Do admissions deans fear “the internets”?

The admissions process is, for the most part, very impersonal. Colleges and universities are making a decision based on your records and essays and have very little opportunity to get to know you personally. For some of us, that is really a good thing, as I doubt my personality would have been an asset in my college admissions process (unless they were looking to fill some inflated ego quota that year).

On the other hand, others of you have let it be known that you would prefer it if admissions officers knew you better, under the belief that if they knew you, they would really LIKE you. Some schools have answered this by increasing the availability of interviews, particularly with alumni. A few of us, and by few I mean just three, are trying something new (sort of): including videos as part of the admissions process. I wrote about this way back in September.

Using videos in admissions didn’t seem like that big of a deal to me. After all, even when I started in admissions (just after the invention of fire), we would accept videos from students if submitted. They would come on these ancient devices called “Betamax Tapes.” (For those interested, I believe that they have unearthed a few samples from a dig in South America.) So imagine my surprise to find that some of my most illustrious colleagues have grave concerns.

The Boston Globe quoted Harvard’s Dean of Admissions, Bill Fitzsimmons, saying, “Students from families with substantial financial resources are in a better position to provide such materials, so that’s something we have to be very careful with.’’

Really? Harvard is worried that VIDEOS are causing a financial disparity in admissions? No mention of the correlation between income and SAT scores, the prevalence of admissions coaches routinely drafting written essays for their clients, or the advantage that legacies have in the process?

On the other hand, this got me thinking about how familiar Dean Fitzsimmons might be with YouTube. I have a hard time getting my mind around the image of the venerable and distinguished Dean giggling at the latest clip of a cat adorably playing the piano.

That being said, Bill is not alone. I was quoted in an article about the new videos in U.S. News and World Report. Also quoted is the President of the National Association for College Admissions Counseling (of which I am also a member), who notes, “If accepting videos becomes commonplace, it will increase the divide between haves and have-nots,”

I have enormous respect for both of these fine professionals. I know them to be two of the most thoughtful, dedicated, and committed individuals in the field of admissions. I would ask them directly about their perspectives, but I’m not sure the rotary phones in their offices can connect with 2010. Just Kidding! Although, to be fair, I’m not entirely sure they are quite up to date on the accessibility of technology, and just how easy it is for most students to make these videos.

Others expressed worry that adding the video would increase stress, and an anonymous poster on the US News web site suggested that using videos would abandon using sentence structure as a factor in the admissions review process.

Of course, I can entirely understand this crucial point. Students are so entirely unfamiliar with these “videos” and “websites” and “computers” that this mystifying new feature is bound to be far more stressful than written essays. Instead we should restrict students to written essays, easily plagarized, often written by “coaches,” and limited to 500 words, since those essays, if I follow the logic, are far less stressful. Also, although I’ve yet to be in an admissions committee where sentence structure was the crucial deciding factor on a student’s application, perhaps we should preclude students from using anything that provides more individuality or provides evidence of their technical savvy or creativity if it fails to fulfill this potentially, although previously rarely seen, critical role. This will afford applicants more time to focus on crucial skills, like use of rotary phones.

In twenty years in admissions, I have reviewed some wonderful, but far more truly awful, written essays. The handful of videos I have reviewed, however, have been thoughtful and insightful. I doubt video essays will degrade the process, and in fact it is reasonably possible that this medium may, just possibly, not bring about the end of civilization as we know it. If I’m wrong, however, you can let me know. Just go ahead and tweet it. Be seeing you.


Money for College -the finale!

For the most part, admissions and financial aid are honorable professions. My colleagues are generally very ethical people who strive to help students and deeply believe in the importance of their mission and the service they provide.

That being said, sometimes their work this time of year – the months that colleges and universities package financial aid – can seem a little dirty. I’m not talking DIRTY – I’ve yet to hear about a colleague finding a way to engineer financial aid kickbacks or helping the cartels launder money through financial aid. Clearly, however, the process is neither transparent nor easy to understand. For years I’ve listened to my colleagues cry that we’re NOT used car dealers (by the way, I know some very ethical car dealers), but in the end, it comes down to a basic question for most families:

Can we negotiate/change the amount we’ll pay for school?

The very idea that costs, grants, scholarships, and other fiscal issues are malleable raises a slew of questions, and the massive lack of understanding and transparency inspires theories of graft and corruption.

Despite these concerns, there are many very legitimate reasons why financial aid packages and scholarship offers change. The most likely culprit is changing family circumstances. If there’s a significant loss of income – changes in job status or health are the usual sources – financial aid offices have discretion to make adjustments to financial aid packages to reflect changes in your family’s need level. On the merit side, huge change in your academic profile (a massively higher standardized test score, a huge upturn in your grades) can, on rare occasions, lead to a larger scholarship award.

There are, however, less savory reasons schools might shift your offer. In the end, most of these come down to decisions about institutional income and profile. If a school wants your money and thinks they won’t get you without a “discount,” they might be more inclined to up their offer.

Last year, a blind panic erupted in many high-priced schools that the economic downturn would wreak enrollment havoc. As a result, there was a bizarre period where some expensive colleges and universities were sending admitted students new improved financial packages before the students had a chance to ask. In many cases, this happened long after the students had committed to other institutions, creating a delightful atmosphere of seediness and desperation and magnifying impressions that everything in admissions and financial aid is negotiable.


In reality, most schools aren’t going to make any adjustments to the aid they provide and for very very very good reasons. Nevertheless, some do, and before you try to squeeze these institutions, you need to be aware of some realities in the situation. Even at the schools that routinely play these games, negotiation only works in your favor if the school REALLY wants you. If you’re just an average joe for them, they’re not likely to break the bank to enroll you. It’s also helpful if you have unmet need (or need being only met with loans/workstudy). Somehow it makes those schools feel better to change a need award than to add more scholarship. For such schools, and on the rare instances where it happens, it usually works like this:
You had $1000 in need, got $200 in scholarships, $100 in grants, and $700 in loan. You let them know you REALLY want to go there, but too much of your package consists of a loan to afford it while this other school you like ALMOST as much has been more generous (be prepared to prove that!). They come back and say, “Wow, you were right, that is a lot of loan – fortunately we really like you and can give you $300 in scholarships and $200 in grants and now your loan is just $500.” Isn’t that swell?

Now add a WHOLE bunch of zeros and you get the idea.

Most schools won’t participate in this kind of nonsense. The reality is that these kinds of games aren’t generally allowed with money from the state or federal government, so it’s usually only high tuition schools using part of their outrageous cost as discounts to recruit students that can afford these strategies. Instead, most institutions package as well as they can from the start, except in cases of radical changes in family income or profile as described above. Keep that in mind, so when a school tells you they won’t negotiate but still love you, you won’t be mad at them for being transparent, up front, and ethical.

Speaking of ethics, I really had to stretch to work a shameless plug in a around this topic! Fortunately two of our prominent faculty members recently published on somewhat, slightly related subjects. One has a book on the public policy issues around the use of techniques considered as torture; another published a study in conjunction with Yale researchers on how people tend to support conservation but few practice it. On reflection, they’re not really all that related.

One last gasp of worry about the scary things colleges and universities do to shake your confidence: it is worth asking how your financial aid will be calculated for all four years and whether your second or third year support will likely be less (even a lot less) attractive than what they offered you as an incoming freshmen. In particular, watch out for one year scholarships in the fine print. And keep in mind, most of the schools are being really honest and up front with you. Trust me. Be seeing you.