'Deadliest Catch' as Inspiration
For the past two seasons I have been obsessed with the Discovery Channel's "Deadliest Catch" and anxiously anticipated its return for a third season. I love the action, the characters and the storylines. However, it was not until recently that it dawned on me that my I enjoy the show because fishing opilio crab is not much different from modern-day enrollment work. Don't get me wrong, this bow-tie penny-loafer wearing VP of admissions is no match, when it comes to toughness and endurance, for the hard-working folks who are featured in the show. I admire their hard work and have a genuine fear of the danger those brave fishermen face; but, nonetheless I see countless similarities in what they do and the work of an admissions officer.
Our work is enjoyed by voyeurs. Based on the viewership, blogs and the introduction of an Xbox 360 video game of "Deadliest Catch" it is obvious that a lot of people like to watch what these fishermen do from afar -- and then comment about it. This is not dissimilar to admissions work. There are countless people on and off campus who offer all sorts of advice and observations about what could be done differently or better to advance the admission effort. Much like the voyeurs of crab fishing, these kindly admissions observers seldom see the whole picture or have a full understanding of all the work involved in the effort to be successful.
Too much or too few -- it's just as bad. Catching too much crab is just as bad as too few, just like enrolling too many new students is as bad as too few. Crab-boat captains fear catching too few crabs for obvious financial reasons, but catching too many also can create a host of problems in an industry that has strict rules and fines in place to prevent over-fishing. As an admission officer who has been on both ends of too many and too few students, I am well aware of the repercussions created by ending up too far on one end or another of the spectrum. Too few students create a whole host of budget concerns and anxiety for a campus and too many students creates similar havoc. For example, are there enough beds, classes, faculty, advisers, etc.? Too few or too many of anything creates a tension that requires striking a very delicate balance.
The anxiety of the pots and envelopes. The anxiousness that accompanies pulling up the pots is similar to opening the mail in the final weeks of April. On a recent episode, Sig Hansen, captain of the Northwestern, declared "numbers are my life." He went on to say that he could not rest until he knew what was in the pots below (he added that no one on the boat would rest either, but for different reasons than his). I have yet to encounter a senior admission officer who does not share the same sentiment as Captain Hansen -- particularly during the month of April. Crab boat captains wait for the crab count inside the cabin, while admissions folks huddle around the person who is opening the daily mail -- both activities involve the same level of angst about whether or not the plan paid off.
Success largely depends on the performance of the "greenhorns." Greenhorns, like new admissions counselors, can slow you down and are sure to make costly mistakes. Crab fishing is very hard work and not everyone finds out that they are not a good match for the job until already at sea facing 20-foot swells and difficult conditions. Time after time because the season is underway, captains and the experienced crew learn to live with the greenhorns despite mismatches for the job and mistakes. Indeed, the crew has to rely on greenhorn for success of the boat. This is also the case in admission work. A rookie counselor usually discovers his or her mismatch for admissions work in the midst of the recruitment cycle and like and a boat captain and crew, an admissions staff’s success is dependent upon the rookie performing as well as possible. A few mistakes will be tolerated and thought of as "teachable moments," but there is an expectation that the greenhorn on the crab-boat and the admissions "rookie" will step it up quickly.
"Dirty work" is not glamorous, but very necessary. The "dirty work," like baiting the pots, is akin to the long evenings of phone calls, travel, and countless hours spent reviewing files. Simply put, you don't catch crab without baiting the pots, working long hours and being as efficient with your time as possible. Likewise, you can't make a class without doing the travel, making the phone call, reading the files, responding to the e-mails and filling in for your colleagues. However, in both cases success won't come without the "dirty work."
Technology isn't all it's cracked up to be. Technology, sonar and advanced weather reports in fishing or predictive modeling, sophisticated leveraging formulas, and econometrics in admissions are important, but they can't replace instinct and gut feeling. I have seen Sig Hansen pull out his father's well-worn fishing map to "find the crab" despite having access to best modern-day technology has to offer. Similarly, a hand-written note on the bottom of an acceptance letter often has more of an impact than the flashiest of customized websites and econometric models. The "formula" might say a student is mis-matched for the school, but an interview might reveal otherwise. In both crab fishing and admissions, sometimes one has to simply trust his or her gut.
Strategy, strategy, strategy. Everything depends on strategy, where you set your pots in crab fishing and where and how you recruit in admissions work. In crab fishing where one drops the pots makes all the difference in world and requires patience to see if the right spot has been selected. This is not all that dissimilar to modern-day admissions and recruitment. Have you searched the right kids, is your visit strategy the best it could be, have the right kids applied, have you responded quickly enough, have you offered enough financial aid? The strategy is set years in advance and it is not until April of each year that one learns whether the strategy worked.
Forget last year. What have you done for me lately? What worked last season might not work this season. The best fisherman one year can be the worst the very next year. What matters in the crab fishing business is the current season -- the crew's livelihood is dependent upon success this year and memories are nice but they don't bring home the bacon. The same could be said of admission officers. One year, you could secure the best class in the college's history, the next class may not measure up. For so many tuition-driven institutions, its very livelihood depends upon what happens today.
There are a number of things beyond your control. In one episode a deckhand said, "We thought we didn't have any current problems but evidently I was wrong." This was uttered just prior to the Aleutian Ballad being clobbered by a rouge wave. Countless admissions efforts are impacted in a similar way -- sometimes hard work is negatively impacted by bad PR, a tragedy on campus or and economy that falls apart during yield. In both lines of work it is very difficult to prepare for the unexpected, but the unexpected can make or break a season.
Luck is preferable to being good. Jonathan Hillstrand, who captains the Time Bandit, once declared "We'd rather be lucky than good any day." Let's be candid -- it takes quite a bit of luck to predict and "know" where the crab will be and takes just as much to predict and "know" what 17-years olds will think and do. Honestly, I know of very few admissions officers who can attribute all of their success to simply being really good at the job. Most of my counterparts owe much to luck and acknowledge, as did Captain Hillstrand, that luck has much to do with overall success in admissions.
Although I don't know that many admissions officers would make good crab boat captains, I am certain that Sig, Phil, Jonathan and the other crab boat captains have what it takes to be successful admission officers. If you are seeking a new VP for admissions you might want to look to the crab boats for someone with the backbone and good humor for the work. But, if you do be ready for a more colorful language at meetings and colleagues who do not suffer fools wisely as we often do in higher education. In the meantime, I will return to planning next year's catch.
Kent Barnds is vice president of enrollment at Augustana College.