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Voice magazine

Todd Olson '97, Assistant Dean of AdmissionsFinding Carleton

by Danny Lachance '01 and Jan Senn

As competition for top students gets more intense, the admissions staff uses every means at hand to ensure that Carleton maintains its unique character.

“I have one rule when you’re in this car,” Todd Olson ’97 says, holding his index finger in the air as the car barrels through a busy Chicago intersection. “Fight the urge to scream.”

Olson is running late, maneuvering through midmorning traffic on the way to Lincoln Park High School, one of the city’s highest-performing public high schools. It’s mid-October and Olson, Carleton’s outreach program director and assistant dean of admissions, is in the midst of one of several fall recruiting trips.

Every year, as part of Carleton’s recruitment efforts, admissions staff members fan out across the country and the globe in search of future Carls, meeting guidance counselors and students in schools from Beijing to Fairbanks. Armed with rental cars, MapQuest printouts, and suitcases filled with brochures, each of them visits four to six schools on a given day.

It’s a constant battle against the clock. They’ve got to give the high school students a good sense of Carleton, help the counselors understand what kind of students they’re looking for, and then jump in the car and get to the next school.

 “It’s like you’re hunting,” Olson says as he walks across the parking lot toward the school, his roller-wheel suitcase of brochures bouncing on the pavement behind him. “Hunting for the good kids.”

In the college counseling center, a dozen students are gathered around two tables that have been pushed together. Olson begins tossing brochures at the students as if they were Frisbees, and as they sail, one by one, to the far edges of the table, he says, “Okay. What do you know about Carleton?”

As if on cue, a young man says, “It’s awesome.”

“You’re in!” Olson exclaims, and the group laughs. Humor is key in diffusing the ever-increasing anxiety that surrounds the college application process for many students.  

“It’s much more competitive today to get into a school like Carleton,” says Olson’s colleague Meg Otten, a senior associate dean of admissions. “And that has produced a level of anxiety in students and parents that is different from what it was 20 years ago.” Then, she says, parents, students, and counselors were more inclined to focus on finding the best fit for the student. “Now, it’s ‘What’s the highest-ranking school I can get into?’

Admissions officers face a similar sort of anxiety that is often overlooked. While Carleton may seem to be awash in applications—4,830 applicants are competing for about 500 spaces in this year’s incoming class—it still needs to pound the pavement each year to ensure that the most-qualified applicants apply. Students with high grades and test scores, a strong extracurricular record, proven leadership skills, and varied interests are in limited supply and high demand. By persuading as many of them as possible to apply, the admissions staff can select a student body that is as talented, well-rounded, and diverse as possible so they can contribute to the College on a number of levels—including sports, music, theater, and the visual arts. In a residential liberal arts college like Carleton, the opportunity to engage with bright students from a wide variety of geographic, economic, cultural, ethnic, social, and political backgrounds is an essential part of the educational experience and one that helps prepare students to become citizens of the world.

The College’s commitment to providing that kind of varied and versatile student body shows in its recruiting efforts, both domestically and internationally. “Admissions is so important in opening access,” says Olson, “and we have people here who are
serious about that.”

Expanding the international student population

In 2000 the College enrolled 12 international students and had about 350 applications from students living in foreign countries. These days, more than 800 international students apply for admission each year, 75 to 80 are offered admission, and 25 to 35 students decide to attend. The class of 2006 included 30 international students. In addition to students who hold foreign passports, each of the past several classes have included some 15 to 20 students who come from American families living overseas or who were born in the United States but have spent most of their life in another country.

That growth in Carleton’s international student population is due in large part to a 2000 Starr Foundation grant that recently was renewed. The grant allows the College to recruit and finance qualified Asian students in need of financial aid. Every year, admissions officers travel to East and Southeast Asia in search of potential Carls.

According to Charlie Cogan ’82, who directs Carleton’s international recruitment efforts, the long-term investment in Asian recruitment has enabled the College to build relationships with top local schools in Asian countries. That helps Carleton move beyond recruiting at international schools, where many of the students are American or acclimated to American culture.

The College identifies these local schools—and potential applicants—through its membership in international associations like the Council of International Schools and the Overseas Association of College Admissions Counselors. Word of the Starr grant has gotten out in Asia, Cogan says, resulting in more Asian students now initiating contact with Carleton.

The College also offers limited financial support for students from other regions of the world through its Nason, Kellogg, and Davis/United World College scholarships and hopes to increase these need-based scholarship sources. College staff members travel to other continents to meet with students from the United World College system, a 13-campus system of secondary schools around the world (including Europe, Latin America, Asia, and Africa) that provide full scholarships to talented local and foreign students. The students follow a rigorous curriculum offered by the International Baccalaureate Organization, which prepares them well for their first-year coursework at Carleton.

Student in NorthfieldProviding access to students of color

Domestically, getting students of color to apply is easily Carleton’s biggest recruitment challenge, says Paul Thiboutot, dean of admissions. “Someone looks up the data on Minnesota, which is 94 percent white. They see that the 6 percent of the population that isn’t white is all up in the Twin Cities, and they say, ‘What am I going to do in Northfield? Will I see anyone like me in this town?’ That’s a challenge.”

Cedrina Knight ’06, one of the youngest counselors on Carleton’s admissions staff, thinks that high-achieving students of color are likely to be career-focused earlier than other students in the application pool. “Sometimes, students of color don’t understand the concept of a liberal arts education—what it is or why it’s important,” she says. “When you’re a student of color and you’re exceptional, you’re looking for a direct road to success, and the liberal arts can seem too indirect.”

Admissions staff members counter that inclination by tailoring their message to these students. Speaking in admittedly exaggerated terms, Olson says half of his prospective students of color want to be doctors, a quarter want to be lawyers, and a quarter want to be engineers. So when he talks to them, he’s always sure to cite Carleton’s impressive medical school and law school admission rates. He tells them about an agreement Carleton has with Washington University in St. Louis for students who want to pursue a combined bachelor’s and master’s degree in engineering. And he mentions how changing career tracks can require a lot of extra time and coursework in career-oriented undergraduate programs, whereas students at a liberal arts college like Carleton have an opportunity to sample a wide variety of courses from different departments before settling on a major.

Paul Thiboutot, Dean of AdmissionsBut the most effective recruitment strategies show rather than tell, Thiboutot is fond of saying. And so the College also has invested in programs that allow prospective students of color to experience Carleton firsthand. Each summer, the College brings 50 talented African American high school students to campus for the Carleton Liberal Arts Experience, a one-week exploration of life at a liberal arts college. An event called Taste of Carleton flies prospective students of color to campus for a weekend in the fall. The Multicultural Alumni Network has sponsored fly-in visits for students of color who need financial help. Current students of color make calls during the fall to prospective students, sharing their experiences. And partnerships with community-based organizations like Admission Possible, a Twin Cities nonprofit started by Jim McCorkell ’90 that provides test preparation and admissions and financial aid counseling to talented and motivated low-income students, have proven beneficial to increasing racial diversity at Carleton. The College is significantly more diverse racially now than it was at the beginning of the decade. In the past 10 years, people of color have increased from 15 percent to 20 percent of the student body.

Ensuring socioeconomic diversity

Rod Oto, director of student financial services, says that members of the admissions team constantly battle the sticker shock that sometimes hits prospective students and their families when they see Carleton’s tuition and fees. “For a lot of students,” he says, “the college search process begins with a parent or guardian saying, ‘There’s no way we can afford $40,000 a year, so don’t even think about it.’ ”

Even when he describes Carleton’s financial aid system, which guarantees that the College will meet the full demonstrated financial need of each admitted student, he encounters disbelief: “When you say to high-need students, ‘$30,000 of your yearly cost could be a grant from the College,’ their reaction is sometimes, ‘Nobody is going to give me $30,000.’ ”

Oto aims to gain the confidence of low-income families by avoiding jargon and admitting up front that no matter how you cut it, a Carleton education is going to take some effort to finance. “Yes, it costs a lot,” he tells prospective students and their families. “But there is help.”

That forthrightness has ensured that Carleton’s early-admission applicant pool remains socioeconomically diverse. Nationally, early admissions programs, which improve a student’s odds of acceptance but obligate accepted applicants to attend, have come under fire. They’re accused of benefiting wealthy students who are less cost-conscious and can thus forgo the benefits that multiple offers of admission—and multiple financial aid packages—can bring. Carleton’s admission staff, Oto says, sends a clear and unwavering message to potential students: The College treats its early-decision pool exactly the same in financial aid packaging as it does regular-decision applicants, and the College will work with every admitted student to make attendance possible.

Jennifer Hantho, Senior Associate Dean of Admissions“I have just the student for you,” the guidance counselor tells Jennifer Hantho, a senior associate dean of admissions at Carleton.

“Do you really?” Hantho responds, clasping her hands together. “We’re looking for kids who are academically talented, but individualistic. Kids who are curious, looking for something a bit different from their peers.”

“That would be Charles,” the counselor says as he leaves the room to page the student.

Hantho is at a public school in a wealthy enclave in Dallas and not one student has come to her information session, but some of the college counselors have stopped by. Hantho, a 25-year veteran in college admissions, isn’t surprised by the low turnout. Texas is a bit like New England, she says. Both places inculcate in students a sense that everything they could ever possibly want is in their own backyard. It’s an attitude she knows well, having grown up herself in west Texas.

“Students who have grown up down here have to be a little bit more independent, a little more adventurous, to think about a place like Carleton,” Hantho says. “But they’re down here and I’m eager to find them, at least to make them aware of the Carleton experience.”

Making students aware of Carleton in areas where it’s not well known can be a challenge for admissions staff members. Hantho also travels to Tennessee and Kentucky, where guidance counselors and students don’t often consider small liberal arts colleges. Carleton is not alone in the need to travel the country to find prospective students. “Harvard is out there beating the bushes just like we are,” says Hantho. “We’re all doing it.”

While some colleges and universities are well known because of the reputation of their graduate school or athletic program, “that’s not how Carleton gets name recognition,” says Thiboutot. “We have to do it through personal contact.”

That personal approach is lost on more and more students these days. Each year, Hantho says, the College encounters anywhere from 500 to 1,000 “speedracers,” students whose first contact with the College comes in the form of a submitted application. “In 1998 nearly every student who applied had been on our database prior to the application deadline,” Hantho explains. “Now we have students who apply and that’s the first contact we have with them. The disadvantage is that if we’re traveling to where these students live in those months before the application deadline, we can’t notify them that we’ll be coming because we don’t know who they are.”

As a result, she must rely on counselors like the one at the Dallas high school to identify students who in earlier years would have requested information from colleges directly, but who now conduct their college search almost exclusively online.

Charles enters the room, sporting his team’s football jersey. In the course of his conversation with Hantho, he tells her that he likes to play guitar and sing at local coffeehouses, and he recites an eclectic list of books he’s reading. “I’m delighted that your counselor got you to come see us,” she says at the end of their chat.

“I am too,” Charles responds as Hantho hands him information on scheduling a campus visit.

“It’s a little tougher to get young men to look at places like this,” Hantho says later. “With some men, there’s a sense of ‘Let me enroll in a program that will prepare me for a specific vocation.’ And so they look for business, rather than liberal arts, degrees. Or they’re drawn to sports and want to attend a Big Ten school or the University of Texas.”

Across America, more women than men are applying to college, so as part of Carleton’s efforts to sustain a diverse student body, it also must struggle to keep a balanced gender mix.

“There are more than 3,000 institutions of higher education in the country, and to help people distinguish among them is more of a challenge today than it used to be,” says Hantho. “People have a greater awareness than they did when I went to college and schools didn’t market themselves. You only knew the schools in your region, unless you had a family member or a friend who went out of state. The higher education world was much smaller for everyone. That’s not the case anymore. Every year we have to figure out where we’re going, how to maximize our efforts.”

It’s 1 a.m. on a cold Monday morning in January, just two hours after the College Board Search (a direct-mail marketing organization) has released the names of high school sophomores and juniors who took the PSAT exams in October. Meg Otten and Linda Borene, assistant dean of systems operations in the admissions office—fortified with quantities of chocolate—are in the midst of processing 167,416 names downloaded from the Web site. These students have indicated on their test registration forms that they’re interested in hearing from colleges and they’ve met Carleton’s search criteria, which include high scores, high self-reported GPAs, and expressed interests, academic and otherwise, in keeping with the College’s offerings. Borene is shooting off e-mails to 117,523 students with valid e-mail addresses. By 7 a.m. that morning, 3,046 students had opened those e-mail messages (304 of them between the hours of 11 p.m. and 2 a.m.), and follow-up letters were being produced by an outside mailhouse.

“We’ve always attempted to be one of the first colleges to get messages in the mailbox,” says Thiboutot. “That’s how we get the attention of kids before they’re jaded by all the mail that will be arriving in their box within the week.”

And so begins Carleton’s recruitment process for another year, starting a cycle of sending out literature and looking for opportunities for personal contact with prospective students. While it may seem that high school sophomores are a bit young to be thinking about applying to college, those who take the PSAT already are planning ahead. The admissions department wants to make sure those students consider Carleton. The e-mail Carleton sends to sophomores invites them to visit Carl 411, a Web site created specifically for college-minded sophomores, where they will discover tips on how to improve their chances of admission to top colleges, find out what colleges want to see on a high school transcript, and learn some intriguing facts about Carleton: “penguins in the library, a dead poet on the run, and a Bald Spot that’s got nothing to do with hair loss.”

Juniors receive a more personalized e-mail directing them to visit Clearly Carleton. On this Web site they can request specific information about Carleton and its students and faculty. The site also highlights things that make Carleton unique, such as the trimester system, which makes it easier for students to take advantage of off-campus study programs. (“Among the top small liberal arts colleges, we have one of the highest participation rates of students studying abroad,” says Thiboutot, and he wants to make sure prospective students get that message early.) Follow-up letters, which studies show result in greater response rates than e-mails alone, include a business reply card and an invitation to visit the campus—because what’s unique about Carleton can’t be captured in words or pictures. According to admissions staff, one of the best things prospective students can do is to experience Carleton firsthand. “When you come on this campus, this place feels different from some of those other good schools,” says Hantho. “There are advantages to our location in the Midwest. It has shaped the character of the place.”

Introducing prospective students to Carleton takes a concerted effort. “It’s a complex series of things we do to attract the top kids, engage them, and ultimately get them to apply,” says Hantho. Online searches, e-mails, letters, Web sites, brochures, mailings, recruiting trips, alumni networking, campus visits—they’re all part of an ongoing recruitment process that’s grown in scope over the years.

“We still send letters and brochures because some people want something to hold in their hand,” Hantho says, “but we’ve added all the technology, because they’re also using the Web. The job of recruiting students has expanded in terms of trying to manage all the various ways to reach people with a high-quality message.”

When it comes down to it, though, Carleton’s personal approach—connecting prospective students with alumni, admissions staff, faculty members, and students—reigns supreme. “We’re using all the [marketing] techniques,” says Thiboutot, “but our main approach has to be personal, because we’re making the argument for a self-involved, fully engaged education. Students who come here have to devote themselves to this experience round-the-clock.”

It’s the kind of commitment Carleton expects from its students—and from the recruiters who help them get here.

DANNY LACHANCE '01 is a freelance writer based in Minneapolis. JAN SENN is managing editor of the Voice.




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