• April 23, 2014

Falling Into an Admissions Career

Daniel M. Lundquist used to be the guy who poured the drinks for a college president. More than 25 years later he's head of admissions under one.

In his office at Union College in New York and at colleges around the country, the hiring season for admissions counselors is well under way. Although most of these new recruits will only work on campus for a few years, some of them, like Mr. Lundquist, make a career for themselves in the admissions field. His behind-the-bar entree into the world of academic administration is by no means standard, but it does typify the way many deans of admissions get to where they are today -- by falling in love with a job they simply fell into.

The admissions career track starts with admissions counselors, or "road runners," who travel for months out of the year to sell their institutions to high schools across the country. They can work their way up to assistant or associate dean of admissions before landing the top job, referred to as dean of admissions at some institutions and director of admissions at others. According to experts in the field, admissions counselors can expect to earn anywhere from $22,000 to $30,000; assistant or senior assistant deans make $30,000 to $35,000; associate deans, $37,000 to $60,000; and deans or directors, $62,000 to $180,000.

No association tracks the admissions job market; the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers only recently started posting job ads on its site. Barmak Nassirian, its associate executive director, says some admissions offices have halted their hiring because of the recession and budget cuts, but he expects hiring in admissions to increase over all since applications to college are expected to rise over the next decade, which would, in turn, mean more work for those in the field.

It's safe to say that few children dream of being a dean of admissions when they grow up. Many people end up in the field by happenstance, like Mr. Lundquist. In the summer of 1974, he was the personal bartender for John William Ward, then the president of Amherst College, now deceased. "I had the incredibly good fortune to be a fly on the wall," at everything from large formal events to informal gatherings, says Mr. Lundquist, who earned a bachelor's degree in American studies from the college in 1976. While he tended bar, he developed a friendship with Mr. Ward and began to watch how he operated. One night, after a party was over, he served Mr. Ward his favorite after-dinner drink -- Balentine Ale -- and confessed his interest in campus administration. "He said he thought I'd be good at it," Mr. Lundquist recalls. So Mr. Ward gave him some names of people who might be helpful, among them Ed Wall, then Amherst's dean of admissions.

Mr. Wall advised Mr. Lundquist to make a list of colleges he'd like to work for in admissions and, while he was at it, to send an application to Coe College in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Mr. Lundquist blanched at the thought of leaving the East Coast. But, he recalls, Mr. Wall "shook his finger at me and said: 'You don't know how parochial you are. The best thing to happen to you would be not going to Princeton to work but going to Coe. I know they have an opening because I just hired someone from there.'" So Mr. Lundquist interviewed at Princeton University and then at Coe, where he was offered the job of assistant director of admissions on the spot.

After a couple years at Coe, he left for Harvard University, where he earned a master's degree in education in 1980. While Mr. Lundquist was in graduate school, Lee Stetson, dean of admissions at the University of Pennsylvania, hired him as director of upper-class admissions, handling transfer and international students. Nearly four years later, he was promoted to the office's No. 2 post, director of admissions. After seven years in the job, he felt like he had hit a wall. So he took a job in Penn's fund-raising office for three years. But after two years there he began to miss what he loved most about admissions -- students.

Mr. Stetson told him, "You're a small-college guy," Mr. Lundquist recalls, and alerted him that the head of admissions at Union College was retiring. Mr. Lundquist says that Roger H. Hull, the president of Union College, always told people that he had hired Mr. Lundquist not because he went to Amherst and Harvard, but because he had worked at Coe College.

For 11 years now, as vice president of admissions and financial aid, Mr. Lundquist has been persuading people to enroll at Union. "I have to try to interpret this institution to the outside world and interpret the outside world to people here," says Mr. Lundquist, who earns $140,000 a year.

Open-mindedness, he says, is critical to doing his job, or any job in admissions, well. "You have to relate to a really broad range of personality types and levels of sophistication," he says. Being "culturally fluid and fluent" helps admissions officers perform their jobs better.

Just ask Stephen A. Byrn. His career in admissions has enabled him to travel to more than 47 countries, and permitted him to establish one of the first exchange programs between an American university and a university in Hungary in the mid-1980s when he was associate director of admissions at Graceland University in Iowa.

But for the past two years, Mr. Byrn, director of admissions at Eastern Kentucky University, has been getting to know the culture of Appalachia -- whose population the regional state university serves. "Eastern Kentucky is a different type of university than I've worked at previously," says Mr. Byrn, a former associate director of admissions at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln. Seventy percent of Eastern Kentucky's students are first-generation college students, and the majority of them "come from a socioeconomic background that is pretty similar to what I've seen in developing countries that I've worked in," he says. "I'm finding it to be a challenge trying to promote higher education within the demographic population we serve."

Even without Mr. Byrn's particular challenge, Nanette H. Tarbouni, director of admissions at Washington University in St. Louis, says the job is more complex than people realize. Besides bringing young people to their institutions, deans of admissions also perform a mix of marketing, public-relations, and budget-management roles. "It's never boring," Ms. Tarbouni says.

It's also something she never planned on doing. After she graduated from Tulane University in 1980 with a bachelor's degree in classics, Ms. Tarbouni worked for the dean of arts and sciences on the campus as an academic adviser. She moved to St. Louis in 1983 and worked as an academic adviser at the University of Missouri at St. Louis for a few months, before joining Washington University as an admissions counselor. She's been there ever since, moving up the ranks to her current post. "Like everyone else I just fell into higher education," Ms. Tarbouni says. "My thought was I'd do admissions for two years then go on to student activities." Instead she stayed in admissions.

William R. Fitzsimmons, dean of admissions and financial aid at Harvard, has a B.A. from the institution as well as master's and doctoral degrees in the sociology of education. Like Ms. Tarbouni, he never planned a career in admissions. He had planned to become a professor but after earning his doctorate, wanted to try something else, so he did "the usual thing young people do," he says, and sent out hundreds of résumés. When he ran into someone on the street in Cambridge who told him that Harvard was looking for admissions officers and that the job of reading applications and traveling was one of the best ways to learn about the country and the world, Mr. Fitzsimmons was hooked. "It sounded irresistible," he says, so he became an admissions officer at the university in 1972.

Asked if he got the top job because of his alumni status, Mr. Fitzsimmons says it's hard to say. "It's certainly not a requirement," he says. "A fair number of deans of admissions at the Ivies didn't attend that institution." Of the roughly 35 people on his staff, more than half didn't attend Harvard, Mr. Fitzsimmons says.

As for whether deans of admissions need master's or doctoral degrees to do the job, having a Ph.D. in sociology and having undergraduate degrees in anthropology and psychology as well "certainly has been helpful," he says, because "we're trying to reach out to every community."

Many in admissions leave the field long before moving up to the dean's job. Kelen Barr, assistant dean of admissions at Union College, is leaving this month after only two years in the field. She began her career there as an admissions counselor in July 2000 shortly after she graduated from the college.

This fall she'll begin her new job as the assistant director of academic and college counseling at St. Mary's School, an independent girls boarding school in Raleigh, N.C. Her move to North Carolina is partly for personal reasons. But she opted to switch to what those in admissions call "the other side of the desk" because she wanted more contact with students throughout the academic year. She thinks her insights into the college application process got her the counseling job. "I know what students need to do to help them get into college," she says.

For those who do stay in admissions, their climb up the administrative hierarchy doesn't necessarily end with the dean's position. On average deans of admissions spend anywhere from three to eight years in the job, and then move on to similar positions at larger or more prestigious universities. Some become vice presidents of enrollment management, overseeing admissions and financial aid. And a few deans of admissions have landed presidencies. John T. Casteen III, the president of the University of Virginia, was once its dean of admissions, and Paul B. Ranslow, the president of Ripon College, was once vice president for admissions at Pitzer College.

Ms. Tarbouni, who has no plans to move any further up the academic hierarchy, highly recommends the admissions profession itself. "It will definitely keep you young," she says.

subscribe today

Get the insight you need for success in academe.