Principles for Admissions in an Era of Financial Pressure

Alex Posecznick offers some guidelines.

July 17, 2017

An admission counselor, Nadira, felt pressure to “make the sale” but was adamant that she would not sacrifice her morals to do so. She would not “convince someone interested in interior design” (a major that her college did not offer) that she should go into the business program (a major that her college did offer) “because it’s the same thing,” or that in order to “succeed” in interior design you need to have a background in business, and thus persuade an applicant to enroll.

She was an alumna of this particular college and believed in the institution and its mission, but would be clear to her students that there were no interior design programs. In her own words, she was not going to “turn rice into potatoes.”

Nadira was an alumna and employee of a small, private, nonprofit, less selective college I'll call Ravenwood College, which was driven by a progressive mission but struggling with enrollments when I completed an ethnography of college admissions in 2008-09. (A condition of the access I received was that I not name the college.) A few years before my study, enrollments had contracted at Ravenwood; they had had to lay off staff and close extension campuses. And yet, despite this precarity, the admission counselors were still deeply aware of their own ethical boundaries.

A great deal has been written about the corporatization of higher education; sometimes it seems as if we have shifted entirely from students to customers, mission to brand, intellectual heritage to values propositions. Faculty members frequently lay this shift at the feet of administrators, but in my research and my personal experience, I’ve seen deeply moral, well-meaning and mission-driven administrators struggling with these same tensions.

All of the Ravenwood admission counselors I met struggled with this balance like Nadira did, describing their work through the idiom of “counseling” and distancing it from “sales.” Although this became particularly clear to me in this study, I’ve seen these core tensions in my own professional experience, from the Ivy League to community colleges.

I’ve had many years of professional experience in different institutions, but since this study, I’ve landed in a position as an administrative faculty member for selective graduate programs -- where I both manage the daily operations and teach/advise in the program. I’ve also become responsible for making sure we have enough students each semester. Although my situation is configured very differently, I’ve come to struggle with the same ethical boundaries that I encountered at Ravenwood. I’ve also come to a set of principles that help me to navigate the reality of living in the corporatized world of admissions in the 21st century.

Be as transparent as you can. Certainly we don’t want to air our dirty laundry, but we also don’t want to pretend that there is no dirty laundry. Especially in admission work, there can be a tremendous pressure to present a picture of our community or institution as perfect, but part of being genuine is not concealing things. And in admission work, if one cannot deliver on that image, it can lead to bitter resentment and dissatisfaction later. Don’t turn rice into potatoes. There are clearly things that should not be shared with everyone, but share openly as much as possible. And if you can’t share something, don’t dissemble or become defensive -- just be open about why you can’t share; it goes a long way.

Be genuine, be kind. Part of what distinguishes sales from counseling is the pitch. We’re in such a heavily marketized world that we are saturated with thinly veiled product placements and sales pitches every day -- from our phones to our daily interactions. There is nothing so false as the glassy-eyed smile of a used-car salesman. And there is nothing quite like being greeted by a genuine smile of someone who wants to know more about you. People need to hear the reality of how things really are, but that can be done with respect and kindness. Don’t rely on scripts. Embrace the unique spark of humanity in anyone that sits in a chair across from you, or, as Nadira put it, what her applicants did was to “allow me to dream with them.”

Engage your college in broader dialogues. Ravenwood was both nonselective and driven by a progressive mission. In line with this mission, many Ravenwood faculty reported that it was their responsibility to prepare as best they could any student who met the academic standards as set by the college. Poor-performing students were thus the result of poor admissions decisions. Admissions staff, on the other hand, insisted that the college had a mission of open access and empowerment for nontraditional students. Thus, it was their responsibility to give everyone a second chance, and it was up to the faculty to reward those who did well in class and jettison those who could not. Poor-performing students were thus the result of social promotion by faculty. In my present position, this tension is mitigated by the fact that program faculty make decisions about individual applicants -- and thus actively consider the performance question. In many places this is not feasible, and admissions officers are put in the difficult situation of making decisions for other people they may never meet. A meaningful dialogue seems like the only way around this.

Know when you should compromise … and when you should not. This is probably the most challenging principle, as the devil is precisely in the details. Most educators are idealists to some extent, and so it can be challenging to compromise. Rules should be enforced when necessary and broken when they do not make sense. At one point the Ravenwood dean of admissions reviewed an applicant who had written an essay filled with grammatical errors and poor constructions. The applicant was invited into the dean's office, where, after she listened to his mini lecture, he then instructed her to go outside and “take a red pen to it.” She did so and was admitted. Was this leeway afforded to the applicant because of some promise he saw in her application? Or was it a compromise on standards to bring in more income? Or was this some form of bias? Of course I will never know for this particular case, but the dean had reflected on and was confident in his position. This is precisely the sort of thing that admissions officers should actively reflect on before a crisis hits -- and may very well determine how comfortable you are looking in the mirror each morning.


Alex Posecznick is the author of Selling Hope and College: Merit, Markets and Recruitment in an Unranked School (Cornell University Press). He is a member of the associated faculty at the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education, where he manages programs in education, culture and society, and international educational development.


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