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Admissions Leaders Gather to Weigh ‘Prestige, Financial Aid, and Love’

Indianapolis — Gray areas, pink hair, and a silver scooter.

I heard about all of those over three days here at the National Association for College Admission Counseling’s annual conference, where officials shared concerns about many issues. The challenge of recruiting students in this high-tech age. The relentless need to bolster the bottom line as institutional budgets remain tight. And the weight of expectations—some reasonable, some not—to deliver a bigger, better freshman class each year.

In short, I heard a lot of worry about the pressures described in my recent article about how enrollment leaders occupy the hottest seats on campuses—and why many are losing their jobs.

But along with the gripes, many conferencegoers offered nuanced appraisals of the profession that keeps higher education’s lights on. Sitting in a hotel lobby, Ann McDermott described herself as an optimist. “The industry has become more professionalized, for better or worse,” she said. “Still, there’s a humanity to admissions that the public doesn’t really see. I still believe people in the field are all about the students.”

Admissions offices, though, must continuously hone their marketing strategies. Ms. McDermott, director of admissions at the College of the Holy Cross, in Massachusetts, described how her institution recently had adjusted its logo, adopted a new slogan (“Ask more”), and revamped the booklet it sends to prospective students. The latter, designed to show aspects of the Jesuit liberal-arts college that one might not expect, includes a photo of a professor who happens to have pink hair.

“We have to be telling our story,” Ms. McDermott said. “We have to be finding ways to talk about Holy Cross in ways that are differentiating.”

After all, competition is fierce, and enrollment outcomes aren’t guaranteed. The college saw a 25-percent drop in applications for this fall’s freshman class, and its acceptance rate increased to 42 percent from 33 percent. Why?

Two short-answer questions Holy Cross added to its application supplement last year seem to have played a large role, Ms. McDermott said. Although the admissions staff often had found the responses helpful in their evaluations of applicants, the college has dropped the two questions from this year’s application.

Ms. McDermott is OK with that. “That’s the reality of our world,” she said. “You are judged by your acceptance rate, whether it’s U.S. News or bond-rating agencies.”

Throughout the conference, trade-offs dominated discussions. Thinking about adding an essay requirement that might shed more light on an student? Fine, but that might deter applicants and make your institution seem less prestigious. Want to keep lowering that discount rate? Great, but more families might balk at their financial-aid packages.

One enrollment official described how, after receiving fewer first-year deposits than expected this spring, his office had upped its initial offers to several applicants. “To have to go back with our tail between our legs to families we had sometimes really disappointed or pissed off,” he said, “it was just uncomfortable.”

Over a pizza, Scott Friedhoff told me about April 26. That was the day when deposits suddenly—and mysteriously—slowed down at the College of Wooster, in Ohio. Ultimately, the college enrolled just slightly fewer freshmen than it had planned, but this year it will increase its financial-aid budget and expand its pool of prospective applicants.

Mr. Friedhoff, vice president for enrollment and college relations at Wooster, said the college had lowered its discount rate for three years in a row. The catch: Some of Wooster’s competitors had been increasing their own discount rates, probably making them more attractive to applicants.

No college operates in a vacuum. The strategies used by one enrollment manager are subject to the strategies used by another. So in a given year, a college might devise a sound plan that seems perfectly reasonable. “The marketplace is still going to decide,” Mr. Friedhoff said, “whether it’s going to work or not.”

When things don’t work out, enrollment leaders sometimes lose their jobs. On the patio of a steakhouse one night, I sat down next to a dean of admissions dismissed this year by the college where she had worked for decades. She was having dinner with a vice president for enrollment management who had left one university for another because, he said, “I was the scapegoat, and my days were numbered.”

In a conference session the next day, Jennifer Delahunty described a job that comes with constant questions. Ms. Delahunty, who was vice president for enrollment and dean of admissions and financial aid at Kenyon College for 11 years, said when she stepped outside to grab her newspaper some mornings, passersby would ask, “How are the numbers looking?”

Still, Ms. Delahunty, who left her position to represent Kenyon’s admissions office on the West Coast, enjoyed her work, especially the aspects that aren’t quantifiable. “You need a fire in the belly and a big heart,” she told an audience full of young admissions officers. “The three tools you use in college admissions are prestige, financial aid, and love.”

“Love?” someone asked.

“Love,” Ms. Delahunty said. “Yeah.”

A high-school counselor stood up and shared a worry. Some admissions officers who had visited her school, she said, had convinced her that colleges’ priorities were now “a lot more about numbers and a lot less about kids.”

Ms. Delahunty nodded. “We are the canaries in the coal mine right now,” she said, describing how admissions leaders must remind presidents and trustees about what a college can and can’t control. “We’re trying to bring our full humanity to what we’re doing.”

Call them whatever you like. Prospects, customers, tuition-paying providers of institutional viability and excellence. “These are human beings,” Ms. Delahunty said of applicants. “We’re not just crunching numbers.”

Leading an admissions office is a serious job. But Ken Anselment, dean of admissions and financial aid at Lawrence University, said it’s important to spread some humor, to be seen having fun. To that end, he tools around the campus on a silver scooter with green handlebar cushions. You can’t miss him.

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