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NACAC CEO Shares Admissions Strategies to Improve College Access

Episode 93

March 1, 2022 30 minutes


EAB’s Madeleine Rhyneer and Dr. Angel Pérez, CEO of the National Association for College Admission Counseling, discuss recommended changes to admissions policies designed to improve college access. Dr. Pérez talks about his own educational journey that began in Puerto Rico and continued in one of the roughest neighborhoods in the South Bronx before a chance encounter with a high school guidance counselor helped set him on his present course.

The two also discuss Dr. Pérez’s recent Forbes op-ed as well as concrete next steps from the new NACAC/NASFAA report (Toward a More Equitable Future for Postsecondary Access) that higher ed leaders should consider.



0:00:11.9 S1: Hello and welcome to Office Hours with EAB. We’re fortunate today to be joined by Dr. Angel Pérez, CEO of the National Association for College Admission Counseling or NACAC as everyone in the world of admissions calls it. Dr. Pérez shares key findings from a new NACAC report that includes concrete actions that your institution should consider to improve college access. This is a packed episode, so let’s jump right in and enjoy.


0:00:47.3 Madeleine Rhyneer: Well, hello and welcome to Office Hours with EAB. My name is Madeleine Rhyneer, and I service EAB’s Dean of Enrollment Management, and I’m really excited today because I’m joined by a great colleague and I believe a visionary leader, Dr. Angel Pérez, who is the CEO of NACAC. Welcome to our podcast, Angel.

0:01:05.4 Angel Pérez: Thanks for having me.

0:01:07.5 MR: Hey, we are so excited to have you with us today, and I’m very excited ’cause we have a lot to cover related to improving college access, but before we get started with that, especially for our listeners who may be new to higher education, would you mind explaining what NACAC stands for? Talk a little bit about the mission of the organization, and your vision for the future of the organization?

0:01:29.5 AP: Sure. Gosh, I wish we had an hour to talk about the vision, but I will tell you who we are. We are the National Association for College Admission Counseling. We have over 26,000 members all over the world. The majority of them are admission officers on campuses, doing admission work, college counselors, high school counselors, community-based organization, basically anyone who is working in getting students to college, and our mission is actually to empower college admission counseling professionals through education advocacy in communities. So we have a big job ahead of us, and as we will be talking about today, lots of changes happening in this profession, and so NACAC is part of leading the change in the profession right now.

0:02:10.3 MR: Is that a little bit about how you’re viewing your leadership role as the organization continues to evolve over the years?

0:02:19.8 AP: Yeah, I really have been thinking a lot about the fact that the profession is undergoing such extraordinary change, I might even say seismic shifts, that I see my role as really keeping a pulse on that and trying to support the members who are doing the work, and evolving the organization to meet their needs every day.

0:02:37.2 MR: Well, that’s awesome. Well, okay, so let’s just jump right into the focus of the podcast, which today is about examining the ways to close equity gaps in college access, and success of students from different backgrounds, once they’re actually enrolled in college. I don’t think it’s news to any of our listeners that today’s college students come from broader backgrounds and many more lived experiences than were the case in the past. However, under-represented students still attend college at lower rates than their white counterparts, and those who do enroll graduate at lower rates as well. So access to and support while in higher education reflects many, we think, of the same systemic inequities that the most marginalized students and families experience in virtually every aspect of our society. And while we know individuals and institutions are working so hard and are making progress, we’re worried that the pandemic has threatened to undo some of the gains made in terms of opening those doors of college opportunities. Could you talk a little bit about that?

0:03:38.1 AP: Yeah, we really are at this interesting moment in higher education history, we felt that the intersection of a global pandemic, as well as racial reckoning in this country, as well as financial challenges that universities were facing was really a perfect time for us to really be thinking about the direction of the profession, but also really, how are we going to open the doors wider, how are we gonna help universities admit more marginalized students while also helping to meet their financial bottom line?

0:04:12.5 MR: So let’s get to the heart of this conversation, which really is the report that NACAC and NASFAA, the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators released last month with support from the Lumina Foundation, and the report is entitled Toward A More Equitable Future for Post-secondary Access. Can you talk a little bit about what prompted NACAC and NASFAA to dig into this topic at this time, and were there any surprises that you had throughout the process of pulling together the experts to make recommendations?

0:04:45.2 AP: Yeah, I think the impetus for it was some of the things that I talked about earlier around that sort of perfect intersection, the pandemic, racial reckoning, for example. But we really wanting to step back and take some time to have leaders, thought leaders, and not just in higher education, but also in spaces like civil rights and advocacy, to think about if we were to recreate the college admission system today with an equity lens, what would that look like? And actually what we did was while we created this panel, we also felt it was really important to think outside of the box, and so we hired a design-thinking firm to help lead that work because we didn’t want it to be a traditional panel where it was led by a chair, and there was a lot of discussion and a report ended up happening at the end, but really that this was going to be about a fundamental redesign and change in action, and so that really was what led us to putting this program together.

0:05:42.8 MR: So one of the comments that I’ve heard you make is you’ve talked about, often, higher education leaders are very good at identifying and examining problems, but that sometimes moving from appreciating the problem to actually developing actionable actions to take is a bit of a challenge. Was that part of the goal, in the way that you’ve described, that you’ve constructed this group of individuals that work together?

0:06:06.9 AP: Yeah, that was part of the goal. And the language that we use is, getting on the balcony. And so… And I remember that from… I myself was a higher education leader, I was on a campus for 22 years, it is so difficult to step outside of the day-to-day and think about the systemic issues and systemic change when you’re managing crisis over and over again. And so this was really an opportunity to bring leaders together to get them out of their day-to-day operations, think systemically, and so again, you’ll see that referred to if you read the report, and I hope you do, if you’re listening, as stepping on to the balcony.

0:06:45.3 MR: Okay, so let’s talk about some of the recommendations that come from the report. I read it with particular interest because I was not only interested in the sponsors of the project, but what was very immediately apparent from the executive summary is that you had actionable and very thoughtful recommendations for action, sort of immediate opportunities for action, both at the institution level, at the state level and at the federal level. I thought those next steps were particularly instructive, and what I’d love for you to do is maybe you could start with the changes, some of the changes that you recommend colleges and universities think about to create that opportunity for greater access and reducing that friction in the application process.

0:07:28.4 AP: Yeah, this is what I thought was really exciting about the report, that there were changes that could be made regardless of what level you’re at or where you sit in the higher education landscape, and it obviously starts with colleges and universities and having them think about a few things. I would say, one, what are the requirements that you currently hold for students to be admitted to your institution, and are those unintentionally causing barriers to enrolling more students of color? For example. One example I’d like to use is calculus, and we actually released a report recently where we looked at Calculus as a potential barrier for students from marginalized backgrounds enrolling in higher education, and so I think it’s a great call to action around pausing and asking, What have we always required? And is there some unintended consequence here? The other piece is a call for the simplification of financial aid, the lowering of application fees, but one other thing that colleges and universities can also do is be very intentional around diversifying their admission staffs. The report talks about the fact that students today and the students that were actually interviewed for this project were very clear that they wanna see themselves in the admission officers that they are talking to, that attend their high schools, they want their stories to resonate, and so that’s actually a concrete item that colleges and universities can and should be working on.

0:08:56.1 MR: So I have to tell you that I know part of the reason that the report resonated so deeply with me is, as a person who now works at EAB, in the part of the company that was founded by Bill Royal, many of these were the same pieces of advice that Bill Royal, a middle-aged White gentleman, very much a Southern gentleman, was giving Colleges and Universities 20 years ago, “Why are you asking the question? Why do you need the information now? How is it helping you make an admission decision that is appropriate for this student and for your institution, and what about an application fee?” It’s a little bit like going into a car dealership and having them say, “Well, that’ll be $50 for you to take that test drive.” And I also really appreciated your comments about the application fee, because we know that in some places, that is providing material support for the operating budgets of organizations, and so I know that people don’t charge them lightly, but I do think that in a world, even when we all say, glibly, fee waivers are widely available, the process to obtain a fee waiver can be very different from one institution to another, and I think you would agree that many students look at that and just think, Well, that’s just a while that I’m not gonna be able to make it over. And so they’re very unintended consequences of things that make total sense for the organization.

0:10:17.5 AP: Yeah, absolutely, and I would say connecting some dots here, that the reality of the matter is there are fee waivers available, but if you are at a high school in Arizona, for example, where you have… You are at a school where your counselor has 900 students in her case load, you probably don’t know where to go get a fee waiver or that it even exists. And so we have all these systemic barriers, which again are unintended, but we need to examine those so that we can get that information to students.

0:10:46.5 MR: One of the things that I’ve been really taken with over the last couple of years is the whole idea of journey mapping, so if you sit at a white board and you say to yourself, We’re not gonna put up all the things that we do. We’re gonna say, if we were to completely imagine this right now in a contemporary way and not be bound by any of our current practices or systems or operational protocols that we have, What system would we build and what would it look like? And sort of prevent everyone from saying, Oh, but we’ve always done it this way, because the, we’ve always done it this way, often works for the institution, but it may well not work for the individuals and families that schools rightly want to serve. And again, they’re unintended barriers, but they can be barriers just the same. And it pleases me to hear you report on the things that students shared with you in the process of your research because they’re the end users of the services we’re trying to provide. And if they’re telling you, Well, it doesn’t make sense to me, or, I couldn’t figure out how to use it, or, I didn’t see myself in your operation or in your team, and I wasn’t sure that my story would resonate, that is an unintended barrier, and no one wants students to feel that they would be unwelcome or that their stories don’t matter.

0:11:54.9 AP: Absolutely, and I’m glad you mentioned journey mapping because that’s a big part of design thinking, and that’s exactly the process that we went through to get to the recommendations. And so again, one of the things that I was most excited about in the report is that it calls for a fundamental redesign, it acknowledges that for many years, colleges and universities have been tweaking around the edges. It’s wonderful that we have moved leaps and bounds in the test optional movement. It’s wonderful that some schools are thinking about their legacy policies and how that might impact access, but really until we fundamentally redesign the system for the students who are enrolling today, we’re only tweaking around the edges.

0:12:36.1 MR: Yeah, well, and I often think too, sometimes, and this is said with love, but faculty members often view that they may be the client of admission teams, “It’s your job to bring me great students to teach.” And it is absolutely the admission officer’s job to do that. But there’s a pretty wide definition of great students.

0:12:55.0 AP: That’s right.

0:12:56.3 MR: It could be hunger to learn, and I’ve excelled within the range of opportunities that were available to me, and that there’s this notion of… I guess what I think of is, I think of it as the democratization of education, you wanna teach who’s coming, because these are the people who are anxious to learn and you’re providing this opportunity for a different and hopefully better future. As we think about that, Angel, the question that… I want you to say what you were gonna say, but also, let’s think through, think through for our listeners, how do we persuade politicians regardless of state or where people sit on the political scale, how do we persuade people that investing in education, both higher education and K-12 education is a really important and material investment in the future and strength of our nation?

0:13:47.3 AP: Yeah, I think while that certainly still remains to be a challenge, one of the ways that I think we are gonna be most successful is focusing on the economic imperative, and so I have found that often educators will try to lobby or advocate through a social justice perspective, and I love that, don’t get me wrong. But that does not necessarily resonate with every legislator. However, if you talk about the future of the tax space, if you talk about making sure that you have workforce development, that you have people that are going to be going into the workforce that have the skills to produce the income and the tax revenue that is going to impact society, I think that is a way to move the needle faster than through the social justice imperative.

0:14:34.1 MR: I can absolutely see that, because it’s not hard for politicians to get behind the notion of tax base and workforce development. People have various places and perspectives about social justice and what that means in the world. So as you think about educating your educator friends, does that argument resonate with them as well? Because they’re often thinking more about the transformational impact of a college education on a young person in a family, perhaps more than… Well, and then you’ll get a good job and you’ll be a good taxpayer.

0:15:06.5 AP: Yeah, I think it does resonate, and actually, it’s one of the things that I’m hoping to get more across to our members, I’m actually about to start going on a tour of the conferences of our affiliate organizations around the country, and that’s one of the things I’m gonna talk about, that as you talk to your legislators and your local politicians, that using the economic imperative could be a little bit stronger, although obviously all of us who work in education believe that we’re in it because it transforms and it educates and it enlightens. But we also need to understand that not every politician is interested in that perspective.

0:15:43.3 MR: Well, I think we all bring our own individual lenses to the work, and for me, what matters most is the lens that works, that has integrity, moral fiber, but resonates with the persons you’re trying to convince. But maybe you could just share a little bit of your personal story, Angel, because I know that you come from a background yourself, where the opportunities available to you were a little bit different than the system that you were going to be entering when you went off to college, so maybe you could share your own educational journey with our listeners.

0:16:17.4 AP: Sure. Yeah, one of the reasons I love doing this work, and particularly the Lumina work that this podcast focuses on is because those students were me. I was a low-income first-generation student; I grew up in Puerto Rico and then migrated to the South Bronx. Grew up in one of the most dangerous housing projects in the South Bronx in the 1980s, and so really didn’t have the kind of opportunity that many students in this country have. And I was actually one of the lucky ones, I went to a high school with 4,000 kids in a building, and my counselor had over 600 kids in her case load, but I was lucky, she actually tapped me on the shoulder one day and asked me if I had ever thought about going to college, which I had not, and that sort of set me on a very different journey, so it’s one of the reasons I’m so passionate about doing that work, and I think deeply about the fact that my story should not be an anomaly, and I shouldn’t have just been lucky, but that should be the kind of access that every student has.

0:17:16.3 MR: So I often think also it’s not just about opening that door of college opportunity, but it’s about College Success and Support once students are in college. Were there any experiences that you had that you think are translatable across multiple populations about when you went to college? Was it… I think for most people, it’s not an immediate good fit, it’s always a big adjustment when you get to college. But what happened there, Angel?

0:17:41.5 AP: Yeah. There are so many different things that I can talk about there, but I would say the one experience that resonates for me across all four years is meaning and belonging, the fact that the institution found ways to support me, to connect me, even though I was a low-income student on a predominantly White and wealthy campus, but that they were able to connect me to groups that resonated with me. And we didn’t have the term back then, high-impact practices, but they were engaging with me and my counselors made sure that I was actually taking part in those high-impact practices. And so being able to connect and create community is something that I think allowed me to thrive on that campus.

0:18:24.6 MR: That is… That’s a great story, because I think that’s what every… I believe that everyone on a college campus aspires to that for each of their students, regardless of the place that they came from, but we also know that it doesn’t always work, that people don’t always find those connections even with the best of intentions, and they don’t always find the place where they feel comfortable and sort of the people that they’ll hang out with and develop that glue that makes them really sticky and get you through the part where you got a C minus on a paper and you really thought it was an A paper and it makes you feel badly about yourself.

0:18:56.9 AP: That’s right.

0:18:57.9 MR: It’s the glue that helps you overcome that, and a professor who says, “Hey, so you’ve got some work to do, but let’s work on it together”.

0:19:03.8 AP: That’s right.

0:19:05.2 MR: Because we can totally… You’re gonna get to a better place. No problem. Well, switching gears just a little bit, and I’m jumping off of the work on the paper that NACAC and NASFAA produced, the Supreme Court is going to hear another affirmative action case conflating the case brought against Harvard University and the University of North Carolina. Sort of the one-two punch, in some ways, they’re covering the public and private together, they must be thinking about this in terms of efficiency. I know for myself, I felt a very cold chill go down my spine when I saw the news that this was about to occur because that composition of the court is very different than it has been in recent years, so I know that you wrote a piece for Forbes last month in which you argued, I thought very persuasively in favor of letting admission leaders use race as a variable or consider it as they make admission decisions, and we know that there will be many people in the country who would say, “No, no, this should all be about a level playing field, and it all should just be based on purely academic criteria”. What’s your response to people who take that approach?

0:20:09.6 AP: Yeah, I understand that argument. But the reality of the matter is that we don’t live in a society that has a level playing field, and so if the last several years around racial reckoning in this country have taught us anything is that we have a really long way to go until we have a true, just and equitable society, and so until all students have a very similar experience, at the K-12 level, at the same access to resources and courses and competitive college curricula, until that happens, it is really important that we continue to use race as well as socio-economic and other factors that holistic admission take… Tend to take into consideration, because the other piece… And I know you didn’t ask me about this, but I’m really passionate about this, because it was my experience as well. One of the things I’m really concerned about if the Supreme Court overturns this, is the fact that college is often the time when students for the first time in their lives experience different and are… Or experience difference rather, and are really confronted with meeting people, engaging with people who are very different from their own.

0:21:23.9 AP: So my example, I grew up low income, I had never met a wealthy person until I met my college roommate, and he’s still one of my best friends, but we had to work and grapple through those differences, and so I also worry that this isn’t just about college admission, but it’s also about the future of a nation and how we engage with each other. It has really tremendous implications.

0:21:46.6 MR: Yes, I completely agree with you, and I think you’re right. What… You grow up believing that what happens in your family is just part of what happens because it’s your lived experience, and it’s only when you get to college that you realize, “Oh, this is just one flavor of a lived experience”. And there are so many different lived experiences, and as you may know, EAB has a division of our company now that works with Fortune 500 leaders and their sole goal is consultancy around DEIJ.

0:22:16.5 AP: Mm-hmm.

0:22:17.2 MR: And we’re collaborating with them on the higher ed level because employers are just as about as concerned as higher education leaders are about the supreme court hearing these cases because of course, colleges and universities have been the engine of their diversity talent pools coming into their corporations, and they’re certainly a history of corporations that the US Army filing amicus briefs with the court. But when you think about the world of work in which people will enter, and think about those with a college education, they’re likely to be working in global teams. And so it’s not just people in our own country who will come from different backgrounds, it will be people from backgrounds around the world, and you’ll be much better prepared to work with and appreciate and value the differences that people bring to the table, as opposed to rejecting them because they feel uncomfortable or strange or you look at things differently than I do. That’s one of the biggest fears that I have both the last potentially of human potential to be redundant, but also what it means for the future of the workforce.

0:23:21.8 AP: Absolutely.

0:23:25.5 MR: So what do you think are the most important takeaways? Picture that you’re talking right now to some Provost, some Presidents, some VPs of enrolment and admission deans. What are some… What are a couple of… I think you could do this now, or start these conversations now on campus that you’d really like people to take away?

0:23:45.1 AP: Yeah, I think that the piece that’s most exciting and that I would hope that everyone who reads the report takes away, regardless of where they sit in their organization, is that every single person has a role to play, and I remember when I was on a campus, I used to always say, “It takes a village to enroll a class”. This is not just the job of the Admissions office as well as, “It takes a village to retain a student and make sure that they have a wonderful experience throughout their university years”. And so to a certain extent, what I think the report makes very clear is that if you’re in admission office, you could be thinking about the diversification of your staff, you could be thinking about the simplification of your process so that students actually don’t find it confusing. All the data shows that the more confusing it is, the less probability they have of completing the process, but also I think it gives people a little bit more empowerment around advocacy with legislators and politicians in advocating for more funding for higher education, more funding for K-12 counseling, for example. So I think that’s one of the things that’s really empowering about the report that this isn’t a report that seat sort of on a philosophical shelf, but gives people concrete solutions.

0:25:02.3 MR: So are you on your… Are you on your promotion tour because I think the report is long enough to be comprehensive, but succinct enough with these sort of targeted action steps that it really deserves a very wide sort of review and appreciation, and as you point out, especially with the pandemic people on campuses have just been rolling from one really challenging moment to another at all levels across the university, and that the toll that that’s taken on students and staff and faculty members… And what I worry about is there’s so much going on. And we’re in the yield season now, our enrollment leaders are really… Are making some final admission decisions and really worried about putting the finishing touches on their class, and you’re really asking people to do what I think of as higher order thinking.

0:25:52.2 AP: Yes.

0:25:53.1 MR: Not that… Not this is the job that I need to do today. So are you… As you’re meeting with your affiliates across the country, will you be promoting this as well and encouraging them to have conversations within their circles ’cause it’s a tight community.

0:26:07.9 AP: Yeah, yeah, absolutely. We are on that promotional tour, and also I would say we are also thinking about concrete ways that we can take the next action steps, so I refer to the report that we did about math and calculus as a requirement, that is one step that we are taking analyzing one part of the process, and so part of what we wanna do at the national level as well is begin to deconstruct some of the report and help our members to take some of those chunks and help support them as they begin the transformation, because I do believe we are at a moment where everyone is much more open to change and transformation that we were before.

0:26:46.1 MR: Well, you’re absolutely right. The other thing that I really appreciate about this is sometimes high school counselors and college admission officers, when people refer to that to the other side of the desk, that always kind of hurts my feelings because it makes it feel like it’s oppositional. And I was feeling like this is a wonderful moment in time for everyone in the profession to talk to one another about the concerns that they have, because I think I have learned a lot from conversations with high school counselors about how they’re trying to support students that come from these marginalized and very difficult backgrounds, and the role that they’re playing and the stories that they tell, in many ways, it’s the stories that sort of tug your heart, and I know that maybe legislators don’t care about stories as much, but I think it gives fuel to the fire about, this is real human potential we’re talking about, it’s not just statistics, it’s not just sort of abstract number or it’s about who’s going to college, I mean these are real human lives that are being impacted, and I think there’s a chance for everyone in the profession to talk about this with one another, and really think about how we can support each other to be more successful in moving some of these initiatives forward.

0:27:52.3 MR: And then I think to use your phrase, to take that next step into advocacy and the kind of advocacy that will… Where they won’t… It won’t be like, teenagers, I see your lips moving, but I don’t hear what you’re saying, you know how that goes. But to really… Because I know that NACAC has been very involved in advocacy work in DC, which I applaud, but we need to just keep kind of plugging along. Absolutely.

0:28:17.6 AP: Yeah, and again, that we are a coalition, I say here at NACAC all the time, we’re 26,000 plus people across the globe. That’s a lot of people who if they came together could really make significant change.

0:28:30.7 MR: Well, are there any final words of wisdom that you have for our listeners who I know have really appreciated getting to know you a little bit better and hear your story?

0:28:39.9 AP: No, the only thing I would say, first of all, thank you for having me. But the only thing I would add is there really is a value, and this process has really taught me that to try to find ways to step out of your day-to-day process regardless of what your day-to-day job is, to think about these issues and to really try to figure out what are some ways that you can begin change at whatever level in the organization you’re at, and so if you can find ways to get on that balcony, you can also join this movement.

0:29:08.2 MR: I love that. Okay, I’m gonna be thinking really hard about how do I get to the balcony from here and how do I try to bring some people with me.

0:29:15.9 AP: That’s right.

0:29:16.5 MR: Because I think we can bring our friends, bring our allies, have them work with us together. Well, Angel, I am so grateful to you for your time, I’m even more grateful to you for the passion you bring to this work and for your insights that you’ve shared from the report. Thank you to NACAC, thank you to NASFAA, and thank you to the Lumina Foundation for supporting the work. And we will look forward to what is next to come as you’re moving forward on this and trying to get to that balcony, so thank you to our listeners for joining Office Hours with EAB.


0:29:52.0 S1: Thank you for listening. Please join us next week when we talk to the founder, leader and driving force behind Grow with Google. A one billion dollar enterprise that is partnering with colleges and universities to help more Americans get the training, tools, certificates, and other post-secondary credentials they need to launch or advance their careers. You won’t want to miss this one. Until then, thank you for your time.


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