April is here and that means the majority of college bound seniors have received their admission decisions, culminating last week with notification from many of the most selective colleges and universities in the country. It also means that over the next few weeks we will read story after story about the students who “won” in the college admission “game.” We might be presented with the essay that “got an applicant in” or learn about the wiz kid who was admitted to five, ten, maybe even twenty of the “best” universities. We will read stories of admit rates in the single digits and reports of application numbers that have soared for another consecutive year. From new testing policies, to financial aid, to international student issues, we will hear about all the factors that contribute to a hyper-selective college admission climate. Articles will unpack “creative” enrollment strategies, like spring admit programs and guaranteed transfer offers that improve a college’s position in the all important rankings, while allowing them to take students below profile. Undoubtedly we will learn about colleges utilizing waitlists to manage their “yield” and maybe even read stories about the NCAA men’s basketball champions over enrolling their incoming class because everyone wants to be part of the dream.
Much less discussed are the the exceptional people who are emerging bleary-eyed from application-induced hibernation and weeks of admission committee work—the college admission deans. Behind the celebrated “winners” in the college admission lottery are these worker bees, tireless and dedicated. The last year of their lives has been spent traveling, recruiting, hosting, interviewing, reading and advocating for the hundreds of thousands of young people applying to college. They have skillfully been crafting the class of 2022 for their employers and their job is not done. For the next month, college admission staff will be in an all out sprint trying to enroll newly admitted students. In addition to on-campus events and regional gatherings, admission officers will be calling, texting, emailing and taking to social media in an effort to convince students to attend their institution. Suddenly their role is less one of the “gatekeeper” and more that of shepherd, guiding the admitted to their new home.
It is easy to criticize college admission for its flaws and inconsistencies. We can question intentions while decrying decisions that seem arbitrary at best and unfair at worst. From the influence of athletics, to legacy admission to affirmative action, we would be hard pressed to find someone (inside and outside of higher education) who doesn’t have a bone to pick with college admission. After all, higher education is a business with a bottom line and the business model requires decisions based on institutional priorities and financial sustainability that can be unpopular, especially when students are caught in the middle. Admission deans—the gatekeepers—are often implicated as the villains of this imperfect process, as if they joined the profession to create false hope and to deny access. But just the opposite is true, and as this admission cycle comes to a close, it provides an opportunity to celebrate the conflicted educators who care deeply about their noble work and the young lives they impact.
As we race towards the May 1st National Candidate Reply Date—essentially the final exam for admission offices—let us acknowledge the professionals who are “walking the talk,” dedicated to the value of higher education and to the unique missions of their schools. Among many others, I am referring to Erik DeAngelis and Logan Powell at Brown University whose thoughtful and personal approach to highly selective admission is not lost on the first-generation college students who are inspired by their care. I am also speaking of Justin Fahey and Whitney Soule at Bowdoin College who are intentional advocates for young people dedicated to “cooperation for common ends.” Or, Gary Clark at The University of California, Los Angeles who works with his staff to make applying to a large public research university as personal as possible, while building a diverse class. And, Rick Clark (not related) at Georgia Tech who brings sanity and humor to the college search for students and their families. Not to mention Courtney Roach and Angel Pérez at Trinity College who recognize the importance of character in creating healthy campus culture. I am also referring to the names we don’t yet know who will be future leaders in this important field. They say they promote access and affordability, and they do. They say kindness matters, and it does. They say they are looking for “human beings” not “human doers,” and they are. The say they review applications holistically, and it happens. While they celebrate the students they were able to admit, they also viscerally feel the disappointment of those that they had to deny. This is a note of appreciation for the thousands of admission personnel who are expected to please everyone and often feel as if they are pleasing no one. Your work is valuable. Your work is meaningful. Because ultimately you do change and improve lives. Thank you.