On ‘Finite’ Recruitment

For years admissions officers at nonprofit colleges have wrestled with the complexity of their jobs. They are counselors, but also recruiters. They use marketing techniques, but many don’t like to use the “m word.” They may conduct “holistic” reviews of applicants, but their enrollment goals include hard numbers and statistics.

Nonetheless, many have long seen a line—a big, bright one—that distinguishes them from their counterparts at for-profit colleges. On the one side there are “admissions professionals” who advise; on the other side there are salespeople who sell.

On Wednesday, David A. Hawkins elaborated on this distinction during his testimony at a U.S. Senate hearing on marketing and recruitment in for-profit education. Mr. Hawkins is director of public policy and research at the National Association for College Admission Counseling, known as NACAC, which represents some 1,100 nonprofit colleges and universities.

At issue is the Education Department’s proposed new “incentive compensation” rule, which would tighten a longstanding federal ban on commissions for college recruiters. The rule, applying to for-profit and nonprofit institutions, would eliminate the law’s 12 “safe harbors,” which have allowed colleges to pay commissions as long as they are not based “solely” on recruitment volume.

Both NACAC and the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admission Officers support the Education Department’s new language. “Reducing the basis for compensation to the number of students enrolled in any circumstance,” Mr. Hawkins said at Wednesday’s hearing, “introduces an incentive for recruiters to ignore the student interest in the transition to postsecondary education.”

Mr. Hawkins acknowledges that officials at nonprofit colleges care a lot about the number of students who enroll. And, of course, they keep a close eye on the number of applications they receive. The more, the better, is a general rule in admissions.

Nonetheless, there’s a longstanding cultural difference between for-profit and nonprofit admissions offices. In an interview this week, Mr. Hawkins said the commission-based models at some for-profit colleges are a far cry from the recruiting practices within the association.

NACAC’s Statement of Principles of Good Practice says that members are to receive a fixed salary rather than commissions or bonuses based on recruitment numbers. “If you’re striving to increase enrollment by 25 percent over the next three years, your senior admission officer’s evaluation is certainly going to be partly based on whether that goal is reached,” he says. “But under our standards, that admission officer’s pay has not been adjusted based on how many students that person recruited.”

For this reason, Mr. Hawkins doesn’t expect the department’s new language to affect the association’s members, whose performance evaluations typically include numerous elements, like how well they represent their college, manage their office, recruit staff members, and work with other administrators.

“We know that nonprofit institutions often will evaluate senior-level admissions officers based on the idea that they are to recruit a finite number of students for admission in a given year,” Mr. Hawkins says. “The key there is ‘finite.’”

In other words, the number of dorms, beds, and instructors on a traditional campus are a check on enrollment growth. Over-enrollment may be better than under-enrollment, but it’s often an unpleasant problem. Just ask any admissions dean who’s ever had to tell the campus housing director that the freshman class is 10 percent larger than expected.

“It’s very difficult for a nonprofit college to scale up—they’re just not structured that way,” says Donald R. Hossler, executive director of the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center and a professor of educational leadership and policy studies at Indiana University at Bloomington.

Mr. Hossler, former vice chancellor for enrollment services at Indiana, says it’s rare for presidents or trustees at nonprofit colleges to adjust the salary of an admissions or enrollment official (or any administrator) after setting them for a given year. “Your salary is what it is,” he says.

Recent news of recruiters earning big commissions at for-profit colleges made Mr. Hossler think about the lot of admissions representatives who work on the nonprofit side. “The road-running admissions officers, they don’t get paid peanuts,” he says. “A good case could be made, given what’s riding on admissions, that those are the people who should be paid more.”

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