Becoming an Admissions Dean
No one ever grows up saying "I want to become a dean of admission!" It’s one of those jobs that most of us stumble into and only understand its complexities when we actually do it. Like me, most admission officers “fell” into the profession by working in the admission office during their undergraduate years. They loved giving tours and talking to people about an institution they cared for. Yet it’s not until one begins to climb the ranks of the profession that one realizes the greater implications of the field. I still think most of my friends believe all I do is recruit high school students and read applications, but what I do for a living is far more complex and has tremendous repercussions.
I’m a spokesperson, recruiter, writer, human resources adviser, and budget manager. I oversee a complex multimillion-dollar operation and I am charged with producing revenue. Yes, tuition at colleges means revenue and one mistake in strategy can have grave implications. In my division, I oversee marketing efforts, external messaging, public relations, media management, relationship cultivation, and the list goes on. Some days I’m expected to be a statistician and data analyst. Depending on who walks into my office any given day, I’m a counselor, family therapist, mediator, politician or diplomat.
I’m also a professional worrier. There are months of the year where I literally don’t sleep because the things I can’t control keep me up at night. What if I didn’t admit enough students? What if I admitted too many? What if too many students accept our financial aid offers? What if I am a million dollars under budget in revenue? What if the students I admit don’t come? When you think about it, I must be insane to take on a job where my success depends on the whims of 17-year-olds.
Over the years, I have found that the most successful deans of admission are comfortable living on the edge of their seats. It’s a profession steeped in uncertainty. Sleepless nights often lead to days of elation and satisfaction, but as the job gets more complex, it’s important to figure out how to position oneself for success. I’ve learned a few lessons over the years that I believe have contributed to a career filled with joy, passion, and purpose.
1. If you take the job for the wrong reason, you won’t last. Choosing the right deanship is key. This is not a 9-to-5 job. I tell my friends, “Some people have jobs; I have a lifestyle.” If you are going to commit that much of your life to an institution, you need to find one that you are passionate about. All colleges have a history, mission, ways of teaching, and values they stand for. You need to figure out what those are and how you fit into that context.
The more passionate you are about the institution, the more successful you will be. People take the deanship for ego (It’s a nice title, isn’t it?). They take it for the money (yes, it’s a pay increase but at what cost to you?) and they take it because it’s the next logical step (I think I’m a good director, which will make me an excellent dean. Well, not exactly).
Take the job because you believe in the institution, you love doing right by students, and you hope to use it as a platform to make a difference in people’s lives. Make sure you understand what the job really means. By the time people realize how vastly different the deanship is than what they perceived it to be, they are usually in too deep.
2. Get ready to be a student again. The traditional pipeline in our profession does not immediately prepare you for the daily challenges of the deanship. In many ways, you are starting from scratch and you will need to become a student of leadership. The public nature of the job, the pace it demands, the pressure it creates, and the inability to ever “turn it off” all come with the new territory. You also will be part of a larger institutional cabinet, where your work is about the collective goals of the institution – not just enrollment. All of a sudden you are thrust into fund-raising, academic conversations, construction decisions, budgeting, or crisis management.
I still remember serving as acting president when the president and dean of faculty were away. I got the phone call no one can ever prepare you for: “One of your students has passed away.” It was the last thing I ever expected to deal with, and there are no guidebooks for these things. The job is all-encompassing but as long as you are willing to ask, learn, and lead – it is achievable
3. Choose your supervisor wisely: the relationship you form with your provost or president will determine your success. Make sure you interview them as much as they interview you when considering the job. What are their goals? What is their vision? What is their leadership style and how much autonomy will you have? The key to success is understanding what your boss really cares about. While all leaders will tout diversity, access, and academic excellence in their strategic plan, it’s important to understand what goals are not publicly stated. Does the president care about SAT scores? Is there a chase for increased prestige? If so, how is that defined and measured?
Colleges have external and internal measures of success. You need to be well aware of both. At most institutions, the dean of admission generates significant revenue for the institution. Yet they have to balance that with every other institutional goal. The dean is expected to meet and exceed all goals. Where does each priority lie and what tools will you receive to achieve them? Make sure you form an honest and trusting relationship with your boss. Without this, nothing else I write about in this piece matters.
4. Get to know finances. When you become an enrollment dean, your new best friends should be the director of financial aid and treasurer. Most deans of admission inherit the job knowing very little about financial aid. When I moved into my current position, I described myself as a financial aid philosopher: very good at big-picture policy, but I left the details to someone else. A year later, I lost several members of the financial aid team and had to get involved in the day-to-day operations while I rebuilt the team. It was one of the most challenging moments of my career, but in retrospect made me a stronger professional. Understanding how financial aid fits into larger institutional priorities is key.
As a chief enrollment officer, you will be in charge of managing millions of dollars and using those resources to meet goals. If you don’t have a clear understanding of how to manage financial aid, you can make some expensive mistakes. I have recognized the need for financial aid and admission counselors to learn from each other and have implemented cross-training on my team. The future of enrollment management leadership lies in the hands of those who can move comfortably between both worlds.
5. Be visible and transparent. If you want your community members to understand what enrollment offices do, you have to go out and engage them. You cannot create initiatives in your department without sharing them with faculty, staff, students, and all other parties involved. Volunteer to present at faculty meetings, create student advisory boards, have lunch with other administrators, and send email updates to the community about your division’s goals, achievements., and data. Present at alumni and parent meetings and try to create as many institutional partnerships as you can. It takes a village to enroll a class. The more you get everyone excited about the goal, the easier it will be to reach. If your community misunderstands your role or intentions, it’s your fault, not theirs.
6. Don’t forget why you began this work. I get it. Deans are busy. However, some become blinded by the administrative minutiae of their days and forget why they do the work in the first place. To be effective, one can’t lead from the top looking down. I try to engage with students every day, and while my schedule does not allow me to interview students as often as I’d like, I still get tremendous joy from it and I make it a point to do so every admissions cycle. I maintain a domestic and international recruitment territory and read files. If deans are going to create policy that impacts young people, they need to do some work in the trenches. No one is ever too busy or important to get back to the basics.
7. Hire extraordinary people, then cultivate them. You’re only as good as the team you build. You want to be surrounded by a diverse group of people who think differently, challenge you, and serve the institution with passion. I actually love it when my team challenges me and helps me to see something in a different way. They change my mind about things all the time, which is why I know I hired the right people. It is also my job to cultivate them and provide the professional development for them to thrive. It is my responsibility to create the next generation of leadership. How do I measure my success in this area? I figure if I am the smartest person in the room, I have done a very poor job of building a team.
8. Get ready for utter exhaustion and pure joy. The truth is, there are weeks when I feel like I have nothing left to give. I can barely keep my eyes open and it hurts to smile. The word “weekend” has little meaning for me, and when friends ask me when the last time was I had a real day off, I have difficulty answering. Yet, while the demands are incredible, the rewards rejuvenate and sustain me. I get to participate in something much larger than myself. I help make young people’s dreams come true, I help make young people’s dreams come true, and for many I also provide the funding that makes educational aspirations a reality. I shape educational policy and use my "bully pulpit” to challenge conventional thought about higher education and college access. The college admission deanship is ripe with opportunity to make a significant difference in the world. When used as a platform for the great good, the deanship leads to extraordinary joy, passion and purpose.
Angel B. Perez is vice president and dean of admission and financial aid at Pitzer College.
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