Making Liberal Arts Angst Work for High School Applicants

Richard DiFeliciantonio offers tips for counselors.

May 8, 2017

To borrow a phrase from World War I: Middle market liberal arts colleges want you!

Tell your students to start early, show interest, and keep it personal. You might think the fact that 3.38 million students will graduate from high school this spring is music to the ears of college admissions offices. It isn’t. 

From now until 2023 the number of college graduates will decline in nearly ever state east of the Mississippi. And declines in traditional populations of well-resourced and well-prepared students are steeper still with numbers in that vanishing cohort in some states projected to fall at greater than 10 percent. How might a secondary school counselor view these changes?

There are only 5,500 first-year seats in the top 10 liberal arts colleges, about 30,000 seats in the top 50. The more highly-ranked, nationally-known and selective a college, the less influence your student has over the outcome of the admission process. There is no secret to getting in.  It’s simply that these top-tier colleges, with their famous names and huge endowments, have the excess demand that allows them the luxury of great control over the size and shape of their classes. These colleges serve their missions first and can afford to be very choosy.

Look beyond that top 50 and your students will discover good colleges offering ample admission opportunities. And you can actually exercise some influence in the process. Here are some factors to consider during your junior year advice and counseling conversations for average to above average students interested in the curricular flexibility, small class sizes and campus intimacy of a liberal arts college.

Prepping the Conversation: Steady On

Tell your students not be intimidated by published applicant numbers and low admission rates. Remember that it is in the marketing interest of liberal arts colleges -- particularly those without well-known, national brands -- both to remain selective and to give the appearance of selectivity.  Since there is no common standard for defining an application, some colleges might require a score report and transcript before calling it an application; others might count the completed first page of an application as an application. Standardized score and grades/class rank ranges are the best indicators of a student’s chances of admission success.

Before counseling the best path to admission for students interested in liberal arts colleges, be sure to ask two questions: “Are you prepared to be called on in class?” and “Are you ready to take advantage of willing faculty members?” Commitment trumps firepower when it comes to successful college outcomes. Successful students engage in their college activities, most powerfully felt in the classroom, during study abroad, independent research and faculty office hours.

Small college faculty members want to hear from students: “I’m interested!” “I want more!” Engagement is rewarded and leads to sparkling recommendations for jobs and grad schools, sometimes even lifelong mentoring relationships.

As for the cost of liberal arts colleges, a range of options is always prudent. But do not let your students be driven off by the sticker price. The average first-year discount for private colleges has reached to over 40 percent -- up nearly 10 points in the last ten years -- with many good schools now at 60 percent discounts. Macroeconomic and demographic pressures promise more of the same. 

Five Factors for an Admission Advantage: The High Five, Advise-Wise

1. Early, Often…and Personal

Begin conversations with your students early and tell them to make it personal between them and their college choices. Colleges use sophisticated modeling and tracking marketing techniques to reach out to students who show the most interest. Early interactions such as phone calls, open houses and personal visits lead to relationships with admissions offices, which down the road can lead to admission and priority aid. 

Admission officers scour interaction codes to determine which candidates express the kind of interest most likely to end up with enrollments, and they direct their attention and resources accordingly.  The last decade has seen ever-earlier awarding of the merit portion of financial aid.  With prior-prior year FAFSA submission, it is only a matter of time before the rising-senior late summer window opens for the early bird for admission and financial aid.

2. Academic Interest: Sincere and Simpatico

Do some myth-busting: your students are not going to improve their chances of admission by naming some major they perceive to be hip or under-enrolled: gender studies and classics will do fine on their own. Rather, students should prepare well-articulated questions about their genuine interests and pursue those interests directly with faculty members. Have you ever known a professor not delighted to talk about her subject?  A winning gambit: “What project are you working on now, Professor?” Faculty at smaller liberal arts colleges welcome such outreach and will not fail to put in the good word with admissions.

3. College Athletics: Play the Sports Card

On many campuses athletic directors report to or alongside the admissions leaders. For good reason. Recruited athletes can make up one-third to one-half of incoming classes.  Today, coaches have both sports goals and recruiting goals. This is particularly true for full-time coaches for whom enrollment and revenue measures are just as important as winning games. The relationship of your school’s coaches with the college coaches makes a difference.

4. Gender and Difference

Coaches can influence admissions, but so can indifference to sport. The Washington Post recently documented the gender imbalance favoring women at many liberal arts colleges. If the college offers football, male athletes will represent a disproportionate share of the total males on campus -- a situation most colleges embrace  to redress with their admission decisions. Qualified males of all kinds are in short supply and high demand.

Also, do not assume students with learning disabilities are not welcome at liberal arts colleges, or can’t do the work. Over the past two decades there has been a support revolution. Well-designed policies that include early identification and enhanced resources have much improved the experience and learning outcomes for students with learning issues. 

Finally, students should not feel afraid to talk about nonconforming gender identities and other sensitive issues. If they sense a school is less than welcoming, it’s better to find that out before committing.

5. Out-of-State: Goin’ Mobile

New England, Mid-Atlantic and Midwest enrollment offices are looking hard at declining high school graduates in their regions. Steeper declines are projected in traditionally-prepared and resourced graduates.  Most college have out-of-state recruiting strategies. The recent news of New York State’s free tuition for students attending public institutions augers change from a nudge to a shove in this direction. 

To prove the effectiveness of their out-of-state outreach, middle market liberal arts colleges first need to gain a foothold. Just one or two enrollments from a distant state can be cause for celebration in an admission office. Many colleges are willing to up the ante on scholarships of distant prospects. You can position the right student to be that pioneer for a particular college.



Richard DiFeliciantonio is associate vice president and consultant at Ruffalo Noel Levitz. Formerly he was associate dean of admissions at Swarthmore College and vice president for enrollment at Ursinus College,


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