Ethical College Admissions: The Personal Touch

Jim Jump reflects on the career of Anita Garland.

August 12, 2019
 
Anita Garland

My great-great uncle Charlie was a simple country farmer who had two things in common with Winston Churchill. The two were born the very same day in 1874, and although Churchill lived to be 91, Uncle Charlie outlived him by 14 years and was healthy enough in his 90s that he could eat a dozen ears of corn in a single meal. Like Churchill, Uncle Charlie also had a political career, although not nearly as distinguished, serving a couple of terms in the Maryland House of Delegates. When I asked him what ended his political career, he answered succinctly, “The voters.”

In one of the last conversations I ever had with him, he said the hardest thing about living as long as he had was that none of his contemporaries were still around. I’ve come to a point in my professional life where I understand what he was saying.

For some time I have been aware that I am much closer to the end of my career than the beginning. I was made painfully aware of that fact close to 15 years ago when I attended a meeting of Virginia independent school counselors. At the end of that meeting, one of the newbies who had just moved across the desk from the college side looked at me and said, “It’s inspiring to see the old-timers here.” I started to nod in affirmation until I realized that he was referring to me.

Now when I go to a national or regional conference, I am acutely aware that I am no longer the target demographic. Most of the colleagues I used to hang around with are retired, and there are no longer many faces that look as old and grizzled as the one I see in the mirror each morning. I am grateful that there are younger colleagues who take pity on me and allow me to tag along, but there is a demonstrable feeling of loss as I see longtime friends cycling out of the profession.

That feeling of loss will be particularly acute in the coming year, for several close friends have moved into retirement or semi-retirement mode. That includes my longest and closest admissions friendship.

Anita Garland recently announced her retirement as vice president for enrollment at Virginia’s Hampden-Sydney College. Hampden-Sydney is one of the nation’s oldest liberal arts colleges, dating back to 1776, and one of the few remaining all-male colleges. Its alumni include President William Henry Harrison and Stephen Colbert, who spent his first two years in college there before transferring to Northwestern.

I first met Anita 40-some years ago when we worked together on the admissions staff at Randolph-Macon (Hampden-Sydney’s athletic archrival). We were two-thirds of a junior staff that I was later told another admissions dean called the best small-college admissions staff he had ever seen. We were young, energetic and idealistic, so much so that I now wonder whether the college I represented was an idealized version of the real thing. In our first year together, we brought in 90 more freshmen than the budgeted goal, instantly removing the college from short-term debt.

The key to our success was personalization. We wrote lots of personal notes at a time when there was no social media and even use of the telephone to reach prospective students was in its infancy. Anita and I each had our unique style. She would fill seven pages of letterhead with calligraphy to send the very same message I could cram onto a postcard in tiny print. She was a boon to the paper industry and I to optometrists.

Anita has continued that emphasis on the personal touch throughout her tenure at Hampden-Sydney, and as a result Hampden-Sydney has held its own at a time when many good liberal arts colleges have to work hard to make their classes year in and year out. For years it has personalized the process better than any other college I’m aware of.

Some may feel that approach is old-school and outdated, but I’m not sure it is. If college admission today is about the funnel from inquiry to application to deposit, about predictive modeling based on data analysis, and about leveraging financial aid to maximize net revenue, it is also fundamentally relational.

That is particularly true for small colleges. Several years ago a veteran admissions dean who works at a selective liberal arts college in the Northeast told me that he was convinced that the admissions pendulum was moving back toward the idea of recruiting one student at a time. College admissions may have undergone wholesale changes, but it is still in many ways a retail business.

Recently the marketing guru Ann Handley came across the personalized admissions marketing done by Hampden-Sydney and Anita Garland and mentioned it in her newsletter. Actually she did more than mention it. She raved about it, describing it as “possibly the most over-the-top marketing approach I’ve ever seen. And it’s genius.”

Handley quoted Anita as explaining, “Our market is a really niche market. The benefit of our approach isn’t always obvious. It’s hard to convey what makes us unique.” That’s probably true of most products, but it’s certainly true of education. If you ever find an independent school or college that isn’t devoted to educational excellence, please let me know, because it will be the first I’ve ever encountered.

The challenge every college faces is how to distinguish itself amid a thicket of educational options. Handley quoted Anita Garland as saying, “My job is to sell the magic.” Obviously you can’t “sell the magic” if your institution lacks magic, but Anita Garland’s gift as an admissions dean has been to tell Hampden-Sydney’s story in a way that’s unique and personal and genuine, reflecting the college’s personality and culture. She does so with handwritten personal letters, sometimes 100 per day, in her distinctive calligraphy using multicolored ink.

It’s old-school, and there is no click rate to measure effectiveness, but it is also an example of what Ann Handley calls “peak marketing” -- personalized, refreshingly different, rooted in research, maybe worth saving, steeped in brand. What has made Anita’s approach work for years is that it is a labor of love -- love for Hampden-Sydney College and love for its students.

I was glad to see Anita get a shout-out as she finishes a distinguished career. She and the other colleagues who are retiring from college admission and college counseling will be missed and hard to replace. The college admission/counseling profession is very much a people business, and its greatest strength is the human capital it attracts and retains.

Anita Garland’s legacy is understanding that college admission will always be personal and individual. What makes us a profession rather than a business is that our greater purpose is helping transform individual lives, and every day provides opportunities to do so. I hope our profession will never lose the personal touch.

Bio

Jim Jump is the academic dean and director of college counseling at St. Christopher's School in Richmond, Va. He has been at St. Christopher's since 1990 and was previously an admissions officer, women's basketball coach and philosophy professor at the college level. Jim is a past president of the National Association for College Admission Counseling.

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