What Will Really Improve College Equity and Access? (hint: NOT the elimination of Legacy Admissions!)

“We want to create as much opportunity for as many academically talented young people as possible, regardless of financial background or legacy status.” 

So said Amherst College president Biddy Martin when she announced last fall that the college was abandoning the practice of favoring children or grandchildren of alumni in admissions.  A similar announcement was made in 2020 by Johns Hopkins University, and the states of Colorado, Connecticut and New York have either passed or proposed legislation to eliminate the practice.  And while we’re at it, why not ban the practice at the federal level – which is just what is before Congress now in a bill co-sponsored by a New York Congressman and an Oregon Senator.

Let’s be clear.  We have been committed to equity and access throughout our respective 40-plus years in college admissions and financial aid.  Ending the preference for qualified children and grandchildren of alumni on a state-wide or national level looks good and sounds right to those equally committed to access and opportunity.   The fact is, however, that legacy preferences are really only an issue at the top selective colleges in the country, where most applicants are qualified to do the academic work.  In these limited cases, giving the nod to a qualified legacy (who may be marginally less qualified than a non-legacy) does exclude someone else. 

But what about most colleges and universities that are not uber selective? Does ending the practice of legacy admissions state-wide or nationally really promote access to these institutions? Many of these schools need to admit as many qualified applicants as they can in order to secure their optimal enrollments, so there typically would not be a “legacy trade-off” factor for the majority of U.S. colleges and universities.

In a 2019 study from the Pew Research Center, only 3.4 percent of the four-year colleges and universities in the study admitted 20 percent or less of their applicants, accounting for just 4.1 percent of the total student enrollment.  Over half (53.3 percent) of the schools admitted more than two-thirds of their applicants, including some well-known institutions such as George Mason, Virginia Tech, and St. John’s University in New York.

It is simply not true that a highly qualified student, passed over in favor of a qualified legacy, will be denied the opportunity to go to college.  Is it anti-access/opportunity for a student denied admission to Princeton to instead enroll at Johns Hopkins?  Or a student denied at Williams to be admitted to and enroll at Amherst?  We think not.

In an essay last fall, Catherine B. Hill, president emerita of Vassar College and managing director at Ithaka S + R, underscored this point:

The problem is that more-selective colleges enroll a large number of students from higher-income brackets. For many highly selective institutions, chances are that if the legacy applicant is passed over, the student who takes the spot will have the same profile in terms of academic preparation and extracurricular experience. The only difference is that they won’t have alumni parents. If legacy status no longer matters, an Ivy League university will simply admit the children of another Ivy’s alumni.

Hill goes on to say that the real problem is that most colleges are need aware in admission, that is, on the margin (admittedly a sometimes large margin) they consider a family’s ability to pay in the admission decision.  Let’s take this one step further.  Ending need-aware admission and requiring institutions to be need-blind will do little to further access unless the full need of admitted students is met.  We argue that a national goal ought to be the elimination of the “gap” between the amount a student needs to meet college expenses and the amount of financial aid awarded.

Only the wealthiest and most selective institutions are fully need blind in admission AND meet the full need of those admitted.  These include, but are not limited to, the 21 private college members of the “568 Group” who have been given an exemption from Federal anti-trust laws on the condition that they be need-blind and meet full need. Perhaps another dozen schools meet this requirement but have elected not to belong to the group which has its own methodology for determining financial need for institutional aid resources.

And of course, the definition of “need” is squishy to say the least, varying from institution to institution depending on whether the federal methodology or some other method is used for the awarding of institutional aid. Nevertheless, the number of schools meeting 100 percent of need is small –  only 77 of the almost 2300 four-year U.S. public and private non-profit institutions by one count.  And there are likely a handful more that report meeting 95 percent of need – close enough to full need given the “noise” in needs analysis formulas and the utilization of professional judgement.  But we are still looking at a majority of colleges and universities — likely in excess of 90 percent – whose insufficient aid leaves a “gap” between the students’ financial resources and the cost of attendance.  

What happens when students are “gapped” in financial aid? Typically, they borrow more to bridge that gap, drop out before finishing, or forgo college altogether.   While 56 percent of college students borrow less than $20,000, a recent Brookings Institution study showed that six percent of borrowers owe more than $100,000, amounting to a third of the current outstanding debt.  The  student loan crisis in this country is actually concentrated among those who have borrowed more than $60,000 (14 percent of all borrowers) who owe over half (52 percent) of the outstanding national loan balance.  Low income students are, expectedly, over-represented in this group.

Six-year graduation rates for first-time, full-time undergraduates who enrolled at four-year institutions hover around  60 percent with more than two-thirds of college dropouts being low income students with family incomes of under $50,000.  There are certainly reasons other than financial that impact retention, but the high concentration of low-income dropouts combined with the fact that the vast majority of colleges do not award enough financial aid to meet the demonstrated need of lower income students certainly contributes to a lack of access and opportunity to enroll in and successfully complete college.  No doubt, this has a far greater numerical impact on access than do legacy admission policies.

While it is politically expedient to ban a practice (legacy admissions) in the name of access, it is much more difficult to eliminate the practice of financial aid gapping.  Where will the money come from to fund 100 percent of student need?  Let’s start with the states.  According to Pew, most award over 90 percent of student aid dollars to needy students, but at least 16 states award more than half of their student aid grants based on grades and test scores and not on need.  Granted, some of these students have financial need, but certainly not all of them do. 

Likewise, institutions themselves award so-called “merit” or “academic” scholarships to applicants in order to influence their college choice—in business terms, undercutting the competition’s price to secure the sale.  Giving a well-qualified but not necessarily needy student a significant discount may gain an enrollment but potentially takes money away from truly needy and also academically qualified students, forcing them to borrow excessively or to drop out.  Nationally, one out of every five students  received institutionally funded scholarship dollars based on their competitive credentials and not on their demonstrated need for assistance.

For those committed to access and student success, eliminating legacy preferences in college admissions is mere window dressing compared to the structural barrier of failing to provide the needed financial aid to make college enrollment and completion achievable for low-income students. We can’t be certain that all barriers to access and degree completion would be removed by eliminating non-need based aid in favor of grant dollars based on demonstrated financial need. However, a concerted movement in this direction by colleges and universities, in partnership with state and federal governments, would be a huge step toward equity, access and opportunity in college admissions, retention and graduation. 


Bob Massa and Bill Conley are principals and co-founders of the consulting firm Enrollment Intelligence Now. Massa is vice president for enrollment emeritus at Dickinson College and an adjunct professor at USC.   Conley is the retired vice president for enrollment at Bucknell University. Both men previously served as dean of enrollment at Johns Hopkins University.



The Great Interruption: What Do COVID-influenced Enrollment Patterns Portend for Higher Education?

Bill Conley & Bob Massa

As published in Inside Higher Ed, February 28, 2022

Much has been written about the “Great Resignation”. The sheer scale is obvious: about 25 million workers left their jobs in the second half of 2021 alone. More ambiguous is the downstream impact on the labor markets.  Where will people choose to work, how will they prefer to work, remote or in-person, and what will employers do to balance their needs with the shifting demands of employees.

Likewise, higher education’s “Great Interruption” (our term), the decline in straight from high school to college enrollment and uptick in “stop outs”- already enrolled students hitting the pause button on their educations- has been seismic.  In fall 2020, 20.7% fewer students than in 2019 enrolled directly in college from high school  and since the onset of the pandemic about one million fewer students are enrolled in college overall.  More than one in four students enrolled in college in 2019 did not return the following fall, the highest rate since 2012. As in so many spheres of life, COVID is having an accelerated impact on already concerning trends.  For higher education, these sober statistics are acute signals of a decade-long enrollment decline of 13%. Perhaps the good news in these recent trends is that it helps enrollment leaders forget about the daunting long-term demographics that the Chronicle of Higher Education’s Eric Hoover says await them in 2035.

Higher education leaders have not been blind to the long-term enrollment trends but there seems an operating premise that their institution will be an outlier and thrive.  Certainly, the declining numbers have not impacted all sectors uniformly. Since fall 2020, community colleges have taken the biggest hit but according to the National Clearinghouse Research Center (NCRS), in 2021 half of the decline in college enrollments from the previous year were accounted for by four-year colleges.  And, of course, the media reminds us that for both private and public elite institutions, the last two admission cycles have been banner years. The NCRS datastarkly contrasts enrollment trends by selectivity- less selective four-year      colleges are getting hammered.

The ”Great Interruption” has exposed very concerning trends in the higher education student enrollment market. 

As suggested by the sharp decline in community college enrollments, low-income students have been disproportionally diverted from the college pathway.  Over the last two cycles, FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) submissions have declined significantly and most among students attending low-income high schools.  In a Chronicle of Higher Education article (The Missing Hispanic Students- Daily Briefing 2/17/2022), Sarah Brown observed: “Hundreds of thousands of Hispanic students have opted out of college during the pandemic. The trend among Hispanic students has changed more significantly than for any other demographic group, because their numbers were increasing before the pandemic.” These are disturbing trends for our nation and colleges who expected that the rapidly declining white demographic would be buoyed by increasing Hispanic and low-income cohorts.

Long a concern for higher education, male enrollments continued to perform poorly in the pandemic years.  When female enrollment is already at a record high 59.5%, it is a troubling sign that between fall 2019 and fall 2021, male enrollment declined by 10.2% compared to a 6.8% drop for females.  The Inside Higher Education headline (September 8, 2021), “A Record Number of Men ‘Give Up’ on College” sends a clarion call of impending crisis for males in higher education.   As cited in a Wall Street Journal article, “in the next few years, two women will earn a college degree for every man, if the trend continues.”

It is entirely likely that the roiling pandemic economy and labor market have acerbated the male crisis in higher education.  The Washington Post observed that “enrollment trends, survey data and similar signals show ‘education for the skilled trades appears to be returning to fashion’.” The article cited a survey that found only 48% of high school students polled in September 2021 were interested in going on to college directly from high school compared to 71% as recently as May 2020.  Another study connected the dots between males and skilled labor when it observed: “more men than women dropped out of college during the pandemic because men were overrepresented in fields where hands-on work is essential.”

Then there is the elephant in the room: the rising cost of higher education and its return on investment.  Doug Shapiro, research director at NSC, reflected on the pandemic enrollment trends: “The phenomenon of students sitting out of college seems to be more widespread. It’s not just the community colleges anymore. That could be the beginning of a whole generation of students rethinking the value of college itself.”  In its 2021 annual survey of college graduates, the Strada Education Network found that only half of its respondents believed their college degree was worth the cost. And, likely to worsen the trend in low-income and minority enrollments, a recent study from Georgetown University asserts, according to Emma Whitford of Inside Higher Education, “that nearly a third of colleges and universities leave most students worse off 10 years after enrolling than their peers with only a high school diploma.”

Even before the pandemic’s onset, there was a growing distrust of higher education. According to a Pew Research Center survey in fall 2019, found “that only half of American adults think colleges and universities are having a positive effect on the way things are going in the country these days. About four-in-ten (38%) say they are having a negative impact – up from 26% in 2012.”  Consistent with the political polarization acerbated by COVID, the uptick in “negative impact” is entirely represented by registered Republicans according to the Pew study.  The perception that colleges are by and large left leaning in their teaching is likely to a have broader negative influence across the political spectrum.  Even College Confidential threads stitch a cynical fabric of colleges being  a good fit for students who are not of liberal orthodoxy.

Like the Great Resignation, the Great Interruption has been of epic scale and raises more questions about the future of higher education than it answers.  But it is not melodramatic to conclude that for far too many colleges and universities, the collateral damage of the Great Interruption will be significant.  If the patterns- declining enrollments of low-income, Hispanics and males, as well as growing skepticism of college value and pedagogy- persist after the pandemic become an endemic, the pressures on enrollment and revenue will mount well before the demographic cliff of the 2030’s.  Now is the time to strategically address what this means for your college.


Do Algorithms Really Contribute to Higher Education’s Crisis?

By Bob Massa and Bill Conley (published 1/24/22 in “Inside Higher Ed”)

In a paper released last September by the Brookings Institution, author Alex Engler suggests that the use of algorithms to determine the amount of scholarship (i.e. discount) support students should receive does, in fact, hurt students.  He claims that the “prevailing evidence” suggests that scholarship awards are lower when algorithms are used, because they “excel at identifying a student’s exact willingness to pay” to attend a particular institution. Engler goes on to state, in what we believe to be a fairyland view, that “colleges should not use predicted likelihood to enroll in either the admissions process or in the awarding of need-based aid,” and that decisions should be based only on the candidate’s merit (as if this were an absolute thing, and not relative to each institution’s needs).


Inside Higher Ed reported on this in late September, 2021, doing a fine job presenting both sides of the algorithm debate. We wish to take this discussion one step further.


In a perfect world, where students apply to three selective colleges and are guaranteed admission to at least one, and where the competition for students at every level of selectivity was moderate rather than intense, these noble ideals would be hard to argue against. Moreover, if one has never had the responsibility of recruiting, enrolling, and retaining the number of students that meets the institution’s target tuition revenue anddelivers the desired quality, diversity, and talent, it is easy to convince oneself that Engler’s view of the current system might be reasonable. 


But let’s look at what really happens as admission and financial aid officers try to assemble a class that meets multiple institutional goals, including the revenue needed to continue to provide a sustainable and quality education.  It’s just not as simple as “Algorithms – bad; Interest- and need-blind admission — good.”


Engler does acknowledge that “Algorithms can play a responsible role in higher education enrollment management and are not inherently harmful.”  He distinguishes between the use of algorithms to predict enrollment (which is fine because institutions need to plan for course enrollments and residence hall beds) and the “optimization” use, which he categorizes as troublesome.  Here, the paper claims that optimization algorithms “may reduce average per-student scholarship support,” that they “optimize scholarships for yielding students rather[ing] student graduation and success,” and that “subgroups of applicants who appear…to be less affected by changes in scholarship funding may be mistreated.”


For institutions with strong reputations and significant demand, optimization is rarely necessary.  They have the financial resources to select students without regard to their financial need and to meet full need when accepted.  They also rarely award non-need, so-called “merit” scholarships which are the primary target of optimization algorithms, despite the article’s assertion that they are used to determine need-based awards.  For these highly visible and well-known universities, optimizing algorithms as Engler describes are rarely used.  Of course, when the popular press and the prestige-conscious public talk about “college admissions” writ large, it is almost always these elite institutions that are highlighted (for names, just go to your favorite top 20 list).


Then we have institutions that are admitting more than two-thirds of their applicants – public regionals and small, non-profit private colleges and universities that make up the majority of the 2300 four-year schools (excluding the “for-profits”) in the US.  These schools, with baseline awards (discounts) for all, typically use the optimization tools to increase “merit” scholarships  from that baseline to attract the students they most want.  They may use algorithms to help determine additional financial incentives for individuals or, more likely, for groups of students to secure enrollments.  Such institutions literally cannot afford to lose students, so they are not going to try to minimize aid, as evidenced by private college discount rates soaring into the 70 percent range.  It is hard to argue that algorithms hurt students applying to schools in this very large group.


Finally, we have a group far greater in number than the elites, but not nearly as plentiful as the less-selective institutions – those schools admitting roughly between 25 and 50 percent of their applicants.  At these schools, need-based financial aid policies can vary widely.  A good number meet full need, in which case, optimizing algorithms are of little value. If an institution gaps as a baseline (meaning it does not meet full need and that the grant portion of an aid package has a minimum value), optimizing algorithms provide more need-based scholarships above the standard gap – not less.  The majority of these institutions also award non-need scholarships and may employ optimizing algorithms to determine the “merit” discounts required to shift the enrollment decision in their favor.  Here, we are referring mainly to students whose parents can pay, but for whom a discount is likely necessary to entice the student to enroll. In these cases, while net tuition revenue per student may decrease because of non-need awards, total net revenue increases because optimization algorithm helps fuel enrollment increases.  It is this total net revenue that helps the institution provide need-based scholarships to more students.  This is not theoretical.  This happens.


Our experience suggests that most institutions care about retention — after all, it is the most cost-effective way to maintain or enhance tuition revenue.  Moreover, many rankings systems use retention and graduation rates,particularly among low-income students, in determining an institution’s ranking position.   For all institutions, it makes little sense to admit a student who will ultimately drop out, either because they are not academically prepared or because they do not have the financial resources to complete.  Whether a school uses optimization algorithms or not, this is simply bad practice.


Different institutions have different goals.  Long before algorithms, when we were young admissions officers at two future Patriot League institutions, admissions and financial aid decisions were made based on what these schools valued.  It was also a simpler time in the 1970s and 1980s.  The Common Application, which now has over 900 members, had fewer than 100 and students applied to many fewer colleges.  There was not the intense competition there is today, with students applying to 10, 15 or 20 colleges rather than three or four. That increase has resulted in a so-called “merit war” that has not only escalated discounts but also has inflated prices and confounds traditional “yield” models.


As technology has evolved to provide more tools for parents and students to compare colleges, and as books, consultants and free webinars instruct parents in the art of scholarship negotiation, colleges also need tools to help them work smarter to achieve both their enrollment and their net revenue goals.  Higher education may be in crisis mode when we look at escalating price tags, declining demographics, culture wars on campus, COVID protocols and a host of other issues.  However, the use of algorithms in admissions and financial aid does not fuel this.  They were created and are used by enrollment leaders to better manage the intersection of institutional priorities and the external pressures that characterize modern-day college admissions, and to help make it financially possible for students to attend their institutions.


Bob Massa and Bill Conley are principals and co-founders of the consulting firm Enrollment Intelligence Now. Massa is vice president for enrollment emeritus at Dickinson College, and Conley is the retired vice president for enrollment at Bucknell University. Both men served as dean of enrollment at Johns Hopkins University in the ’90s and ’00s.



In Defense of Holistic Admission

by Bob Massa, Bill Conley and David Holmes

from The Chronicle of Higher Education, May 6, 2021

In his recent Chronicle Review essay, “The Abiding Scandal of College Admissions,” Matt Feeney decries college admission officers as administrators, not educators, who take it upon themselves to probe an applicant’s character and authenticity. Among the small group of über-selective colleges with way too many highly qualified applicants, Feeney argues that admission officers delve into areas where they are simply not qualified to venture: using character and other nonacademic factors to help select a class.

Yet nonacademic factors have always played a part in admission decisions. From the Colonial period, institutions have articulated a moral and ethical mission: citizenship, morality, service, leadership. The academy does this work to help support a just, moral, and democratic society. We are not — and should not be — abashed by this higher purpose. Admission officers and student-life professionals are, contra Feeney, educators at heart. Looking beyond the numbers in admission is time-honored and consistent with higher education’s history and heritage.

Feeney accuses admission officers (“the people who made applying to college an elaborate performance, a nervous and yearslong exercise…”) of signaling to students the importance not only of involvement in school and community activities, but also that their doing so be “authentic.” He bemoans this as if it is something new. It is not. In his 1966 book, College Admissions and the Public Interest, the retired MIT professor and director of admissions (and “elder statesman of student testing”) B. Alden Thresher called for a more humane admission process that considers the whole student and signals to applicants what a college values and what qualities it wants graduates to exhibit.

“Authentic” admissions means now what it meant then: Colleges don’t want students painting a false picture of themselves or doing things that they really are not interested in doing just to make an admissions dean look favorably upon them. “The real is much more interesting than the ideal” — that quote is from an open letter to parents and students sent in the mid-’90s by admission deans from the 32 most selective colleges and universities that belonged to the Consortium on Financing Higher Education.

It is important to remember that fewer than 5 percent of the nation’s four-year public and private nonprofit colleges admit 30 percent of their applicants or less. It may seem cruel that some say “no” to 90 percent of their applicants but, of course, they do not require students to apply. (These colleges do certainly recruit and encourage students to apply, but to a lesser degree than the less selective colleges.) In this context of intensely competitive admission, the Harvard Graduate School of Education’s “Turning the Tide” project was certainly not, as Feeney suggests, disingenuous in underscoring a humane, holistic approach to selection.

Is it unfair or unusual that highly selective colleges establish evaluation factors that go beyond baseline academic competency to reflect their distinctive missions and values? We think not. Although many less selective colleges also consider nonacademic factors such as leadership, community service, and persistence, Feeney’s admissions “scandal” is really aimed at a small number of super-selective colleges where he accuses admission officers of being “morally presumptuous.”

What if students attempt to “game the system”? If by doing so they become more caring for others, more willing to give back, more persistent in their work efforts — all the better. Students listen to what colleges signal as important: Take a strong curriculum, get good grades, contribute to your school and community, and, yes, care about others.

Once students arrive on campus, colleges try to instill not only content knowledge but also an awareness of how areas of knowledge are interconnected and how they can use their knowledge and skills to build a better the world. Thus, colleges offer experiential education, community-based learning, internships, and avenues for understanding persisting problems facing us all. To facilitate this learning, admission officers attempt not only to get the best class academically, but one that will help make the campus community an exciting place in which to live, learn, and teach. Identifying students committed to making the world a better place requires consideration of nonacademic traits.

Feeney’s answer to his “scandal” is to attain “a sane approach to this glut of qualified applicants” by creating a lotterysystem for admission. We do not think for a moment a faculty, and certainly not a board of trustees, would support a lottery option. Such an approach risks the full benefits of a diverse and talented applicant pool to chance. Even if faculty and boards agreed, a lottery for admission to the most selective colleges would work only from the perspective of getting academically qualified students for your college. It would do nothing to create a learning community that reflects the mission and values of a particular college.

Finally, Feeney’s argument does little to address the social imperative of opening doors of access to historically excluded populations, especially promising students from low-income families and neighborhoods. Done right, holistic admission is a way to admit these students based not only on their academic achievements at under-resourced schools, but also on their work ethic and character.

An admission process that looks only at academic qualifications rings hollow and would not serve institutions or our nation well. This narrow approach would include standardized test-driven admission as a convenient, though socioeconomically biased, method of building a class. Of course, institutions must seek students who can do the work and graduate: students with high grades in strong high-school curricula. This is the foundation upon which admission decisions must be made.

Still, we strongly endorse holistic admission. Nonacademic factors such as leadership, service to others, empathy, citizenship, persistence, and taking responsibility play a significant role in life, and should in college-admission decisions as well. Taking this on is hard work and requires serious commitment to do it well and fairly — but to paraphrase Winston Churchill on democracy: Holistic admission is the worst form of admission, except for all the rest.

Bob Massa is chair of the Character Collaborative board and has served as the chief admissions/enrollment officer at the Johns Hopkins University, Dickinson College, and Drew University. He is principal and co-founder of Enrollment Intelligence Now.
Bill Conley is treasurer of the Character Collaborative and has served as the chief admissions/enrollment officer at Case Western Reserve, the Johns Hopkins, and Bucknell Universities. He is principal and co-founder of Enrollment Intelligence Now.
David Holmes is executive director of the Character Collaborative. He has served as a professor at the University of Vermont and as headmaster at Suffield Academy and the Sun Valley Community School.

Dial-up your Dashboard: Yield, Summer Melt and Retention

by Bob Massa and Bill Conley

You have heard it all before.  The media has been replete with observations on how the current admissions season and undergraduate enrollments are being impacted by the pandemic.  Wild trends in application volume – up, up for the elites; down, down for almost everyone else- foretell a volatile spring yield season and summer-long class building. Meanwhile, current undergraduates have experienced nothing close to a typical academic year; how will their topsy-turvy experience translate to persistence towards graduation?

Enrollment leaders will be under significant pressure to land the desired first-year class and, at the very least, hold the line on retention.  As always, they will need the support of and contributions from a myriad of campus partners to achieve these goals.

First, two recent surveys give us a small glimpse at what colleges may face this fall as they try to return to some form of “normalcy.”  

The higher education marketing firm SimpsonScarborough surveyed nearly 700 college bound high school seniors from across the country in February 2021.  They found that students are behind in their college search and that they are in crisis and need support.  Meanwhile, the “Student Voice” survey, conducted by Inside Higher Ed in partnership with College Pulse, reached over 2000 traditional-aged students at 120 colleges across the country from March 2-9, 2021. It provides a sense of what college students think worked during COVID and what did not – and what they want from their colleges going forward.

While not surprising, the results from both surveys can help inform institutional planning.

With an increase in the average number of applications submitted by individual students according to the Common Application (an 11 percent growth in applications submitted but only a 1 percent increase in the number of unique students), expect that yields on admission offers will decline for many institutions.  Further compounding the “yield” uncertainty is the impact of financial need.  As the class of 2025 prepares to enroll this fall, the demand for financial aid has already spiked.  Of those college bound seniors surveyed by SimpsonScarborough, 43 percent said the pandemic impacted their family’s finances and 23 percent had at least one parent lose a job. 

This will create opportunities to positively impact yield through responses to appeals for additional aid.  While this will unquestionably increase the discount rate, it could also increase enrollment and total net revenue.  Students who appeal their financial aid award are typically interested enough in the institution to take the time to appeal.  Chances of enrolling these students are typically good, even with a response that falls short of a requested amount. In short, listening intently to financial appeals and doing what  you can to make your college affordable is essential to “yield.”

With “yield season” upon us, it is also important to note that while 85 percent of the college bound seniors think visiting a campus is an important factor in making a final decision, only half have been able to do so.  This is the time to reach out with virtual visits, personalized to a student’s major or extra-curricular interests. With almost half of the surveyed college bound students claiming to have a high level of anxiety about how COVID will affect their ability to begin their college education, making admitted students feel a part of your community will be especially impactful this year.  And the high connectivity to deposited students must be maintained throughout the summer.

According to “Student Voice”, college students, like their high school counterparts, found it more challenging to stay motivated in an on-line environment.  A full 80 percent of college students surveyed claimed this was their number one challenge while just under two thirds of high school seniors said the same. It is likely that some classes will be remote in the fall, even for students residing on campus.  Efforts to engage students, which faculty typically do as a matter of course, will be even more critical in situations where some classes are in-person and some are remote.

Of particular interest to enrollment managers is that 9 percent of the traditional college students surveyed said that they had no desire to return to in-person classes.  This could have an impact on retention and obviously on institutional revenue.  To retain these students, some institutions may decide to create dual tracks – one for in person instruction and one for on-line, which may be more limited in scope and restricted to certain majors or certificate programs.  This is not likely as feasible for many small institutions.

While almost one-third of the college students surveyed said they never wanted to take another class on Zoom, 79 percent wanted lectures to be made available on-line for review purposes. And almost half wanted an option to attend classes either on-line or in person. It is likely, therefore, that some form of digital learning will be demanded by students well beyond the pandemic.  Colleges that recognize this and that create the infrastructure to deliver course content digitally could avert significant declines in enrollment.

Not surprisingly, 80 percent of those college students surveyed said that they wanted to return to an in-person college experience.  But what they look forward to the most is to be back with their friends and to have a social life once again. Nearly three-quarters of the students indicated this was the most important reason to return to campus. The next closest reason to be back on campus, cited 43 percent of the time, was to return to in-person classes.  Social programming and opportunities for students to interact should be high on any college’s list of things to invest in as a retention strategy.

As this most difficult academic year draws to a close, college and university leaders have significant financial, physical, human, and programmatic issues that require serious attention.  To succeed, colleges must put students at the center of what they do and why they do it.   The imperative, as colleges begin to emerge from this global pandemic, is to listen carefully to what students are telling you, and to do your best to meet their needs while being true to your mission and responsible stewards of your resources.


GM Sees 2035 Very Clearly. Will Higher Education?


By Bill Conley and Bob Massa

In our December 2020 article (Standardized Testing and College Admissions: Plan for a New Relationship) we observed: “For decades, the purchasing of student test-taker names has been fueling college recruitment’s time-honored funnel.”  We went on to discuss the many ways a long-term shift away from requiring standardized testing will reshape higher education admissions.  Having employed the metaphor of what fuels the admissions engine, we were struck by this recent headline:  General Motors sets goal of going largely electric by 2035 (APNews).

The APNews article closed on this note: “So far, Wall Street has cheered the shift by GM which says the industry has reached a history-changing inflection point for mass adoption of electric vehicles.”

The 2035 marker prompted us to think about Nathan Grawe’s 2018 book, Demographics and the Demand for Higher Education. In the closing chapter (Looking Beyond 2030), Grawe writes: “The next 15 years will present serious challenges to much of higher education as demographic shifts already under way are further complicated by a new birth dearth.”  The Great Recession spiked a decrease in fertility (Grawe: “birth rates plummet[ed] by almost 13 percent in just five years”) and the pandemic is already causing a second wave of infertility that will lap on higher education’s shore in the mid-to-late 2030’s.  Grawe’s sequel, The Agile College, has just been released and provides further updates on the inexorable march of college-bound demographics.

It is time for four-year colleges, dependent on traditional-aged high school graduates continuing their education, to acknowledge where current trends lead and pivot like GM.  Simply put, there will not be enough traditional student demand to fuel higher education’s current scale.  Most institutions are already experiencing this reality, but few are truly reckoning with the ominous dashboard signal — Low Fuel Warning — much less, the reality of 2035.

The fundamental step must be a rigorous re-examination and communication of institutional mission (i.e., purpose, objectives, and how you will achieve those objectives).  In his 1990 seminal study of liberal arts colleges, David Brenneman observed that of the nearly 600 liberal arts colleges in the 1970’s, only 212 remained in 1990. While fewer than a dozen had closed and some disappeared through merger, the majority evolved their missions to the point of no longer qualifying as a liberal arts college according to their Carnegie Classification.  An AACU 2012 study revisiting Brenneman’s work, found only 130 institutions remained as “true liberal arts colleges.”   Citing these studies is not to judge the viability of the liberal arts sector but to point out that there is precedent for redefining mission to adapt to changing market realities.  The mission statement is not narrative window-dressing. As we will discuss later, a changed mission is the consequence of intentional restructuring of academic offerings and the learning/living environment.

Setting and sharing a realistic yet aspirational vision (i.e., what a company desires to achieve in the long run) for the institution is not just a website “punch list” item.  GM, if still dependent on fossil fuel fifteen years from now, did not see itself relevant in the automobile market.  Or maybe it was just seeing that Tesla’s corporate valuation is greater than the top nine auto manufacturers combined.  Regardless, they put a stake in the future’s ground. Incremental visioning is not sufficient to drive the transformative change required of higher education. The vision statement is not simply a marketing tag line.  It must be sourced in vigorous and inclusive strategic planning.  Created with broad stakeholder input, a new vision for an institution must resonate with faculty, staff, alumni and students. It must serve as a call to action, inviting faculty to be innovative and students to stretch their limits. And, of course, it must motivate prospective students to inquire, apply and enroll in larger numbers.

Transformative change is not incremental.  It is not achieved by tinkering around the edges.  Barely a day goes by without a headline announcing that another college is proposing to eliminate a set of majors, programs or even departments.  There is not a size or sector bias. In recent months we have read about Ohio Wesleyan University, Ithaca College and University of Vermont, to name just a few examples. These headlines do not mean that higher education’s sky is falling.  Instead, it is reasonable to view this downsizing as rightsizing after years of growing- intentionally or not- beyond mission scope. Visionary change should not be about cutting, but, rather, contouring academic offerings to where the market demand will intersect with the institution’s core strengths.  In a similar vein, institutions that carry unsustainable overhead costs in co-curricular programs (e.g., student affairs, athletics, centers, etc.) must determine the optimal mix of academic and co-curricular offerings. That will help the college or university to deliver on its promise- yes, its brand.

GM probably has not yet determined the number and styles of cars they will produce in 2035 and at what price points.  Assuming a college’s enrollment and cost of attendance are analogous to production and price, there is no reason a college should not deliberately establish enrollment and price footprints for the longer-term future.  In recent years, a majority of colleges reported they did not meet their enrollment targets and thus fell short of revenue goals. Perhaps they think it was a consequence of sub-par recruitment programs. That may have contributed to a lackluster result, but in the context of broad enrollment underachievement, it is more likely a reflection of unrealistic goals.  If, in a time of relatively buoyant student demand, an institution is falling short, what can be expected when the next fifteen years delivers deep high school graduate declines in its primary markets? Setting realistic enrollment goals now and, over time, scaling overhead accordingly, are essential tools with which to address the demographic realities that threaten an institution’s position.  The goals are not simply numerical (enrolled students) but also financial:  is the institution able and willing to selectively invest in its people and its programs to pivot successfully into the next decade? An affirmative answer along with careful planning and execution will position a college to thrive in 2035. 

Explaining his on-ice superiority, Wayne Gretzky offered: “I skate to where the puck is going to be, not where it is.” GM (and likely, very soon, Ford and other automakers) is taking a page out of Gretzky’s book.  Will higher education do so as well?

This article also appeared in Inside Higher Ed – Admissions Insider, 3/1/2021


The Early Decision Uptick: Colleges gain; Low-income students lose

By Bob Massa and Bill Conley

This past fall, we wrote about how Early Decision (ED) programs would play an increasingly important role in helping colleges meet their fall enrollment goals.  With the financial fallout of the pandemic making enrollment levels more difficult to achieve, we suggested that getting a larger group of enthusiastic students to commit early could pave the way to realizing institutional headcount and net revenue goals.

What we didn’t predict in our article was the dramatic increase in ED demand at the most selective schools and the flat or decreased ED volume at the next rungs below.  Combined with the disproportionate impact that COVID-19 has on low-income students and their attendance rates, this trend could make it more difficult for low and low-middle income students to find their way to college.

Early Decision applications were way up at institutions such as Cornell (37%), UVA (36%), Dartmouth (29%), Hamilton (23%), Tufts (17%), BU (12%) and Johns Hopkins (11%).  This made it easier to increase ED enrollments as a percentage of the class while retaining a relatively low admission rate.

At schools that are not as highly selective as those in the sample cited above, our quick poll of a half dozen institutions showed no or just very modest increases and decreases in ED numbers.  So while we still believe that a move to increase ED enrollments is smart and strategic for most colleges, we are concerned that an ultra-competitive regular decision round could squeeze out under-represented students unless purposeful efforts are made to recruit and admit these students.

The Chronicle of Higher Education recently reviewed the latest data from the National Student Clearinghouse demonstrating that fewer low-income high school graduates went directly on to college in 2020.  While the enrollment in college  of high school graduates was down 27.1% this year, lower income students were over-represented in this decline: 29.2% fewer low income and 32.6% fewer students from high poverty families went directly on to college this past fall.  Without targeted programs to address this decline, and with early programs siphoning off spaces before the regular admission round (for reasons that we understand during the pandemic and resulting financial crisis), the numbers of low-income students served by our institutions will continue to decline.

As reported in Inside Higher Ed, the Western Instate Commission for Higher Education (WICHE) released projections in December that were slightly better than earlier projections because of a reported increase in high school graduate rates.  While they still project a decline of high school graduates of slightly more than 10% (41,000) from 2025 to 2037, there will be 162,000 more Hispanic high school graduates in 2026 than in 2019. By 2036, that number moderates down to 73,000 more than in 2019 – still a large growth given the 10% overall decline in high school graduates.  Critical to know when connecting demographics to the cost of college, the average family incomes for Hispanics tend to be about half the incomes of whites and Asians.  And while the percentage of Asian high school graduates is expected to increase from 6% in 2019 to 8% in 2036, the percentage of white high school grads will fall from 51% to 43% in the same time period.  Net tuition revenue will be challenged.

Although not all jobs require a college degree, multiple studies continue to show that the “education premium” for college graduates ranges from $800,000 to $1.2 million more than high school graduates would earn during their lifetimes.  And of course, this additional income not only benefits individuals and their families, but also adds revenue to the tax rolls.  It is therefore in our nation’s long-term interests to help qualified students afford a college education.

Many colleges are struggling financially during the pandemic because of fewer students and less revenue, combined with the increased costs of on-line instruction support and pandemic-related campus expenditures. Given this sobering backdrop, the challenge for colleges is to recruit, admit, fund, and graduate an increased number of students from low-income backgrounds.  Colleges also need to pay their bills, fill their seats and recoup their losses.  How can they afford to enroll a larger number of low-income students when there will be fewer “full pay” or “majority-pay” students in the pipeline?

There are no easy answers. However, the Center for Enrollment Research, Policy and Practice (CERPP) at the University of Southern California’s Rossier School of Education is exploring alternatives on a grant from the Joyce Foundation. Working with enrollment leaders at public and private four-year institutions in the Midwest, as well as federal policy experts, CERPP is looking at options for a federal/institutional partnership that would measurably increase the number and percent of low- and low-middle income students who enter and complete higher education.  In exchange for meeting certain enrollment and retention/graduation benchmarks and under the condition of providing new matching funds, institutions would receive a block grant to provide additional financial assistance to low-income students, reducing or eliminating the “gap” between demonstrated financial need and aid awarded.  Funding would also be targeted to supplement institutional efforts to help students succeed academically.  With a new administration in Washington and lots of chatter about “free college,” it is a good time to consider how to best leverage federal funds to assure that low and low-middle income students are not left out as they represent an increasing percentage of high school graduates.  It is in our economic interest as a nation to do so.

The CERPP effort is a heavy lift.  The American Talent Initiative (ATI), launched in December 2016, invited public and private institutions (327 in all) that graduate at least 70% of their students within six years to formally join ATI in an effort to increase by 50,000 the number of lower-income students enrolled in these colleges by 2025. To date, 128 colleges and universities are ATI members. Although member institutions do not receive financial support from ATI, they do benefit from ATI’s national campaign in support of increased access, setting aspirational enrollment goals, and accessing best practices, research and knowledge.  As reported in February 2020, the eligible institutions had been on pace to reach the 2025 goal but progress had leveled off: “The recent data indicating that progress from the first two years of ATI has not been replicated in year three raises the urgency of ATI’s mission and the need to overcome the challenges that may stand in the way.”

Binding Early Decision programs will continue to grow as colleges seek to meet their enrollment and net revenue goals.  Since NACAC was forced by the Department of Justice to remove from its Code of Ethics any prohibition of Early Decision incentives, colleges are now promoting ED through all sorts of special incentives. One institution in New England advertised that admitted ED students would be eligible to take four on-line classes for free during the spring and summer semesters– getting a jump start on their degree.  We will likely see more of this in the coming years.  But increasing ED to efficiently meet enrollment goals will make regular decision much more selective with fewer places in the class available. And again, per Newton’s third law of motion that for every action there is an equal or opposite reaction, the flip side of this trend is that low-income students, lacking access to sophisticated college counseling and historically under-represented in early applicant pools, will have a more difficult time gaining admission and sufficient financial aid in the regular pool.

Enrollment leaders and college presidents must step up to the challenge, finding ways to attract and support lower income students who will comprise a larger portion of our high school graduates.  Our economy and our national workforce needs requires our visionary leadership.



Standardized Testing and College Admissions: Plan for a New Relationship

by Bill Conley and Bob Massa

Is standardized testing dead? Or, to paraphrase Mark Twain, are the reports “greatly exaggerated?”

In March 2020, about one-thousand of the 2300 private non-profit and public Bachelor granting colleges and universities offered students the option to apply to their institutions without submitting SAT or ACT scores, and several dozen operated as “test-blind” wherein all applicants were reviewed without testing results. According to Fair Test, nearly seventeen hundred or two-thirds of colleges and universities as of October 2020 are operating with some form of test optional or test blind policy. 

Pre-pandemic, only a handful of the most selective colleges in the country were test optional. Today, the new surge includes many of the most selective colleges in the country (e.g. the Ivy League, Cal Tech). In addition, the University of California system (which received nearly 180,000 applications for fall 2020) announced in May 2020 that it would be test-optional for the next two admission cycles, test-blind for the two years following, and in 2025 it will administer its own test or eliminate testing altogether. A lower court ruling in November now requires it to be test-blind immediately.

As both test agencies canceled or modified multiple testing dates over the past six-months, colleges girded for the immediate impact for the class entering fall 2021. In the aggregate, for the past four SAT test dates, 40% of the registrants were unable to take the test.

More students will have no testing or just a single instance to report; hence, the 60% increase in the number of test optional colleges. 

We foresee a long-term structural change in the role of standardized testing in college admissions. One of our university colleagues likened College Board and ACT as the big cruise ships of the enrollment management business.  The recruitment, selection and ranking of colleges have long depended on standardized testing to keep the system afloat.  Perhaps Carnival Cruise Lines may sail at full capacity sometime in the future, but we anticipate that the pandemic-related impacts on standardized testing will fundamentally change their role in college admissions for decades to come.

Peter Drucker observed: “The best way to plan for the future is to plan the future.”  How well is your institution positioned to build recruitment practices, selection processes and reputational indices that have significantly less reliance on standardized testing?   Here are some thoughts on planning for college admission’s new relationship with testing.

The Funnel

For decades, the purchasing of student test-taker names has been fueling college recruitment’s time-honored funnel. Able to select on multiple criteria from test score to academic interest to ethnicity and more, colleges populated the top of the funnel with tens of thousands “pre-qualified” prospects.  By one estimate, the College Board sold nearly 2.5 million names to over 1600 colleges and scholarship in 2019; at .47 cents per name, that is a decent income stream. Meanwhile, colleges built continually more sophisticated communication campaigns to move these prospects down the funnel into applicants, admits and enrollees. 

It is likely that the demand for testing will decrease significantly in the aftermath of a pandemic-driven move away from requiring standardized testing for admission.  College Board and ACT income will suffer, and colleges will need to look elsewhere for prospects.  Of course, the testing companies are not the only players in the game. Over the years, entities like NRCCUA (now owned by ACT), Cappex, RaiseMe, College Express and others bombarded admissions deans with promises of perfect prospects for their colleges.  Expect the marketplace of student name purveyors to get more crowded in the coming years. And, of course,  we can also anticipate more stealth activity on the part of students; the coming generation of prospects will be more apt to “pull” the information they need from the internet rather than wait for the “push” of communications by colleges.

Considering these developments,  a funnel plan needs to be dynamic and intentional, characterized by, among other things:

  • An institutional website that considers prospective students as its primary audience; admissions must be front and center, navigation must be intuitive, and  the CRM must captures the traffic pattern and, perhaps with the help of a third-party, can identify who is searching your site.
  • Prospect sources that are diversified and negotiated to ensure quality over quality.
  • A first contact source that must be consistently captured in a CRM.
  • A rigorous analysis on how effective different prospect sources are in yielding applicants and enrollees.
  • Partnerships with CBOs and other agencies that work closely with students who have been underserved in the “name buying” patterns of the past.
  • An aggressive transfer strategy that makes it easy for two-year college students to transfer without losing credit.
  • The inclusion of adult students, particularly those who have had some college, along with programs that will serve their needs.

 The Selection Process

The use of standardized testing in the selection process has long been a topic of intense debate.  Over time, numerous studies have demonstrated a high correlation between test scores and family income. Highly selective college that operate “holistic” admissions and require testing balance test performance bias against other factors, especially high school performance, motivation, and socio-economic related opportunity.  Still, many colleges (along with the National Merit Scholarship Corporation) use testing as a strict criterion in the granting of merit aid.  If, as we expect, reliance on standardized testing will never return to pre-pandemic levels, how will institutions pivot to a new selection paradigm tailored to their mission and circumstances?

Of course, there are trailblazers (e.g., Bates, Bowdoin, WPI, etc.) who have long assessed students without standardized testing and show longitudinal evidence that non-submitters perform at or above test submitters in various measures of success (i.e., GPA, retention, graduation).  As Bucknell University did when it decided to adopt a test optional policy in 2018, assessing the experience of such institutions reassured campus stakeholders that the academic integrity in the admissions process would not be compromised.  Admissions leaders can also channel the resources of initiatives like Making Caring Common, the Character Collaborative, and the Character Lab to incorporate important non-cognitive traits in the selection process.  The major players in the application forms business, Common Application and the Coalition for College, have changed their templates minimally over the years, but their respective membership is likely to push for more innovative ways to collect evidence of talent. 

In the meantime, here are some thoughts on designing a selection paradigm that is less reliant on or completely discounts standardized testing.

  • Conduct a rigorous analysis of currently enrolled students to see how various factors (e.g., testing, GPA, academic interest, socio-economic factors, distance from campus, etc.) impact student success measures. Does this reveal insights that can inform the selection process?
  • Look at the attrition and retention of current students with test scores below profile. Were there any identifiable patterns that differentiated those who left the institution vs. those who continued toward graduation?
  • Ask the question: Does the selection process reflect the institution’s mission? It is likely that the mission does not cite an average SAT score as a marker of importance.
  • The efficacy of a test optional policy cannot be judged in only one or two admission cycles. At the very least, the performance of at least two entering cohorts must be measured, particularly with respect to first-to-second year retention. Also, in a time of pervasive uncertainly, college counselors and college-bound students will be leery of a swift shift in a college’s selection criteria.
  • Whatever the selection paradigm, we would advise institutions to provide a very explicit explanation of what “matters” in the admissions process and how students can best present themselves.

Reputation (Rankings)

Few higher education leaders believe that college rankings offer an unquestioned benefit in the college search process.  Over the more than three decades of providing its annual ranking of colleges, US News & World Report(USNWR), has periodically tinkered with its formula to address changing circumstances or, as the skeptics might contend, to produce sufficient ranking disruption to generate annual sales. Such adjustments as eliminating “yield” data because it could be manipulated by colleges and introducing a “social mobility” factor (weighting Pell recipients and their retention) have not produced much change to an order that overwhelmingly favors wealth and “reputige” (reputation and prestige).

USNWR has been particularly skeptical about colleges’ motivation to operate a test optional admissions process.  For example, because weak test takers will disproportionally opt out of submitting test scores, colleges can generate a stronger testing profile by excluding them. For colleges whose entering class includes more than 25% non-submitters, USNWR applies a penalty (the SAT/ACT percentile distribution value used in the rankings is discounted by 15%) to hedge against profile manipulation.  While it is too early to tell how many more colleges will report fewer than 75% test submitters in the next ranking cycle (and beyond), the USNWR wheels must be turning as to how its formula will adapt. (On a related note, there should also be consternation on how to account for “financial resources” in this time of emergency spending).

From our vantage point, rankings will not go away in higher education’s post-pandemic reincarnation. But for colleges that may have been purposely or incidentally using the USNWR formula as a tactical playbook, now is the time to develop and communicate a distinctive narrative.  Here are some thoughts:

  • Explicate the profile of non-submitters (i.e., GPA, course rigor, talents, etc.).
  • Double-down on retention efforts.
  • Pay as much attention to outputs (e.g., job placement, student debt, default rate, etc.) as inputs (e.g., selectivity, diversity, school-based achievement, etc.)
  • Narrow the message of differentiated excellence to two or three core elements rather than five or more.
  • Communicate what families want to know about programs, outcomes, and price, and recognize how that might change over time.

For over forty years in college admission, we relied on the tried and true Admission equation: High School Rigor + Grades +Test Scores + Personal Qualities = Student Excellence.  But truth be told, at the highly selective institutions we were privileged to serve, test scores took on a disproportionate role in the final decisions.  Blessed with strong, self-selecting applicant pools, test results often became the differentiators. 

While we do not believe that standardized tests will disappear, their role in the admission process will most certainly change.  As we all work through the challenges of a global pandemic, we would do well to reassess our decision paradigms toward less reliance on tests and more emphasis on a holistic process which takes into account the student’s performance in the context of their environment. The suggestions we have offered above should help enrollment managers and admission officers move in that direction.



Can an Early Decision Emphasis Help Meet Fall ’21 Enrollment Goals?

by Bob Massa and Bill Conley

Exactly a year ago, and in the shadow of a Department of Justice threat, members of the National Association of College Admissions Counseling (NACAC) reluctantly voted  to remove from its Code of Ethics language that prevented colleges from recruiting students who had committed to another institution.  They also struck language that forbade the offering of incentives to get students to apply under exclusive Early Decision (ED) programs.

In the months that followed, these changes felt seismic, especially among the most vulnerable institutions on the prestige food chain.  Many (including these authors) predicted “the wild west” in college admissions. 

A handful of colleges did offer ED incentives, and the  ED yield – typically in the 95% range for many colleges– did dip below that level (in some cases into the low 80s), suggesting that ED students were being increasingly “poached” by other institutions.  But the admissions world did not fall apart, and in general, colleges competed for students as they had in the past.  We know now, of course, that well over half of reporting colleges did not meet their enrollment goals by July 1, and that overall,  undergraduate enrollment at private, four-year institutions is down almost 4 percent from last fall.  This sets the stage for, perhaps, a quite different recruitment year ahead.

While enrollment leaders fiddled with the changing rules of recruitment engagement, the major event occurred in March 2020.  None of us could have foreseen how the COVID-19 global pandemic would upend higher education and indeed every segment of our society. 

It is difficult to predict with any degree of certainty what will happen in the first full COVID admissions season, but we can be sure of one thing:  the competition for new students will be fiercer than ever this year. As a result, the purposeful use of binding Early Decision, where students still must declare their intent to enroll if admitted and if affordable,  must be a tool in a college’s tactical arsenal necessary to secure the number of new students needed to achieve revenue goals for the 2021-22 academic year.

Clearly, even at an 80% yield, ED programs heavily recruited and optimally executed will provide a strong base toward achieving the required enrollment and net revenue targets.  For the next several years, colleges will struggle to meet their goals as the demographics shift.  Targeting students for a group that will have a high yield is a way not only to increase the chances of success for enrolling the entire new class, but also contributes to managing the  institutional acceptance rate, which is likely to steeply increase as regular decision yield continues its downward trend as evidenced by the large numbers of institutions missing their enrollment targets.

Many highly selective schools had, in the recent past, enough qualified ED applicants to enroll half of their entering class or more under ED.  These schools turned down qualified students in ED to keep their numbers below 50 percent of the class.  But this year is different.  Even with the potential of poaching after deposit, ED enrollments accounting for close to or more than half of the class will considerably increase the chances of meeting targets that are critical to long-term institutional survival.

Nationally, there has long been dialogue about Early Decision and how it discriminates against economically disadvantaged students: parents do not know about early college programs; it curtails comparison “price shopping” for needy families; it “forces” students to make a decision to enroll before they are ready to make that decision; and it creates a stressful second wave of applications, after they are denied or deferred under ED ( a guidance counselor’s work is never done).

But it does not have to be that way.  It is true that many low-income students are not aware of early-decision programs because they are the first generation in their family to go to college and attend high schools where counselors are responsible for 1,000 or more students each. But colleges and universities should promote early decision in all their search communications, on their websites and in their brochures. And those of us who are committed to enrolling low-income students will go out of our way to connect with them and to make them aware of early programs, providing financial aid packages that are every bit as competitive as the ones extended to Regular Decision students who yield at a fraction of the ED rate.

Taking tests in time for ED deadlines in early November has always been a source of concern about disadvantaged students and their ability to successfully apply under ED. The fact is that many schools are now test optional, if not test blind.  A good number of them have signed a recent NACAC statement saying that they will not hold the absence of test scores against a student.  This helps all students in the process, of course, but particularly disadvantaged students who did not even have access to the tests during the height of the pandemic in the U.S.

We always tell students that they should apply in a binding early-decision program only if parents know how much they are willing and able to contribute toward college expenses, and if they are not interested in comparing offers from other institutions. If they receive enough to make attendance possible, and the college is the student’s first choice, then the process has successfully concluded. If, however, they want to shop for the best deal, then early decision is not for them. This is particularly true in the post DOJ-era where a committed ED student remains eligible for other colleges to recruit.  If “the best deal” is secondary to getting enough aid to enroll in the college of choice, then ED can be a win/win for the college and the student.

It is important for colleges to remain true to their missions during this time of stress.  It is equally as important to do everything possible, within acceptable practices of course, to assure that enrollment and revenue goals are met.  Increasing the number of ED applications, admits and enrollments, with the right amount of financial aid, can give an institution a desperately needed boost toward successfully enrolling its next class of first year students.


Bob Massa and Bill Conley are principals and co-founders of Enrollment Intelligence Now, a consulting firm that specializes in mentoring and coaching new VPs of Enrollment and Deans of Admission, in addition to conducting admissions and financial audits, staffing analyses and vendor management protocol.  Between them, they have 85 years of experience in admissions, financial aid and enrollment management, having served as the chief enrollment officer at Johns Hopkins, Case Western Reserve, D


Leading in a Pandemic: turn the stages of grief into institutional opportunity

Bill Conley and Bob Massa                                     Principals, Enrollment Intelligence Now


By August 2020, more than 10 million cases worldwide were reported and 500,000 deaths were attributed to Covid-19.  Vast multiples of those staggering numbers have been touched by the loss of family members, loved ones or acquaintances.  The world economy has imploded and unemployment has devastated many families whose financial foundations were finally shored-up years after the Great Recession.  Businesses, small and large, have shuttered with many unlikely to reopen. 

And higher education, just beginning to reckon with an enrollment crisis precipitated by demographic declines and an unsustainable pricing structure, is now in an immediate crisis mode. Indeed, more than a few colleges and universities are confronting their mortality. 

Elizabeth Kubler-Ross’s framework for the five stages of dying asserts that there is a sequence of emotions thatpeople may go through in coming to terms with their mortality.  Several years later, she and coauthor, David Kessler, proposed that people who anticipate or experience the death of a loved one may process grief in the same manner.  The grieving stages of denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptancecould also apply to those facing the potential “death” of their college or university—while acknowledging the clear difference between the two situations.

Clayton Christensen, the late Harvard Business School professor and author of “The Innovative University,” posited in 2018 that lower cost, anytime on-line education would cause such a market disruption that half of American colleges would be bankrupt by 2025.  Many, including the authors of this article,viewed his prediction as overly apocalyptic.  Nevertheless, the unrelenting pressures of competing educational modes, demographics and the cost of the traditional, residential college business model would, at the very least, require many universities to reimagine their missions if they were to survive.  For these institutions and their constituents (faculty, students, staff, and alumni), this alone might feel like the college they love were dying.   The health and financial tentacles of the pandemic now seem to put Christensen’s prediction very much back into play

In times of crisis, colleges and universities need a strong, visionary, optimistic yet realistic leader.  Whether the leader and the team are working tirelessly to keep the institution open and healthy, or they are plotting a path to merger or closure, a leader conveys a sense of commitment to the institution and its people and demonstrates a strong willingness to do what it takes to save the institution or to close it down with grace and sensitivity.


A leader can adapt the Kubler-Ross model to help faculty, staff, alumni, and students manage their grief as the college struggles to open for the 2020-21 academic year and, more significantly, fights for its long-term survival.

Without question, there will first be a very profound sense of denial that the institution is even facing a crisis of mortality.  A few telltale signs of denial: 

  • Sure, the pandemic has hit us hard but thank heavens we are in a stronger position than our neighboring colleges.
  • We are just one or two years of good student recruiting classes away from stable vital signs.
  • We’ve got an endowment. Now is the time to use it!

Skillful internal and external messaging masks a visceral sense that something scary is looming.  Nonetheless, this stage of institutional grief may be marked by Einstein’s theory of insanity: doing the same things repeatedly and expecting different results.  A decisive/proactive leader identifies this tendency, names it, and helps stakeholders understand the realities of the current situation.

As a couple of academic years unfold, with perhaps declining enrollment metrics (first year and retention shortfalls) and resulting belt-tightening, the reactionary stage of angercan take hold.  It is human nature to find someone or something to blame for your grief.  The Board might question presidential leadership; the faculty might point the finger at the admissions director or administrative bloat; and the alumni may vent that if we only had college “x’s” endowment we would not be in this mess. When angry, rational decision making is not likely to result.  Here, a highly effective leader confronts this anger head-on and, by doing so, taps into an inner strength that ultimately moves the college to an action-oriented resolve.

In the bargainingstage, an angry person may attempt, somewhat irrationally, to strike a deal with a higher power who she thinks might be able to undo the imminent death of a loved one: “ifyou spare my partner, I promise to return to my religious faith.” Played out on a college campus, this stage may be characterized by negotiating on the margins: If the administration pares its superfluous staff, we, the faculty, will consider teaching load adjustments or modest reallocating offaculty lines.  During this process, all parties are likely to spend inordinate amounts of time wondering what they could have done differently to avoid this fate altogether. 

A leader is open to this bargaining stage because it is critical that constituents feel valued, useful, and heard.  But a leader also understands that whatever the bargainingdynamic, this stage is unlikely to produce a breakthrough into decisive and recuperative action.  Over past decades, too many of the old chips were already played or are depleted. An effective leader helps stakeholders find new and potentially useful negotiating currency, thus facilitating a successful passage through the bargaining stage.

When reliving the good old days or making minor concessions clearly does not change the present reality, institutional stakeholders inevitably hit the emotional nadir of depression.  In this stage of grief, all constituents are feeling the full depth of their despair that the institution, as they know it and love it, is drifting away.  Desperate questions will arise:

  • Can we do what is necessary to survive, much less thrive?
  • Should we go on at all?

A leader understands that grievingis also a process of healing.  A resilient leader guides the institution toward a shared commitment to transcending the crisis by collecting themselves to undertake decisive actions to achieve a sustained level of stakeholder determination.

Arriving at the stage of acceptanceis not acting like everything is fine or that everyone is reconciled to what has happened to the institution under the pressures exerted by the pandemic’s acceleration of the enrollment crisis.  Like the person who has lost a loved one, acceptanceis recognizing that you can never replace the one you lost but you can bring closure to her absence. 

For students, faculty and staff, there may be solace in a campus that seems physically unchanged even as the activities within the buildings alter to new realities.  But a leader understands that the danger lies in the absence of purposeful action.  Then, the acceptance of fate means that the institution remains vulnerable to new distress. An effective leader, of course, does not allow that to happen.

Kessler’s November 2019 book added a sixth stage of grief — meaning. Here he suggests that rather than seeking a final resolution to grief, embracing a new meaning can create innovative and positive ways to move forward.  For a college or university leader, this might mean overseeing a radical transformation (e.g., merger; significant downsizing).  But for most, the new meaning of sustained relevancy will come in the form of reinventing and reorganizing the core mission into an institution that connects its greatest strengths to market demands. 

The six stages of grief are neither destined nor linear. Some institutions will be shuttered in the coming years because of incurable pathologies.  A select number, fortified by wealth and prestige, will always be inoculated from a terminal condition.  However, for Christensen’s prediction to be proven quite wrong, the vast majority of private, residential colleges must have bold leaders who help their stakeholders through the stages of grief so as to emerge with perhaps a different institutional identity, but one ever-stronger and more sustainable.