A ‘Sea Change’ in Admissions

In an article this week, I describe the evolution of the admissions dean. Today, we have a guest post from John Christensen, outgoing director of admissions at St. John’s College in Annapolis, Maryland, who shares some thoughts on how his field is changing.

I will soon join a number of deans and directors who are calling it quits after lengthy careers in admissions, often after many years at the same institution. There seems to be a generation of us who think it is time to go, sensing that the world of admissions is undergoing a sea change.

Our institutions face a number of issues, pulling us away from what initially drew us to the work. First, costs are rising to levels that probably cannot be sustained. We have to find new ways to meet the competing demands of finding sufficient financial aid to fill our classes and yet keep our tuition discount rates down.

Next on the list:  The impact of the Web. As the Web becomes an increasingly important source of information for prospective students and their families, so grows the challenge for admissions staff to keep up with the proliferation of sites that demand data from a college or to make sure the information posted about us is accurate. Admissions offices no longer oversee the flow of information to prospective students. These prospects and their families may check out our Web sites and digital presence to learn what they want to know, without ever contacting the admissions office. Moreover, there is the issue of social media such as Facebook or YouTube that admissions offices need to master.  We must establish an appropriate presence for our institutions, and communicate effectively with prospective students and their families in these arenas.

Admissions directors spend so much time grappling with these issues that many of us feel more and more removed from working directly with high school counselors, prospective students, and their families—the work that once made our jobs enjoyable and rewarding. That aspect of the work is the core of admissions and should not change: finding the right match between a student and a college. But, many of us feel that we are now managers of media campaigns and do not have time for the work we enjoy. We delegate most of that (often to the younger staff), while we write reports and present them to our presidents and boards    who need more and more information to effectively manage the complex financial issues our institutions face. Everyone who works in the admissions process—high school counselors and college admissions officers alike—knows that the atmosphere is very tense, and that college-bound students today feel even greater pressure and anxiety about it.

I will depart St. John’s College feeling good about our efforts to keep our process as simple and straightforward as possible: no early decision, early action, regular decision, or wait lists. We give applicants a decision, yes or no, about two weeks after they complete the application. We make every effort to get prospective students to campus, into classes, and into contact with faculty or current students to talk about the distinctive program here so that an applicant can decide if it is right for them. It is not that our admissions staff is more virtuous than others. Our model of education and smaller size allow us to operate this way, and I realize how fortunate I have been.

Another highlight for me and many of my colleagues who are leaving the profession has been expanding our efforts abroad.  My most rewarding international admissions work has been with the group of United World Colleges, whose mission is to bring together students from all over the world to each of their small campuses to promote mutual understanding and world peace. The diversity on these campuses is amazing, and you end up at lunch in the dining hall with Israelis and Palestinians, for example, sitting side by side talking calmly and thoughtfully about things they have in common and about their cultural differences.

Once I talked to a Bosnian, whose roommate was Croatian, and he was telling me what good friends they had become and how they hoped to attend college together. “Just think,” he said, “a few years ago our parents were trying to kill each other.” After thirty years in admissions, I still find great satisfaction in hearing about an ideal match.


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