Looking Back on 32 Years in the Business

On May 1, 2015, I’m doing a panel at IACAC on changes I’ve seen in college admissions. This is a summary of my talk there.

Sometime in early December, I’ll mark 32 years of working in college admissions and enrollment management.  I don’t remember the exact date, but it was the 1st or 2nd or maybe the 5th.  It’s interesting to see how things have changed over that time.

What’s most remarkable to me, I suppose, is that I ended up doing admissions work in the first place. When I graduated from college in December, 1982, the economy was in pretty bad shape, and jobs were not abundant.  I took my first job out of college several months after I graduated because my student loans were going to be coming due: The $3,500 I had borrowed came to $52.79 per month for seven years. Funny the things you remember.

That job was perhaps the worst thing I could have imagined for myself: Selling cable TV door-to-door in my hometown, a city where everyone had cable because of the hills and the distance to broadcast stations. In 1983, when cable was still new in most places, my town had been wired for over 25 years.  So my job was not just to get new subscribers (although there were always a few holdouts on the west side of town who could manage with just an antenna) but to get people to upgrade to the new services, HBO and Showtime among them.

On the MBTI scale, I’m an overwhelming introvert (an INTJ, if you must know), so initiating conversations with total strangers, acting artificially enthusiastic about a product I didn’t really care about, and persuading people to spend more than they’d like to spend was not my bag.  I was always relieved when no one answered the door.

One day I figured that if I wasn’t suited for the job, I could make the job suit me.  I drove past apartment buildings in low-lying areas, wrote down the addresses, and headed back to the office to look them up. I noticed that the majority of units didn’t have cable.  This made sense, because the installers hated disconnecting service when people moved out, because they just assumed the new tenants would call for cable, and they’d have to hook it up again.

But of course, many of them didn’t bother to subscribe with “free cable TV” in the apartment.

So I just took the list, went door to door, and found most people watching cable TV when they answered the door.  I told them we had not cut it off, but would in the next few days unless they signed up.  Most felt guilty and did so right away, buying expensive packages. A few did not, but called back when they were cut off.

And I was salesman of the month. Twice.  Me, the guy who’d do anything other than talk to people. But it still wasn’t my bag.  One day I read a want ad for an admissions counselor at Mount Mercy College in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.  I knew instantly that I would like the job, even though it involved being social and talking to people, because I had learned that I could make any job suit me.

I got lucky.  The low salary ($11,000) coupled with the timing of an off-cycle opening in admissions worked for me and I started the job.  My first trip was to Red Wing, Minnesota, and I remember the first student I met on the job; her name was Renee (I remember her last name, too, but printing it would be creepy, I think), and she did not enroll in my college. The trip back to Mason City, Iowa to overnight in the Clear Lake Lodge (not far from where Buddy Holly was killed) was in a blinding blizzard. I watched Best Friends with Goldie Hawn and Burt Reynolds on HBO and then Quest for Fire while eating a delivery pizza.  And I remember my first visit the next morning at Clear Lake High School, but not much more than that.  After about 1,300 nights in hotels, you tend to forget a lot of them.

I did the same thing in my admissions jobs that I had done in my cable TV job; overcoming my (lack of) personality by focusing on doing the things I could do well.  And that meant a lot of research (if I had to talk to people, I wanted to talk to those who were interested) and a lot of letter writing.  To this day, it still bugs me when I see a letter to one of my kids that says, “…if you have not visited campus,” because I think they should know that and not be so lazy as to not customize the letter.

I liked the travel of admissions, mostly the long hours spent in the car by myself, punctuated with some human interaction and an occasional reunion with people I’d met at college fairs. Along the way I learned a little bit about how computers worked, and fought a losing battle to input high school codes instead of free-form texts into our computer system, so that when the time came to run a list (overnight, so you had better get it right), you could pull on a precise field.  Most important, I did something called a funnel analysis: With index cards, pencils, green bar paper, and a calculator.  And as I read those cards, scribbled the numbers into columns, added, divided, and manually cross tabbed the data, patterns emerged.  Patterns that could help me do my job better.  And that learning made all the difference in my career, I think.

I took my skills to other jobs (cue the LeBron James tape): The University of Dallas; Grinnell, and St. Bonaventure, along with a consulting stop where I learned most admissions people don’t like data and most don’t like someone telling them they should like data.  I also learned people that hire consultants are usually the ones least capable of accepting advice. Or maybe it was just me.  I am not always the most patient person in the world.

And now, for the last 12 years, DePaul. It seems like a long time, and it also has flown by quickly.

What’s changed?  A lot, of course.  There are some obvious things:

  • We traveled with maps, not GPS.  In small towns on my beat in Northwestern Iowa, you found the high school by looking for the football stadium lights, and you found the front door by looking for the flagpole.  You learned most people who had lived in a town all their lives couldn’t really tell you how to get to the high school.
  • We did it without cell phones; you had an ATT card to make calls from the office, and when you did call in, it was usually to get one or two messages.  No email, of course, but even if there were, there would have been no way to get it from the road
  • When it came time to eat, you’d likely end up at Jim’s Steakhouse, or Ma’s Diner.  As recently as 25 years ago, chain restaurants were not always in the cities where you were.  No Panera.  And McDonald’s did not and could not print a receipt.

But those things are not changes in admission; they’re changes in society.  Admissions has changed, too, in a lot of ways.

  • It used to be the admissions rep and the high school counselor were acting like parents in the best interests of the student.  Now, it seems, it’s a three-way game, and parents are more a part of the equation.  If we used to pride ourselves on cooperation, we still do, but the balance has shifted slightly–maybe more than slightly–toward adversarial.
  • We’re learning more about the role of standardized tests not just in admissions, but in society, and how they affect our schools and our children.  One Chicago public school teacher I know said he spends 15% of his time giving or prepping students for tests mandated by the state.  People who’ve never taught don’t trust people who do, anymore, and they demand accountability, regardless of what the tests predict or fail to predict.
  • Colleges are far more aware of the needs of students, and appreciative of how diversity makes for a better educational experience.  In 1983, few students would dare ask about a college’s treatment of gay and lesbian students; the idea of multi-racial had not become a part of common conversation; and unfortunately, I’m afraid a lot of students with learning disabilities were overlooked because we just didn’t understand what we were dealing with.
  • We have become a nation obsessed by prestige, due, I think, to a misunderstanding of cause and effect: It’s not that a super selective college turns out successful people; it’s that people who, by accident of birth or some genetic advantage, gain admission to the most selective institutions.  Those colleges do a fine job of making a silk purse out of silk when they’re not fighting each other over the small pool of elite students.
  • We’re also far less trusting that we used to be; information is now abundant, but it’s less reliable.  The internet has no editors, and yet it has millions.  Someone is always there to argue your point, and if you’re part of the established institutions of society, the pressure is higher than it’s ever been on you to be truthful, and especially, completely truthful.
  • We’ve also become a victim of our own rhetoric.  College probably isn’t the most important choice a young person makes.  We were just sort of trying to make a point.
  • The colleges are not in control of anything any more.  In 1983, if you wanted information about a college, you could either a) talk to someone you knew personally, or b) contact the admissions office to get it.  Now, of course, you can go on one of a hundred or more sites where opinions are plentiful, if insight is not.  You can watch YouTube videos produced by the colleges (slick and pretty) or a kid from Kansas on tour (neither, yet perhaps more believable.) You can browse the college’s own site and get biased takes on the value of education.
  • Everything is instant. Except the things most students really want or need, like how much college will cost, or whether they’ll be admitted.
  • Data is more important than ever, and we haven’t changed who we hire.  We attract, young eager, warm, fuzzy people people who enjoy working one-on-one with students; but then we wonder why they leave as career progression requires strategy, systems-thinking, and data analysis.
  • Most important, I think, is that people now pay attention to higher education.  When I used to tell people at parties I worked in admissions, they’d sort of nod and try to sell me insurance.  Now, they want to know the angles, how we work, what we do, and the insider secrets.  I remember taking a Wall Street Journal survey in the late 1990s and telling them they should have an “industry section” on higher education.  I don’t know if I’m the reason, but the media now pays a lot of attention to us.  And of course, the media doesn’t report that no planes crashed yesterday, and they don’t report that the average college student in the US pays under $10,000 a year for tuition.  A COA of $60,000 generates more clicks, more ad revenue, and more attention.

What hasn’t changed, I think, is the value of a college degree despite the focus of the pundits who are questioning it.  My most popular post on this blog is still this one, where John Ciardi’s lesson from over 60 years ago still holds true.

My wish for us is that we take control of the future that awaits us, and think about what happens to us and the college admissions process if we don’t.



8 thoughts on “Looking Back on 32 Years in the Business

  1. Thank you!! As always smart, witty and on pony!

    Jane C. Hoffman, MBA, CEP Certified Educational Planner Founder, College Advice 101 Larchmont, New York 10538 914.833.1573



    Sent from my iPhone



  2. Reblogged this on College Counseling Culture and commented:
    A thoughtful and humane look at what’s changed in college admission from one of our best observers in the field. Even if you’re not in the biz, Jon’s observations will give you some perspective on the evolution of this peculiar American phenomenon.


  3. Jon– What a terrific post. You have such a broad perspective and write so evocatively about it and yourself. (My personality would probably come out very similar to yours, although I’d bet I’m more pathologically fearful of asking people for money, whatever the cause. I remember I had a hard time selling Christmas cards even to my relatives for Boy Scouts!) My own relationship to data is problematic at best, but your commentaries make me think I can live comfortably with their various incarnations. Thanks for a great piece and good luck with your panel; sorry I won’t be there.

    [I assume Jane Hoffman in comment above meant you were “on point,” not “on pony,” although you may have been…Damned Autocorrect!!]


  4. Dear Jon:

    Thanks for such an entertaining tour through the last few decades of college admissions. As an older person with a great sense for strategy, systems thinking and data analysis who is trying to move from being a high school counselor to the college side, it gives me some hope (in addition to further perspective on the profession).

    May you have another 32 years!


  5. Great job of capturing the experience of many of us who have been in the business for decades. Thanks for the stroll down memory lane and the insight to how we’ve changed over time!


  6. I also remember the name of my first recruit, in 1984. Linda from Jewell, Oregon, a tiny logging town. And I remember her last name. And that she didn’t enroll.

    I had forgotten, though, about the challenges of getting a receipt at some McDonald’s. My goal back then was to find lodging for under $30 a night and eat for $10 a day. For better or worse, I often met that goal.


  7. “Those colleges do a fine job of making a silk purse out of silk when they’re not fighting each other over the small pool of elite students.” Great article, great line. Thanks for writing it!


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