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The Perfect Storm Q&A with Peter Van Buskirk

The Perfect Storm Q&A with Peter Van Buskirk

Recently, Peter Van Buskirk was gracious enough to host a webinar for GuidedPath entitled, “The Perfect Storm; College Admissions in the 21st Century.” Many of you had questions for Peter that we didn’t have enough time to get to, so we teamed up with Peter to offer this FAQ!  – Cyndy McDonald & The GuidedPath Team

Q. One concern I have is that the growing influence of the common core and a newly designed SAT will focus family’s attention on a part of the process that won’t be any more important to students (or colleges admitting students) than it is now. Thoughts on this.

A. While I spoke to this question during the webinar, I’ve pondered it further since. On the surface, any changes involving the common core and the newly designed SAT will simply introduce a new set of measurables that admission committees can use as they filter candidates. But that has always been the case when elements of the academic or testing landscape change. One would hope, however, that these emerging foci will stimulate/energize the necessary academic reforms to establish basic competencies needed for young people in this country to compete in a global economy—a place where their collective skills have been slipping relative to the competition.

Q. How do you suggest students determine the extent to which they are “valued” by the colleges they are looking at?

A. This is an imperfect science, however, students (and their parents) do need to manage expectations with regard to how they will be valued both academically and for the talents/interests/perspectives they have to offer. Academically, they are more likely to be valued if their credentials (scores, GPAs) are in the top half (top quartile at the most selective places) of the profile of admitted students at a given institution—and even then there are no guarantees. Regarding the more subjective assessment of “value,” students will benefit greatly from the intelligence gathered by counselors/advisors/teachers about “hot button” issues on college campuses. They should also keep their eyes and ears open during their campus visits for hints of institutional agendas. Finally, I suggest they subscribe to the student newspapers at colleges that interest them. It is here where they can find reports of faculty and trustee meetings that could be very revealing regarding those agendas.

Q. Are early decision/early action deferrals similar to waitlist as “insurance policies”?

A. Not really—and deferrals for ED and EA typically mean very different things. In ED, most schools are willing to “bend” a little academically in order to secure the enrollment of an interesting student. An ED deferral is usually directed at someone who is of interest to the institution but hasn’t yet won the undying confidence of the admission committee. Frankly, the acceptance rate for ED deferred students in the Regular admission process is not as high as the rate for the rest of the Regular candidates.  Schools that offer EA are typically trying to skim off the top of the applicant pool in order to begin recruiting them in earnest. EA deferred candidates usually compete on more even footing with the balance of the Regular candidates. In all cases, deferred candidates are wise to remain engaged. If the institution senses that the student has lost interest due to the deferral, the final outcome is not likely to be positive.

Q. How do schools get student’s names and addresses?

A. They buy them. Lead generation is a huge business behind the scenes of the admission process. Colleges and universities are paying large sums to testing organizations, scholarship programs, website chatrooms and, frankly, any other entity that is able to “harvest” personal information about students that would make them “qualified” leads.

Q. Is it true college take full-pay admits off the waitlist over maybe more “qualified” students?

A. The mechanics of the enrollment process are such that colleges make more offers of admission AND financial aid than they will be able to accommodate because they know only a fraction of those offers will be accepted. In the case of financial aid, it would be imprudent of an institution to risking over-extending its financial aid budget before knowing the return on its initial set of offers. Since that return isn’t known until after the May 1 Candidates’ Reply date, institutions going to their Wait Lists prior to May1 will first target students who do not need financial aid. And, yes, it is likely that less “qualified” full-pay students will be admitted from the WL before stronger students who need assistance are considered.

Q. How important is the ability to pay now in the admission weighing process in comparison to the academic position?

A. The academic consideration will always come first as colleges want to make sure the students they admit can do the work. That said, most students (about 90%) applying to most colleges fall into that category. After that, the decision about whom to admit becomes highly subjective. Invariably, though, the question of whether to admit a student is framed as follows, “If we admit this student, what do we get—and if the student needs assistance, is the likely “return” (what we get) going to be commensurate with the degree to which we are investing our own resources?”

Q. You explain demographics were projected to fall from 1980- today, but actually demographics did not fall due to these factors.  Why has the media hyped up the news with stories about how the population of college bound students grew and peaked over the past few years?

A. You’ll recall my graphic, that shows the decline in the number of college-age students from the early 1980’s through the mid-1990’s, also shows a steady rate of growth until about 2010 before leveling off. You’ll also recall that I referenced a second line on the graph that depicts the actual number of college attending students and this line has continued to grow. So, even without the influx of international students, the percentage of college-age US students actually choosing to attend college has grown—and continues to grow. This phenomenon is particularly acute at elite institutions that the media is so fond of following with dramatic interpretation! Story lines about HYP seem to be much more compelling than those that feature local state universities and regional liberal arts colleges—the places that educate most Americans.

Q. In terms of managing admissions chances, should students NOT mark the “applying for financial aid” box if the family knows that they will not qualify for financial aid?  So many colleges tell families, “Apply for financial aid, no matter what”?

A. Indicating on the admission application that the student will be applying for financial aid should not adversely affect a student’s candidacy as the college doesn’t have enough information in hand in order to discriminate one way or the other. About 1/3 of students who check “yes” to financial aid on the admission application either never apply for aid because they know they don’t need it or they do apply and demonstrate that they don’t need it. As a result, it would be foolish for a college to discriminate on what amounts to incomplete information. In my opinion, it really doesn’t matter how the student responds to the question. The true point of discrimination will occur in February or March after all of the financial aid information has been evaluated within the context of the strength of the student’s credentials in the overall competition for admission.

Q. Is this true even at the most endowed schools, like Harvard?

A. Any school that has an institutional financial aid budget—and they all do—will operate in a similar fashion as they want to use their ample resources to leverage the enrollment of the students whom they value most.

Q. Are there any articles or blogs that you can recommend that you have written to share with parents on this topic?

A. I think you will find a fair amount of information in the archives of the College Planning Blog on my website. In addition to Q&A on my monthly “Readers’ Forum” pages, you might find the following useful: “Making College Affordable: Tips for Avoiding a Mountain of Debt” (10/10/13) and “December College Planning Tips: Financial Aid” (12/4/13). A section of The College Planning Workbook is also dedicated to the topic and I present a financial aid literacy program, “Dollars & Sense,” to parent groups and conferences.

Q. Do you cover this information (resource aware, hidden agendas, etc.) when you do seminars at schools? Do you help spread the word about this to parents/students?

A. My mission, if you will, is to teach families how to think about the college-going process in order to promote healthy, productive decision-making regarding their educational futures. As a result, this type of information is central to the student-centered programming I present to parents and students in schools. Each of the “Hidden Agenda” elements I discussed in the webinar is illustrated by stories that make the discussion relevant to the audience. Click here to see feedback from audience members.

Q. Can you give examples of how schools quantify “demonstrated interest” in their admissions process?  What do schools use to track demonstrated interest?

A. Demonstrated interest is most often quantified using a single digit index to project the likelihood of a student’s enrollment. The formulas that contribute to the indexes include different variables  (and attached weights) that range from school to school. Invariably, though, the campus visit carries the greatest weight. Other factors include contacts at college nights/fairs, presentations at high schools, information sessions in the community, camps, workshops and responses to emails sent from regional recruiters, key people in all of this. In the final analysis, a student does not want to be regarded as a stranger (ghost applicant!) by the person who recruits in her area as this person will often be the first to review her application—and the last to be able to defend it!

Q. Does demonstrated interest matter at the top tier schools?

A. Yes—the “dance” is just more subtle at these places. A quick glance at the supplemental essays at any of these schools should give you the answer you need as these places are trying to determine the sincerity of the student’s interest as well as the latter’s ability to demonstrate the synergy he recognizes between himself and the programs/opportunities presented by the institution. The tip I would offer here is that the absence of an interview with an alumnus (when one has been made available) raises serious questions about the sincerity of the student’s interest. The bottom line: students who do not attend to the matter of relationship building with any institution fail to do so at their own peril.

Q. Can you view the specific measures of demonstrated interest?

A. No. Colleges and universities that must make fine distinctions between great candidates have little interest in creating transparency into their decision-making.

Q. Would you recommend students sending multiple scores to colleges, even if the college doesn’t “say” they superscore?

A. I would exercise a slight bit of caution here as some of the more selective schools will examine outcome patterns and/or anomalous results to find reasons to turn students down. In this regard, I am most suspicious of the 12-15 schools that refuse to acknowledge “score choice.” Otherwise, it is safe to assume that some degree of superscoring its taking place at most other schools.

Q. Do you find families are willing to pay for counseling for the “lesser” colleges, as assessed in the rankings pecking order?

A. Families are willing to pay for a range of services/outcomes—often much more than they need! While I don’t have much personal experience on this front, I think it is safe to say that the willingness to pay for services correlates directly with the selectivity and perceived desirability of the target schools.

Q. Any advice on how to convince parents/students to ignore the rankings and properly evaluate various colleges? They just can break the “rankings” habit.

A. I’d review the section of the webinar during which I talked about the flawed methodology associated with rankings. When families understand that rankings are truly made up—fiction—they are less inclined to invest in them so heavily.

Q. How are deferrals used in the college’s hidden agenda?

A. Deferrals affect a relatively small population within the applicant pool and don’t typically play a big role in the enrollment management process—the process that is influenced by the “hidden agendas.”

Q. Are waitlist and January admits offered need bases and merit based awards?

A. Wait List and January admits are typically the least desirable of any college’s applicant group. While it is possible that students entering through either “door” might be treated to financial assistance of some sort, my guess is that such assistance will be largely loan-based.

Q. What are some recommended strategies to help students explore  how much a college might want them?

A. Ask them. If cost/affordability are critical factors for a family and the student is keenly interested, urge the family to inquire about receiving an early estimate of its expected family contribution (EFC). Colleges can do this rather easily. The question will be—do they want to? When colleges are willing to engage in this conversation, I have seen instances where the student’s decision-making was happily validated or had to be reassessed in light of feedback from the school.

Q. How much does income from app fees play a role for colleges? For example, working the numbers on an Ivy last year, it was clear from the apps alone, even with the low admit ration, the school made close to $1 million on app fees alone. Is this factored into the ROI?

A. Most schools have a revenue line in their budgets for “fees,” application and otherwise, and incidental income. The application fees received will typically account for less than 1% of an institutional operating budget. BTW, in working the numbers, keep in mind that many students at such schools are given fee waivers of some sort.

Q. Some argue that with strategic enrollment, the rich and the very smart, but poor kids will get in; the middle class is more problematic.  Would you agree?

A. It depends on how you define middle class—and we don’t have enough space here to address that question! I would argue that no student who wants an education can claim that s/he couldn’t get it due to a lack of funds—and this is a big part of my mantra. The critical piece has to do with the family’s ability to manage expectations and plan accordingly. Highly selective colleges can’t satisfy everyone. And, BTW, they are not satisfying as many poor kids as you might imagine.

Q. What are your five good fit components?

A. A good college “fit” is one that will:

  1. Offer a program of study to match your interests and needs.
  2. Provide a style of instruction to match the way you like to learn.
  3. Provide a level of academic rigor to match your aptitude and preparation.
  4. Offer a community that feels like home to you.
  5. Value you for what you have to offer.

I devote a section of The College Planning Workbook to reflective exercises designed to help students identify the best fits for them.

You can read more about Peter’s work, or contact him about a speaking event on his website. Make sure to register for Peter’s next webinar with us, Interpreting Outcomes for Bewildered Applicants on March 20th at 9a.m. PST/12p.m. EST. 

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