For decades, the university application process has been an arduous and stressful process. High school students around the world spend countless hours researching “best” universities, taking standardized tests, hunting down teachers and counselors for letters of reference, and dealing with a variety of difficult-to-use application platforms. Then they wait for the acceptance and rejection letters to arrive.
Worse, many prospective students are not getting reliable information about their best college options and are not considering the full spectrum of university options available to them. This is not just a student problem. Universities are also finding it increasingly difficult to meet enrollment targets and create diverse classes.
Diversity is a particularly pressing challenge, especially when it comes to recruiting international students. Institutions have historically depended on major markets – such as China, India and Southeast Asia – that are more easily accessible. It is more difficult to reach students in other countries where internationally bound students are fewer and more remote, making travel-based recruitment and other traditional methods uneconomical.
We have entered a hyper-competitive era for higher education and universities need to question and rethink everything related to finding and attracting prospective students to fill their positions. Declining enrollment is, after all, a trend that could continue for decades.
One promising new approach to solving these problems is to change the admissions process, where universities compete for students instead of the other way around. EAB, an education consulting firm based in Washington, DC, is pioneering this approach with its Greenlight Match and Global Match programs, which it supports the recent acquisition of the Concourse reception platform (which the writer co-founded). Scott Jaschik was writing about this idea in Inside Higher Edand NACAC recently published an article on this topic in Journal of College Admission.
What does a turnaround in the admissions process mean?
In 2015, Idaho adopted the nation’s first direct admission system, in which high school seniors received one of two versions of a letter that told them in advance that they would be accepted into a pool of schools in the state if they applied. Their scores determined which universities were included in the list of institutions offering direct admission. The letters included only Idaho universities.
Although limited in scope, the experiment increased first-time undergraduate enrollments by just over 8 percent and in-state student enrollment by nearly 12 percent, according to article published in Research in higher education. Other US states are now experimenting with this system and Common App also recently launched a trial version.
Direct admission is just the beginning. Although it provides certain benefits, it does not significantly change the university selection, application and admission process. Only students are told in advance that if they are willing to go through the process, they will not be rejected.
Flipping the admissions process takes this concept to the next level. It’s about universities reaching out to individual students and saying, “We want you. Here are the programs and scholarships we think are right for you, based on your expressed interests and aspirations. You do not need to register to attend. We have already reviewed your academic credentials and accepted you. Will you take the next step and work with us to explore what we have to offer?”
Flipping the admissions process isn’t just about telling students they’ve been accepted, it’s about helping them choose a major, taking the time to explain how the proposed academic program will fit with their personal goals, removing barriers to graduation, and generally rolling out the red carpet.
This model is particularly strong when it comes to finding, attracting and enrolling international students from non-traditional markets from Albania to Zimbabwe.
Reversing the process means meeting students where they are. Institutions need to direct students to the right programs (or be honest if they don’t have a program that fits). This means that we remove everything that is unnecessary in the admission process. This means developing systems to track the status and position of students at every point and actively help them pursue admission offers. This includes helping students design their financial aid packages to ensure they have the resources to complete their higher education.
Battle for the bottom (funnel)
Institutions of all types can create a more equitable, student-centered enrollment experience. Historically, students from less developed countries have been more likely to “melt out” after admission than students from more affluent markets. To the extent that higher education institutions can play a more active role in guiding admitted students on the path to matriculation, they will have more opportunities to mitigate this effect and level the playing field.
How are institutions supposed to pay for all this in a time of tight budgets? New return investments can be funded by reallocating budget from more traditional top-of-funnel recruiting activities (such as travel and physical marketing collateral).
College counselors: an important part of the overall admissions process
A complementary strategy for success in an increasingly competitive admissions environment is working more closely with high school counselors. Counselors have a significant influence on where their students ultimately decide to enroll. They are the unsung heroes in this ecosystem, often managing a huge student caseload and bearing the brunt of the complexity of the admissions process. What may seem like a small request to a university (“We only need a notarized version of your transcript”) can become a nightmare when multiplied by a caseload of 500 students, especially for non-US advisors.
To make matters worse, advisors are often the last to know which institutions offer admission to their students, as they are not involved in the workflows of most admissions platforms.
By working more closely with college counselors (for example, by reducing paperwork, keeping them up-to-date, proactively providing financial aid information, and generally making their lives easier), institutions gain a three-fold benefit:
- Students who have been accepted have more options for admission.
- Institutions are notified sooner if students who have their offers decide to enroll elsewhere (although this can be bad news, it’s much better to find out sooner rather than later).
- Counselors are more likely to advocate for their institution to other students.
Rethinking traditional admissions practices
Universities need to take more responsibility for closing the information gap and removing barriers to enrolment. This means working more closely with college counselors, rethinking traditional admissions practices, eliminating unnecessary complexity, investing more resources in acquiring admitted students, and exploring the use of advanced technology platforms for direct and modified admissions.
For many institutions, this adjustment is a financial necessity. It’s time to adapt to the market and give students a less stressful, more consultative, welcoming and affordable route to university.
Joe Morrison is the founder and CEO of Concourse (now part of EAB).
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