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A Rookie Admissions Director Looks Back

In a guest post today, Scott Andrew Schulz, former director of the University of Southern California’s Center for Enrollment Research, Policy, and Practice (CERPP), describes what he learned during his first semester as director of admissions at Saint Martin’s University, a small Catholic institution in Lacey, Washington.

“Are you sure you want to be a director of admissions?”

When Jerry Lucido asked me that question, I didn’t take it lightly. Having worked with Jerry for nearly four years at CERPP, I respected his ability to inspire colleagues while encouraging them to reform enrollment practices to better serve the public interest. Jerry’s question was probably rhetorical, meant to reassure us both that I was ready to apply my knowledge of enrollment issues in an institutional setting, where revenue needs and conflicting political agendas often hamper even the most ambitious admission practitioner.

That said, admissions professionals have opportunities to transform people and communities in unimaginable ways. I couldn’t deny myself the chance to have such an impact. Like many new practitioners, I stepped into the role with an amazing level of excitement–and naiveté. Prior to my arrival, I drafted a detailed outline of the principles that would guide my practice, which is, in part, to oversee mission-centered, data-driven, and multi-faceted outreach at Saint Martin’s. More specifically, I sought to ensure the types of students we recruited were consistent with our stated mission and its commitments to access and social mobility. I intended to use data to understand our eligibility pool and shape admissions requirements and evaluation criteria that are empirically tied to student success. I also planned to engage faculty and staff at Saint Martin’s and strengthen relationships with high school counselors and community organizations to better identify, connect with, and support students that would flourish within the small, student-centered environment at Saint Martin’s.

Early on, I made a list of goals I hoped to accomplish during my first 100 days and beyond. Although many of my goals involved assessing where the institution stood and learning how its culture affected efforts to meet enrollment challenges, conversations with colleagues new and old convinced me that I would be expected to “bring in the class” and “meet the numbers.” In essence, I was to bring in the most academically qualified and diverse class of students while simultaneously maximizing net tuition revenue.

Despite pressure to meet immediate and ambitious enrollment targets that may require policy changes, Jerry and other mentors warned me against trying to do too much too soon. They encouraged me to get my sea legs before initiating any changes. I planned to observe and learn while completing at least one full admission cycle, cross-referencing all of my office’s policies and practices with the foundational principles I had outlined.

Before long I discovered the fierce urgency of now. As anyone who has ever worked in the field can tell you, the admissions cycle never stops. Having been on the job for only a couple of days, I was tasked with signing letters of acceptance. These letters gave me pause. Was I certain that we could back the promise we had made to these students? Did we have the data to confirm that these students were prepared to succeed here?

One might not think that the simple act of signing a letter would require so much thought, but the weight of my responsibility quickly became apparent. By signing the letters, I was affirming that Saint Martin’s believed these students possessed the skills—critical thinking, analytic reasoning, writing, and interpersonal—to succeed at the postsecondary level. In turn, these students would believe (rightly so) that they were academically prepared, and that their financial investment would be worth the cost. To fully support our promise to students, we needed to address issues concerning institutional data.

Rather than remain hands-off, I had to directly confront our data challenges. We needed a more-robust database of student information that would enable us to better predict outcomes. That way, we would know with greater certainty the extent to which high school grade-point averages and SAT/ACT test scores predict first-year college GPAs at Saint Martin’s. More importantly, we could disaggregate this information by student major. We also needed a system that would allow us examine the effectiveness of campus visits and outreach efforts in generating applications for an appropriate pool of students and, more importantly, enrolling these students.

I realized it was critical to encourage buy-in for a collectively-shaped agenda, so I worked with the admissions staff to identify what was most in need of immediate attention. This process helped me to connect with my staff and better understand the university’s needs. Ultimately, we decided that Saint Martin’s needed not only better data, but also more- consistent messaging and new strategies for building relationships with prospective students. Not surprisingly, the needs we identified were very much in tune with the principles of good practice I had outlined.

In response to our data concerns, we made plans to conduct an admission validity study with the help of the College Board. This study would tell us more about how our students perform once enrolled, thereby informing our admission requirements and evaluation processes. In addition, I drew up plans to assess the effectiveness of our outreach efforts by updating the types of data stored in our student information system. The goal was to identify which applicants had visited our campus and note exactly how and when applicants had first come into contact with Saint Martin’s. Finally, we created surveys for enrolled students and for admitted students that had chosen to attend other institutions, allowing us to better understand which students currently choose Saint Martin’s and why.

As for our messaging issues, I conducted a qualitative exercise with the admissions staff that identified a handful of distinctive themes central to the university’s student-centered Catholic Benedictine mission. This allowed our faculty, admissions staff, and student tour guides to hone the messages we send to prospective students, parents, high school counselors, and community organizations. We subsequently revamped our campus tour, publications, letters, and presentations to better emphasize the university’s mission, commitment to students, diversity of backgrounds and opportunities, and meaningful outcomes.

The final piece of my initial reform efforts involved enhancing our relationships. I met with our academic deans, and surveyed faculty members and alumni to seek their involvement in recruitment activities. Conversations with high school counselors in key territories further enhanced my knowledge of Saint Martin’s while allowing me to share the university’s story. Furthermore, we became members of the Center for Student Opportunity, allowing Saint Martin’s to collaborate with a network of community-based organizations. In all of this, I was less concerned with achieving specific enrollment goals than with building the infrastructure necessary for short- and long-term admissions success.

I’ve learned firsthand that the leadership role in admissions is highly nuanced and contextual. Some colleges already have the pieces in place to realistically pursue enrollment goals related to student quality, diversity, and financial stability. As I discovered, however, other institutions may require admission directors and deans to deflect pressure for short-term success. In such cases, deans and directors must first respond to the practical challenges they face by establishing frameworks for strategic action—and building them for the long haul. Only then will these institutions be in a strong position to genuinely transform the lives of the students for whom we are privileged to serve.

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