Recruit & Retain (Marlboro College)

What Do Colleges Need? Authenticity.

Last year we had a young man and his parents visit our small campus in rural Marlboro, VT. The parents, like many, asked questions about our academics, campus safety and our dorms. My conversation with the student, whose grades were good, centered on his interests, namely sports and academics. He liked the sciences. When I asked where else he was planning on visiting, he told me the University of Vermont. My response to him was, “you’ll really like it there.”

During our conversation it became apparent that Marlboro was not the right place for this student. So, rather than encouraging him to apply, we talked about other schools that I thought he would like. My interview with this young man ended with my wishing him the best of luck and encouraging him to reach out to me with any questions he might have about the process. I told him that I was most concerned with his finding a school that would be the best fit for him and if that was somewhere other than Marlboro I was still happy to help.

For many of my colleagues in admissions this would be unthinkable. After all, with the number of college-bound high school seniors shrinking each year, the competition for every student can be fierce. So why would I encourage a student not to apply? The answer is simple — we were not a good fit.

The Truth of the Matter

It’s easy to say that colleges and universities don’t have a prospective student’s best interests in mind, but I don’t think that’s entirely true. Very few college admissions officers that I know want students for a semester or a year, only to have them either drop out or transfer. It doesn’t help build long-term affinity for your institution. But what seems to be broken is the business model that many institutions operate under.

Today’s admissions process tends to be about pre-awarding, inflating the prospective applicant pool and extensive naming searches — most often in the tens of thousands if not hundreds of thousands for the largest institutions. The problem with casting the nets wide is that they don’t tend to actually lead to viable students.

There are positives and negatives to a more authentic admissions approach. The negatives, of course, are that some view buying lots of names as a security blanket. If we don’t get what we want from “Pool A” we can always turn to “Pool B.” But for a school like Marlboro, there is no such thing as “Pool B.” Instead, we operate under the philosophy of “more conversations and less applications.”

Authenticity in college admissions requires institutions to value prospective students’ interests over a college’s bottom line. In my conversation with the previously mentioned student and his family, I could tell he was an athlete and looking for a school that would allow him to compete at a certain level. So, while academically he would have loved our school, broomball, four square and cross-country skiing were not exactly the kind of collegiate athletic experience he was hoping for.

Many colleges and universities talk about “fit” in the admissions process but few actually deliver. In fact, in some admissions offices’ “fit” can be judged on a student’s ability to pay, or it can be used to describe if a student has the grades or test scores for admission. What we should be talking about here is how will this student help shape our campus and how will our institution help mold this student.

When It’s Just Not a Fit

If I had to guess, I could say that we will encourage roughly a third of the students who initially approach us to apply elsewhere because we are not a good fit for them. As a small school working to keep our enrollment up, I can see where many would question the logic in this. But for me it comes down to investing in the student and in a commitment to helping them make what will be one of the most impactful decisions of their life.

When prospective students and their families visit our campus they see Marlboro as it really is. There is no prepared script for our tour guides, only talking points that we all agree are important. Classroom visits are scheduled based on the visitors’ interests, not on who we think will deliver the most attractive message of what education looks like at Marlboro. Because of this, we often see little or no “melt” with our deposited students. They know what to expect.

So, while we all understand that we are ultimately responsible for increasing our institution’s enrollment, it’s up to admissions offices at colleges and universities throughout the country to remember to do what is in the best interests of our students.

This article originally appeared in the November 2015 issue of College Planning & Management.

About the Author

Brigid Lawler is dean of admissions at Marlboro College in Marlboro, VT (www.marlboro.edu).

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