Do you know my name? Lost in the university application funnel
Jane Larsson, CIS Executive Director
By Jane Larsson
   

Earlier this year I was invited to attend a gathering of university presidents from around the world as they considered trends and shared strategies to Reinvent Higher Education. This annual conference first took place in 2009, launched by IE University in Spain. This year’s host was Brown University in the United States where the Presidents of Brown and IE welcomed thought leaders from around the world to examine issues set to impact academia, government, and the private sector as the future workforce continues to be buffeted by change.

What is on their minds? I wondered. Would the challenges be the same ones that emerged during our own Summits of school and university leaders?

These university presidents’ observations, findings and questions deserve our attention. Overall, I noticed a distinct difference in mindset between university presidents in more developed countries compared with university presidents in less developed countries—the ideas put forth by the university presidents in less developed countries tended to be more bold and creative. One cited the risk of not changing our approaches: “We have a huge number of youth. Either they will become fuel for development or fuel for fire.”

Reinventing Higher Education: University Presidents in Conversation

  1. The graduate skills gap: How do we enable talented young people to make the right choices so that education is a better pathway to a better life and career? In many regions of the world, up to 50% of university graduates are under-employed.
  2. Do we move into life-long education; remove fixed degree tracks? Looking at a future skills program, offered in flexible models. Combine higher education and work. Move from “just in case education to just in time learning.” “The university of tomorrow will be a place you don’t go to for four years, but for life.” Interspersed with work; return to gain new skills; then back to work.
  3. Students are learning so much from social movements that they are automatically gaining a broader education without us (despite us) and becoming very sensitive to new issues. “We have a huge number of youth. Either they will become fuel for development or fuel for fire.” Our students are well educated but there are no jobs. They have access to seeing what a better life looks like elsewhere—one they do not have. Reference to income is now “what people see on their smartphones,” so rapidly rising aspirations are taking place. But if this is accompanied by a lack of opportunity, frustration and conflict will rise.
  4. Stress. There are several weeks during the year that are extremely challenging and difficult for students. These are primarily made even more difficult due to a lack of collaboration with faculty, or limited access for advice and support during vacation time.
  5. What about culture and technology? Students primarily use IT socially, for entertainment and social networking. Social media and education? We (university leaders) have a voice and we need to use it (through the channels our students are using).
  6. Educational funding: Countries don’t pay attention unless you rank them.
  7. Communities that have universities and colleges are healthier, more civically engaged; local businesses thrive.
  8. Open curriculum: “Education is an appointment between generations. Allow students to roam between opportunities; keep administration out of the way!”
  9. “The school residential experience is rich, who would not want it? But it is an inflexible model and an expensive one.”
  10. “The future is here, it is just not evenly distributed.”

I left this conference in deep thought, as I considered the cross-sector challenges—jointly identified by CIS university and school leaders at the CIS Summits we convened this year. Our university network is formed primarily of professionals working in admission. They are a passionate group when it comes to access to higher education. It is a process that many university admissions professionals, school leaders and university counsellors would like to change. When will we begin to do something about it?

Symptoms and strategies

Earlier this year, I was touring a university campus in the United States as part of a group. Our student guide announced with great pride the university’s “lowest acceptance rate ever” as an indicator of quality. In that moment I stopped walking and wondered: Is this something to be proud of? I found myself continuing to think about the pride behind this statement and its implications. If a university continues to have the same number of seats for first-year students, but now with five or even ten times the number of applicants, how well can their admission team really know and understand the students who are formally applying? And, at a time that is (arguably) their most vulnerable stage of life?

Student acceptance rate, as a data point, is regularly featured by highly selective universities, and it is one that deserves our scrutiny.

  • Who pays for the additional staff needed to review the additional applications?
  • Are the admissions team just as invested in each one of the applicants (and can they be)?
  • Is it ethical to take more and more applicants just because the university can, without increasing the actual number of spots available?
  • Why do some universities assume that a low acceptance rate is a key indicator of the rigour of the admission process or even the quality of the candidates, and therefore something to feel proud of?

More and more people believe a significant step forward may be to limit the number of universities students apply to. Melissa Korn makes this recommendation in her Wall Street Journal article, How to Fix College Admissions. And, what strategies can we learn from the world of recruitment and employment? In his recent article in Harvard Business Review, Your Approach to Hiring is All Wrong, Peter Cappelli focuses on persuading fewer people to apply as a strategy to improve effectiveness. While the recruitment of staff and students are two very different things, can we apply his recommendation as we consider the growth of a university’s applicant pool?

"Create a smaller but better qualified applicant pool to improve the yield. Here’s why: Every applicant costs you money—especially now, in a labor market where applicants have started to “ghost” employers, abandoning their applications midway through the process. Every application also exposes a company to legal risk, because the company has obligations to candidates (not to discriminate, for example) just as it does to employees. And collecting lots of applicants in a wide funnel means that a great many of them won’t fit the job or the company, so employers have to rely on the next step of the hiring process—selection—to weed them out. As we will see, employers aren’t good at that."

Last month, CIS welcomed 918 university admission professionals and secondary school guidance counsellors to our annual Forum on International Admission & Guidance in Bilbao, Spain, where Miguel Costa of IE University reminded us we should never forget the human side of university recruitment. “We can change how we work! How do we help each other and our professions to stay true to our real goal of access to international education?” Miguel read a letter he received from a high school student applying to IE University:

Do you know my name?

I just want you to know that you are the most alive person I have ever met. You did not write dear applicant, or dear prospective student, you used my name!

It’s time to consider new ways of working.