Selectivity may not be measuring what we think it is.

As another national deposit day passes, enrollment professionals are sorting out the lot and figuring out how to hold on to the class over the summer. As we observe the stresses and successes of our clients this season, we see more uncertainty about how and why families make the decisions that they do. The marketplace is yet again more volatile and uncertain. There are less high school aged students, technology has flattened the playing field and tactics that we used to rely on simply don’t work anymore.

As higher ed marketers, we’re constantly looking for opportunities in the strategies and tools we use to make the process of marketing and sales more predictable. I’ve had reason to rethink the traditional funnel again using a thought experiment. The entire funnel as it stands now is built on the notion of selectivity as defined by the number of applicants that an institution admits. This measurement is only noteworthy within the top 25 institutions in America, but the focus on selectivity within the set of highly selective institutions has a detrimental effect on the remaining 4,000 colleges and universities.

The effect is tremendous. Families that are denied or deferred admission wait and wait (sometimes as late as April) on selective schools to run through their waitlists, effectively reducing the admission cycle for moderately selective, second choice institutions to 30 days (to say nothing of the morale of families that hung their hopes on gaining access to a college that should have never been in their selection set in the first place, but were led to believe that there was “a chance”).

There was a day when the notion of selectivity was accurate. Only the most qualified students were encouraged to apply, with the understanding that institutions were trying to build the strongest classes for the most rigorous programs. But now, even at the very top, Stanford received 44,073 applications and only admitted 2,050 (less than 5%); Harvard admitted 5.2% this year. We look at these small percentages of admitted students as a symbol of prestige. Is that what that is?

The very foundation of the traditional funnel is broken. And while the ratios and conversion points deserve some scrutiny, it’s the notion that the majority of institutions select students in the first place that is fundamentally out of step. Families select colleges from a range of options, not the other way around. This is why everything is unpredictable about the funnel right now, the strategy assumes that the college is making the choice, not the family. Now, I’m not suggesting that we’re talking about “open enrollment,” but what I am suggesting is the average acceptance rate nationally is 66%: almost seven out of ten are admitted. So I ask again, who’s choosing whom?

A thought experiment

What if I told you that Stanford could maintain relatively the same incoming class profile, but have an admission rate of 95%?

What if I told you that the ideal funnel for Midsize Liberal Arts College had 500 inquiries, 500 applicants and 500 admits, equating to 100% admission rate?

What would have to occur for this to be the case, and what would be the net effect?

First, we’d have to fundamentally agree that the notion of selectivity should change from who we choose to admit to who we encourage to apply. This is the more noble definition. We’d have to believe that an institution knows with a high degree of accuracy whether a student is admissible before the application, and they do.

Second, we’d have to know precisely the type of student that succeeds at the institution and only pursue those students. For the most part, institutions possess data to determine this as well.

And last, what enrollment managers are charged with and rewarded for would have to change. Harvard is applauded for only admitting 5.2% of an enormous pool of applicants. What if we applauded the smallest applicant pool with the highest admission rate with the best quality? What’s unsaid is that while Harvard sits near the top of the heap when it comes to exclusivity, the institution likely measures their performance unofficially as the percentage of students that chose Harvard that Harvard really wanted, rather than the entire applicant pool.

I realize there are challenges in changing the definition of selectivity, but the net effect would be that the majority of colleges that are now deemed “less selective” would have more first choice prospects predisposed to recruitment. Competition sets would be more refined and narrow, because the clarity of where families choose to apply would not include places they wouldn’t be admitted anyway. And May 1 would consistently be a much happier day for students and universities alike.

I often hear two gross labels in college counseling culture right now: “reach” and “fallback” institutions. These terms arise from the current false reality of college selectivity and have a definitive influence on the way prospects view the process. A “reach” is often a real reach for some students, and with the science of contemporary enrollment management as it is, the notion of a reach simply encourages the idea that college admission is some sort of lottery. More so, admission to a “reach” institution is a success even though it often results in high levels of debt and other risk factors for attrition.

I believe there’s a better way forward. Let’s just start with this: Consider that perhaps being more selective starts with who you invite to conversation, not who you deny admission. Consider an admission denial a reflection on your inability to discern whether that student should have been encouraged to apply in the first place. You have the tools and the intellect to do so.

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Sam Waterson

Sam is the Executive Vice President and Creative Director at RHB.