This year’s admissions headlines covered selectivity rates, surviving the process, getting into the dream school and Costco. On the whole, the headlines were fairly predictable. But next year?
A look into the future suggests next year will be uncertain and even chaotic for students, families and most colleges during the admissions process. The emergence of the new application and portfolio system of the Coalition for Access, Affordability and Success, along with the National Association of College Admissions Counselors’ reassessment of the Statement of Principles and Good Practices, are the smallest of disruptions in comparison to what is on the horizon.
As an enrollment manager, I have been wishing for change to the system in the same way a parent awaits good news of the healthy birth of a child. But can so many changes be good for families sending a child off to college?
In the coming year, we will see changes in standardized testing, use of prior-prior year tax information in applying for financial aid, elimination of colleges’ access to the selected institution list on the Free Application for Federal Student Aid and the likely expansion of Simplified Needs Testing resulting from Medicaid expansion. These and other factors like demographic shifts, ability to pay and public support for higher education represent unprecedented changes to the world of college admissions.
Not every college has to worry: the wealthiest and most selective will continue on their tried and true paths, and open-access institutions will serve out their missions in the way they always have. But most colleges are working desperately to navigate the changes in a way that is not harmful to them and genuinely benefits students, especially those with the greatest need.
Presumably, the SAT and FAFSA changes were introduced for students’ benefit, but will they actually have that intended benefit? Or will the introduction of multiple changes simultaneously simply confuse families and institutions? And what is the colleges’ role in minimizing the chaos? Let’s take a look at each and consider consequences.
Standardized testing. I received an invitation from the College Board to attend a webcast about the newly revamped SAT. In the body of the invite was this phrase: “The early feedback from the student survey is positive, and data from the first administration will be sent to your campus soon.”
While I am pleased to hear student feedback about a test is positive, the number of colleges adopting test-optional admissions policies in recent months may indicate that colleges are not as positive. Admissions professionals in states like Illinois and Colorado -- which traditionally have relied on the ACT but recently switched to the SAT presumably because the latter was less expensive for them -- were startled by the change and the consequences.
There has been little if any genuine engagement on the part of public policy makers with the colleges and universities who serve the students impacted by this change. And while we will adjust, choosing an exam because it’s cheaper doesn’t seem like good public policy.
Furthermore, the significant changes to existing exams have created their own uncertainty for families and school counselors who want clarification about new scores, which versions of exams will be accepted and how each college across America is going to approach this new world. Maybe this big change will be good for students, but I am not sure yet.
Prior-Prior Year. One of my colleagues recently described PPY and its implications as “somewhere between ho-hum and this changes everything.” Most institutions are probably closer to “this changes everything.”
PPY will allow students to apply for financial aid in October of the senior year rather than January and to use finalized tax information rather than current-year data. There are plenty of good intentions behind PPY, like transparency about net price earlier in the process and more accurate data due to expanded use of the IRS data-retrieval tool.
But there will be additional consequences, like acceleration of the financial aid application timetable and a greatly elongated yield season. In addition, we in college admissions will have to enter the unknown territory of fulfilling the expectations of students who believe this will provide them earlier information about net price -- when, in fact, that will not be a universal outcome because not all colleges will be equipped to provide earlier awards.
One of the most significant consequences for my college will be a priority financial aid application advisory date of Nov. 1. To try to ensure all students have maximum access to financial aid, we will encourage submitting the FAFSA well before applying for admission. Why? In the state of Illinois, the agency that administers the state grant program traditionally suspends eligibility for the grant program 40 to 60 days after the FAFSA becomes available. Since colleges have not yet received guidance about agency practice with PPY, we are left to our devices to try to protect students’ eligibility for aid.
And while PPY is deemed beneficial for students, submitting the FAFSA before applying for admission will generate form-tracking issues for colleges. It will also create concerns about making aid commitments prior to seeing academic credentials that could influence the composition of aid packages.
Elimination of access to the FAFSA position. Last fall, the U.S. Department of Education was pressured into eliminating colleges’ ability to see where a student listed their college when submitting the FAFSA. An institution’s knowledge of its position on this list helped it and aid agencies to predict enrollment patterns.
Eliminating colleges’ access to their FAFSA position was misguided and overall a bad idea. The consequences, now becoming clearer, are embedded in a conversation I overheard recently. A colleague was describing a presentation at an agency that administers a state grant program, in which an administrator lamented elimination of the FAFSA position, as it had been used to project the expense associated with the grant program in that state. School counselors who attended the presentation were shocked that this change could actually have a negative consequence for students. The agency that had used FAFSA position now will need to find an alternative and possibly more draconian method of dispensing and projecting needed aid -- all within an environment of shrinking resources.
We’ve seen an uptick in the number of colleges introducing early admissions programs and other ways to test demonstrated interest in the way FAFSA position once did. While designed to benefit students -- that is, remove FAFSA position so colleges could not use that information to prioritize students during the recruitment cycle -- the resultant rise in early programs and new, unpredictable methods of rationing state funds will likely work against the very students whom the policy was designed to help.
Simplified Needs Testing. A proposed rule change for the 2017-18 FAFSA will expand SNT to all students eligible for Medicaid. It’s hard to argue with this change, which will benefit the truly needy. But given the vast expansion of Medicaid in the last five years, I fear it will force public policy makers to develop a system of rationing financial aid at the national level.
I spend sleepless nights, as you might, wondering what the national criteria would be, how closely it might be associated with the College Scorecard and what impact it will have on my college and our students. Again, expanding SNT is aimed at benefiting students, but rationing aid at the national level seems an inevitable result. How could that help in the long run?
What Can We Do to Minimize the Chaos?
I want these changes to help students and to improve a complicated process. But I don’t think students will fully benefit without enrollment professionals doing the following:
Communicate clearly with students, parents and school counselors. As deadlines, practices and programs change to accommodate all these changes, we must overcommunicate about what we are doing. There is no such thing as too much communication about deadlines, rationale and benefits. People need to know that big changes are in store and that what an applicant experienced this year will be nothing like what future students will experience. We’ve already shared our new time frame with juniors visiting campus and have a mailing ready to go to high school counselors.
Inform internal stakeholders about how things are changing. Whether a coach, faculty member, provost or president, enrollment management and admissions are not those individuals’ primary jobs. While many people on your campus are aware of these changes, it is safe to assume they don’t have full understanding of them and the impact on recruitment and enrollment. At my institution, we put together a white paper about the impact of PPY and have held a number of “lunch and learns” to discuss the implications of these significant changes.
Become more involved in the public policy discussion. We all, but especially those of us in enrollment work, need to be more engaged in the public debate about important policy issues. While it may feel hopeless at times (remember, my college is in Illinois), we must make our voices heard. We can no longer rely on associations and lobbyists.
On top of all this, we continue to hear presidential candidates talk about free higher education, creating an expectation among stakeholders. It seems possible that after next year, all of these new concerns could be replaced with an altogether different and greater set.
Public policy makers and higher education pundits have longed for disruption, and it’s here. So let’s make sure we do our part to help students and mitigate the confusion and angst that will accompany changes to an already stress-ridden process.
W. Kent Barnds is vice president of enrollment, communications and planning at Augustana College.
There’s been a great deal of recent press and politics around the climbing walls, lazy rivers and other seemingly lavish campus amenities that have become commonplace at colleges and universities. But critics are missing the real arms race in higher education: a new student-recruitment spending war that is orders of magnitude more expensive and ends in only higher tuition rates for students -- with none of the fun and relaxation.
For decades, nonprofit colleges and universities spent around 2 percent of their tuition revenue on recruitment -- on things such as direct marketing and other marketing initiatives. Spending a great deal of money on recruitment was pointless -- while it might yield more applications and therefore a higher selectivity and better U.S. News ranking, a university’s physical facilities limited capacity. Exponentially growing enrollments led to more buildings, professors and maintenance engineers -- all with long lead times and high costs.
Twenty years ago, for-profit colleges emerged in shopping centers and others in physical spaces that were less costly and easily expandable. The for-profits invested heavily in marketing and recruited effectively; enrollment grew by 225 percent in the decade ending in 2008. But though they won reputations as great marketers, they were actually just prolific ones, spending 10 times more than traditional institutions -- almost 20 percent of their tuition revenue.
In the past decade, colleges moved their degree programs online, eliminating physical constraints entirely. With the limitless scaling potential of online learning, nonprofit institutions have brought more and more programs online. This has given prospective students hundreds of new options within easy reach.
In many ways that is what online higher education was meant to do -- increase access and options for students and spur competition among colleges. That, in turn, promised to lower costs through efficiency and produce better quality. And it still can.
However, this access is creating a massive problem: those lower costs allow colleges to spend more on marketing, and the new competition forces them to spend more. As nonprofit marketing budgets start to look like those of the for-profits, the annual recruiting spend of American colleges will move inexorably from its current $10 billion to $100 billion a year.
As bad as the amount of this new spend are the tactics. To populate their online programs and appear more selective, colleges hire shady companies to generate clicks and inquiries, then drive those inquiries to call centers using sophisticated scoring algorithms. And to lower risk, many are offering marketing and management firms direct shares of their online tuition revenue. My company, Noodle Partners, has been offered 30 percent of tuition to market and recruit students by more than one university. Needless to say, we declined (among other problems, that violates Title IV regulations).
This new and bizarre arms race could trigger a windfall for education marketers and make recruiting the most expensive component of a higher education. At a time when everyone should be committed to lowering the cost of postsecondary education, this seems an unconscionable use of federal student loan and student tuition dollars -- especially considering that marketing costs don’t directly contribute to better quality or efficiency.
It’s likewise difficult to see a benefit for consumers in other industries with runaway marketing budgets. Pharmaceutical companies have, for example, steadily increased their marketing budgets to 24 percent of their revenue since 1990, but Americans haven’t gotten healthier as a result.
To get this marketing explosion in check, a statutory or regulatory fix may be needed. For instance, Congress could limit subsidized student loans to the cost of the education itself, as the former Senator Tom Harkin once proposed, avoiding subsidies for recruiting expenses and profit. Or the Department of Education could limit outside providers from sharing tuition revenue if marketing spend exceeds 5 percent of tuition (of course, this limit would have to somehow be extended to universities’ in-house programs as well).
Whatever solution we settle on, the higher ed marketing assault needs rules of engagement before it goes nuclear.
John Katzman is CEO of Noodle Partners and founder of The Noodle Companies.