Interpreting a Survey of College Admissions Directors

The life of an admissions director is not an easy one; a look through The 2014 Survey of College Admissions Directors confirms this reality.

The survey was conducted by Gallup (of political polling fame) using questions created by Inside Higher Education, a very useful online postsecondary news website.  A statistically significant response of admissions directors, only one per school, from a range of colleges and universities, addressed recruiting, standardized tests, financial aid and student debt among a number of issues.

Recruiting lies at the center of many admissions director’s efforts.  While Rick Shaw of Stanford probably doesn’t lose sleep over attracting the best and the brightest, many of the less blessed admission directors have to wrangle over creating classes with the right mix of 1st Generation, out-of-state, international, talents, gender, veterans/military, race and the problem of just getting enough bodies into the chairs. Prior to May 1st (the usual registration deadline) 59% of the public, and 65% of the private colleges missed their enrollment goals.

Making matters worse, a third of the admission directors admit to recruiting applicants who had already committed to other colleges.   

When admissions directors are asked should standardized test scores be optional for applicants, 40% strongly/somewhat agreed. A number of the test optional/flexible schools such as Bowdoin, Bates, Wesleyan, and Pitzer support a growing sentiment of skepticism over the predictive ability of standardized tests. Naturally, a lot of campuses value standardized testing, as do the majority of the admissions directors, but the undercurrent of test optional/flexible campuses is strong.

The lack of use of the ACT and SAT essays by admissions directors is also evident from the survey.  Only 9% of private and 13% of public schools claimed to look at this score as very important in the admissions process. Though the essays from the tests are scanned by each testing agency and are available to the admissions officers, based on the survey few if any access them.

In policy surrounding reporting standardized tests, there are doubts among the admissions directors. While 99% say their institutions accurately report standardized test scores or other admissions data, 93% believe other institutions falsely report theirs. There are few controls or checks to actually ensure reporting accuracy.  Because so much is riding on the scores of the incoming class (recruiting efforts, rankings, and even possible interest rates on loans)  many institutions including Bucknell University, University of Pennsylvania, George Washington University and Claremont McKenna have inflated  their reported score averages in past years (Washington Post, 6 February 2013).

Regarding financial aid, the admissions directors seem to be of many minds.  Their answers are telling. ‘Do you think your institution is losing candidates who are concerned with accumulating student loans?” Yes, Public 64% and Private 89%; Is Gapping (not offering enough financial aid to fill in the difference between the cost of attendance (COA) and the effective family contribution (EFC)) an ethical practice? Yes, Public 46% and Private 75%. And, “Is it good to take out a private loan for college?” No, Public 69% and Private 52%.

To summarize their collective response to financial aid, they know they’re losing applicants who do not want to incur debt, yet they’re willing to gap them when they’re applying for financial aid, and then compel them to take out loans, which the majority of the admissions directors think is a bad idea. Confused? When there is more than $1.2 trillion in student debt with 7 million of these debtors in default, one can bet there is confusion.

There are harsh truths surrounding admissions process and some emerged within the 2014 Admissions Director Survey. Understanding how they bear on recruiting, standardized tests, and financial aid makes for more savvy applicants and, eventually, college students.