Now that you’ve been accepted, beware colleges bearing gifts

Sara Harberson is the founder of AdmissionsRevolution.com, former associate dean of admissions at the University of Pennsylvania, and former dean of admissions and financial aid at Franklin & Marshall College.

By Sara Harberson

College applicant pools are deeper than ever. The slightest thing – a B instead of an A or a typo in the essay – is enough to push an admissions decision from a yay to a nay. Over the last few years, the competition has only become stiffer, especially at elite colleges. The message from colleges to students is: We want you to be authentic… and perfect. But, when the tables are turned and colleges are trying to impress accepted students and get them to enroll, authenticity and perfection are often tossed aside like denied applicants.

Every year, we hear about colleges sending the wrong admissions decisions to students. This year, the University of California Santa Cruz sent thousands of emails to students from Maryland and Virginia congratulating them on their acceptance and inviting them to a reception. Not only did those students not get admitted, they never applied.

Last year one of my students was denied by Johns Hopkins University in Early Decision. Two days later she and hundreds of other students who were also denied received an email welcoming them to the Class of 2019. The university apologized for its mistake, but stood firm that the original notification was the correct one and no decision would change. Just imagine if these kids made as big a flub in high school. They wouldn’t get a second chance.

When students finally get admitted, there is a paradigm shift as colleges engage in an elaborate game to maximize student enrollment. There are gimmicks like MIT’s release of admissions decisions on March 14, a clever reference to the mathematical constant Pi. There’s the Publisher’s Clearinghouse Sweepstakes approach where the College of Holy Cross uses members of its community to hand-deliver acceptance letters. Most colleges rev the engine of social media to stoke anticipation leading up to the release of their decisions. This grand show is all part of a college’s elaborate plan to “yield” a freshman class on target.

Yield is big business in college admissions. It is the percentage of admitted students who enroll, and colleges want their yield rate to be as high as possible because it reflects popularity and desirability in the eyes of students. There is tremendous pressure on colleges not only to deliver acceptances this time of year, but ultimately to enroll a freshman class better than the previous year.

All eyes are on May 1, the date when enrollment deposits are due. This is each college’s day of reckoning. One might argue that it’s somewhat fitting. After all, students go through so much stress applying to college, constantly wondering if they’ve done enough to prove their worth. Now it’s the colleges’ turn to show that they are worthy.

Once they’ve been admitted, students need to evaluate each college’s authenticity. Colleges will use an array of tactics to get students to enroll. At this stage of the game of yield, it’s the students who have the power. They can decide whether heartfelt genuineness or enterprising intent wins the day. Handwritten notes from admissions officers, phone calls from current students, and local receptions are all ways colleges leverage their home field advantage with admitted students.

Colleges also encourage students to return to campus for “accepted students” events where they regale them with meals, panels, fairs, and overnight stays. The campus grounds are surreally dappled with bright flowers and freshly laid mulch. Some students will receive free transportation to visit campus. For others, hefty scholarships will be offered to sway them to enroll.

All the freshly planted flowers, free gear, and smiles of the admissions staff are meaningless if a student doesn’t feel genuinely welcomed by the individuals who really matter on a campus. Current students and professors are ultimately the people who will shape a student’s experience in college.

When those individuals are absent or lacking in some way, students should take note. Because as much as admissions officers make students feel special, their role fades quickly once the students enroll.

In the end, students need to look beyond the platitudes. Until May 1, colleges put on an extraordinary show to woo the admitted students. As flashy and enticing as some of this will be, students should seek an authentic connection between a college and themselves. It’s the real conversations, the classroom experiences, and the genuine feelings a student has when the college isn’t trying to win their deposit that really matter.

 

 

Reader Comments 4

29 comments
Marietta3799
Marietta3799

Is this article by Sara Haberson or Maureen Downey?  Confusing...

OriginalProf
OriginalProf

As Wascatlady noted yesterday, it can be hard to get  to the comments here, even after signing in. I just "signed in" 3 times before I was able to post this.  And this happened earlier, but I just gave up. May be why the # of comments is low--no-one can access the blog.

redweather
redweather

@OriginalProf I've noticed that sometimes the comments don't show, and then they suddenly appear.

Astropig
Astropig

@OriginalProf


This from the paper and the column that went into histrionics about how FUBAR the Georgia Milestones online testing regime turned out.

PiedmontPanther
PiedmontPanther

Some students with great transcripts did not receive them by meritocracy.  Their helicopter parents swooped to the school and complained to the teachers, who didn't want the hassle of these parents, so the teachers changed the grades and the class standings/rankings were impacted accordingly.  There's always a way to game the system. The most important metric, thus, may be how the college does in moving its freshman class to the sophomore class and then on to graduation in four years.  Getting in isn't as important as graduating. 

MotocrossSurvivor
MotocrossSurvivor

Higher education and the "health care" system..beautifully out of control.  Unless a person has very definite career goals requiring the degree, the decision to go to college is a poor one, kinda like deciding to smoke.

redweather
redweather

@MotocrossSurvivor It is absurd to expect 18-year-olds to have a "very definite career goal."  And some of the most definite career goals, like the best laid plans of mice and men, often go awry.

redweather
redweather

@MotocrossSurvivor @redweather I was just talking about this with my wife last night. Based on the maturity level of many of my students, I wish they had taken a year or two off before applying for college. They still might not have a definite career goal at the end of that time, but they might have acquired some valuable life experience.

Bhorsoft
Bhorsoft

@redweather @MotocrossSurvivor I took two years off. It allowed me to move to the state where I wanted to go to school and get in-state tuition.  I also learned that Jack Daniels was not a proper breakfast food and that I didn't want to work minimum wage jobs the rest of my life.  By the time I did enroll, I was able to focus more on studies and less on parties.


I thought I had career goals, but decided that what I had chosen wasn't what I wanted so i changed majors mid-way through.  I understand that changing majors is very common.  Despite that I still managed to graduate in 4, not 5, years.

MotocrossSurvivor
MotocrossSurvivor

@Bhorsoft @redweather @MotocrossSurvivor Yep, if you stay in the same school, and change majors before your junior year, it's no big deal, especially if you stay in the same general area of study.  (If you decide that History is not your thing and you want to be an engineer, you've got some extra work to do) and there's nothing like working dead-end jobs for a guy to see the light.

Tcope
Tcope

I had a friend recently tell me that colleges see you as a $200000 sale that they closed when you are accepted and put down the deposit. His daughter had just been accepted to a good private school and my son is starting the college selection process. 


I wonder if any admissions staff were fired after the terrible mistakes listed in the article?

eulb
eulb

@Tcope "wonder if any admissions staff were fired  ...."

I'm wondering the same thing.  

Also wondering how Santa Cruz obtained all those email addresses in the first place.  The students didn't provide them.  They never applied to that school.


gapeach101
gapeach101

@eulb @Tcope    The kids give email addresses out when they take SATs and AP exams.  They also indicate if they are open to solicitations from colleges. Their mail boxes are jam backed with emails from schools they never apply to.


redweather
redweather

"There is tremendous pressure on colleges not only to deliver acceptances this time of year, but ultimately to enroll a freshman class better than the previous year."


This is what happens when colleges and universities take a "business model" approach to admissions and education. They let their bean counters define what makes one class of students "better" than the previous one. 

What this is really all about is graduation and retention rates. The more selective they are, the higher their graduation and retention rates will be. All the swag is simply a way to disguise the fact that they view the education process much like an assembly line.

Astropig
Astropig

@redweather


"This is what happens when colleges and universities take a "business model" approach to admissions and education. "


I'm genuinely curious: What other approach can they take? Universities have enormous overhead and fixed costs.(I'm sure you,for instance,don't work for free and expect ongoing salary increases) How else can they keep the ship afloat without the strategies for filling classroom seats that they currently employ? What do they do if their income doesn't exceed their outgo? What model would you prefer that they adopt? Does a "non profit" education model even exist that would prove superior to the way things are done currently?

Don't Tread
Don't Tread

@redweather The merit system beats any other system - every time.


We have enough so-called "college graduates" who can't spell correctly, use the correct word in a sentence, or calculate a percentage of something.

OriginalProf
OriginalProf

@redweather 

And in Georgia their graduation and retention rates are the measure for legislative funding. Up until about 4-5 years ago, the measure by which colleges and universities were judged was their enrollment--the sheer numbers in the classroom. Acceptance rates were high. Now the measure is the number of students who graduate within 6 years.

OriginalProf
OriginalProf

@Astropig @redweather 

Well, I can remember a time not so long ago when state funding was based upon the enrollment figures for the public colleges and universities... how many warm bodies occupied those classroom seats. This helped to produce a lot of students who stayed in college a long time (paying tuition, of course) and didn't leave for the cold world of work. 


It seems to me that the goal of colleges should be to complete the education of their students, not squeeze a lot of money out of them endlessly...the so-called "bottom line" of financial profit that businesses follow.

Bhorsoft
Bhorsoft

@OriginalProf @redweather And I remember when it was a 4 year degree.  Colleges, being a business, would rather have students who take 5 to 6 years to graduate.  However, they do want them to graduate so they can hit up alumnae for donations.  

Astropig
Astropig

@OriginalProf @Astropig @redweather


Okay,if the funding formula is based on enrollment, I, (as a college president or chancellor) am going to get the body count up as high as possible and water down the enrichment and value that I add to the student body's education. I've got a tenured staff that makes serious coin and they have to be taken care of. I've got 65 year old buildings that aren't going to rebuild themselves. How do I pay for all of this without using sound business principles of revenue generation? Goodness of people's heart? Squeeze the alumni?


What my economically illiterate friends here are really arguing against is not business per se,it's the methods that businesses use to stay in business.Businesses have to draw you in by competing and as we have seen on these pages ad infinitum,most academic types can't get their minds around that concept.

OriginalProf
OriginalProf

@Astropig @OriginalProf @redweather 

Let's see. Among the "methods used by [colleges] to stay in business": letting 60% of those expensive tenured faculty go and hiring cheap, no-benefits adjuncts instead; raising and adding student fees (only the Regents can raise tuition); let the academic buildings rot but build glossy new athletic and student Union buildings; cut out academic programs with low enrollments though they are traditional ones; do what you can to draw in impressionable freshmen.

Astropig
Astropig

@OriginalProf @Astropig @redweather


Students can choose community colleges to step around some of those practices.In fact, that might be a better idea than taking a year or two off as suggested above (where life REALLY starts getting in the way of matriculation). Students can use the 'net and other resources to winnow down the overpriced,under delivering schools that hire a lot of adjuncts to do the real teaching.They can go on a dozen different websites now to see what other students think of their schools and their instructors...In other words,if schools are going to act like sharp businessmen,then students need to act like informed consumers.

gapeach101
gapeach101

@Wascatlady @OriginalProf @Bhorsoft @redweather Or, they can't get the classes they need, because they are only offered from 10-2.  Happened to my child in the microbiology department at UGA. I have to say I didn't believe her at first, but she convinced me.