Admissions / registrar

How colleges can best connect with prospective students (essay)

In 10 years of coaching college students -- those who are already enrolled as well as prospective students who are deciding where and whether to attend college -- I've observed a lot about the traditional student's behavior and mindset. The key to turning prospective students into an enrolled students is to form early and meaningful connections with students that let them know you have their best outcomes in mind, and are working to help them get off to a strong start in college that will lead to long-term success and satisfaction. Here are some of the best practices and bits of conventional wisdom that are easily overlooked or forgotten:

Leverage the student’s own momentum

Everyone knows that an object in motion stays in motion; the same is true for 17- and 18-year-old students in high school.  When students engage with you, make sure that next steps (e.g., applying for scholarships, submitting health forms, or registering for summer orientation) are available so they can “strike while the iron is hot.”   This will not only deepen their commitment and motivation to attend but it will positively reinforce proactive student behavior.   

Engage early applicants before the winter holidays

Early applicants (defined here loosely as anything before December) are often high-achieving students, even those with mediocre academic credentials – the very fact that they applied early suggests they are proactive, organized and motivated.  Early application may mean a school is high on a prospective student’s list.  Too often such students hear crickets until February; meanwhile, their once-warm feelings may cool and motivation may wane.  Colleges that instead initiate meaningful interactions with early applicants are more likely to attract highly engaged and effective students and encourage their positive, proactive behavior to continue post-enrollment.  Early applicants are special; make them feel it.

Understand that students really are busy

If you treat them like busy adults, they’ll act like it.  Even the most responsible, top-performing student will occasionally ignore a phone call, neglect to respond to e-mail, or procrastinate filing their Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). They’re genuinely busy and distracted, not to mention the fact that they are still only 17 or 18 years old.  They also have enough people nagging and judging them, so the best kind of outreach is proactive, positive, and nonjudgmental. I often call this approach “decidedly non-parental.”

Be “decidedly non-parental” but respect the parental units

This is a unique time in the parent-child relationship.  Students may be experimenting with independence and may or may not be communicating regularly with a parent or guardian during the decision-making process.  Understand the objectives and perspective of each party, help bridge the communication gap where it exists while respecting boundaries, and create a safe environment for students to express a dissenting opinion without undermining anyone involved.

Realize they’re probably only going to get busier as the year progresses

The most organized students often focus on their next steps toward college when they know they have a little extra room in their schedule.  They’ll often try to get as many college-related tasks done as possible before they get busy again with finals, holidays, travel, work or other activities.  Provide resources that allow students to be as productive as possible when they can devote time and attention to preparing for college. 

Strong customer service, starting immediately, is critical

When students reach out for information and are unable to get clear answers, feel passed around, or get lost in an automated phone system, not only do their needs in that moment often go unmet, but they are dissuaded from reaching out for support again in the future.  An outstanding early customer service experience can establish an enduring positive first impression of the school, making it less likely that the normal bumps and bruises of adjusting to college life will lead them to doubt the entire value of the institution or the pursuit of a degree. 

Treat them like adults

This doesn’t mean give the “if you want to be treated like an adult, act like one” speech, nor does it mean incessantly reminding students “you’re an adult now, you should have done X, Y, and Z.”  This means respecting them the same way you would a busy, working professional, refraining from judgment, and responding to their requests and needs the way you would those of a colleague. When a university takes the lead in modeling an attitude of respect, responsive communication, and trust, students of any age are more likely to reciprocate.

Assume nothing

Something I learned early in my career is that even the children of the most educated parents may not understand the basics of higher education, and they may be unaware or too intimidated to ask, so don’t wait. This approach is anything but condescending; simply listen for clues that reveal potential “gaps” in the student’s understanding, don’t let anything surprise you, and without any judgment, provide a clear and relevant explanation. A common example is the various types of degrees available; “associate,” “bachelor’s,” “master’s,” “professional,” “technical,” “graduate,” and “doctoral,” can be confusing, most students have never had anyone break it down for them, but once they do it’s very empowering.

Uncover major obstacles early and get a plan in place to overcome them

Providing ample opportunities for meaningful engagement through the summer and new student orientation is essential if students are to arrive on campus ready to succeed.  However, the goal is not to prevent summer melt (attrition prior to matriculation); rather, it should be designed in part to drive melt, to ensure that every student who starts classes is as prepared as possible to finish. 

  • Conditionally admitted students must fully understand the expectations and potential consequences associated with their admittance and have opportunities to test their skills prior to enrollment.  A summer college experience, for example, provides a low-risk opportunity to uncover major obstacles as early as possible.
  • Low SES (socioeconomic status) students need to have an intensive, in-person conversation with a financial aid expert so they can identify a timeline for critical next steps and discuss how items like applying for loans or resubmitting FAFSA will coincide with their new academic responsibilities.
  • If an unforeseeable event changes a student’s enrollment plans , avoid pushing too hard and refrain from judgment over delaying his or her start.  If students have a positive experience in their darkest hour they will probably return, but if the process feels like salt on a wound they may sever ties and go elsewhere when the dust settles.

Understand the student’s unique objectives

Understand the student’s true intentions, align resources to support their unique goals, and define success accordingly.  An increasing number of students enroll with the intention of transferring after the first year or two, but these students seldom reveal their original intentions for fear of being judged, criticized, or encouraged to change their mind by faculty and staff.  At the institutional level, when a university supports a student in successfully transitioning to college, bringing their grades up, and gaining admission to their dream school, it should be counted in the “success” column.  Plus, having an accurate read on students’ initial intentions can help with institutional planning and reveal potential gaps in recruitment and marketing strategies.

Recognize the potential for “a là carte” education

According to one director of admissions I recently interviewed, about half of a large group of high school seniors indicated to him that they intend to graduate from a different university than where they plan to begin next fall. One student even plans to use transferring as a means to live in different parts of the country.  Students will continue to be influenced by the many options to “hack” their education – online degrees become more acceptable every day, students are increasingly mobile, and Ivy League schools are making content available for free.  In an economy where adults are faced with an average of seven career changes in a lifetime, we can expect to see students adopt the same approach to their education.  Recognize that your institution does not operate in a vacuum for the student; facilitate a candid conversation, free of any judgment, in order to unearth the student’s true intentions, design a personalized plan to help them achieve their goals and develop a strategy to communicate the unique value of your institution in the context of this changing landscape.

Understand the student’s underlying motivation

Connect with students about their decision to attend a particular college on a deeper level and demonstrate that their motives are respected and even valued by the institution.  The positive feelings and deeper commitment this cultivates between student and institution may counteract inevitable moments of doubt and ebbs in motivation.  However, if the only reason a student can cite for attending is because it “just makes sense” financially, geographically, or academically, they’re less likely to see the value and persist through difficult times. 

Articulate value in a way that makes sense to students

The residential campus experience is still relevant because it connects textbook and community and it remains one of the most effective, widely accepted means of transforming oneself into an educated adult ready to take on the world, but this is a rather lofty goal with little immediate relevance to a student’s daily concerns.  Connect them to tangible, immediately relevant value whenever possible and they will not only be more likely to remain connected to this value, but better able to articulate it to others.

Catherine Sloan is a coach at InsideTrack, which provides coaching services to students.


Study documents payments by British universities to recruiting agents

Smart Title: 

British universities spent more than $93 million on commissions in 2010-11, and most say they don't know if their international students also paid.

Administrators warned about sham schools that target international students

Smart Title: 

High-ranking State Department official warns administrators against sham schools that target international students.

Obama won't deport undocumented students

Smart Title: 

Obama administration gives undocumented students a way to avoid deportation. While some advocates for the students see major advance, others note what new policy doesn't cover.

More programs seek to train those in enrollment management

Smart Title: 

USC program is latest entrant into a growing field of post-graduate degree or certificate programs in enrollment management.

Families used housing windfalls to send their kids to pricier colleges

Smart Title: 

As housing prices rose for some working- and middle-class American families, so did college ambitions of their students, study finds. Which leads to the obvious question: Are those ambitions now dropping as home values fall?

What high-end summer camps say about college admissions and pricing (essay)

Contentious debates about rising college costs during the academic year make summer a welcome break from bad news.  One recent headline was “Political Storm Stirring over Student Loans.” The next day a New York Times editorial urged, “Subsidize Students, Not Tax Cuts!” These articles, unfortunately, forecast that summer is going to provide no vacation from higher education’s political heat wave.  It merely shifts the focus from the campus to camp.

That’s because the spending and choices associated with the American ritual of sending a child to summer camp today is a rehearsal for the kinds of decisions that will face a family about five years later when they consider sending the same child to college. It also reinforces how advantages and inequities are acquired early in the American college sweepstakes. 

For a relatively small portion of prospective college students and their parents who are serious about selective college admissions, here is how choices and opportunity costs have brought camp and campus into a seamless web of deliberations far beyond the planning and pocketbooks of most American families.

How Much Does It Cost?

The answer is that it all depends -- camps are comparable to colleges in their range of prices and services. Among the numerous possibilities is “Pine Forest Camp,” located in the Pocono Mountains of Pennsylvania, conspicuous because it was selected by The New York Times as the subject for a front-page feature story on the changing economics of camp. A glance at the Pine Forest website indicates that in 2011 the charge for seven weeks of a full summer for a stayover camper was $9,700.

Official camp charges do not include such incidentals as travel and supplies.  There is considerable discretion on how much parents must pay versus how much they choose to pay.  And, for families who are newcomers to deciding about camp for their children, there is new information to absorb about camp expenses. The camp’s website provides a camp packing list.  Some clothing items “are only available through Bunkline" -- an internet site for purchase of camper gear. In addition to clothing and accessories, parents can pay for special optional programs: superstar tennis, superstar golf, horseback riding, top cooks, and one-on-one fitness.

Camp as College Prep

Pertinent for connecting camp to college, an upscale camp such as Pine Forest showcases on its website that it offers as a supplement a Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) prep course. The catalog elaborates that, “In SAT Prep, campers will spend 4 hours a week preparing for the SAT by learning test-taking techniques and taking 3 practice tests during the summer. Campers have a competitive edge when they return to school in the fall. This extra course is taught by a certified teacher and SAT tutor. Most participants improve their scores by over 100 points."

An option in the leadership track for campers is the “College Bound” program. It is not completely clear whether this entails added charges. Or, if it does, how much? This detail is crucial because it can drive up expenses. Its availability suggests that the clients of the camp are highly concerned about college admissions.  The “College-Bound program combines the best parts of being a camper with additional responsibilities and challenges. 11th graders live together with counselors and enjoy the full range of Hi-Seniors activities. CAs participate in leagues, inter-camp games, socials, Color Days, Banquet, Cabaret…the best parts of camp! Plus CAs have unique ‘college-bound’ opportunities.”

The CAs have a trip to Washington, D.C., with visits to American University, George Washington University, Georgetown University, the Holocaust Museum, the Kennedy Center, and on the way back to camp, a visit to Pennsylvania State University.  The Boston trip introduces camper-students to Boston University, Harvard University, and Boston College, along with walking tours of Cambridge and historic Boston.  Finally, the trip to New York City provided visits to New York University, Greenwich Village, and Broadway.

How Far and How Fast Are Costs Rising?

Both colleges and camps are scrutinized for their rising costs and prices over the long haul. In 1931, when Pine Forest Camp first opened, a seven-week stay cost $85. The summer camp in 1931 costs about 114 times as much today, 80 years later.

Did summer camp really cost 114 times more than now? This may be technically accurate – but it is a calculation so misleading as to be incorrect because it is incomplete.   When one accounts for inflation, that $85  in 1931 translates to $1,263.68 in 2011 dollars. Summer camp has increased by 767 percent -- or, stated another way, it is about eight times more expensive than it was in 1931.  As for comparing costs of college and camp, college presidents may find some relief from critics in now being able to document that colleges are not alone in escalating prices.

Extra Expenses and the Real Cost of Attendance

As preview for the peculiar consumerism of rising college costs, consider a recent development about summer camp expenses that made front page headlines in The New York Times article, “To Reach Simple Life of Summer Camp, Lining Up for Private Jets.” A number of families were chartering private jets from New York and Philadelphia to take their children to rustic summer camps in rural Maine.  What started as an infrequent act spread in popularity, so much so that the small airports in Bangor and Augusta had to increase services to accommodate this expensive practice.  Why would parents pay huge amounts for air service instead of the traditional drive in the family station wagon or SUV?  The explanations provided a look at family discretionary choices about their children’s education and related support services.

Some parents explained that chartering a private jet was useful because it compressed round-trip travel time from several days to six hours.  This could be justified as effective and, perhaps, efficient.  There was a secondary, social effect: bragging rights and prestige among parents and children in which chartering the private jet conferred some reflected prestige of “conspicuous consumption.” All constituents henceforth had to be at least aware of this level, whether they mimicked it or not.

All this took place outside the purview of camp officials.  To the contrary, for some camp staff, it was a disconcerting clash with the values and experiences of camp life they wished to transmit to adolescents. Regardless of the camp administrators’ views, there was little they could do to encourage or discourage the practice.  Parents, meanwhile, had to take these factors into consideration about camp expenses and lifestyle. The summer camp economy had become financially stratified by official price plus added discretionary expenses subject to expensive status pressures. This was a forewarning of decisions about college prices and choices that a family would make in the future.  Most important, it shows how numerous variables need to be considered when one calculates the genuine cost of attendance.

Cost of Attendance (COA). Connections to College Costs: From Camp Back to the Campus

Camps and colleges use similar language such as “tuition and fees” charges. Second, a camp and a campus have comparable investments in residential physical plant with recreational and instructional facilities.  A residential camp enrolling 450 children has an annual budget of more than $2 million, including $1 million for salaries for a staff of 500.  Annual maintenance is about $700,000.  The residential dining hall at Pine Forest serves 4,200 meals per day for a summer total expense of $500,000. Third, the proliferation of expensive accessories illustrates how expenses can snowball. The connection between camp and campus becomes more evident when one recalls that a camp offered two optional programs for which families would have to pay extra: the SAT prep program and the Leadership program dealing with college campus visits.

Escalation of supplements was the focus of another New York Times article last summer on the quest for admissions advantage that high school seniors gain by enrolling in (and paying for) programs that provide unusual summer experiences geared to writing an impressive college application essay.  This new, expensive option in the summer experience was called “priceless fodder for the cutthroat college application process. Suddenly the idea of working as a waitress or a lifeguard seems like a quaint relic of an idyllic, pre-Tiger Mom past."

If one knows that such pre-college socialization and programs make a difference in who goes where to college and how well they are prepared, does one then include the camp and other activities in plan for compensatory programs that increase promote genuine equity and access? The sociologists Christopher Jencks and David Riesman observed in their 1968 classic work, The Academic Revolution, that for the children of education-minded American families, going to college is not a sprint, but a marathon.  Some competitive families start the preliminary heats of this race early, with summer camp as the racer’s edge.

Forty years ago John Gardner, in his 1961 book, Excellence -- asked, “Can we be equal -- and excellent, too?” High prices at camp and campus signal that the answer for today is, “Fat chance!”

John Thelin is professor of higher education & public policy at the University of Kentucky and author of A History of American Higher Education (Johns Hopkins Press, 2011).



Subscribe to RSS - Admissions / registrar
Back to Top