Bloody Monday: Not just for the NFL


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.

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.

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6 replies

  1. I remember growing up on Cape Cod and hearing my friends with older brothers and sisters talk about colleges like Holy Cross and Boston College with a kind of adoration. These were schools where their parents went, and subsequently, where their siblings attended, and where they dreamed of being some day. It usually started with sports and then later academics and social life. But, either way, the seed was planted so early. To me, this is the kind of relationship universities should look for in building a class. Too much attention is spent on what a students has coming in and not enough on the kind of man or woman graduates four years later.

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  2. Thanks Joe, for his very interesting post. As a longtime sports fan and admissions professional (30+ years) I can see the connection between NFL coaching and college/university admissions leadership roles. Both have changed over the years, partly due to a data-driven preoccupation (warranted in some cases, not in others), an over-emphasis on branding and market share, and a rush to quantify the ‘quality’ of an incoming class based on (you guessed it) SAT, ACT, AP, GPA numbers. If you don’t have the numbers, you’re out. Not enough wins? Out. Not a high enough USNWR ranking? Out. Is it any wonder that experienced, accomplished, creative leaders in the admission world are bailing, or not even considering VP/dean jobs anymore? In a more ideal world, the admissions process at colleges should be integral to the academic enterprise, as was originally the case long, long ago, and not separate from it. How best to select students to fit the academic programs at one’s college than by admission officers who understand that educational process inside and out? It feels all too much like outsourcing… more efficient, one could argue, but more effective? And satisfying the true mission of the college/university in question?

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  3. Good story. Spot on as admissions counselors would say. However, the parallel with NFL coaches stops when looking at salaries. Maybe our profession should hire the agents hired by NFL coaches to negotiate ouor salaries and length of stay.

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  4. Jon –
    Right on the heels of reading this post of yours. This article was posted on the Harvard Business Review daily update today: http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0749597813000757
    “Setting Consecutive Difficult Goals Has a Dark Side”
    The premise? That repeated high performance goals adds pressure to employees (duh!), can drain employees cognitively, and can exacerbate unethical behavior over time. “Although tough goals can increase performance, managers should be aware that consecutive difficult goals may generate negative consequences for organizations, the researchers say.”
    So, you wonder about questionable merit practices, “mis-reporting” of application numbers, travel ethics, putting pressure on students to commit before May 1st. The upward pressure is not just having people move on from the profession, but some that stay resort to behaviors with less than full integrity. It has many consequences that I don’t think we as a profession spend enough time formally talking about. Informally and socially, we commiserate as colleagues quite well!
    Thanks for starting this dialogue.and sharing the reflection.

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