away from the reading of our regular students.  And finally, in the end, we found that the percentage of early action students who ended up accepting our offer of admission was about the same as those who were admitted through the regular decision option.

This summer, during our staff retreat, we reviewed all of this information and everyone shared their frustration with the early process.  We talked about how it was increasingly difficult for us to review these files in a timely way.  We expressed concern for how long we made students wait who were deferred.  We looked at lots of data on who our early applicants were, who ultimately came, and what we were truly looking for among our enrolled students.  The result was that while we may not be able to get what we want, we found a way to get what we need.

What our students need is a relatively easy way to apply for admission, present their academic credentials and convey their "fit" with our campus and programs.  What we need is a process that allows the staff to thoroughly review every file, understanding how that student's strengths and qualities compares them to everyone else who has applied.  What we all need is a clear expectation about when to apply and when decisions will be made. What we need, and we now have, is a single deadline, December 15.

There already has been a fair amount of feedback from this decision.  Mostly positive, but more than a few raised eyebrows from colleagues on and off campus.  There was a posting to our admissions list serve which solicited some very nice comments (thanks Dennis Eller at Canterbury School).  A wonderful writer from the Chronicle of Higher Education, Beckie Supiano, wrote about our decision in her Blog, Headcount  (http://chronicle.com/blogs/headcount/u-of-san-diego-ends-early-admissions-program/31508). But this wasn't about getting press or attention.  It was about an admissions office trying make choices - tradeoffs - in order to meet the enormous challenges we face each year in enrolling our class.  It was about trying to make things a bit easier for students, but it was also about trying to make things a little easier for us, too.  How will it turn out?  That remains to be seen, but I will certainly be posting about it as December gets closer.  In the end,  I hope we all at least get what we need.

P.S. - Today is the first day of classes here at USD.  Welcome to all our new freshman and transfer students.  The view from my window is much better with all our students back!

Monday, August 27, 2012

A Year Unlike Any Other....Again

"They say that these are not the best of times, but they're the only times I've ever known...."
- Billy Joel, Summer in Highland Falls

Looking out my office window, as I see the size of our summer tour groups dwindling and more and more faculty returning to campus, it is a sure reminder that the start of another school year is upon us.  For high school seniors, it marks the beginning of the end in some ways, as the reality of graduation and the pressure of post high school plans takes hold.  To be sure, the pressures facing this year's high school graduates are intense, as a quick glance of the daily headlines will attest:
  • Unprecedented student debt
  • Poor job market for graduates
  • Tuition increases
  • Reduction in State support for education
While all of these are realities that will affect higher education in the years to come, the fact is that going to college, and finding the right "fit" academically as well as financially, has never been more important.  Equally as true is that however much the headlines portray a system of higher education out of control and beyond the reach of so many, enrollment in higher education has never been higher.  Regardless of the challenges colleges, parents, students, high school counselors and others face, as Billy Joel so beautifully pointed out, this is the world we live in, and over the next several months we will all navigate these difficult challenges and find great opportunities. 

This is not the first time a graduating class has entered college in difficult times.  Those of us old enough to remember - and this is my 26th year working in admissions and enrollment so I qualify - there have been challenging economic times before.  There have been seismic demographic changes before.  And there have been legal decisions that have altered the landscape of higher education for better or worse.  Each new class of entering freshman begins their college search with the challenges of the day guiding their decisions.  And while this particular group of seniors may have more than their share - especially in the backdrop of a presidential election - the fact remains that there are many, many excellent opportunities available to them at many schools and colleges. 

That brings us to the purpose of my writing this blog - to help facilitate a conversation between those students, parents, and counselors who are navigating these stormy seas.  Over the next eight months, as we make our collective way toward May 1, I hope to shed some light on the issues of the day, perhaps help clarify processes and procedures that may seem random or confusing to those outside the academy.  I hope I can debunk some popular myths about the college search process and perhaps even make some of you feel a little less stressed about the times ahead.  Of course, I will weave in a few things about USD, but I hope this is more about the bigger picture.  That's a rather ambitious agenda, but I think we can make it happen.  As you have already noticed, I will reference some of the music of my day (which maybe only some parents and counselors will get) to help frame some discussions.  I will try and tackle head on some of the more challenging issues facing the admissions and financial aid offices across the country, helping you to understand things from the college's perspective.  And I will try and respond to your comments, questions, criticisms, and insights so that this can be more of an exchange of perspectives and ideas.

These are challenging times, but they are not the first or last challenging times we will face together.  But they are real, and they frame the decisions we will all make during this process.  In order to make the best decisions, all we can do is get the best information we can, be open to many perspectives, and focus on what's most important. 

It won't be easy, and this process can be, as Billy Joel goes on to sing, "either madness or euphoria".  But all we can do is try.  I hope you will all join in and let's enjoy the ride together.

Next time, I'll be writing about our decision to do away with our early action deadline, and along with that, the proliferation of early programs in general.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

March Madness: College Admissions Style

Today is March 1, and we have now moved from the "Dog Days" of February (as I described in my last post) to our own version of March Madness.  In the next few weeks (next week for USD), schools will begin sending out their regular decision acceptance, deny and wait list letters.  This will be a difficult time as many students deal with disappointment while others will be thrilled to get good news from their top choice.  It's always a difficult period for the admission staff, too, as we have to turn away so many wonderful students.  We know, however, that there are other choices and whatever happens over the next few weeks, we hope everyone remembers what I talked about in an earlier post; that this will all work out OK and everyone will find a good place at the end.

Once those letters go out and families have their list of acceptances, the next challenge begins - how to pay for college. Tomorrow is March 2 and it is the priority deadline for completing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA).  This must be completed for any family hoping to be considered for need-based financial aid.  If you haven't yet done this, please visit http://www.fafsa.gov/  and complete this very important form.  You need to make sure you identify the schools that you want to get the results.  You don't need to have completed your taxes, but you will need last year's family financial information. 

If you're like most, this part of the college search process causes the most anxiety.  As a parent of a college freshman, I can still remember feeling overwhelmed as the reality of paying for tuition, room and board, and the many other costs associated with going to college came upon us.  However, there are resources that can help and like many other things in life that can cause stress, there are certain things you can do to prepare and manage your expectations about paying for college.  Unfortunately, many families come to this part of the process with unrealistic expectations about what their responsibilities are and what they can expect from the college.  This can cause additional stress for everyone involved and often leads to disappointment later on.

One of the first principles of financing a college education is that the primary responsibility for paying for college rests with the family.  The financial aid system has been built around the premise that each family will contribute what they can toward their child's education and additional help may be available for those that need it.  The FAFSA is intended to provide some way to measure what that contribution is and it is reflected in the Expected Family Contribution.  This figure is often the source of disbelief for many families.  They tell us that there is no way they can contribute what the federal government has said they should contribute.  This may be so - it is an imperfect system.  However, this is how colleges and universities are going to determine the amount of aid you are eligible for.  Each school has the flexibility to adjust that figure, using professional judgment for special circumstances, and some schools even require additional forms, such as the College Board's Profile, which enable it to collect additional information and perhaps reach a different conclusion about a family's ability to pay.

But it is the family's ability to pay that is at the heart of this process.  That is different from a family's willingness to pay, and it is around this distinction that we have many conversations with families.  When my wife and I were considering where our son would go to school, we always had the belief that his education was the most important thing we could invest in.  We knew that we might not qualify for very much aid (our FAFSA results confirmed that), but it had always been our intention that we would sacrifice and prioritize spending to invest in our kid's education.  It is important for everyone to keep in mind, that even if you may not feel the same way or place the same value on education, most colleges and universities will make that assumption and financial aid is typically administered around that principle. 

Once you have completed the FAFSA and the assumption about how much you as a family should contribute to your child's education is made, each school will then put together a financial aid award based on how much is left over.  The simple formula is the total cost of attendance (tuition, room and board, fees, other costs such as transportation, general living expenses, etc) minus the family's contribution (Expected Family Contribution) equals a student's need to attend that particular school.   While that seems like a simple formula, it is executed differently at each institution depending on the size and quality of the admitted student pool, the financial resources of the school, the availabilty of merit scholarships, federal and state aid, and many other factors.  This is why you will find that each school that your child has been admitted to may present you with very different financial aid awards.

You should carefully review and certainly compare those awards.  Be sure to know what the terms and conditions of each award are, understand the loans that you will be expected to take, and what the actual cost will end up being for you on a month to month basis (most schools have payment plan options - ask about them if they don't tell you).  Just like we have been talking all along about finding the right match for your student, this is another point of "matchmaking" - each family is going to have to find the right financial match after the careful review of these awards.

This is where each family's willingness to pay comes into play.  As you look at the educational opportunities of the schools you are considering, there will be a value proposition made with regard to each award.  Does attending a school that maybe offered you less money seem to be a better value than choosing the one that gave you more money?  Only your family can decide that, but once a school has provided you with its financial aid package, it is important to remember that this does not signal the beginning of a bargaining session.  Schools are not going to negotiate an award so that the bottom line becomes more favorable to you.  We make these awards, as I mentioned earlier, within the context of our enrollment goals, our financial resources, aid policies and strength of the admitted pool of students.  We do our best to help families afford the investment and we can consider changes in a family's situation or special circumstances, but our award reflects the help we can provide to each family within our means.

This is a very difficult time for many families and it can seem daunting to think about the cost of higher education.  But there is perhaps no greater investment we can make for our children and by considering all the possible ways we can gather resources - loans, private scholarships, work, etc - this investment can sometimes be more manageable than it might first appear.  Next time, we'll talk more about other ways to help finance an education and how you can assess the value of a school relative to those awards.  For now, good luck as our decisions begin to make their way to you. 

Let the madness begin...