James L. Miller, coordinator of enrollment research at the University of Wisconsin at Superior, has served as president of the National Association for College Admission Counseling for the last year. Recently, I asked Mr. Miller to share some thoughts as he prepared for the association’s annual conference, which begins today.
Q. This summer, NACAC’s governing board backed away from a proposal to bar member colleges from using commissioned recruiters overseas. Instead, the organization appointed a commission that will study this issue. How has the discussion progressed so far?
A. We have now assembled a list of possible members of the commission. We are looking to have broad inclusion that would represent various facets of higher education, as well as international education. We want the conversation to bring out all the issues associated with international recruitment in admissions, so the commission is not going to just look at the per-head compensation issue. What we’re finding is that a lot of institutions are doing things internationally, but some of them don’t have—and I don’t know if any of us have—a broad perspective on what all the issues are.
Q. Given the diversity of institutions in the U.S., not to mention the many strong views about the question of using commissioned recruiters, do you think it’s possible to reach a consensus on this issue?
A. I don’t know if consensus is necessarily possible. Since NACAC was founded 74 years ago, our foundation has been: What’s good for students, and what serves them best, and what builds professional and public trust in the profession of admissions counseling? Most of the people who were saying this shouldn’t be allowed believed it had the potential to do disservice or harm to students. People who said that it should not be banned, for the most part, came from the perspective of institutional needs and efficacy. There’s what we need to bring together.
Q. So NACAC is not likely to come down on one side of the question, to ban it or not?
A. I would be surprised if two years from now NACAC would say, “We think paying agents by the head is a good thing.” It’s been a longstanding professional element that we don’t pay by the head. The bigger question might be to ask, Are there approaches to using incentive compensation that, even though many don’t like it, might be managed and controlled to degrees that it would still be within the “best practices” section of the Statements of Principles of Good Practice?
Q. You’re saying that this is an issue with many shades of gray, and that you wanted to study those shades further. But some members are frustrated that NACAC didn’t take more of a stand on what they see as a black-and-white issue.
A. As we looked at it, we felt that none of us knows enough or understands enough to come to closure and say, “This is the only way things can happen.” One member that comes to mind is a director of admissions at a medium-size public university. She said, “My boss and I don’t believe in using incentive compensation, but I have learned that my international office is using it.” She doesn’t manage that office, nor does her boss, so she’s saying, “Can you help me to envision other approaches that would work for us, so that I can help our international office change their practices?” So they’re looking for guidance. What we were trying to do was not to reach a milquetoast conclusion that didn’t mean anything, but to say, “We don’t yet understand it.”
Q. As you look to the horizon, what are the most significant challenges you see admissions officials facing over the next five years?
A. We see the need to more clearly articulate the pathway to college, and the benefits of college, for students across the nation. We see more folks who are questioning whether college is worth the investment. But we don’t see people of means not sending their kids to college. What I want to make sure is that the kids who don’t have the means—and who don’t have parental wherewithal to guide them—understand what the benefits are. That conversation folds into public policy. Among our membership, we don’t have a high level of participation from the urban and rural high schools, and we don’t have the same level of participation from community colleges. So we need to have those populations better served. As part of a strategic plan developed over this past year, we’re going to reach out to people who are not members, as well as to the public.
Q. So in the near future, more counselors, parents, and students out there might know or recognize NACAC by name?
A. We’re not striving to be a household name, but we’re striving to be a household resource. We do get numerous calls from parents and students who do have questions. And very few of those questions are answered on our Web site. So we’re saying, Let’s start thinking about helping them and sharing what we know.
Q. As you mentioned, we’ve heard many people second-guess the value of a college degree over the last year. To what extent should admissions officers confront this skepticism, and what are the most effective ways of doing that?
A. It’s understandable that people are questioning the value, given the unemployment situation. There are lots of recent college graduates who are not finding a job, so I understand that. But you can look at the census data, the potential income of someone with a college education compared to someone without a degree. Admissions officers need to understand that data. They also need to understand that a degree positions you for opportunities, but opportunities don’t knock on your door. This gives you the ability to go pursue them. Counselors need the facts, but they also need to personalize them to each student.
Q. For years people have been talking about what ails admissions, and there’s a sense that something’s always eroding within the profession. Tell me about a trend that you think is positive or encouraging.
A. I don’t have a real judgment on the whole test-optional approach, but I think one positive element about it is that more admissions offices are looking at their own circumstances and asking what they should be doing to identify, recruit, and admit students who are likely to succeed. They are less hung up on specific numerical qualifiers, and looking holistically at students. At some schools, that’s been a dramatic change. On the other hand, we’re still cognizant of the rankings, and that causes us to give attention to the numerical qualifiers, and that’s unfortunate.
Q. A recent report from the University of Southern California’s Center for Enrollment Research, Policy, and Practice suggests that there’s a major disconnect between senior-level admissions officers and their presidents and trustees, that there’s a real tension between institutional priorities and sound admissions practices. Do you see this is as a big issue? If so, what can be done about it?
A. I do see it as an issue. Often the word from presidents, provosts, and chancellors is “More, better, now.” We can’t all succeed if those are the marching orders. Too often, the admissions office is seen as the supplier of students and resources, and maybe [institutional leaders] don’t look at all the nuances that really need to be examined. More institutions are trying to look at the student success model, they’re looking at outcomes. When that happens, that’s the time to engage senior leaders in conversations about the recruitment and admissions process. Then you can go beyond the numbers, and talk about how student success matches those numbers. But I think there is not sufficient engagement between senior leaders and admissions professionals, who don’t always understand each other’s needs.