It started sort of innocently enough: A post of a Facebook page for college admissions officers. It was one of those questions that high school or independent counselors post asking/complaining (often, with just cause) about some college practice.
It was there, buried in a longer response: ” I wish I understood why yield was still a concern now that US News has downplayed that rubric in their rankings.” I pointed out–more politely than usual, I might add–that yield (the percentage of admitted students who enroll) has a huge effect on enrollment. Suppose you admit 12,000 students, and you project a 20% yield rate to enroll 2,400. If yield goes up to 21%, you have 120 extra students in your class, or 5% too many. If it goes down to 19%, you come in 120 students short, at 2,280. In other words, if one out of every 80 students behaves unlike you’d expect, you can be in big–or really big–trouble.
And that was that.
Until today. I heard about another colleague who has lost an admissions or enrollment job, for reasons that are all too obvious. That’s a half-dozen this year already, and we’re still a long way from spring; these are just people I know. And from what I hear, it’s just beginning. This may be the bloodiest year in a long time: Maybe the bloodiest I’ve ever seen.
Are admissions people getting less and less competent? I suppose you might think so; maybe you’d be right. But maybe this will change your mind. It’s a summary of some data presented on my other blog, Higher Ed Data Stories.
- High school graduates are at a recent low, and the numbers won’t get better soon. In addition, populations that attend college in greater numbers are shrinking faster than populations with lower rates of attendance and attainment, compounding the fact.
- Interestingly, family income in the US has been falling since 2006, in inflation adjusted dollars. (Use the slider in the right-hand column to set the start year to 2006 and look at the bottom chart.)
- Meanwhile, colleges continue to increase tuition way faster than inflation.
And back on the ranch, the expectation is pretty straightforward: More. Better. With less need for aid.
I’ve been in this business for 30 years, and I recall few days when “The Number” hasn’t crossed my mind. If this year’s class is in, you start worrying about the next one. Even so, we know it’s part of the job, and the rewards of what we do, as evidenced by the lives of the students we affect, are high. But over time, we’ve seen “The Number” turn into “The Numbers,” with the complexity of the expectations increasing even as reality pulls strongly in the wrong direction on all accounts.
It’s true of course, that someone on campus knows about faculty productivity; someone knows about how much financial aid we spent last year; someone knows how much money the Advancement Office has raised; and lots of people know how many games the basketball team has won.
But everyone knows the freshman class size (and the average test scores.) Or so it seems.
In some sense, my colleagues are like NFL Coaches: Success, a finite commodity based on the nature of the game, is parceled out by the whims of the gods, and your hard work and good fortune bless you with it on occasion. But the organizational appetite never goes away, and when it’s not fed sufficiently, good people are shown the door, and often replaced with someone who–in many ways–is just like the person leaving. Only different. The NFL has its Bloody Monday, the day after the season ends and coaches get fired. In enrollment, we have bloody springs.
Having done this for so long, I’m grateful that I’ve been able to stay in one place as long as I wanted, but I’m also surprised when the pressures and the issues and the expectations we deal with are not obvious to those who don’t do it every day. Maybe the same could be said of most professions. But for as much fun as this profession is, and for all the rewards it brings, I do wish we could bring a little more sanity to the continual upward spiral of expectations.