College Recruiting: What’s Wrong With This Picture?

Last week, Inside Higher Education published its 2015 Survey of College and University Admission Directors. Planned to coincide with the annual meeting of the National Association for College Admission Counseling held in San Diego, IHE drew responses from 264 admission directors, taken from a mix of public and private colleges and universities. The respondents replied anonymously.

IHE asked a wide range of questions to measure financial stress, management obstacles, and the social and psychological pressure faced by higher education admission offices.

The key findings are consistent with previous years yet remain striking.

IHE found that half of the admissions directors were very concerned about meeting their enrollment goals for 2015-2016; indeed, 58 percent of the respondents reported that they did not meet their enrollment goals.

Slightly more than three-quarters of these admission directors believe that their institutions are losing students because of the level of student debt. This number is even higher at private colleges and universities. The respondents are split between public and private higher education officials, however, on the level of acceptable debt.

Private officials believe that students can shoulder up to about $30,000 in total debt, while public admission directors argue that this level should not exceed $20,000 at graduation. As IHE noted, they drew a sharp distinction with Hilary Clinton, Elizabeth Warren, and Bernie Sanders about debt-free public higher education, asserting instead that students and families should be expected to participate financially to meet their educational goals at whatever level is reasonable.

There was no discussion on the level of graduate debt as students continued their post-graduate education.

By themselves, these conclusions paint a dismal picture of the financial state of American higher education. In stark terms, colleges and universities have tapped out their ability to raise tuition, fees, room and board. A majority of them are not meeting their admission targets. And, average indebtedness — hovering at about $28,000 for an undergraduate degree overall – is approaching the limit of reasonable debt, whether public or private. Finally, politicians are proposing debt-free public higher education that will change the nature, affect the value, shape the delivery and pit higher education sectors against one another.

According to IHE, the story goes from bad to worse.

Among the many areas covered, IHE devoted a number of questions to the practice of how college admission works.

Most colleges and universities are local institutions and rely heavily on the applicant base in their local area. To improve their position, many institutions are considering using tactics, including “pathway” programs, to recruit international students. Over 85 percent of them also agree that they will be recruiting more out-of-state domestic students, despite the sense in other IHE questions that the local market is not being fully served.

There was no sense of whether transfer students would also be used more heavily to add an additional admissions building block to build out and deepen the pool of potential applicants.

This broad analysis raises an interesting question about admission recruitment. Many colleges and universities have been in the business of expanding beyond their local applicant base for years. They look beyond state boundaries and abroad. Is this mad scramble to find seats at all but the most selective institutions intelligent public policy?

IHE looked more deeply at this issue. It asked admission officers to comment on new admission strategies, including non-cognitive measures using new technologies, new high school evaluation strategies, and greater applicant involvement with submitted materials. Admission directors were highly skeptical with half of them disapproving of these techniques. Less than a third of them agreed to support other measures that did not at a minimum include a high school transcript.

The American public cannot fault admission officers for upholding standards and taking a prudent “wait-and-see” attitude to changes in recruitment. They operate within the confines of what the campus culture will tolerate. That having been said there is enough longitudinal analysis in the IHE annual surveys to suggest that something is broken in higher education.

The fact is that the value proposition that has bolstered America’s desire for quality, affordable higher education – once almost a given in national higher education policy – is under attack. The reasons are numerous. They include sticker price, indebtedness, the level of available financial aid, the relative financial health of many institutions overall, and the willingness of Americans to sacrifice, especially given new technologies, alternative certification practices, and a weak employment market recently for new graduates.

Something needs to give soon. It is unlikely that free public higher education will be a panacea to reform. The problems are deep, systemic and more glaring with each admission season. The most pressing question for higher education leadership – including administrators, staff and faculty – is whether they can recognize the crisis at hand, propose college-based solutions, and remain true to their history and traditions.

Americans appear to be reacting with their feet and pocketbooks. Change is inevitable. Higher education is always imperfect at best and suffers profoundly from cultural inertia. But absent new recruitment ideas, intensified focus and better pricing strategies, American higher education will look and mean something very different for our grandchildren.

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