• November 25, 2014

Looking Back on a Vanishing Era of College Admissions

Looking Back on a Vanishing Era of College Admissions 1

Sage Colleges

Dan Lundquist

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Sage Colleges

Dan Lundquist

Dan Lundquist, who has worked in admissions for nearly 40 years, is retiring in May as vice president for marketing and enrollment management at the Sage Colleges. Mr. Lundquist, who is 60, previously served as a vice president of Union College and director of admissions at the University of Pennsylvania. Here is his story, as told to Taylor Harvey.

My first job in admissions was at Coe College, in Iowa, right after I graduated from Amherst College. Those were two of the best years of my life. When you’re talking directly to kids and their parents about college, many of them will open up and share their fears and aspirations. It is a really humbling, sobering, wonderful experience.

WHAT I LEARNED

I learned that the best admissions recruiters—and I’ve trained hundreds of them—are educators. They are as much a teacher as a professor in the classroom is. They are working with students as they pivot between late adolescence and young adulthood.

Now, 40 years later, I see the exact same aspirations, fears, excitement, and uncertainty that I saw when I began my career in Iowa. But changes in communications and technology, college cost and competitiveness, have made college admissions an almost unrecognizable landscape.

An egalitarian notion of access has been supplanted by the practical economics of running a college. For students, the question is not just what’s the right college for me, but what college can I afford? And colleges are asking what kinds of students can we afford to admit? That has created tensions that only intensify as prices go up.

In cyberspace, it’s harder to be an educator because you’re not having face-to-face conversations. Instead, you have to guess what messages to put out where. Twitter versus Instagram? But, wait, don’t text-message them—that’s too creepy.

We had to adopt tactics of communications and sales that were like the Price Chopper supermarket’s. If you’re trying to push a special program, you create a scholarship that’s the equivalent of a discount coupon.

Paradoxically, even with more information out in the public domain than ever before—a zillion ranking guides, net-price calculators, and College Navigator—people are not making better decisions. They are not even using all those things because they are so overwhelmed by this fire-hose spray of outgoing communication.

Fewer college-ready kids are out there, and we are all competing for them. Pulling these bunnies out of our hat every year to attract more applications just forestalls the tough talks about how we will keep our institutions economically sustainable. We need to plan for a period of adjustment and contraction.

A great opportunity is being missed when college leaders fail to go to admission and financial-aid officers for market insight. They have a huge wealth of information because they have one foot on campus and one in the market. When I worked at Coe College, I was a sponge of market research.

There are so many sacred cows in higher education that college presidents in my generation either respect too much or simply cannot imagine changing. We wish we could be all things. We wish we could have art history. We wish we could have these journals. But some of it we simply can’t afford. We have to cut some things no matter how much it hurts. Because you can’t be a college if you don’t.

I am hopeful a younger generation will be more pragmatic and show its love for higher education by leading change so we have a more sustainable model.

My "retirement" is not stepping away from my work; it’s stepping out of the single-institution setting. My wife and I bought 10 acres of land on the Hudson River that includes a beautifully restored Revolutionary War-era farm. I will continue my writing and consulting in higher ed and have begun doing some environmental advocacy work here in Saratoga.

After some R&R over the summer, I’ll be staying in the higher-ed conversation, just in a more independent and flexible way.

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