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By Their Own Admission

Colleges Pair Technology and Human Connection to Attract Students
Joe Wagner

Joe Wagner, director of Admissions at Elms College, counsels student Lauren LeBlanc.

For years, college admissions was a fast-paced field that always held a few constants — standardized test scores were commonplace; applications were arduous tasks; and the bulk of the action happened once high school students reached the midpoint of their junior year. All of that has been flipped on its axis, however, as the process becomes more dynamic, and continues to change the world in which admissions professionals work.

Mary DeAngelo, director of undergraduate admissions at Springfield College, defines hers as an ever-changing field.

Joe Wagner, director of admissions at Elms College in Chicopee, says that in the past few years, he’s found himself working in a whole new arena. And Julie Richardson, dean of enrollment management for traditional programs at Bay Path College in Longmeadow, simply calls it a zeitgeist.

“High school students today — the Millennials — are so involved, it’s unprecedented,” she said, noting that a number of factors have converged in recent years to effectively change the face of college admissions.

For years, the process was defined by a sudden frenzy among college-bound students in their junior year; SAT prep frazzled nerves, piles of glossy viewbooks choked mailboxes, and applications were meticulously completed in ballpoint pen, sealed in a manila envelope along with a personal check and a personal essay, and sent off, marking the start of weeks of waiting and nail-biting.

Today, though, those archetypal images have been cast aside in favor of online applications and Web-based research. Students are asking more questions, and asking them earlier.

As for the SATs, they still exist — measuring math and verbal skills in high school cafeterias across the nation. But truth be told, admissions professionals say even standard aptitude isn’t as big a deal as it used to be.

Instead, colleges and universities, especially smaller, private institutions like Springfield, Elms, and Bay Path, are working toward streamlining their operations to cater to an increasingly engaged audience. They’re reaching a greater number of students at various points in their high school careers, and delivering the most relevant information to them at that time. They’re noticing a trend toward more-involved parents, and working toward striking a balance that keeps moms and dads informed, while still underscoring the importance of follow-through by the child.

In the face of dwindling numbers of high school students, especially in New England, schools are performing their due diligence to ensure that every applicant understands the missions of their institutions, to boost not only admission, but also retention.

And admissions departments everywhere are tying this all together with one constant — the power of technology.

Beyond Bricks and Mortar

More than any other starting point, said DeAngelo, an institution’s Web site has become the most important aspect of the college-search process. Many students now use the Web as a virtually exclusive search tool, and that alone is causing a shift in how admissions counselors reach them.

“Certainly, the use of technology has increased dramatically over the past few years, and it’s growing every year,” said DeAngelo. “There has been an increase in visitation of college Web sites, and we find that when students are initiating a search, they’re starting with the Web, so we don’t rely on traditional guidebooks anymore. We’re very conscious that what’s on the site is easy to access and interesting.”

Wagner agreed, adding that about 50% of Elms’ applicants now apply online.

“We still reach students in traditional ways, through high school visits and college fairs, but E-mails, instant messaging, and information on our Web site take the place of mass mailings,” he said. “Students use the Web site more than ever, and it’s easier than ever to stay in touch with them.”

Technology does, however, present a few new challenges for colleges and universities as it matures. Wagner said he’ll soon be taking a look at Elms’ online application process, for instance, which currently requires that the processing fee be mailed separately. That can lead to what are known as ‘ghost applications,’ or students who apply online as a way to test the waters.

“That means it’s actually too easy to fill out an application online, so we have to be cautious about letting that process become more of a glorified inquiry,” he said.

More than a mode of communication, however, Richardson said that incorporating technology-based initiatives into college-admissions practices is a necessary step in streamlining the experience for high school students, who today expect to receive different levels of support from colleges and universities as they move through the process.

“Schools have to incorporate the tech piece to keep up with the students themselves, because they are so tech-savvy,” she said. “But it can’t be all technology. The ideal point is where art meets science, offering better, more sophisticated tools, but holding on to a personal touch.”

One such tool used often by admissions offices is predictive modeling, the often-database-driven process of using information to create a statistical model for future behavior. In the case of college admissions, it’s used to hone in on where students are coming from — their home states, cities, and schools, for instance — and also what channels they’ve used to connect with a college — via the Web, a phone call, or an in-person visit, to name a few avenues.

“There’s so much information about measurement and surveying, and looking at trends,” Richardson said. “But we’re not just relying on anecdotal bits. We’re using our gut instinct, and testing that with measurement tools to make sure we’re headed in the right direction.”

Diving in at the Shallow End

That’s more important than ever, she noted, given the diminishing numbers of high school-aged college applicants.

“National demographics show the high school population beginning to decline, especially in the Northeast,” said Richardson. “We’ve hit the peak, and there’s been a lot of panic about passing it, but the key is to be responsive.”

She said part of that means offering options to students, be they courses, living arrangements, or scheduling choices, and understanding that the term ‘traditional student’ is becoming more archaic every year.

“The challenge is to cater to lifelong learners,” she said. “Students today learn online, at night, through Saturday school, and through traditional options, and those schools that are responsive to what students need and want will be most successful.”

DeAngelo said that to prepare for the eventuality of fewer students applying to college in New England, Springfield College will be spending more time on initiatives to recruit students from outside of the college’s traditional recruiting area.

“We’ll be doing some national college fairs, beginning in the South and in the Southwest,” she said, “and we’ll be looking at ways to engage students to come and visit the campus students from a distance. We have to bring the campus to them early in the process, because typically students at a distance don’t have the opportunity to visit until much later.”

To help make that early connection, DeAngelo said the college has also reached out to its alumni to work more closely with the Admissions Department.

“Springfield College has some great alums all over country, and we’re fortunate to have them working for us. They’re often more able than anyone to identify students who are a good fit for the college.”

Sophomoric Behavior

DeAngelo told BusinessWest that college admissions departments are seeing other changes, including a trend toward serving a pool of potential applicants that is beginning the college search earlier than ever before.

“The process has really accelerated,” she said. “I think this Millennial group of students is one with parents who are college-educated, so it’s been talked about at home early and often.”

As recently as five years ago, most colleges were not dealing with high school sophomores, but now, that’s the norm, she explained.

“Students enter their junior year having been heavily engaged for several months. Clearly, they’re starting earlier, and we need to plan programs as a result to respond to that need.

“It’s really become a year-round process,” she continued, “serving different groups of students at the different times.”

Richardson said she, too, has noticed a diverse set of students in the admissions pipeline at the same time, and added that because the needs of a sophomore are different than a senior or a junior, the onus is on admissions counselors to provide the most appropriate information.

“We start reaching out when they’re sophomores,” she said, “but it’s not a hard sell at that point. It’s more about getting them in the know about judging what will be a good fit for them, the ins and outs of the application process, and financing options.

“That way, they go into the process a little more informed; starting earlier, and with smaller pieces.”

To further assist in that support process, Richardson said informational events are taking on a larger role at Bay Path. Once, open houses on college campuses were relegated to specific weekends or times of year, but no more, she said.

“More than ever, admissions officers are getting to know their students,” she said. “I feel as though we have an event happening every month, and there’s more catering to these students going on. Open houses aren’t just held on Columbus Day weekend anymore, and that, on the whole, makes students feel more comfortable.”

It also makes parents more comfortable, and that’s a more important consideration when dealing with Millennials than it has been in the past.

“Parents are involved more, and I think that’s a big part of what’s going on,” she said. In general, they’re very involved in the lives of this generation. As such, students are making more joint decisions with their parents.”

Wagner said that in some ways that’s a good thing, but not always.

“This is a new, generational thing,” he said. “Parents are very much involved now, and they help us ensure that we’re providing the level of attention to safety and assistance they expect. But at the same time, it’s important that students handle as much of the admissions process themselves as possible. It’s an important step in striking out on their own for the first time.”

To Test or Not to Test

As for decisions on which students are admitted, that process is changing too.

Wagner said that generally, strong school records still carry the most weight, as do patterns of community service and co-curricular involvement — two variables that are indicative, he said, of the ideal student for Elms.

“We have a message and a branding that is important to us as a small, private, Catholic college,” he said. “Often, that message is important to the students who find Elms is their best fit, so we spend a great deal of time matching the strengths of the college with the strengths of our applicants.”

Concerning the SATs, many institutions across the country have gone ‘SAT-optional.’ Cambridge-based FairTest, a non-profit organization that advocates for improvements to student, faculty, and school evaluations, maintains a list of colleges and universities that have chosen to make SAT scores an optional inclusion with an application.

Massachusetts is home to 18 SAT-optional colleges, including Mount Holyoke College, Hampshire College, and Simons Rock College of Bard in Western Mass. Worcester Polytechnic Institute, Stonehill College, Wheaton College, Newbury College, and College of the Holy Cross are also on that list.

They’re still used at Elms, though there’s no set minimum score that applicants must reach, said Wagner, adding that more than anything, they’re used as a supplemental deciding factor for scholarships or within particularly competitive programs, such as nursing.

“Elms still requires the SAT, but only uses the score in evaluation after it’s been determined how strong a school record is,” he said.

Springfield College takes a similar approach to SAT scores, said DeAngelo. “A pattern of achievement is weighed more heavily than the SATs,” she explained. “We use the SATs, but they’re not as significant as in the past. We use several other factors that are more personal in nature.”

Beyond that, said Wagner, there’s no guidebook as to how admissions departments should proceed. Despite the advent of new technology, colleges are largely taking an organic approach to admitting students — reaching them through Web-based channels and supporting them with the latest tools, but also choosing the student population that best reflects the vision of the institution they’ll one day represent.

“There’s no magic to it,” he said. “Providing as much information as possible to the types of students we’re looking for is the only key.”

Jaclyn Stevenson can be reached at[email protected]

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