Wednesday, October 1, 2014

War of Attrition


This past summer I had the opportunity to spend five weeks in Europe.  My wife and I rented an apartment in the small Italian city of Lucca for a month, followed by a week of travel to Paris and London.  It was an amazing experience (here’s a link to the blog I wrote during the trip), but once I returned home all it took to suck out all the inner peace and good will I brought back from Italy was one two-hour meeting at school.

I thought about that last Monday upon returning to the office after being in Indianapolis at NACAC.  I knew I would pay for being away, but didn’t anticipate how fast the pile of “stuff” (a more polite vocabulary word than I started to use) awaiting me would make NACAC seem like a distant memory.

I view the NACAC Conference as the end of “preseason” each fall.  September is about getting back into the rhythm of the school year, and as soon as I return home I know that I will be consumed by deadlines and rec letters to be written, so NACAC is a chance to renew friendships, commiserate, and recharge.  The best part about NACAC this year was the number of people who stopped me to say that they read and even enjoy this blog. Thanks—your words mean more than you can know.

The hot topic during informal conversations at NACAC was Eric Hoover’s Chronicle of Higher Education article on the admissions dean’s chair as “the hottest seat on campus.”  The article highlights the pressures faced by those professionals responsible for enrollment on the college side and a level of turnover among Deans of Admission and VPs of Enrollment that is alarming.  It didn’t take long in any conversation to hear about another senior member of our profession who is retiring, in a new job, or simply out of work.  Lest anyone think that the grass is greener on the secondary side of the desk, at NACAC I talked with a close friend, someone I consider an icon of the college counseling profession, who is likely to leave his school at the end of the year because of Board and administrative pressure to increase the number of Ivy acceptances at the expense of fit.

It is human nature to add 2+2 and get 5, to interpret a few examples as evidence of a larger trend, but I sense of level of attrition within our profession that would constitute a crisis if it occurred in a student body. If I was the melodramatic type and wanted to draw a tenuous connection to world events, I might even suggest that we are locked in an undeclared war for the soul of college admissions, a conflict of cultures between those of us who believe that admissions is about a student’s journey of self-discovery and those who believe that higher education is first and foremost a business. 

If we’re in a war, it’s a war of attrition. Our adversaries have already seized “higher” ground (Boardrooms, Presidents’ offices), and we will have lost the war when there are no longer enough of us left. Reading Eric’s article brought to mind the Jimmy Buffett song, “A Pirate Looks at 40,” which includes the line “My occupational hazard is my occupation’s just not around.”  Our occupation isn’t endangered, but our profession might be.

So what can we do about it? We need to increase our efforts on two different fronts.  The first is giving more attention to attracting good people to the profession.  The recent NACAC survey report on “Career Paths for Young Professionals” suggested that many of us stumble into this profession, and that may no longer be good enough. The future of the profession is dependent on attracting young people who understand that helping young people make decisions about their future is a noble calling, who share a vision of admissions as more than filling the class and improving the profile, and who also happen to be just as committed/neurotic as most of us are.  Once in the field, we need to keep them. The enrollment management truism that it’s easier to retain an already enrolled student than recruit and enroll a new student holds true for us as well.

The second front is even more important but also more difficult.  We need to find ways to reach out and engage in dialogue with our bosses, the new generation of college presidents and provosts (and school heads) who don’t understand (and may not care about) the values that guide the college admissions profession.  If we don’t tell our story, who will?

Some of that burden is on each of us, but there’s also a role for organizations like NACAC and the College Board to play.  When I served as President of NACAC I got irritated by those who expected NACAC to legislate every aspect of college admissions, so I fully expect that my good friends Jeff Fuller and Joyce Smith will cringe if and when they read this, but one of NACAC’s roles is representing and defending the profession, and the profession (and professionals) are under attack in ways we haven’t seen before.  Presidents and Boards have not historically been defined as stakeholders by NACAC, but they are powerful influences on our ability to do our jobs and serve students.  I would like to see NACAC think about ways to offer professional development programming about admissions and enrollment management issues for Boards and Presidents.  The College Board certainly has both the influence and the resources to aid in that effort.

Is it an uphill battle?  No question. 

Will it work? Maybe.

Can we afford not to stand up for what we believe? No.

 

There is one other item from Eric Hoover’s article that I want to address, but I’ll do it in my next (hopefully shorter) post.    

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