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How Admissions Offices Actually Work

Episode 177

January 2, 2024 33 minutes


EAB’s Madeleine Rhyneer and Kathy Ruby pull back the curtain to reveal how admissions professionals sift through thousands of applications and decide who gets admitted. The two differentiate between the approach typically used at highly selective institutions versus those that admit most applicants.

They also explore how financial aid optimization works and the ways that institutions apply FAO to help fill and shape their incoming classes.



0:00:00.0 Speaker 1: Hello, and welcome to Office Hours with EAB. Today, we pull back the curtain on the modern admissions office to explore how these overworked souls sift through the thousands of applications that arrive by the virtual truckload this time of year. Our guests will bust a few myths, explain how the sausage gets made and offer tips for admissions leaders on how to hit their enrollment goals with their sanity mostly intact. Give these folks a listen and enjoy.


0:00:40.6 Madeleine Rhyneer: Well, hello and welcome to Office Hours with EAB. My name is Madeleine Rhyneer and I spent most of my career, as many of you know, working with and leading admission teams at a couple of colleges and universities across the country. For the last four years, I’ve been working as EAB’s vice president of Consulting Services and Dean of Enrollment Management. And in that role, I have the great fortune to work with and to learn from admission leaders and teams across the country. The higher education landscape has changed a lot since I came to EAB and the kinds of challenges that many of you are facing today are different and more acute as I know you can attest. So I thought it might be interesting to talk about those changes and in the process maybe pull back the curtain just a little bit on what today’s enrollment teams are facing.

0:01:29.9 MR: How they’re dealing with application volumes, the uncertainties of the new FAFSA and just the so many changes that are occurring in the landscape, some of which are demographic and some of which are changes in various services that they might be using. So with me today to talk about this is my colleague Kathy Ruby who’s part of EABs financial aid optimization team. We’re going to dig a little bit deeper into the exciting world of financial aid in a bit, but for now, Kathy, would you mind just giving us a little overview of how financial aid and recruitment strategy are inextricably linked?

0:02:04.1 Kathy Ruby: Absolutely. And yes, they are in inextricably linked. So certainly, an admissions office admits students and enrolls students and their goal is to fill a class with students that will be in the community, but along with each student comes what we call net tuition revenue. And so net tuition revenue is what an institution ultimately needs to operate. So net tuition revenue defined as what’s the amount of tuition you’re charging less any institutional dollars that you’ve given to a student for them to enroll. Our job is really… And then on the student side, of course, students have to make decisions about the price they’re going to pay and how affordable an institution is. So our job in financial aid and optimization is to help institutions spend the right amount of money to enroll a class and ultimately to bring in the right amount of revenue for the institution and what it needs.

0:03:05.2 KR: So we’re here to help institutions spend their financial aid dollars as efficiently as they can. ‘Cause if they spend too much, then they don’t have enough revenue and if they spend too little perhaps they may not have enough students who are willing to pay the price that they’re asking to be paid. So that’s how they’re linked for good or for bad. And I think over the many years, they’re more and more linked as you and I can attest having been in this business for a while.

0:03:31.3 MR: Yeah, absolutely. I often think about, a lot of times enrollment leaders and teams what they’re really doing is they’re promoting the incredible values and opportunities at their institution, but the bottom line for most families these days is what the family determines to be affordable as you said, Kathy. And so the price sort of Trumps product in many ways. And so I actually think of financial aid optimization as a form of arbitrage. Really it is, it’s like working in the financial markets. It’s how much money do we need to give this individual family. It’s kind of like seats on a plane to actually to be sufficient for them to believe that the value that they will receive is the value that they can afford.

0:04:17.7 KR: Yes. And that it’s worth it.

0:04:18.9 MR: Yes.

0:04:20.3 KR: So if you don’t mind I’m going to go ahead and be moderator for a little bit. So can I ask you some questions to help the lay person understand how an admission team operates?

0:04:35.5 MR: Well, you can absolutely ask the questions and I will try to answer.

0:04:35.6 KR: And I will be very moderate, how’s that? That works. So colleges, of course, receive thousands of applications from students around this time of year and certainly we’re seeing students are applying to more and more institutions as it’s getting easier to do so. How much of the application review process has been automated and how much time are admission counselors spending actually reviewing individual applications themselves? So really just trying to get a sense of what’s the day-to-day work of assessing applications at most institutions?

0:05:08.3 MR: So that is a super good question. And, of course, if we think about in the spirit of the holiday season what you’re hoping is that people are getting many applications if they had a December one or December 15th or some will have a January one application due dates. So we hope that their application bounty is plentiful and that there are many. But I think in terms of how institutions are evaluating applications and sort of what their business processes are, it’s a bit for me of a tale of two cities because there are institutions that are extraordinarily popular and we know even this fall may have had a record number of applications last year and they’ve… Already they’re on track to supersede that number this year.

0:05:52.3 MR: So for them, the bounty is both wonderful, but also a challenge for their team. So we’ll put a pin in that and come back to that in a minute. The vast majority of schools frankly are working really hard to meet enrollment goals. That pandemic sort of accelerated the disruption in the market that people were anticipating with the demographic decline. And so, as many things have changed, as test name availability has changed where are the sources of identifying talented and potentially good fit students?

0:06:21.9 MR: We know many of the enrollment teams that I talk to talk about their high school visits are not as productive and by that I mean they’re often speaking with counselors which is great. That’s a very important role in supporting students. But many students they can’t get out of class to come and talk with them. Some attendance at college fairs has been down also. So the big question is, where do we find people to share the story about the great opportunities at our institution and encourage people to apply? So you’ve got people who are inundated and then you’ve got teams who are just working really hard to find students where they are, get them to apply. So I think that actually is apocryphal about how people handle applications when they arrive.

0:07:04.4 MR: Many institutions have been trying to remove barriers. So historically they may have asked for one or more essay questions on the application and they’ve decided because we know how much students actually don’t love to write essay answers, they may have reduced those. So the application review may be a bit more straightforward in the sense that you would be evaluating a high school transcript, evaluating course patterns, evaluating academic program rigor and the grades earned. But you may not be evaluating an application essay itself.

0:07:33.6 MR: We also know that a number of flagship institutions who are amongst those who are inundated with applications that in many cases they’re not asking an application essay at all and that they have whole teams of people that all that they do is evaluate the transcripts. Or in many cases like in the California system, the students self-reported core pattern of courses and the grades that they have achieved. So I would say that it’s like all politics are local, all admission practices are local depending on the institution and their market position, their mission, what the volume of their applications are. But I will say for those who are very carefully reading and evaluating applications, they are super busy at this time of year. And of course, being really busy is a mixed blessing. It’s a blessing that your institution is popular and has a lot of demand. But on the other hand, I think that readers are extremely mindful, they’re very careful and thoughtful because they’re trying to do everything that they can to be fair and equitable in terms of giving students a chance and opening those doors of opportunity.

0:08:45.0 KR: Definitely. What are some of the biggest misconceptions out there about how the sausage gets made within a college admissions office?

0:08:51.9 MR: Well, there are so many misconceptions. There are probably not many misconceptions amongst the listeners of this podcast because if you’re in a college or university environment, you probably have a pretty good sense of what is happening. I think one of the things that I often think about with families and their supporters as they’re approaching this is, college admission really isn’t fair. And we’ve certainly seen legal challenges to college admission and about practices that people think are not fair for this group of students or that group of students. But the honest truth is most of it is not totally fair because it’s not a numbers game. We don’t have a national curriculum in the United States. We don’t have a national set of courses, we don’t have a national standard for grading.

0:09:34.6 MR: So trying to evaluate a person who comes from one high school and his or her record with a record from a different high school that may be 600 miles away, that requires a lot of work and a lot of finesse on the part of admission teams. And so this notion that it will be fair or in the case of the most highly selective institutions where virtually 90% of the applicants are well-qualified academically, but they’re only going to admit 10 or 5%, people start to wonder like, well, is it me?

0:10:08.3 MR: And it really isn’t you. I don’t think if you’re a prospective student, it’s just some of it just becomes a little bit the luck of the draw. And one of the biggest things I think is that you control your own application. You control what courses you took, you control what grades you earned, you control how you present yourself in the application and perhaps in your essays. But what you don’t control is who else is applying. So that’s a factor that’s outside of your domain. So I think people just have to do the very best that they can. And I think on the reverse side, when you think about enrollment teams, I think people have these images of it. And of course there’ve been some hilarious movie kind of parodies of what admission committees look like.

0:10:51.8 MR: But I often think that people think it’s like these nameless faceless people who sit in a room and are making judgements about me as a person. Because you’re either going to get the yep, you’re in or the, no, you’re not. And I think what you have to understand is these are people of incredible good intent and hard work and caring and compassion. So they deeply care about the work that they do.

0:11:21.0 MR: They deeply care about the students that they’re evaluating and that they don’t take their role or responsibility lightly. And it is a lot of work. It’s a bucket of work and it’s high pressure because in the most selected places, you’re having to read 60, 70, 80 applications a day and those applications are complicated. So I would just say, recognizing that people are doing the very best that they can, they approach it with good intent and they’re making the very best decisions that they can for their institution.

0:11:46.6 KR: Yeah, it is a high pressure job in certain times of the year for sure. And every admission reader I ever met and every admission counselor I ever worked with was very, very dedicated to the students they met and all of the students they met regardless of whether they were going to get in. So you talked about essays and those essays that students are writing. Has anything changed in how essays are treated and graded today versus in the past? I mean, of course, the world’s been changing a lot in terms of how students may be writing those essays. And I guess, just how are colleges evaluating them for the ones who are requiring them?

0:12:32.2 MR: Yes. So I think that’s a super interesting question ’cause of course, the whole universe is just blown up with ChatGPT and then the larger impact of artificial intelligence and not just what that means on the college admission process, but about student attainment in high school and the academic work that students are doing in college. Let me just take you on a little trip back in history. So think about a time when many institutions were asking for application essays because that was one of the ways that admission committees were able to determine a student’s thought process.

0:13:05.8 MR: So at my most fundamental breakdown of it, it would be do you have any ideas? And then can you get them down on paper? And some of that has to do with the prompts that institutions would ask. And you think about the prompts of the common app for example, today. So in the good “old days” before artificial intelligence and if an institution did require an essay, often one of the things we were really reading for in addition to do you have any ideas and can you get them down on paper is, what’s your voice? Because there’s a lot of speculation about who’s actually writing college essays.

0:13:47.7 MR: And then if you attend a private school or perhaps you’re working with an independent counselor, is your independent counselor reviewing your essay? And are they giving you lots of feedback about how to strengthen that? And frankly, in many of the places that I worked, students weren’t necessarily working with an independent counselor. But what you were thinking is does this sound like you or does this sound like mom? Said with love, love mom, really love mom, but we know that for some students mom fills out the application or did, well, probably still is today, electronically. And so there was that.

0:14:13.2 MR: So it was a lot about voice. Did this sound like the authentic thing that a teenager might be writing, a young person, but you fast forward to today, one of the questions is, I think, for some very selective institutions they may be running essays through AI to see is this actually an original piece? Did you do this and you don’t? The thing that’s hard is you don’t want to assume… What that really means is I think you might be fibbing. And I’m trying to find out and I think that students are going to use artificial intelligence in many of the kinds of work that they do.

0:14:53.3 MR: And we know admission counselors are using artificial intelligence as a foundation for email messages or texts that they might want to send to students. So you don’t want to criticize people for doing the same things or let me say use it against them, if they’re doing the same things that you actually are. But again, I think we want students to put their authentic best foot forward. And maybe if AI gives them a good idea about how to start, but then they embellish that on their own, I will be interested to see how that plays out over time. But many institutions are as you sort of pointed out, many institutions have eliminated essays, again, in a bigger games kind of recruitment environment where unfortunately another institution announced that it was closing last week. There are a lot of seats chasing not quite enough students.

0:15:33.8 MR: And I think most institutions are trying to do everything that they can to create an environment where the student feels welcome and makes it easy to apply. Many people conflate easy with they don’t have to prove how much they like you. And unfortunately, in this buyer’s market, I think institutions have to prove how much they love students rather than the reverse.

0:15:54.0 MR: And of course, there’s an elite group of students and my hat is off to them and the position that they play in the market, but the vast majority of institutions are thinking about streamlining rather than adding or continuing things that students may view as a barrier to application.

0:16:09.8 KR: Yeah. Really removing barriers which is actually related to the next question. So what options do admission teams have at their disposal if they don’t have enough applications? So they’re not one of those places that has way too many applications to deal with. So how can they get the word out about their institution and that they still want students to apply and enroll and then motivate them to actually apply?

0:16:36.1 MR: Yeah, I think that is a really good question because, again, we can see, I mean, I’m sure that our listeners are aware for their own institution up down flat in terms of applications in this particular recruitment season. And it’s great to be up, flat can be concerning. ‘Cause we know that students are applying to more schools, so there aren’t more students, but they’re applying to more schools. And if you’re flat, that means you may have a problem in the yield phase. But then if your applications are down it’s, oh my goodness, what is it we’re going to do? And I think that… And especially so we’re now at the end of the calendar year, so there are still many levers to be pulled, but you have fewer levers because you don’t have as long of a runway.

0:17:23.9 MR: So I think the things that I have seen people do is they just go back out to students and they talk to them about, hey here’s a suggestion. Many institutions have a January one due date and if your school is a common app member, you may reach out to all of your applicants who’ve not applied and said, “Hey if you’re applying to a school that has a January one due date and you’re working on your app right now, please add us and we’ll get you an admission decision in a timely fashion.”

0:17:57.3 MR: Because there needs to be, it’s not just enough to ask people to apply. There needs to be a benefit for them. And when you think about the financial aid world in this year of uncertainty with the new FAFSA, many institutions, private institutions who have some resources have actually leaned pretty heavily into merit scholarships knowing that there would be a delay in offering need-based aid. So maybe it would be we have a generous merit scholarship program that ranges up to, I’m making it up, $25,000 a year and we can get you an answer in an early time with a merit scholarship offer.

0:18:24.8 MR: So I think the challenge is trying to figure out where to reach teenagers. You have to be on every platform all the time every day and it’s exhausting. So it’s thinking about, what is your digital advertising strategy? Are you getting in front of those moms that are still on Facebook and are you doing anything on TikTok or experimenting on any of these new platforms? And then what kind of empathy messages are you leading with to get students to actually move off the fence and into your applicant pool? So I think all is certainly not lost. It ain’t over until it’s over.

0:19:02.7 MR: And we’ve seen institutions make big gains by recruitment efforts that started after the first of the calendar year. But I think thinking right now about what my strategy is going to be, what opportunities we have brainstorming with your team to figure out what will be really good potential activities for us, how do we get out there in front of people? One institution I’m working with they have a wrapped bus. It’s a little bit like this.

0:19:20.0 MR: Southern New Hampshire thing. It is not Southern New Hampshire. And they were sort of laughing about it. And I’m like, I said, “I think that’s amazing. You know, they’re gonna pull up and do transfer fairs at community colleges.” I was like, I think this is awesome. It’s super clever. So you may not have a wrapped RV at your disposal. But is there something, something that you could do that maybe is a little bit out of the box for your institution to try something different?

0:19:44.0 KR: Well, and to think about the bright side of that, the bright side of the FAFSA delay is you’ll have the FAFSA to talk about after January 1st, such as it is, such as it turns out to be. Right? So it can be combined with some FAFSA submission drives as well, too.

0:20:00.2 MR: Well, okay, well, so maybe this is the right time to turn the tables and let me ask you some questions. So, Kathy, with your expertise in general, when in the admission cycle are financial aid teams starting to run models and make decisions about who might be offered what, both need based aid or in the case of institutions that have some institutional dollars for merit based aid? What might that look like? And then, what’s your role in helping them in that decision making process?

0:20:30.8 KR: Yeah, so most institutions, many of our partners barely finish enrolling the current class before they turn to figuring out merit based and financial aid policy for the upcoming class. And so in terms of how that happens, most schools want to get their merit scholarship decisions for the upcoming year made by the end of the summer. So that they can start admitting students in the fall and sending out merit scholarship offers as quickly as possible, and especially in this year with the delayed FAFSA. So I would say most of the time we’re meeting with our partners throughout the summer and into the fall. Sometimes it depends on the kind of data that they have, how firmed up their class is, because we the work that we do is actually to create a pricing model using the current year class to then try to make adjustments to policy and predict what the response to those changes in policy might be.

0:21:32.6 KR: So we start that work really in the summer and then wrap it up in the fall. I will say that this year, because of the FAFSA delay, I think some institutions are not in as much of a hurry to get the need based side of their policies figured out, right? ‘Cause they have a little bit more time because they can’t package anyone. But most of the time, institutions are working during the summer and early fall to get their policies decided so that they can get both merit based scholarships and financial aid awards out to students as quickly as possible, because that is… That’s actually part of the competition. Right. Schools trying to get their awards out to be the first with their awards at the door.

0:22:14.2 MR: So I have a question about that. I’ve worked with some partners who have really leaned into the merit part of their award, because psychologically, we know that students and their supporters would rather receive a scholarship because they’ve got a lot of potential as opposed to you don’t have any darn money. And so are you supporting partners also who have sort of leaned into, we’re gonna be giving them money anyway. So let’s actually call it a merit scholarship in this year, where we know that the need based awards will be delayed and try to build some goodwill up front. What do you see in there?

0:22:47.6 KR: Yes. Absolutely. Seeing that across our partners and our financial aid optimization works with about 180 different colleges across the country. Definitely seeing a movement toward merit aid. And it may just be for one year, and especially among higher cost private colleges who may be giving enough need based aid that they’re really worried that students aren’t gonna stick around long enough to learn about their need based aid. So they’re pushing their scholarships out sooner and making them larger, knowing that they were gonna give those students money anyway. And then taking into account as well the FAFSA changes and trying to make sure that they are addressing the change in the need definition for some families by addressing it with merit aid, quite frankly, especially for sort of middle and higher income families who have multiple kids in college. They may not qualify for as much need based aid by the formula, but they still need the money. So giving it to them in the form of merit aid makes good sense from an enrollment and revenue perspective.

0:23:51.8 MR: Well, let me ask you this. I was just talking with a partner earlier this week, and they’re one of the institutions that has institutional aid. They have pushed out merit scholarships. They’re feeling pretty good about, they’ve taken a pretty aggressive stance on those merit scholarships, but they plan to write to students again right after the first of the year and remind them about the merit scholarship that they’ve received. And also to remind them that if your family needs more, this is now your moment to apply on the FAFSA.

0:24:22.1 MR: And of course, they’re gonna time that to when it’s really open. And they anticipate, as many do, that kids will and families will struggle a bit because the whole FSA ID and granting permission thing, they’re thinking people will struggle. But they’re positioning themselves as the helpful source that if a student is having trouble, that they would call them. They’re probably not calling the Department of Ed. I mean, most people talk about being on hold for a long time. So what do you think about that strategy? Is that a good idea that they have?

0:24:54.2 KR: Oh, I think that’s fantastic. I think being as assertive and aggressive as you can in helping families through this new process is gonna be so important. And just making yourselves available in whatever ways you can to get families through, because you even think about high school counselors. They’re gonna be overwhelmed once that FAFSA comes out. It’s a whole new process that no one… There have been some Department of Education webinars and some sort of what do you call them? The word is escaping me. Samples, not samples. You know what I mean?

0:25:27.6 MR: Prototype out.

0:25:28.6 KR: Prototype out. But the prototype still doesn’t provide as much detail as the real FAFSA will. So I think for institutions to be proactive and to get their enrollment staff, both admissions and financial aid into that FAFSA, figure out how it works and then offer your services to families as they’re working their way through. In the end, it’s going to be simpler for families once they get through that sign in process. And I think that is you mentioned it. That’s one of the areas we’re concerned about, because as you look at the consent that a contributor has to give, I think you have to scroll several times down the screen. There are several US codes mentioned. It’s easy to think how someone might be intimidated by clicking. Yes. Yes, I agree. But they have to agree or the student won’t qualify for financial aid. So.

0:26:17.7 MR: Oh, my gosh.

0:26:18.3 KR: So I think schools keeping an open and positive and empathetic tone is gonna be really important.

0:26:26.5 MR: So let’s talk about that for a second, because my observation and in conversations across market segments and institution types is there’s a lot of variation about where people are. Some people are very proactive about thinking on behalf of the families that they support, especially when they know their populations they serve. Others are more like it isn’t that they don’t care, but it’s like, well, we don’t really know what it’s gonna look like yet. And we just don’t want to get all turned over in a knot over this thing. So we’re just… We’re just kind of letting it ride until it goes live.

0:26:58.4 MR: What’s your sense of the level of preparation? And again, it’s hard to be prepared for something that you don’t even really know what it is yet, even with prototypes. But what’s your sense of the level of preparation or perhaps, lack of preparation, for lack of a better phrase, that you see teams having?

0:27:18.3 KR: Yeah, I mean, I think there is quite a bit of variability. I think that, to be fair, for the institutions that aren’t as prepared, it has been a challenge because the information coming from the Department of Education has been fairly slow. But certainly some institutions are well prepared, are thinking things through. I don’t know. I think this is an area where financial aid and admissions have to really collaborate on communication because financial aid, I’m a former financial aid administrator. I can say this. We are good communicators, but not perhaps in the right ways in some ways.

0:27:58.8 KR: So I think in terms of, I think collaboration between admissions and financial aid is just more important than ever in terms of conveying that empathy, that compassion and getting families through this and also just not overreacting to the changes ’cause the financial aid office is in the weeds on this, right? They’re trying to come up with their response to every single change in regulation.

0:28:23.8 KR: The admissions office can perhaps step back and see the bigger picture about how can this affect families and how can we best get families through this? Because in the end, it is going to be a better process for families. But we got to get them through that first year.

0:28:37.3 MR: Well, I just… I not only have high empathy for families, but I have high empathy for financial aid professionals.

0:28:43.2 KR: Yes.

0:28:44.6 MR: Because I’ve never met a financial aid professional who doesn’t want to help a student and they recognize they need to do it within the letter of the federal law and state law, if there are state funds and then institutional policies. They all really want to help. And I think this… I also think as a group of people who are very good rule followers, uncertainty is not their friend. And I think the thing that’s been the hardest for them has been the uncertainty. And so when I see people stressing, I’m always trying to think about what can we talk about that will just make you feel a little bit better today? Because it is super stressful. It’s stressful for you. It’s stressful for families. The admission people are all freaked out like none of our numbers mean anything because students can’t make a commitment to enroll if they don’t know what their costs will be. It’s crazy.

0:29:28.1 KR: Yeah. Well, and when you think about it, they’re doing it with the same resources they’ve always had. So I still laugh in the beginning of all this. I’m gonna say several months ago, the Department of Education sent a letter to president saying FAFSA simplification is gonna be a big thing. You should make sure your financial aid office has enough resources. I can tell you that I can’t think of any financial aid office I work with that has more resources than they did a year ago. And in fact, most of them have fewer human resources because it’s a field where there’s been lots of turnover and certainly, no. I mean, in most cases, no more additional resources to deal with these significant changes that are coming through. So really our hearts do go out to those financial aid professionals because they really are doing the best they can in a very tough situation.

0:30:18.0 MR: Yeah. Well, where do you think we are? What I’m wondering about is, I’m trying to think to myself. We have, both of us have so many friends in the profession. What happy message could we give them as they think about going forward? And what I wonder about is, I think for admission professionals, first of all, they need to take care of themselves. They need to do that really hard work of recruiting. I hope that people get a really good break because it will be a sprint. That’s the marathon to all of yield.

0:30:54.2 KR: Yes.

0:30:54.8 MR: I think high empathy for their friends in financial aid. Generally, those teams work really closely together. And I think the more they can hold each other up, the better off that they will be. And I also think in periods of great transition, this is a time of huge transition. You just… You hold your values close. You hold your institutional values close. You hold your team really close and you decide we’re gonna work through this and get through this together. It’s that sort of better together thing. Because the more that you can hold each other up, I think the better able we’ll all be to support students and their families in what’s an uncertain process for them.

0:31:34.2 MR: And for many of them, it isn’t that it’s different. They may be doing it for the first time. And so they’re already stressed. So we just have to try and manage our own stress to the best of our ability and take care of ourselves and take care of each other.

0:31:46.8 KR: That’s such a great way to wrap it up, Madeleine. And I could not say it any better.

0:31:52.4 MR: Well, thank you. It’s been a pleasure being with you, Kathy. Love doing a podcast with you. My best to all of our friends who are listening. Take good care of yourselves. Have a great year.


0:32:08.2 S1: Thank you for listening. Please join us next week when we examine how colleges and universities are assessing the risks and some exciting opportunities surrounding the adoption of artificial intelligence. Until next week, thank you for your time.


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