Understanding the Class of 2015

Immersing himself in admissions work and meeting his university's future students gave Professor Russell Olwell deeper appreciation for his non-flagship college's "access" mission, he writes.


May 29, 2007

For most college and university faculty, recruitment and admissions are a black box. We see the students who are admitted and enrolled in our classrooms, we read statistics about those students (GPA, SAT, ACT) but we do not have a lot of contact with the process itself. Outside of major lawsuits or referenda about admissions policies (such as the cases in Michigan, California and Texas) college faculty may not even know how admissions decisions are made, and may find themselves unable to explain the rationale behind them to members of the public.

Whole sections of the admissions and recruitment process might not even be part of the division of academic affairs, but part of an enrollment services division, staffed by people who are experts in marketing, admissions, financial aid and more conversant in “yield management” than in the language of academia. Faculty often talk about admissions, financial aid, and recruiting, but rarely run across or seek out the people responsible, and are not often involved enough in the process to understand it.

Up until a year or two ago, I would count myself in this category. However, last year I received a federal six-year grant to work on a project to help middle school students make a successful transition to college, and I was suddenly in the college admissions and recruitment business (though we sell college, not a college), and I began to better understand what the competitive world of college recruitment is like.

First of all, I learned that talking to kids about going to college, any college, is a retail, not a wholesale business. It is best done one on one or in small groups (10-20 max), and it is time and labor intensive. Colleges and universities make their case student by student, family by family. People need to believe that going to college will be a sound personal and financial investment, and feel safe in that choice.

Second, I found out that peoples’ families play a larger role in the process than I ever imagined. While students are thinking about a range of colleges and universities, parents are scanning the horizon for what they think is affordable and attainable for their students. While students in middle school are not thinking about their future (outside of whether their locker will work tomorrow) their parents are thinking about what classes they need, and what summer experience will help them be more attractive to colleges.

Parents are often also shopping for themselves. The changes in the workplace have meant that many families need to think about returning to college, going for an M.A. or M.B.A. to get ahead in a field, or for further job related training. When parents are watching a college presentation, they are thinking about themselves, their child, other siblings and seeing what needs that college can fit.

I also learned that the college admissions business is fiercely competitive. Colleges routinely recruit outside their geographic area, and are searching for any edge to bring in students. People in admissions and recruiting work very hard, without a lot of respect on campus. Faculty might see campus tours passing by, but do not know that the entire student visit operation is managed by a single professional staff member, with student workers doing the rest. Tours, visits, and high school talks are all close to military campaigns, waged year after year, and people working on campus have little idea how labor intensive they are.

Finally, going out to schools and talking about our college has made me realize just how important institutions such as mine, a large urban regional public institution, are. Regional public institutions are not glamorous places to work, and receive little respect in the media or in the academy. They are often trying to bootstrap themselves into research institutions, without the resources of the private and flagship institutions in the state.

However, when you visit schools in working-class areas, universities such as mine are real beacons of hope, where students of limited means can come for a four-year degree. While flagship institutions might be important for their sports teams and teaching hospitals, they are viewed as being as financially and academically out of range as the Ivy Leagues by many families. Four- year regional institutions and two-year colleges are viewed by many families as their real hope for attaining and maintaining a middle class existence in a time of massive economic uncertainty.

While many colleagues on my campus are hoping to bring in students from better high schools, or refocus our institution towards graduate degrees, or increase our G.P.A. and test score requirements, going on the road to a middle school in a non-affluent area can put it in perspective for a faculty member.

In this humble cafetorium sit our future students and parents, and they need our university to be accessible, affordable and safe. They need to meet people who teach there and feel comfortable that we will help them and their children have a better future. They may not have all the preparation we want them to have, but they have done what they could.

As faculty members, if we saw where our students were coming from more often, would make us more gratefully to have them arrive in our classes each September. While it may put come dents in the car, holes in the tires, and raise the gas bill, it would give faculty a stronger sense of the mission and role of our institutions at a time when their existence cannot be taken for granted.


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