“Prestige is to higher education as profit is to corporations,” wrote the late Doug Toma in 2011.
Toma was professor of higher education at the University of Georgia and a friend. He was fascinated by how colleges and universities are always jockeying for position in the pecking order of higher education. On visits to Athens, we would talk for hours over beers about how universities used athletics to shape their brand.
The levers colleges and universities have to raise their prestige are limited—at least without tens of billions of dollars at their disposal. Unlike in the corporate world where a company’s prominence is evaluated in direct proportion to its earnings or stock price, colleges have no such clear standards.
The one lever many campuses try to pull is to make themselves more selective.
But they don’t control every number in the admissions equation. Sure, colleges can encourage more applications while holding the size of their incoming class constant, but one thing they don’t control is yield (the number of students who accept their offer of admission). The lower a university’s yield, the more students they have to accept in order to reach their target class, thus look less selective.
That is why a rising number of applications isn’t a good measure of popularity because for many students that might be their second-, third-, or fourth-choice college. That was the case at Tulane University in the middle of last decade: its yield rate was lagging behind competitors because it was a back-up choice for too many accepted students who ended up going elsewhere.
As I explain in my book, Who Gets In and Why, Tulane started to offer early decision, along with a more flexible early action program in 2016, to help boost yield by forcing a portion of accepted students to make a binding commitment.
Early decision is a tool that has increasingly been used by colleges since the Great Recession as a way to quickly improve both yield and selectivity.
Because campuses blend their acceptance and yield rates from all their admissions cycles, if a school accepts and automatically enrolls a substantial proportion of their class in the early rounds, yield is essentially 100%. Selectivity climbs as well because the remaining applicants for regular decision—always a larger pool compared to early decision—are fighting for the few spots left in the class.
I’ve always wondered when early decision would essentially become regular decision because the balance of acceptances started to lean on the early side.
The scales have certainly tipped in recent years. Barnard, for instance, finalized 62% of the seats in this fall’s freshman class before it even considered regular-decision applications. Boston University filled about 50% of its class early; a decade ago, it enrolled just 13% of the class early. The University of Pennsylvania filled 51% of its class early this year.
But as Inside Higher Ed reported recently, Tulane takes the prize: it enrolled two-thirds of students through one of two early decision rounds and another 25% through early action. So only 106 students were enrolled from the regular decision pool—out of a first-year applicant pool of more than 40,000 teenagers.
There’s nothing wrong with what Tulane did. It’s responding to an admissions market where teenagers and their parents don’t think they’ll get in anywhere (even though they will), and as a result, apply early to have a decision in hand in December from some school that ranks “high enough.”
The problem is that early decision is binding for families. Well, maybe it is.
One of the more interesting responses to the Inside Higher Ed article came from Jon Boeckenstedt’s Twitter feed.Boeckenstedt is vice provost for enrollment management at Oregon State and digs into admissions numbers in his blog, Higher Ed Data Stories. He pointed out several inconsistencies with Tulane’s numbers in the article, but I found this one most illuminating: Tulane admitted 2,129 early-decision students, according to Jon’s calculations, but only enrolled around 1,200 of them.
Why is that so interesting? In admissions-land ED is considered “binding,” but the dirty little secret is that every year more and more students are getting out of the agreements. And it seems at Tulane, more than 900 of them did. (I asked Tulane for clarification, but didn’t hear back yet).
Perhaps students severed their ED agreements at Tulane after they got in somewhere else. Even so, early decision has achieved what Tulane’s leaders wanted: the university has increased its yield from 23% in 2016 to nearly 46% last fall.
In the end, yield is only a number. Maybe it’s a symbol of prestige. In an industry obsessed with measurement, it certainly is a measure. But it’s also critical to remember: not everything important is measurable, and not everything measurable is important.
Accelerate your institution’s digital transformation. Attend IMAGINE 2022 in Seattle to discuss how technology can move your institution forward. Presented by Amazon Web Services (AWS), IMAGINE 2022 brings together higher ed leaders for a day of inspiration, new connections, and actionable ideas. Session details available now. Register today!
For Your Calendar
Wednesday, August 24, at 2 p.m. ET/11 a.m. PT, is the Next Office Hour. Our topic: what the trends in federal relief mean for higher ed post-pandemic and how colleges can be more innovative to gain a competitive advantage.
Joining me will be Bronté Burleigh-Jones, chief financial officer at American University; Randy Bass, vice president for strategic education initiatives at Georgetown University; and Jessica Wood, education sector lead at S&P Global Ratings.
Disruptive periods in higher education tend to reward innovative players.
Last week, colleges and universities started their new fiscal year without something that kept many of them going through the last two years: pandemic aid from the federal government.
Driving the news: A recent report from S&P Global Ratings (registration required to access) found that emergency government funds accounted for more than 4% of adjusted operating revenue at more than 30% of colleges in fiscal 2021.
Why it matters:Most schools, regardless of their wealth, plan budgets with leftover dollars, at least 3% of their overall budget. So the government funds basically were the difference between being in the black and falling into deficit spending at some colleges.
The big picture:For the last two years, we’ve witnessed a great reassessment going on in the U.S. economy. It’s happening on many different levels— each with significant consequences for higher ed.
At the most basic level, the Covid-19 pandemic upended our lives, habits, and traditions, including college as the default after high school. Such a shock to the system encourages us to reevaluate what we’re doing and try new things. In higher ed, we’re seeing growing evidence—both anecdotal and in surveys—that Americans are questioning the value of college.
On another level, the pandemic also afforded us options on where we wanted to live, how we worked, the ways we shopped—and how we learn. It’s clear that optionality is the new normal in every sector of the economy—and higher ed can’t return to its old way of doing business and expect to survive.
Finally, the experience of Covid-19 exposed challenges for higher education’s financial stability and workforce that had been accumulating for years. The decade ahead will require both financial and human capital that many colleges simply don’t have at their disposal.
Bottom line: After decades of portraying their ambitions with similar rhetoric and often a generic set of approaches, colleges need to transform and distinguish themselves as whole institutions.
In interviews with university presidents, planners, faculty leaders, and technologists over the last few months, I identified five key areas where institutions can set themselves apart in this post-pandemic era.
The five areas outlined in a new paper include: strengthening the “digital backbone” of campuses; offering more flexibility in how programs and services are delivered; segmenting different types of learners and creating programs for them; developing a new value proposition for learners with a focus on outcomes; and building partnerships with other institutions and outside partners.
What’s next: The pandemic may not be over, but the spigot of funds from the federal government is.
Many institutions will enter this post-pandemic era developing new strategic plans. But an innovation strategy is also required.
Colleges need to have a coherent sent of processes and structures that lay out how ideas bubble up through the organization, synthesize the best ones into new programs and services, and ultimately, determine which projects get funded.
Campuses without an innovation strategy won’t be able to make the inherent trade-offs necessary in any strategic plan.
⬇️ Download, Reimagining the University: Beyond the Return to Normal in the Decade Ahead (Registration required | Support from Kaplan).
👍 That’s a Wrap on Season 5 of Future U.As Michael Horn and I close out another season of the podcast, we offer reflections on the past year and fixes for some of higher ed’s knottiest problems. As we discuss on the episode, one thing worrying me is that almost anything related to the future of higher ed requires talent and staff—and colleges are struggling to retain and attract both right now. (Future U.)
🎙 Three Updates from Future U. Big changes for three guests this year on the podcast: Education reporter Anya Kamenetz is leaving NPR to focus in part on her new book on learning loss; Jeff Senese is out as president of Saint Leo University after a failed merger; and legendary president, Freeman Hrabowski, has retired after three decades of leading the University of Maryland Baltimore County. (Future U.)
🎧 Catching Up on Summer Listening. The summer is a good time to catch up on reading and listening. If you’re looking for a limited-series podcast about higher ed, check out Bootstraps from Jeff Young “about merit, myths, and how ‘pulling ourselves up’ shapes education.” (Ed Surge | Open Campus)