Last week I, along with most of the admissions team, attended the IvyPlus 2011 conference at Yale University.
IvyPlus is an every-couple-of-years-more-or-less-when-we-feel-like-it gathering of admissions folks from the “IvyPlus” schools, defined, for the purposes of this conference, as the Ivies + Stanford + MIT. The IvyPlus institutions are both collaborators and competitors: the former, in the sense that we work together institutionally/academically, and share some insights into the nature and trends of the modern admissions process; the latter, in the sense that we compete to admit and enroll similar, though not entirely identical, applicants.
It was my first admissions conference, and very informative. I didn’t know a lot about admissions before I began my job here at the office, and while I’ve learned a lot (a lot) over my two admissions cycles, what I’ve learned has been mostly limited to the MIT context. Now, naturally (and earnestly) I think MIT has the best process out there, but it is still useful to learn how other places do things.
I spoke on a panel about student workers with some counterparts from Yale and Columbia. And it turns out that, though all of our offices utilize current undergraduates to help us out during the admissions cycle, we all use them in slightly different ways.
For example, my colleague at Columbia manages what is essentially a small army of a few hundred volunteers. These volunteers do tours, information sessions, talks at high schools, etc. There is a strict hierarchy among the volunteers which she cultivates – she’s sort of like the general, and she appoints officers, who themselves appoint officers, on down until you get to the general admissions infantry. As she said, the students there can be somewhat competitive with each other for leadership positions, and that energy sort of animates this vast multifacted golem of workers just whirling around campus doing things that need to be done.
By contrast – but keeping the military analogy – here at MIT our student workers are small teams of special operatives, deployed tactically for specific objectives. I manage the bloggers; Karyn oversees the students who work in 10-100 and help welcome people; McGreggor (and a few others) deploys the students who help us handle the tens of thousands of pieces of mail we receive from your teachers, guidance counselors, coaches, ministers, fan clubs, and so forth.
Neither model is inherently “better” than the other. Efficacy depends on strategy, tactics, and culture. But it’s still very useful for all of us to sit around and talk about how we do things, what works, why it works, and how we can make things better.
There were many of these panels, on all aspects of the admissions process. But two themes absolutely dominated the discussion.
The first was the issue of sustainable finances in the ongoing recession. As many of you know, the world economy has not been in such good shape over the last few years. And while the IvyPlus institutions are comparatively wealthy, they also are comparatively dependent on their endowments, all of which were invested in the same stock markets that have been wobbling woozily along since September 2008.
The opening address was given by Richard Levin, the President of Yale and an influential economist. While I don’t have time to go into everything he said (it was truly a fascinating talk), one observation really stuck with me. Levin pointed out that when the recession began, and universities began losing money hand-over-fist, they had to cut back. And so most schools cut back on some combination of hiring, raises, benefits, and building. Many of these cuts were deep and painful. Good people lost their jobs; promising projects were put on hold.
But, Levin pointed out, all of the IvyPlus schools had cut at all of those layers to protect one thing at the core: student financial aid. I know here at MIT we awarded well over 80 million dollars in financial aid to our ~4200 undergraduates last year, which was up tens of millions from the pre-recession environment.
As Levin pointed out, this was not the decision that needed to be made. Schools could have cut back on financial aid to preserve other projects and priorities, or tampered with the integrity of their need-blind admissions policies to accept only wealthier students who wouldn’t require as much aid. But they didn’t. Levin opined that this said something good about the core values of the assembled schools and their admissions processes, and I happen to agree with him.
The second theme was the issue of the incredible rise in applications that all of the schools have seen over the past 10 years. The number of applicants to MIT has nearly doubled over that time, and many of our peer institutions have seen a similar rise in applications.
This was a cause of concern to all of the assembled officers. Most of us got into this business (or, at least, stay in it) because we really like and care about students and want to make sure that the admissions process works well, which is to say fairly, meritocratically, equitably, and accessibly.
The Dean of Admissions at one Ivy insitution had an interesting point about this. His opinion was that things have gotten both better and worse over time. Better, in the sense that, generally speaking, college admissions has become more meritocratic over time: it’s less now about where you went to high school and who you know than what you know and what you can bring to the school. But worse in the sense that as the number of applications has ballooned it’s become more difficult to give every applicant to sort of royal treatment they were once allowed.
This Dean wistfully recalled that, when he began as an admissions officer more than 30 years ago, it wasn’t uncommon for a single applicant to get 45 minutes of devoted, leisurely analysis by the entire office. But since then the number of applicants to any of our schools has more than quadrupled, and while we still spend a lot (again, a lot) of time on each applicant, the process has necessarily become tighter and grimmer to reflect and accommodate concomitant changes in the application rates.
At the same time, everyone spoke of the natural pressures contributing to this unprecedented increase in application rates and selectivity, including:
- There are more people going to college than every before
- In our data-driven world, the easiest metric by which to assess the success of admissions outreach is by the raw number of applicants, even if it isn’t a good metric
- Similarly, alumni/boosters/etc of schools like to see that the place they went to or support is even tougher to get into, because it seems more tantalizing and exclusive that way
- The media focus on things like school rankings in the USN&WR and elsewhere
The thing is: all of the admissions officers I spoke with at IvyPlus hate these factors. Like I said, most of us got into or stay within this profession because we deeply love the process of picking the right student body for our campuses. It’s not about driving up application rates. It’s not about becoming more selective. As Matt, who directs our recruitment process, has said to myself and Kris and others on multiple occasions: our job in the communications team is not to get MORE students to apply to MIT, it’s about getting the RIGHT students to apply to MIT, meaning reaching out to those students who are great matches for the university and who might not otherwise apply.
I’m not going to lie. These two themes – the effects of the continuing recession, on the one hand, and the ever-accelerating Red Queen spiral of selective college admissions on the other – were a bit depressing.
However, at the same time I was heartened by how seriously and earnestly these issues were being confronted at this conference. And from the deep commitment to financial aid described by Levin, to innovations in our outreach to students that should make the process a bit saner for all involved, I am convinced we are on the right track.
That gives me hope. And it should do the same for you. This process can sometimes seem inhumane, but I assure you there are humans on the other side of the table from y’all. Believe me: I spent much of last week talking and working with them on ways to help make everything a little bit better for all involved.