Monday, December 21, 2009

Ode to Admissions


Labor Day weekend; the freshman checked into his dorm. The senior year of high school is over – the campus visits, informational sessions, college fairs, SAT, SAT II and AP’s, Kaplan, Princeton Review, U.S. News & World Reports, Fiske, FAFSA’s, Pell Grants, Stafford Loans, Plus Loans, Sallie Mae, counselors, recommendations, grade inflation, applications, acceptances, rejections, surprises, disappointments and senioritis are history on this hot, humid Midwest day. Oh, but what a year it was, with many lessons for admissions staffs.

Over 110 unsolicited mailings poured in from scores of colleges, active duty military, and reserves. From postcards to impressive catalogs, jucos to Ivy League, state colleges to research universities, Pac Ten to Big Ten, party schools (they don’t say that, but we know) to solid academic institutions, and trade schools to jock schools, the mailings filled the mailbox. Even more followed applications and acceptance letters. Every school looked great, possessed solid academic credentials, had an impressive student body, beautiful campus (I once taught at a law school which managed to highlight the only tree on the temporary, asphalt strip mall location), perfect weather, distinguished professors who love to teach, low student faculty ratios, high financial aid with no mention of tuition and fees, and prominent alumni.

But mostly for naught. Only universities in the Tuition Exchange Program merited a second glance. We never loaded the AOL look alike cd-roms, which did not say: “free game enclosed”

The mailings are edificating. Universities purchase names in bulk, and then initiate the deluge without cross checking their internal data bases. One picturesque New England college, located in a historic industrial city, sent 8 separate mailings, including one labeled “It’s not too late.” It was; it was sent as bulk mail in March, and arrived in mid-April. The school emphasized its beautiful campus, sound academic programs and historic community (Think Basketball Hall of Fame). We’re in California; what do we know?

I taught at this diamond in the rough for 18 years, and married the Associate Director of Public Relations. We fled after the fabled ‘94 and ‘96 Winters from Hell.

Of course, my current employer sent three “personalized” form letters (true oxymorons), including a wonderful letter from the Dean of Letters and Sciences, even though the school does not offer engineering, my son’s express interest. I complimented the Dean on the quality of her letter. My oldest son was a graduating senior at the school, and I know the outstanding Director of Undergraduate Admissions. Forget about academic prominence when your own university doesn’t recognize you.

Worse than not cross-matching is cross-merging data bases. My Jesuit alma mater snail mailed my son, and emailed me an invitation to my freshman orientation in a “Unique Living Learning Community.” (Six and a half years of Jesuit education and I still can’t figure that one out).

Advice for Frost Belt, Rain Belt, and Flyover Country colleges is that if California teenagers have not responded after two solicitations, they will not leave the sun, surf and shades for the snow, rain, or wheat fields at your magnificent university. Save your postage.

Schools should check the message they are sending. Two religious universities promised to enter applicants into a lottery for a computer or Jeep Liberty, but unfortunately not eternal salvation. The admissions process is always a gamble, but do we want to broadcast that fact?

Mixed messages may follow the large envelope. Number one on my son’s list was a public university known for engineering. It was the first to send an acceptance, but in history – not engineering. Then came the inevitable flood of solicitous letters from the President, Provost, Dean, Chair, etc. (Trust me, you won’t see these letters again until the alumni fund raising drive.)

The Chair’s letter attached the alumni newsletter emphasizing the adverse effects of retirements and budget cuts on the history department. The school also offered no scholarship. Strike three and it fell to last on the list.

Open houses should be meaningful. Driving or flying long distances (anything over 30 minutes) for the pleasure of a bright, enthusiastic, perky, intelligent, informative, undergrad leading a 1 ½ half hour walking tour of the outside of buildings, with an occasional peek into a showplace foyer or auditorium, brings up the obvious question. What are they hiding?

Physical impressions are important. Four years ago on a similar long drive, short open house, my wife noticed a plethora of beer cans scattered throughout the dorms at a distinguished university. Do the students party that much or is the university simply frugal? (N.B. the double standard because I certainly killed too many brain cells in college).

Universities are increasingly turning to non-user friendly on-line applications. They should either invest in “College Application Programs for Dummies” or debug the programs, unless they are the first screen to weed out unworthy applicants.

In a league of its own is Washington University of St. Louis with a baker’s dozen of mailings - enough to wipe out the postal deficit. Nothing else need be said.

The process is over. Ironically he enrolled in the last place university on his original list, proving that the first shall be last and the last shall be first. It’s a large public university of national prominence, tradition, athletic successes (He immediately purchased season football tickets – so much for academic prominence- we know what really matters), and an inspirational fight song.

But why? Maybe because the open house was all day, featuring presentations from Admissions, Housing, Student Life, walking tours of the inside of its modern engineering facilities, a dorm tour and lunch, and the gift of a trinket to the wannabes – a mousepad with the group photo of the open house attendees. Or is it because it’s 2000 miles from home, and he can stick his dad with exorbitant non-resident tuition having turned down a tuition exchange offer from an outstanding university where it never snows.

Did we say the process was over? On August 1, 2004 our neighboring Cal State jump-started the 2004/2005 mailings game by sending a wonderful letter and brochure extolling the virtues of its engineering program. Early for this year, but a year late.

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