Monday, May 19, 2008

Selling Failure for All

Today’s Doonesbury cartoon in the local paper takes us back to the fictional Walden College. In it, a potential student is being given the “money walk” a traditional college tour. The College tour guide Zipper explains that “for the next hour I’ll be walking backwards through the campus of Walden College”. Not fictional.
Walking backwards is a required ability for a tour guide. Zipper goes on to add that Walden is the nation’s number one safety school. “In fact,” Zipper states to the potential student “I am authorized to admit anyone who completes this tour.” Again not fictional. For most colleges and universities the goal of admissions is to “make the numbers and pay the bills.”

In fact, I would argue that for most schools nowadays being selective means they select most everyone who applies. There are very few schools that have the luxury of actually being selective. They are the 306, maybe 310 name brand schools which actually get more applications than slots open. And of course, if your school is an open door institution, selectivity is anathema to its mission. But for most schools, even open door institutions, admissions is a numbers game especially now that budgets are not matching expenditures.

Schools will sell a spot in an in-coming class to most anyone who shows interest. And it is selling no matter what euphemistic academic label we may give it. Maybe it is not selling a used car but it is not really that distant from it when one looks at the tactics, approaches and pressures to hit the numbers that an admission’s officer – salesperson faces. The major difference is that a car salesman gets a commission and can earn more money while we in academia settle for the belief that we are engaged in a more humane sales job and work longer hours for less pay. And a car salesman does not have to travel as much to attend those oh so glorious and wonderful Admission Fairs. Wahooooo!

One of the earlier versions of the Principles of Good Academic Customer Service used to have a statement that there must be a match between the school and the student. In other words, don’t sell a student a college or university he or she can not succeed in or will be unhappy attending. If you do, you can also count on losing that student. When you do, all the costs of recruiting, admitting, enrolling, entering, orienting, and processing that student will be lost. This is not an inconsiderable sum either. We have figured it at an average of $5460 per student. So every student you lose costs you not just tuition but the acquisition costs.

This is not just good customer service advice; it is very important and solid retention law. But it is a law that butts up against the divided priorities and accountabilities within an academic institution. Admissions goals are not necessarily equal to those of enrollment management or academics for example. If you are one of the very few schools to have a person whose title indicates a responsibility for retention, then you are acutely aware of the conflict. But not to worry, so very few schools have yet realized that retention is important that they have not put anyone in this untenable role of worrying about keeping the students the school worked so hard and spent so much money to acquire. I mean why worry about keeping students when there is an unending supply of new potential students out there and so little competition for them. Besides, what ethical responsibility to the students we accepted?


We are a college. Students have to study that in a required course perhaps but we know that is a requirement for them. We already got through that course many years ago. We don’t need to worry about ethical responsibilities to students. We have faculty to worry about and my increasingly large salary. Ethics? Philosophy department which is all adjunct anyway so it can’t really be all that important and they can’t complain anyhow of we replace them.

Just because we accept them and in so doing tell them either directly or by implication that they should be able to succeed here and that means learn and graduate does not mean we have to coddle them with attention and tutoring in areas they may be having difficulty in. They are college students after all. They should be able to do the work we present to them even though we know they are weak and not up to our standards. They simply aren’t of real college quality but that does not mean I have to spend extra time to help them learn and grow. They are in college for g-d’s sake and should be able to do what we know they could not do when we accepted them.

Besides odds are very good I am either an adjunct or a full time faculty member (duh) so either way, I really do not have time for students. If an adjunct, I need to drive to my next class at another school at a gasoline cost that exceeds my adjunct pay. If I am a full-time faculty member, the rewards for me are not in teaching or spending time with students but in publishing and research to get a promotion or even better something I can patent and make a lot of money from while using my college position as a fall back guaranteed income and health benefits. I mean, my goals are not well aligned with undergraduate teaching or students.

The faculty are right too. I have been looking at the budget and the welfare of the college. We need to cut back on services and some positions if we are to make the budget for the year. Since I know that I must pick my battles wisely, I will avoid doing what may be right and do the least harmful to me. After all, I don’t want to draw fire what with my evaluation and salary increase on the line. Besides, rile the wrong people and I could get a vote of no confidence. Of that I am confident. So where to cut….counselors. They have little power. And tutors, even less. More adjuncts. Library but not research collections if we are to get the grants… And yes, we can not replace admissions people and still up their goals. That’s it bring in more students and provide fewer services for their success. Then we can hit our numbers.

Goals. Good in soccer. Maybe not admissions

Admissions has a simple number to achieve. X number of new students. Now I must and want to say that most admissions people want to do a good job but there are times when doing something as silly as keeping a job does get in the way. If I am an admissions rep at the average school and my given goal is to recruit and get applications from 100 students but I am only at 50 with three weeks to go…. Well, I may become a bit less concerned about their ability to succeed. I will start to take applications from only those we select to go here. We select you if you have the application fee.

Oh but wait. The admissions committee will never accept weak students. Uhuh. Who is the committee at your school? At more and more colleges, the admissions committee have become rubber stampers since they know that if the college does not meet its enrollment numbers, there will be problems and they could come home to roost on them. It is easier to blame admissions for recruiting weak students and “just take the best of what we are given.” No matter if the students accepted are very likely to quit. I wrote fail first but there are so few students who fail because of poor grades that this was not a good choice of words.

This is all part of why the country and its colleges and universities whether they be public, private or for-profit have such horrendously high non-graduation rates. NCHEMS 2006 graduation rates (2006 is the most recent available) show two year students graduation at a rate of 29.1% in three years and four year students graduating nationally at a rate of 56.4% in six years. Oh yes, I am aware that students take longer to graduate and some take as long as 13 years. But c’mon, these rates are embarrassing and indicative of our own failings. Especially failing at recruiting students and then helping them to succeed.

I am 5’5” tall, overweight and getting to feel old some days. If I were sold an entrance to a camp that stated it was to prepare people to get into the NBA, you would quickly see I was sold a false dream. “Boy that camp ripped you off. What an unethical group of @#$%I am 5’5” tall, overweight and getting to feel old some days. If I were sold an entrance to a camp that stated it was to prepare people to get into the NBA, you would quickly see I was sold a false dream. “Boy that camp ripped you off. What an unethical group of @#$%$&s. Or you can rationalize it and say”well, at least the camp would allow him to try and achieve his dream. It gave him the chance.” Or you can rationalize it and say”well, at least the camp would allow him to try and achieve his dream. It gave him the chance.” Or you can blame me for trying to do something that I should have known I was not capable of doing. But I do not think any of us would believe the camp was right in taking my money and accepting me as potential NBA material.

Well, too many of our colleges, universities and career colleges are NBA camps. And that is not what we should be.

Quick pitch: We are quickly filling up our dates for school pre-opening convocations and workshops as well as customer service week (Oct6-10). We would like to be able to help you too so please contact us ASAP for a date.

AcademicMAPS has been providing customer service, retention and research training and solutions to colleges, universities and career colleges in the US, Canada, and Europe as well as to businesses that seek to work with them since 1999. Clients range from small rural schools to major urban universities and corporations. Its services range from campus customer service audits, workshops, training, presentations, institutional studies and surveys to research on customer service and retention. AcademicMAPS prides itself on its record of success for its clients and students who are aided through the firm’s 413.219.6939

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