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Admissions counselors like to talk about finding the right "fit" for applicants -- a great match between a student's educational and other goals and an institution's programs. But a new survey of the senior admissions officials at colleges nationwide finds that this "fit" is, from many colleges' point of view, increasingly about money. As evidence of that pressure, the survey found that:

  • For many colleges, a top goal of admissions directors is recruiting more students who can pay more. Among all four-year institutions, the admissions strategy judged most important over the next two or three years -- driven by high figures in the public sector -- was the recruitment of more out-of-state students (who at public institutions pay significantly more). The runner-up was the strategy of providing more aid for low- and middle-income students.
  • Among all sectors of higher education, there is a push to recruit more out-of-state students and international students.
  • Recruiting more "full-pay" students -- those who don't need financial aid -- is seen as a key goal in public higher education, a sector traditionally known for its commitment to access. At public doctoral and master's institutions, more admissions directors cited the recruitment of full-pay students as a key strategy than cited providing aid for low-income students. (At doctoral institutions, the gap was 47 percent to 40 percent, and at master's institutions, the gap was 45 percent to 38 percent).
  • The interest in full-pay students is so strong that 10 percent of four-year colleges report that the full-pay students they are admitting have lower grades and test scores than do other admitted applicants.
  • At community colleges, a focus on serving students who don't have money remains central, with 66 percent of admissions directors citing that as a key strategy -- more than cited any other strategy. But even in that sector, a notable minority (34 percent) said that an important strategy for the institution was attracting more full-pay students.

Inside Higher Ed is releasing the survey results today, as admissions leaders nationwide prepare to travel to New Orleans for the annual meeting of the National Association for College Admission Counseling. Admissions directors were given full anonymity to encourage frank answers.

Hundreds of readers participated in an Inside Higher Ed webinar about the survey's findings on Monday, Oct. 17, featuring Scott Jaschik, editor of Inside Higher Ed, and Jerome A. Lucido, of the University of Southern California. To view a recording of the webinar, please click here.

The findings, drawn from responses from 462 top admissions officials at a range of nonprofit colleges and universities, are in many ways consistent with concerns many of them have been raising about the pressures being placed on them to fill classes that make sense economically, not just educationally. The full results may be found here. (Previous surveys this year have explored the attitudes of college and university presidents and of chief business officers on key issues in higher education.)

In numerous instances, the results point to the role of values (sometimes upheld and sometimes compromised) in admissions. For instance, there is near universal agreement among admissions directors about the value of affirmative action, even when it means recruiting some minority students who may have lower grades and test scores than other applicants do. In this case, the values expressed by the admissions officials appear consistent with their policies.

In other cases, there appear to be gaps between campus admissions policies and what the admissions directors think. For instance, while about 12 percent of admissions directors at four-year institutions reported that their campuses no longer require standardized testing in admissions, double that proportion of the admissions directors -- 25 percent -- said they believe the test should be optional.

Further, 65 percent of those surveyed at four-year institutions report that they back the draft NACAC policy that would bar the use of agents paid in part on commission to recruit foreign students. But a majority of the admissions directors report that their institutions either are considering or are already using such agents.

In still other cases, the survey results show admissions officials trying to uphold their values against outside forces. Just over 53 percent of admissions directors, for example, report that coaching by college counselors and parents makes it difficult to truly learn about applicants, and just over 25 percent report a serious problem created by plagiarism in applicant essays.

About the Survey
The 2011 Inside Higher Ed 
Survey of College and University
Admissions Directors is the third
in a series of surveys of senior
campus officials about key,
time-sensitive issues
in higher education.

Inside Higher Ed collaborated
on this project with Kenneth
C. Green, founding director
of the Campus Computing Project.

The Inside Higher Ed survey
of admissions directors
was made possible in part
by the generous financial
support of Hobsons and
SunGard Higher Education.

But a significant minority of admissions directors report receiving pressure to admit certain applicants -- with 28 percent having experienced the pressure from senior-level administrators, and 24 percent having felt the push from trustees and from development officials.

Admissions experts said that they viewed the results of the survey as reflecting "the clash of values" they see increasingly challenging the profession, in the words of Jerome A. Lucido, executive director of the Center for Enrollment Research, Policy, and Practice, at the University of Southern California. The people who get into the admissions business "believe in a set of values," Lucido says, about helping all students and promoting educational opportunity and diversity.

But these days "those values are less and less a consideration" when colleges and universities face pressure to balance their budgets, in part by enrolling students who can pay, he says.

Lucido adds that even on issues such as full-pay students, a range of motivations are at play, and it can be hard to see when values change. "It's one thing to say we have enough full-pay students on our campus to make sure those who are needy can come to our campus on equal footing" because the funds paid by the wealthier students subsidize low-income students, Lucido says. "It's another thing entirely to just say, 'Can we add more full-pay students?' "

Lloyd Thacker, founder of the Education Conservancy, which promotes the decommercialization of the college admissions process, says he is very worried about the trend in which admissions directors and officers can't follow their values. "We need to ask ourselves why we are doing what we are doing. And if we can't answer that, we should go sell cars," he says.

Money, Discounts and Students

The survey results show significant worry -- with some variation by sector -- on financial issues. In short, admissions directors are more than aware that many prospective students and families feel anxiety over college costs -- and those admissions directors aren't certain that their institutions are capable of dealing with those concerns.

Asked to identify the two most important issues facing their institutions over the next two to three years (Table 1 in full data set), the top issue for every four-year sector (public and private, baccalaureate through doctoral) was "rising concerns from families about tuition and affordability." The percentages were higher in the private sector (80 percent and up) than in the public sector (in the 60s), but the concern was universal.

At community colleges, that concern was a close second (cited by 49 percent of admissions directors) to "reduced state funding that affects the quality and availability of academic programs" (cited by 52 percent).

In Inside Higher Ed's previous surveys, of presidents and business officers, large percentages of colleges have reported responding to the economic downturn by increasing their aid budgets. This survey doesn't contradict that finding, but shows between 12 and 31 percent of four-year colleges (depending on sector) saying that they are paying more attention to applicants' ability to pay in admissions decisions, that they are increasing their discount rate (the percentage off the sticker price that students actually pay), and that the increases in discount rate are unsustainable.

Ability to Pay and Discount Rates, Four-Year Institutions

 Percent paying more attention to applicants' ability to payPercent that have increased discount rates to attract more studentsPercent saying increase in discount rate is not sustainable
Public doctoral13.0%30.2%12.5%
Public master's12.2%15.5%15.5%
Public baccalaureate16.6%13.0%14.3%
Private doctoral20.5%34.5%34.5%
Private master's22.5%51.3%46.2%
Private baccalaureate31.0%41.9%46.3%

The percentages of those at private colleges who view current increases in discount rates as unsustainable are quite close to those in the Inside Higher Ed survey of business officers. That convergence is notable because, in the past, some have portrayed a tug-of-war between business officers (trying to limit discount rates) and admissions officers (pushing for leeway). The rates may be going up enough at many private institutions that everyone sees a problem.

The pressure to add to tuition revenue also shows up in very high proportions of admissions directors who see recruiting more out-of-state students as an important admissions strategy (53 percent at public doctoral institutions and master's institutions). Likewise, more than 30 percent of admissions directors across all four-year institutions said that recruiting more international students was an important admissions strategy. While some state universities have had success over the years at attracting out-of-state students, many experts warn that this isn't a strategy that can be carried out instantly -- and that not every state university is seen by 18-year-olds nationwide as a desirable location.

Lucido says it is important for colleges to be honest about their motivations for going for more out-of-state or international students. In many cases, he says, "this isn't about globalization or increased educational diversity. They need the money." He praises the University of California System (a system that could have tremendous diversity within its own state) for being forthright about this motive, but says that many others are not. (Very few colleges, even among the minority of institutions that meet the full need of admitted applicants, extend that policy to international students, so recruiting outside the United States frequently focuses on those with the means to pay.)

Thacker says that the ways colleges are using tuition discounting -- not just to reach low-income students, but to attract well-off students who don't want to pay full costs -- have left many prospective students "cynical" about the process. "I think students are very suspicious of colleges because their actions are not in line with their values."

Recruiting With Agents

With more colleges interested in boosting international enrollments (for a range of reasons), the issue of the use of agents is a hot one among admissions officers. The use of agents -- commonly paid in part on commission -- is the norm in many countries around the world for many students who want to come to the United States to study. Federal law bars the use of commission-based agents to recruit American students, but does not apply to international agents.

In recent years, more colleges in the United States have started to use these agents, arguing that reputable ones do an excellent job of recruiting students in a way most American colleges can't. Critics say that there are inherent conflicts of interest involved, and that the same rules should apply to recruiting American and international students.

The results of the Inside Higher Ed survey suggest considerable sympathy among admissions directors for the idea of barring the use of commission-based agents. But the results also show that colleges may be headed in the direction of using agents anyway.

At all four-year colleges and universities, 65 percent of admissions directors favor the policy proposed by NACAC (but since put on hold) stating that colleges should not use agents paid on commission. Nearly half of those surveyed (47 percent) said they believe that agents "often play a direct role in helping international applicants fabricate information." (Even proponents of the use of agents acknowledge that many are not honest, but the proponents argue that this is why the field needs regulation.)

But even amid this skepticism, colleges are moving toward using agents -- something that was taboo just a few years ago. Of four-year institutions, 22 percent said that they are currently using agents, and another 33 percent said that they were currently considering the use of agents.

David Hawkins, director of public policy and research at NACAC, says that the percentage considering the use of agents was significant. "This confirms that the discussion is alive and very active across a range of institutions," he says.

And the fact that more than half of four-year colleges report that they either are using or are considering the use of agents -- even as a majority oppose the practice -- is also significant, he says. "That is in line with what we've heard -- which is that there are admissions officers with no control over the international recruiting process."

Affirmative Action Support

While the U.S. Supreme Court has allowed colleges and universities to consider race and ethnicity in admissions, the issue remains contested -- with critics of these policies charging that they are wrong, and that many colleges push beyond the boundaries of what the Supreme Court allowed. Many college officials argue that they create a better educational environment with a more diverse student body.

The vast majority of colleges don't have competitive admissions, so the impact of race or ethnicity on admissions is marginal if present at all at those institutions. But the Inside Higher Ed survey shows that many colleges report admitting minority students with lower grades and test scores than other applicants have. Further, the survey shows that minority students are not the only ones who benefit from such assistance -- so are male students (of all races), athletes, children of alumni and full-pay students (with the latter two groups typically made up of strong white majorities).

Doctoral institutions were much more likely than others to report that both athletes and minority students were being admitted with lower grades and test scores. At private baccalaureate institutions, nearly one in five reported that alumni children were being admitted with lower grades and test scores; also, at undergraduate institutions, admissions directors (18 percent at publics, 14 percent for privates) reported that male applicants were beneficiaries of such policies.

Admitting Students With Lower Grades and Test Scores Than Others, 4-Year Colleges

 AllPublic DoctoralPublic Master'sPublic BaccalaureatePrivate DoctoralPrivate Master'sPrivate Baccalaureate
Children of alumni12%7%10%4%11%7%18%
Minority students39%44%40%23%57%25%47%

The survey also asked those admissions directors where various groups are admitted with lower grades and test scores whether they favor those policies -- and they do, by overwhelming majorities. Among all four-year colleges, 90+ percent of admissions directors favored the policies that resulted in these applicants being admitted. The highest level of support was for minority students, at 99.3 percent. (Details are in Table 6 of the data tables in the full report.)

While much of the focus of affirmative action debates is on underrepresented minority groups, many advocates for Asian-American students have argued in recent years that institutions have de facto policies of requiring higher grades and test scores for Asian-American applicants than for others. Asked if their institutions have such policies, just under 1 percent said yes. That total came entirely from the private baccalaureate category (3 percent), with every other category unanimous in not having such policies.

To Test or Not to Test

The appropriate role of standardized testing in college admissions remains a controversial issue as well. For years, and still today, the norm in four-year institutions (even many that do not have competitive admissions) has been to require that applicants submit either SAT or ACT scores. In recent years, amid calls from NACAC and others for colleges to re-evaluate the role of standardized tests, hundreds of colleges have gone test-optional, meaning that they let applicants decide whether to submit scores. (Most colleges report that a majority of applicants still submit scores.)

The results of the Inside Higher Ed survey suggest that the SAT and ACT -- still taken by millions of high schoolers a year -- are not about to disappear by any means. A substantial majority of colleges continue to require an admissions test and don't appear inclined to change that. But more colleges are considering going test-optional than are now test-optional, and large percentages of colleges report either de-emphasizing test scores or focusing more on new admissions measures.

By far, the greatest movement has taken place at baccalaureate institutions:

Four-Year Colleges and Testing

 Require Test, No Plans to ChangeRequire Test, Reviewing PolicyNo Longer Require Test
Public doctoral93%7%0%
Public master's82%16%2%
Public baccalaureate63%13%25%
Private doctoral72%17%10%
Private master's64%27%9%
Private baccalaureate66%14%20%

There are other signs in the survey suggesting a continued evolution in the use of testing. One-fourth of admissions directors believe their institutions should be test-optional, more than twice those who say their institutions currently take that approach.

In addition, many colleges appear -- with or without a test requirement -- to be making other shifts. Forty percent of admissions directors at four-year institutions reported expanding the use of nontraditional criteria in recent years, and 28 percent reported reducing the role of standardized tests in the relative weight given various factors in admissions decisions.

Pressure to Admit

One of the biggest scandals in recent years was set off by an investigative project at The Chicago Tribune that showed the extent to which politicians in Illinois pressure admissions officers at the University of Illinois to admit certain students. Inside Higher Ed asked admissions directors of four-year colleges whether they had received pressure from various sources to admit students and found significant minorities had:

  • 28 percent reported having experienced pressure from senior-level administrators. The highest levels were at public master's institutions (35 percent) and private doctoral institutions (34 percent).
  • 24 percent have experienced pressure from trustees. The highest level by far was at private doctoral institutions (38 percent).
  • 24 percent have experienced pressure from the development office and big donors. Private doctoral institutions again reported the highest level (45 percent).

Hawkins, of NACAC, said that these figures were "disappointing." While many college constituencies play appropriate roles in setting admissions policy, he says, "what concerns me is that substantial numbers of admissions officers have felt pressured by someone outside the admissions office, someone with influence over their jobs."

This is important, he says, not just for the admissions officers, but for the integrity of higher education. The public can debate admissions policies, Hawkins says. But pressure on admissions offices over admissions decisions "isn't very transparent or very fair." And students and families think that "when admissions officers look at admissions cases, that it will be fair."

Lucido says he will be curious in the years ahead to see how these figures fluctuate. "I suspect it's more acute right now as a result of the financing [challenges]. I wouldn't be surprised if that pressure has gone up."

Parents, Plagiarism and More

The survey asked admissions officers for their views on a range of other issues:

  • Nearly three-fourths (74 percent) said that social media play an important role in outreach efforts to prospective students.
  • Just over 88 percent believe it is appropriate for colleges to use "merit" scholarships that are not based on financial need. Support for this was lowest at community colleges (70 percent).
  • Just over one fourth of admissions directors view plagiarism on application essays as a serious problem. The concern was greater at private than at public institutions.
  • Just under a third of admissions directors do not believe that application essays convey important information. Skepticism of the value of the essay is greatest at public baccalaureate institutions.
  • A majority of admissions directors (just over 53 percent) said that coaching by parents or college counselors is making it more difficult to learn about applicants. The concern is greater at private than at public colleges.

Community College Competition

While much discussion of admissions issues focuses on four-year institutions, the Inside Higher Ed survey featured some questions just for community colleges. The results suggest that competition -- to get into programs and among institutions -- is an increasing factor in the sector.

Even if community colleges remain open-admissions institutions over all, the survey indicates that getting into a community college is very different from getting into certain programs, especially high-demand programs in nursing and other health professions. Twenty percent of community college admissions directors reported that they have some high-demand programs in which less than a fourth of those who meet basic requirements are admitted. Another 23 percent reported that they have some programs for which they admit at least a fourth but fewer than half of those who meet basic requirements.

Generally, the community college admissions directors report that online enrollments are an increasing part of their effort. Most community colleges report that they are enrolling more "traditional age" college students -- those who in the past might have gone to four-year institutions.

The survey also asked if community college admission directors believe that they are seeing more competition from the for-profit sector. A majority said yes, although to varying degrees.

Community Colleges and More Competition From For-Profits

Not really an issue36%
Some additional competition, but nothing we can't handle35%
Significant competition in selected programs (health care, etc.)22%
Significant competition across all fields and programs7%