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At a time of increasing national concern about debt levels of college students, a plurality of college admissions directors in a new survey by Inside Higher Ed indicated that current average loan volume for undergraduates is reasonable -- and 22 percent of all admissions directors and 28 percent of those at private colleges would be comfortable with the average student debt being even higher than it is now.

The admissions directors' responses also revealed:

  • Wide support for "gapping" -- the policy of admitting students with aid packages that aren't sufficient for students to enroll (community college directors are the exception, viewing such policies as unethical).
  • Strong interest by prospective students -- and even stronger interest by their parents -- in identifying degree programs that will increase their odds of landing a good job after graduating.
  • Strong belief that liberal arts colleges need to place more emphasis on helping students find jobs.
  • A widespread view that some colleges misreport data on themselves to organizations that conduct rankings -- and evidence that all of those who have misreported data haven't been identified yet.
  • Interest in a range of options -- including more emphasis on "first generation" status and less emphasis on standardized test scores -- should the U.S. Supreme Court curtail the use of affirmative action in admissions..
  • A third of admissions directors reported that senior administrators had tried to influence them to admit some applicants.
  • A lack of interest in the idea of adding optional questions to applications about sexual orientation or gender identity.
  • A sense at community colleges of competition -- especially in certain fields -- from the for-profit sector.

The survey, conducted for Inside Higher Ed by Gallup, is based on responses from 576 college admissions directors or the person who is in charge of admissions operations (sometimes with a different title than admissions director). The survey was developed jointly by Inside Higher Ed editors and Gallup researchers and consultants. Respondents were assured of complete confidentiality about themselves and their institutions, but information about institutions was used to analyze some questions by sector, with separate response rates calculated for community colleges, public four-year institutions and private four-year institutions. Some questions related to community colleges were asked only of those in that sector. 

A copy of the survey report can be downloaded here.

Many of the issues covered in the survey will be discussed in sessions at the annual meeting of the National Association for College Admission Counseling, which opens tomorrow in Denver.

Free Webinar

On Monday, Oct. 22, Inside Higher Ed presented a free webinar to discuss the findings of the survey. Editor Scott Jaschik and Jerome Lucido of the University of Southern California participated. To view a recording of the webinar, please click here.

The issue of student debt affects all sectors -- with many students, parents and politicians frustrated by the loan burdens assumed by many students. The survey identified key differences by sector -- with private colleges' admissions directors willing to tolerate much higher debt levels than are those in other sectors. But clearly admissions directors believe some debt is reasonable: Only 2 percent of admissions directors said that they believed that no debt was reasonable, and most of those responses came from community colleges, the least expensive sector in higher education.

The Project on Student Debt has used federal data and projections to estimate the average amount of debt at graduation from a four-year program to be about $25,250. The admissions directors in this survey were given a range of debt levels and asked to pick the one that was "reasonable" for a four-year program. A plurality (42 percent) among all admissions directors picked $20,000 to less than $30,000 -- the current level. But in the public sector, a majority of admissions directors selected debt levels less than $20,000 as the maximum reasonable sum, while fully half of private admissions directors were comfortable with the range of $20,000 to less than $30,000 -- and of those who didn't pick that level, more selected higher than lower levels of debt as reasonable.

What Admissions Directors Consider a Reasonable Debt Level for Four Years

LevelAllCommunity CollegesPublic 4-YearPrivate 4-Year
No debt2%7%0%1%
$5,000 to <$10,0008%19%13%2%
$10,000 to <$20,00025%26%40%18%
$20,000 to <$30,00042%32%32%50%
$30,000 to <$40,00017%11%10%21%
$40,000 to <$50,0004%0%2%5%
$50,000 and up1%0%0%2%

The willingness of almost all admissions directors to accept debt -- and some to accept substantial amounts of debt -- may reflect a change in attitude from just a few years ago. In 2007 and 2008, many of the wealthiest (and most expensive, by sticker price) colleges were announcing plans to eliminate debt entirely or to eliminate debt for those below certain income levels, while limiting debt load to $10,000 or so for those above the maximum income levels. As the recession has dragged on, however, some of those institutions -- among them Cornell University and Massachusetts Institute of Technology -- have moved away from "no loans" policies or raised debt limits.

Even if admissions directors are comfortable with debt, majorities across sectors believe that the acceptable level depends at least in part on the degree program in which a student is enrolled.

What Admissions Directors Say on Whether Debt Level Should Depend on What Students Study

 AllCommunity CollegesPublic 4-YearPrivate 4-Year
A great deal31%43%26%30%
Only a little21%19%24%21%

Further, admissions directors are split on whether it is wise for students to take out private loans (those outside the federal programs, with typically higher interest rates and far fewer protections for borrowers). This is primarily an issue for four-year college students, and the survey found agreement among public and private admissions directors that too many students are taking out private loans (a view held by 90 percent of directors at four-year publics and 71 percent at four-year privates). But the survey also found disagreement. Only 31 percent of public, four-year directors thought it was a good idea to make use of private loans to pay for college. But a slim majority (51 percent) of private college admissions directors thought so.

One reason students borrow -- and borrow more than they might want, and may turn to private loans -- is that many colleges do not provide aid packages that cover the full cost of attendance, based on various formulas of what students and their families can afford. "Gapping" -- as the policy is known -- admits students, and gives them some aid, but not enough (even with federally backed loans) to enroll.

Colleges that engage in gapping say that they are committed to giving students the choice on whether to enroll, and that some can find ways (working long hours, a loan or gift from a relative) to make it work. Critics say that many prospective students think that being admitted with a package means that there will be enough money to pay for college, and that many of these students end up with private loans and very high debt levels.

A majority of colleges are engaged in "gapping," and a majority of admissions directors over all believe that the practice is ethical -- but these numbers are heavily influenced by private institutions, which are more likely to engage in gapping and to consider it acceptable.

Admissions Directors and 'Gapping'

 AllCommunity CollegesPublic 4-YearPrivate 4-Year
Engaged in "gapping'51%14%36%64%
Believe "gapping" is necessary for institutions like theirs55%17%39%68%
Believe "gapping" is ethical practice61%22%45%74%

Lauren Asher, president of the Institute for College Access and Success, and its Project on Student Debt, said that many interesting issues are raised by the admissions directors' responses to the questions about debt and gapping. For instance, she said that there is no "rule of thumb" on how much debt is too much. But she said that the comfort level of a plurality of admissions directors with the current range may be problematic. Of the $20,000-$30,000 debt level for students, she said, "that will be O.K. for some students, but not for other students." So much depends on a student's educational plans, career plans, financial resources beyond loans, and various support networks.

Asher said she worried that various news reports of late about students with six-figure debt totals (a real, but very small share of the borrower population) may be "numbing people" to the reality that $25,000 in debt (far more common) can impose "real burdens," and that those burdens can truly hurt some borrowers.

About the Survey

The 2012 Inside Higher Ed 
Survey of College and University
Admissions Directors is part of a series of surveys of senior campus officials about key, time-sensitive issues in higher education. Last year's admissions survey may be found here.

Inside Higher Ed collaborated
with Gallup on this project.

The Inside Higher Ed survey
of admissions directors
was made possible in part
by the generous financial support of College Board, Ellucian, ETS TOEFL and Hobsons.

The support for gapping by many admissions directors is worrisome, she said. While, in theory, gapping gives students options, she said that surveys suggest that most students don't really understand the debt they are taking on, and the consequences of some borrowing decisions. To the extent colleges are encouraging students to accept admissions offers without sufficient aid packages, "it is incumbent on the entire higher education community to communicate more clearly about costs," she said.

Another manifestation of concern about the economy is increasing discussion in higher education of whether colleges need to place more emphasis on how graduates of various programs will fare on the job market. The debate over "gainful employment" (in the regulatory sense) may have played out primarily in for-profit higher education, but the survey results indicate that admissions directors are feeling pressure from students and parents on the issue -- and that many think that colleges need to do more.

Among admissions directors, 84 percent either agreed or strongly agreed that prospective students place high importance on the ability of degree programs to help them get a good job. And 96 percent agreed or strongly agreed that parents place high importance on this issue. Clearly the parents are getting through. The "strongly agree" share was 44 percent about prospective students but 70 percent about parents. And not a single admissions director disagreed with that statement with regard to parents.

Colleges' admissions directors say that their institutions are doing more and that they believe that liberal arts colleges must do more in this area.

Admissions' Directors Who Agree and Strongly Agree on These Statements on Colleges and Careers

StatementAllCommunity CollegesPublic 4-YearPrivate 4-Year
Prospective students place high importance on the ability of degree programs to help them get a good job.84%79%87%84%
Parents of applicants place high importance on the ability of degree programs to help students get a good job.96%92%99%96%
My institution is increasing attention on the ability of our degree programs to help students get a good job.80%84%74%81%
To stay competitive, liberal arts programs must increase attention on their ability to help students get a good job.88%86%86%89%

Andy Chan, vice president for personal and career development at Wake Forest University, said that the responses indicating that parents are even more interested than their children in the job prospects of academic programs "completely rings true to me." He said that "between the state of the economy and the cost of education, this is a very important issue for students and families."

Wake Forest has developed numerous programs, including career-related courses, and this spring organized a conference on how colleges could balance liberal arts education with students' needs to prepare for jobs.

Chan said that these issues are now so important to admissions that the university has started including the annual "first destination report," on where Wake Forest graduates go immediately after finishing up their degrees, in the viewbook. "Parents want to understand the types of employment and graduate school places where recent graduates have gone," he said.

As Wake Forest's efforts have been written about here and elsewhere, he said, more than 100 colleges and universities have either visited the campus or scheduled extensive phone consultations on how to apply some of the university's ideas.

A Plan B on Diversity

This year's survey is being released a week before the U.S. Supreme Court hears arguments in a case that could be used to scale back the right of colleges to consider applicants' race and ethnicity in admissions decisions. The vast majority of college leaders who have spoken out about the case or who have filed briefs are urging the Supreme Court to preserve the status quo, in which colleges are permitted to consider race and ethnicity.

But it is by no means sure that these arguments will carry the day. Of the nine Supreme Court justices, one who has supported affirmative action in the past (Elena Kagan) has recused herself from the case. Most legal observers say that there are only three justices of the remaining eight who can be considered reliable supporters of the right of colleges to consider race and ethnicity.

Inside Higher Ed asked the admissions directors which strategies their institutions would adopt if the Supreme Court curtails the use of affirmative action in higher education. The answers suggest that there is considerable interest in steps that don't actually involve admissions decisions (allowing people to check more boxes under race and ethnicity, or adding financial aid, for example). But on measures that would involve actual changes in admissions policy, it appears that there is interest (but no consensus) on the idea of considering new race-neutral factors (or giving these factors more consideration). (See related article about class-based affirmative action.) These factors would help many minority applicants, but not because of their race or ethnicity, and these factors would not exclusively help minority applicants.

Admissions directors agreed or strongly agreed that their institutions would take the following steps if the Supreme Court rules against affirmative action:

Policy Changes Directors Say Their Colleges Would Take If Affirmative Action Is Curtailed

PolicyPublic 4-YearPrivate 4-Year
Drop standardized test requirements10%13%
Admit some top percent of students from every high school in the state16%8%
Place more consideration on socioeconomic status20%22%
Place more consideration on "first generation" status30%30%

Colleges have for years asked applicants to identify their race or ethnicity, and many institutions consider it essential to collect such data. Even if they don't consider race and ethnicity in admissions decisions, colleges say they want to track their relative success or failure in attracting applicants and enrolling students from different groups. In the last two years, some in college admissions have started to consider whether institutions should create an optional question that would allow applicants to identify their sexual orientation or gender identity. Elmhurst College became the first to formally ask the question, and the Common Application last year rejected a proposal that it do the same.

The survey results suggest that only a minority of admissions directors favor such a move (although the minority is much larger than would be suggested by Elmhurst being alone in this regard). Among all admissions directors, 22 percent favor adding such questions, with the strongest support at four-year public institutions (29 percent).

The Students They Want to Recruit

Many college admissions directors aspire to increase the number of applications and enrollments from certain groups of students. The groups identified included some that might bring increased revenue to the colleges, some that might add to various kinds of diversity, and some that might provide both more revenue and more diversity.

Over all, 54 percent of admissions directors agreed or strongly agreed that they will increase recruitment efforts of "full pay" students, who do not need any financial aid. The interest was highest at private four-year colleges (59 percent) and lowest at community colleges (35 percent).

Other priorities could result in more such students, or more students who are charged higher out-of-state rates at public institutions. Sixty-three percent of admissions directors agreed or strongly agreed that they would try to recruit more out-of-state students. At four-year public institutions, the percentage was 76 percent. Some public institutions -- such as the University of Vermont and the University of Colorado at Boulder -- have for years admitted large shares of their student bodies from out of state, but experts have cautioned that this strategy will not work for everyone. And in some states, legislators have objected to plans to increase out-of-state enrollment (even as those same lawmakers have cut appropriations, setting up the situation that has encouraged public institutions to look out of state).

Interest also remains strong in recruiting more international students, with 63 percent of admissions directors agreeing or strongly agreeing that they will place more of an emphasis on such recruiting in the coming year. While community college admissions directors lag their four-year counterparts, 34 percent in the two-year sector plan to increase such recruiting -- a notable priority for institutions that once focused on local audiences. For many institutions, the priority for international students is the subset that is "full pay."

Community college students may find more options at four-year institutions, based on the survey results. More than three-fourths of four-year-college admissions directors (at public and private institutions alike) agreed or strongly agreed that they would be increasing efforts to recruit transfer students.

Large majorities of admissions directors in all sectors said that they planned to increase recruitment of minority students. Other priorities included: adult students, first generation college students and veterans. Community colleges showed the most interest in recruiting more veterans as students.

Rankings Data: True and False

Admissions officials have long had a love-hate relationship with the rankings, pushing for higher placement and criticizing U.S. News & World Report and other rankings as oversimplifying what should be a very nuanced process. The survey found that only 14 percent of admissions directors agreed or strongly agreed that rankings help students find a college with a good fit. More than half disagreed or strongly disagreed.

Inside Higher Ed asked the admissions directors about cheating on the rankings, following the acknowledgements that Claremont McKenna College and Emory University had submitted incorrect information about the classes that had been admitted at those institutions. Specifically, the survey asked: "Has your institution falsely reported standardized test scores or other admissions data?" Only 1 percent said yes, but that means about 4 undergraduate institutions said yes --- and even if Emory and Claremont McKenna directors answered the survey (Inside Higher Ed does not know who did and did not do so), others out there answered yes.

And clearly such scandals wouldn't surprise most admissions directors, 91 percent of whom said that they believe other institutions have falsely reported scores and other data.

Community College Competition

The survey featured a subset of questions asked only of community college admissions directors. Here the survey found that public two-year institutions are increasingly attracting some groups of students -- and that many institutions are facing increased competition from the for-profit sector.

Nearly two-thirds of community college admissions directors (64 percent) reported that in the last year they have seen increased enrollment in the last year of "traditional age" students who in years past would have gone to four-year institutions. Many colleges have been reporting such shifts, with some welcoming the new arrivals and others worrying a bit about whether older students could be displaced. Of those reporting increases, most are reporting relatively small ones, with nearly half saying that the increase was less than 5 percent. But 14 percent reported increases of 15 percent up to 25 percent, and 5 percent cited increases of 25 percent or more for this population.

Most community colleges are reporting competition for students from for-profit institutions, but the level of competition varies by program. Across all fields, only 15 percent of community college admissions directors report "a great deal" of competition, while 52 percent report "some" competition. But when it comes to fields such as health care or information technology, 24 percent of community college admissions directors report "a great deal" of competition, and 48 percent report "some" competition.

Other Findings

The survey also found that:

  • A third of admissions directors reported that senior administrators had tried to influence them to admit some applicants (with the greatest level of pressure reported at four-year public institutions, 38 percent). Only 29 percent of all admissions directors reported such attempts at influence from trustees.
  • A majority of admissions directors do not favor eliminating standardized test requirements. However, 22 percent reported that they are reducing the role of standardized tests in admissions decisions.
  • Two-thirds of admissions directors strongly disagree that those applicants who use private admissions counselors are more likely to be admitted.
  • More than three-fourths of admissions directors believe that "merit" scholarships (those not based on financial need) are an appropriate use of financial resources, and similar majorities across all sectors report that merit scholarships are helping to improve the academic profile of their student bodies.
  • Just over one-third of admissions directors believe that apparent coaching by parents or college counselors is making it difficult for colleges to learn about applicants through their essays.