Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Getting to Know You

“Run my name through your computer
Mention me in passing to your college tutor
Check my records, check my facts
Check if I paid my income tax
Pore over everything in my c.v.
But you'll still know nothin' 'bout me”

Sting, “Nothing ‘bout Me”
Back in 1993 (yes, before many of you were born!), the artist Sting released this song on an album called “10 Summoner’s Tales”.  It’s a wonderful song, and great album (I still call them albums – you know what I mean), but it reminds me of the feeling so many high school students have right now as they wait for admissions committees to review their applications for the fall.  Trying to convey to strangers who you are, what you’re all about, what your goals, ambitions and dreams are is a daunting task.  Yet in admission offices across the country that is exactly what we are trying to figure out.

At USD, we recognize the inherent challenge in the application process, and we take great care to try and go beyond just numbers and test scores.  Grades and scores tell part of the story, but our staff spends a lot of time pouring over all the information submitted trying to identify a good “fit” – for the student and for us.  It takes a long time, and I thought I would try and help explain how we attempt to do that and help you understand what our staff is doing as you wait for your decision.  We know it is stressful to wait, but it’s also stressful deciding!

First, for the fall 2015 semester, we have received approximately 13,500 applications, and we hope to enroll a class of about 1150 students.  To do that, we will admit a little less than half of all the applicants.  It would be a relatively easy exercise to just sort everyone by the strength of their GPA and test score, accept the top half, wait list another group, and deny admission to the rest.  But that would likely result in a pretty homogenous group of first year students, and that is not at all what our goals are. 

At USD, we are looking to enroll students who are strong academically – students who have demonstrated they are ready to do college level work.  The high school transcript tells us the most about that, and we spend a good deal of time reviewing it.  We look, of course at the overall GPA, but also how a student earned those grades.  We look at how much they challenged themselves, what offerings they had to choose from (not every school offers the same range of courses), and other special opportunities they may have taken advantage of.  

In addition, however, we want to get a sense of how each student learns.  Are they curious about the world around them?  Do they participate in class discussions or are they more passive learners?  Have they had the chance to work in groups on projects and collaborate on assignments?  These are all factors that our faculty look for and are characteristics of students who are going to be successful here.  How do we do that?  In large part by reading the recommendations that the counselor and teachers wrote.  In some cases we do it through the personal statements and essay the student wrote.  And sometimes we get the chance to ask the student directly, through an interview or personal meeting with our staff.  

We are also looking for students who want to make a difference in the world.  As one of 29 Changemaker campuses around the world, we value students who not only have an interest in what is happening around them, but who have demonstrated a willingness to foster change.  This can be at school, through leadership roles or participation in various activities.  This is often in the community, through service and advocacy.  And it can be on a global scale, by travelling or participating in international organizations.  We expect our students to be fully engaged in making a difference in the world, and our application review tries to identify a student’s interest and capacity for fostering change.  The extracurricular activities, resume, essay and personal statement, as well as the answer to our Common Application Supplement questions all help us gain a better understanding of this important quality.

We also value diversity here at USD – in all its forms.  We hope our entering class is made up of students from different racial and ethnic backgrounds, different geographic areas, and students with different academic interests, socioeconomic backgrounds, religious beliefs and political views.  Why?  In part, because as a Catholic university, our mission calls us to welcome and respect the dignity of every one.  In part, because our designation as a Changemaker campus implies that we help students see the world in a much broader and integrated way than they have before – change making only comes about when one truly understands the bigger picture.  Reading each application thoroughly, trying to learn each student's story, understanding challenges, and privileges that each has had all help us select students that will enrich the learning and social environment on campus.  

Selecting a class is hard work, and as Sting said, in the end we may still not know our students entirely.  But hopefully, as a result of the time and diligence we take in trying to learn all we can from the application, we assemble a class of students that will learn from each other, challenge each other, and support each other.  I like to share with our staff that we are not only selecting students for the entering class, we are selecting future alumni who will represent the University for a lifetime.  

Thanks in advance for your patience as we read your application.  I know a great album you can listen to in the meantime….

Thursday, December 11, 2014

The Pressure of the Season

This is the last week of classes for the fall semester here at USD.  Finals are about to begin and that means the library is more crowded, the lines for coffee are longer, and students are feeling the pressure of completing assignments and studying for tests.  There’s a lot of pressure being a student this time of year, and while the end is in sight, these will be a challenging two weeks for our campus.

For high school students, there is a different kind of pressure building, and it has been bubbling up to the surface for weeks (at least).  College application deadlines are upon us – in particular, USD’s December 15th deadline is right around the corner – and students everywhere are writing essays, completing those supplemental questions, and making sure their test scores and transcripts are on their way.  There are additional deadlines after the new year, so this pressure doesn’t go away for a while.

If you have submitted your USD application already, thanks, and congratulations!  If you are one of the several thousand who will hit submit over this weekend, we thank you too, for including USD among your college choices.  We understand the pressure surrounding this process, and know all too well the wonderful options you have for continuing your education.  It is a process we take very seriously, and as we begin this journey together, leading us to May 1, I’ll be using this space to help you better understand what happens to your application after you hit that submit button.  I’ll take you inside our process and try and show the care and diligence our staff gives each and every application.  I’ll also provide helpful (hopefully) information about financial aid and scholarships, making sure you prepare appropriately for those deadlines.  I’ll also try and provide information that will help you better understand what the experience of being a student at USD is all about, so as you continue to consider your options, you’ll be able to know if we are a good fit for your goals and aspirations.  There will be stuff for parents, too, so please share this with them (they might ask you fewer questions).

This fall, the admissions staff and I travelled around the world – literally – to meet with students like you who are excited about making a difference in the world.  We visited schools from Massachusetts to New Mexico and from Washington to Florida – 23 states in all, plus the District of Columbia.  In addition, we visited 10 countries including Canada, Mexico, China, and Japan.  We met with thousands of students who are bright, who are involved in their schools and communities, and who are curious about the world around them.  Our students, regardless of where they come from, share the common trait of wanting to be change makers.  Over the next several weeks I’ll also help you better understand what we mean by that term.  Our students and faculty are doing amazing things to change the world and I hope you’ll enjoy hearing their stories.

If you haven’t hit the submit button yet, I hope you will so that you have a chance to be a part of this special community.  If not, I wish you the very best in following your passions and finding the place that will challenge and inspire you.  Either way, good luck, don’t let the pressure get to you, and don’t forget to enjoy this very special holiday season. 


Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Money, Value and Pink Floyd

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


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 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  ( 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!