July 30, 2014

The Admissions Game Shifts | From the Bell Tower

It’s a stop every college-touring family can depend upon no matter what institution they visit: the campus library. Despite the tour guide’s ability to misstate facts about that library in a way that will leave any librarian within hearing distance just shaking his or her head in disbelief, the visit to the library is an important piece of the equation in helping the prospective student to make a wise decision. The library’s hours, study spaces, general appeal of the facility, and highly visible, smiling staff just waiting to help can all leave the right impression. However, a new report on the state of the admissions office suggests that the role of the library-and just about everything else on campus-may be diminishing in an era of fiscal crisis and austerity. Call it the “new normal” if you wish.

All about the money
What’s happened is our prolonged economic downturn. There are fewer families with the resources and opportunity to afford flexibility and choice in the college search. Far fewer students can count on their parents to finance their higher education, which means more students take on the long-term responsibility of loans.

Earning a college diploma is no longer viewed as a four-year commitment; it is now seen as a long-term relationship with a loan agency. Big debts that will take many years to pay off now have lifelong implications as well. Today’s college student may need to put off marriage, home ownership, or child rearing because huge monthly loan payments make the “old normal” lifestyle impossible to acheive.

Taking the sure thing for less money
Look at what’s happened in the legal profession as one example of the new normal. A law degree was once regarded as a ticket to the good life-if you were willing to sacrifice a few years working in near servitude to achieve law firm partnership. Like other industries, law practice took a big hit in the recession. There are fewer clients, many who no longer easily accept whopping attorney fees. While that traditional path is still available to some newly minted lawyers, the overwhelming debt of law school has created an entirely new path-the career associate. In exchange for giving up partnership and the big bucks it brings, the new class of lawyers work fewer hours, get challenging assignments, and make far less money. What they also get is a steady job that helps them pay off gargantuan loans.

Just as these new breed attorneys have jettisoned that dream of partnership for the sure thing paycheck, prospective students and their parents are leaving behind the dream of the great college experience at the selective institution. What matters most now for many American families is the bottom line. How much it costs, and how long it will take to pay it off-especially if there’s no sure thing job at the end of the line.

The admissions game has changed
On the surface it will appear that little has changed at the admissions office. Last year my institution boasted a record number of prospective students and their parents who took the official campus tour. However, as a state-aided institution the tuition at my place of work is a great value for a research university experience, so the increased traffic may be owing to the growing legion of bargain hunters. Nonetheless, rest assured that the global recession will change the game for admissions.

Signs that it is already happening are evidenced in a major survey of admissions officers by Inside Higher Ed. A major finding is that admissions directors are looking for more full payers while families are looking for better deals and more financial aid. When asked to identify the two most important issues facing their institutions over the next two to three years, the top issue at all four-year institutions was “rising concerns from families about tuition and affordability.” It comes as no surprise that more students are flocking to community colleges, and the report reflects concerns about the effect that competition for seats at two-year colleges will have on open admissions policies. Competitive admissions for high demand allied health programs is already happening at community colleges. As the competition intensifies part of the equation will no doubt be focused on which institutions can deliver the best educational product at the lowest price.

Does the library matter?
Despite anecdotal evidence of applicant interest in the campus library or surveys that suggest that it carries some degree of influence in college choice, the likelihood is that the library will matter less in this environment. As students shift the focus of their decision process from what appeals to their vision of the ultimate college experience to a single-minded focus on financial viability, will they care at all about what the library could add to their college years?

Perhaps our thinking about the library and its role in the admissions process needs to change along with the times. It may no longer suffice to simply appear inviting to prospective students and their parents. A cool café, hi-tech study spaces, and the commons may have little attraction for bargain hunters. How do things change when increasing numbers of students make a tuition-based decision where little else may matter? In that world who even needs a campus tour?

Give them evidence, not appearances
Perhaps our role in admissions needs to shift from the cosmetic to the practical. That means moving the focus from the traditional student’s perspective on “can I see myself studying here” to the new reality of “how will this library help me get a good education and a job-at a good price.” To do that we need to start collecting the data and other evidence that provides this information to prospective students. What percentage of our graduates, after several years in the job market, would indicate that the library helped them be more competitive to employers? If asked, how many current students would tell potential students they believe the campus library is helping them become job-ready.

Of course, college should be about more than career preparation. It should enable students to gain the critical thinking and decision-making skills one obtains through a liberal education. We know these skills serve students well over their lifetimes. The academic librarian should be able to demonstrate how the library contributes to both the acquisition of knowledge and career assets. As the admissions game changes we need a fresh approach so that the college literature and the campus tour guide no longer tout numbers-of books and databases, study rooms, and computers-but instead give hard facts about the library’s contribution to learning and career success. No one said the new normal would be easy.

Author Information
Steven Bell, Associate University Librarian, Temple University, Philadelphia, PA, will be the incoming vice president/president-elect of ACRL. For more from Steven visit his blogs, Kept-Up Academic Librarian, ACRLog and Designing Better Libraries or visit his website.
Steven Bell About Steven Bell

Steven Bell, Associate University Librarian, Temple University, Philadelphia, PA, is the current vice president/president-elect of ACRL. For more from Steven visit his blogs, Kept-Up Academic Librarian, ACRLog and Designing Better Libraries or visit his website.

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