The Office of Undergraduate Admissions, Stress, and Sales?

Welcome to the admissions profession, the career you just fall into. Please make eye contact with each prospective student when describing this great campus, but remember, this isn’t marketing, OK? Learn everything about data. Technology, too. As for those nerves: Sooner or later, you just get used to all the administrators, trustees, and professors watching our office like half-starved hawks.

That portrait of the admissions field was inspired by a new report, released on Wednesday by the National Association for College Admission Counseling, known as NACAC. Based on a survey of nearly 1,500 admissions officials, “Career Paths for Admission Officers: A Survey Report” reveals a host of concerns about the fast-changing profession. Those include an uncertain career path, a lack of racial and ethnic diversity in the profession, an expanding array of required skills and responsibilities, and growing pressure to enroll classes that will ensure a college’s financial viability. That pressure, some respondents worried, will “heighten a ‘sales’ approach to recruitment.”

In short, many of the findings reflect prevalent questions about the next generation of admissions and enrollment leaders. Who will they be? What will they value? And how will they balance institutional interests against the needs of an increasingly diverse applicant pool?

The answers start with who enters the field—and who decides to stay. Admissions careers often blossom from an entry-level job that seemed at first like a two-year stop en route to some other pursuit. (Many senior admissions folks use the words “accident” and “serendipity” when describing how their careers began.) There is no master’s degree in admissions, no student-recruitment license to obtain, and that’s probably a good thing.

But the lack of a “defined career path,” the report says, can turn off young professionals who seek just that. This has contributed to ”an unclear and even vague sense of what admission involved and where it could take you.”

Turnover is a significant issue in admissions. More than half (55 percent) of respondents said they planned to seek a new career opportunity within two or three years. Of those, 15 percent said they were looking or would look for a job outside the profession, and 39 percent were unsure if they would remain in it. More than one-fifth of admissions officials age 30 or younger who seek new opportunities said they would do so outside the field.

Young admissions counselors, who tend to travel a lot and get paid little, can find the job grueling. “The majority of interviewees who said they were likely to leave admission worried about how to balance work demands with family life,” the report says. “These young professionals enjoyed helping students and their families with college choices, but thought they might find the same rewards with less pressure by counseling or teaching on the secondary-school level.”

What do early-career admissions officers need? More training, such as how to give presentations and talk about career counseling, some respondents said. Others described the importance of mentoring. Those who had mentors valued the experience, the report says, and those who did not “often ‘felt adrift.’”

Admissions staffs are generally far less diverse than the high-school students they recruit. White admissions officials are overrepresented at each level in the profession, especially in top positions, the survey found. Just 5 percent of deans and vice presidents are black, for instance, and just 2 percent are Hispanic.

Although women composed about 70 percent of early- and mid-career positions, only 40 percent were deans or vice presidents. Some respondents described an “old boys club” as hindering their chances of advancement.

Most admissions officers get job leads from friends in the field, the survey found. “It’s a very personal business,” says David A. Hawkins, director of public policy and research at NACAC, “and for people who are not currently represented in the profession, whether it’s women in the senior-most levels, and the dearth of racial and ethnic minorities over all, it’s a tough profession to crack into if you don’t already know about it.”

As for the nature of admissions work, yesterday’s tweedy old admissions dean has transformed into today’s enrollment-management maestro. The responsibilities of deans and vice presidents now include financial aid (73 percent), communications and marketing (54 percent), and registrar operations (21 percent), according to the survey.

As the status of admissions leaders has grown on campuses, the report says, so, too, has the pressure on them to deliver results. Specifically, to help balance the budget. Many respondents shared “deep concerns” about the consequences of the pressure to generate more revenue. They described “threats” to need-based aid, “merit aid masquerading as need-based,” and the worry that generating revenue would “trump ethics-centered practices.”

Those concerns are likely to grow. This is an era in which access and completion are increasingly large concerns for colleges, many of which must balance big-hearted goals against bottom-line realities. It’s also an era in which some enrollment experts are urging colleges to think of students as customers, recruitment as sales.

Finding a balance has long been the admissions office’s job, but it’s getting harder. “Even though admissions has been around for a long time, the field still isn’t at a point where it has really defined itself,” Mr. Hawkins says. “This profession is being shaped right now, and there’s this question of, Are we counselors or are we marketers? Do we understand the emerging markets that we’re trying to tap into? Ideally, you don’t want to see the entire emphasis be on marketing.”

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