The Value of Friction in the Admission Process

This article from Benedict Evans (a mobile expert at Andreesen Horowitz) caused me a swell of thinking about where we place cognitive overhead on our audiences. In it, he talks about how devices like the Amazon Echo, the Apple Watch and Google Home are meant to reduce (or remove) friction for consumers by eliminating traditional steps in the decision-making process (i.e. turning on a computer to manually search for information rather than simply making use of a voice-activation system to ask for what you want). This led me to reflect on the inherent friction (both intentional and not) that exists throughout the process of college selection.

In the world of college search, customer friction points are mostly about choice and elements related to transaction, such as admission requirements, distance from home, cost, expense of time to degree or ease of application. As the competitive landscape in higher ed has thickened, most institutions have elected to reduce friction from the admission’s office in an effort to make the selection process easier for students. Examples of reduced friction would be the use of the common app, increased visit days, virtual tours or eliminating wait time between the submitted application and the admission decision. Most of these are examples of “good service,” but I’d argue that a little friction isn’t always a bad thing.

Evans writes that “questions can be friction, but they’re also choice.” And they’re also a natural way to start a conversation. That’s a large part of what the traditional search process historically accomplished—a conversation, wherein students were able to ask questions and institutions were able to answer them. It was a way to get to know one another and decide if there was a fit. It had an element of romance. There was some mystery, a bit of wonder about how the other party would respond. Now, students are able to self-manage that process to such a large degree that they often skip over the conversation phase entirely, so often the first time they appear on an institution’s radar is when the institution receives their application for admission. As one byproduct of this, institutions are putting more and more pressure on their admission announcement to make a favorable impression on the student. So two things have occurred:

a. Admission decisions are made more quickly (promises of 24-hour turnarounds are not uncommon).

b. The form of the decision has become ostentatious (even belligerent).

And so, what are we hoping will happen when we quickly send students confetti-filled admission decisions in over-the-top ornate envelopes? We’re hoping they’ll accept our offer, sure. But we’re also hoping they’ll share that decision socially (#IGOTIN!!!!), thus generating more publicity for us and helping us grow that part of the (now stumpier) funnel that has been whittled away by this lack of traditional friction points. But rather than eliminating friction entirely, this simply moves it to the student while omitting the romance that used to be inherent in commemorating the event of a college admission. There’s no wait, no anticipation, no romance built. Thusly communicating that admitting that student didn’t take any consideration on the part of the institution.

What do I mean by romance, and why would we want it? In a friction-free transaction, the emotional connection is foregone. While that might not matter for the top 50 colleges and universities who, by nature of their selectivity, create friction and stress for prospects, less selective institutions need to find some romance as a point of differentiation. In other words, an admission announcement on its own cannot do the work of an actual, established, well-nurtured connection. And it shouldn’t be expected to. And when we go big with an acceptance package, we should examine our motivations for doing so. Is it about the student? Or about what we hope the student will do with it to serve our interests?

I am partly to blame for the gaudy admission announcement. In the past, I’ve been an advocate of the hashtag, the eye-catching envelope, the over-the-top celebration. And that’s because I do think we should celebrate admission. But now, perhaps in more personal and more reflective ways. Honor the accomplishment of attending an institution and drop the hashtag.

Admission has gotten easier—more frictionless—because the inquiry stage is wholly unnecessary, but that doesn’t mean that connection-building is. Regardless of how a student ends up in our admitted student pool, we have to be sure to nurture as much of a relationship as we can with them from the time their admission decision is announced through the day they set foot on our campus, and beyond. This makes yield communications all the more important, as well as our communication strategies during the summer months. The ultimate goal for acceptance packages shouldn’t be a social-media share; it should be the starting point—the friction point—that furthers a relationship.

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Sam Waterson

Sam is President at RHB.