The Changing Face of Admissions

By Kayla McGrady ’05
On the surface, Carleton’s admissions office appears to be the same as it always has been. A receptionist greets visitors, student guides lead campus tours, and staff members host informal Q&A sessions and the all-important admissions interview. But dig a little deeper and the changes become apparent. Staff members are grappling with ever-evolving technology, changing demographics, and the growing economic challenges of sending a young person to college. Yet the goal remains the same: identify the bright, talented students who will flourish at Carleton and convince them to come.

When Carla Zelada started working at Carleton 10 years ago, the admissions workroom was filled with a huge bank of filing cabinets. “I could hardly reach the tallest one,” she says with a laugh. There, student workers would file written applications, test scores, and letters of recommendation while staff members painstakingly tabulated data on the applicant pool week after week. During the busiest submission times in late fall and early winter, a temporary worker opened mail for eight hours a day.

Today the filing cabinets are gone. And Zelada oversees a different system, in which applications and other data, like test scores, are logged, stored, and often received electronically. And that’s good news because the number of applications Carleton’s admissions of ce processes each year has doubled in the past decade.

In the 2012–13 academic year, Carleton hit a record 7,045 applications, which gives staff members a deeper pool from which to select a class. Skyrocketing application numbers can be attributed to several things: the population of 18-to-24-year-olds is growing, and more of them are enrolling in college (41 percent in 2012, compared to 26 percent 30 years ago). But the biggest factor may be the success of the Common Application.

Introduced in 1975 by 15 private colleges—including Carleton—the Common App (as it’s called) allows students to apply to any number of participating institutions with one application. After it went digital in 1998, use of the Common App proliferated rapidly. Today students can use it to apply to as many as 500 schools. Applying to multiple colleges is much easier than it used to be, and high school students are encouraged to do so. A November 2015 Forbes article suggested that students who qualify for highly selective schools like Carleton should apply to 10 to 15 colleges. And some apply to even more.

Population and application growthPopulation and application growth Photo: Craig Johnson

This presents college admissions teams with both opportunities and challenges—they get more students to choose from, but it can be difficult to predict how many students will actually enroll because each applicant is more likely to receive multiple offers. This year, for example, Carleton had a nearly unprecedented yield rate of 40 percent, meaning the incoming class that was targeted to be around 520 people is hovering around 570, as of publication. The student life staff is spending the summer making housing adjustments to accommodate the extra students on campus.

“Back when every college had its own application, students might complete a maximum of three or four,” says Jennifer Hantho, senior associate dean of admissions. “But when more students started using the Common App, it opened up a whole new awareness of Carleton in parts of the country that weren’t as familiar with us.” In addition, Carleton has a growing team of volunteer alumni admissions representatives—overseen by Hantho—who spread the word by writing to prospective students, staffing tables at college fairs, and hosting events for prospective Carls nationwide.

More applications mean the admissions staff can be more selective, and some alumni wonder if that is changing the character of Carleton. “Alumni say, ‘I could never get in here today,’ ” says Hantho. “I tell them Carleton wouldn’t be the place it is today if it hadn’t attracted incredibly bright and talented students throughout its history. Our alumni were admitted for the right reasons, and they are at least as capable as the students who are here now. But the educational landscape is shifting, so it’s difficult to compare students from 15 or 20 years ago to students today.”

In another 15 years, the application might have undergone another big change. “The next horizon is to reimagine an entirely paperless application process,” says Paul Thiboutot, dean of admissions. For example, Carleton also is a member of the Coalition for Access, Affordability, and Success, a shared online application launching this summer that’s dedicated to innovation in the college application process and using technology to help level the playing field for students. “Applications might become more visual or incorporate multimedia elements,” Thiboutot says. “Colleges may start allowing students to present themselves to us in a wider variety of ways.”

Shifting Demographics

Geographic shifts in high school graduates and admissions staff visitsGeographic shifts in high school graduates and admissions staff visits Photo: Craig Johnson

It’s not just the application process that’s shifting. Who applies to college is also changing. According to 2015 population data from the College Board, shifts in regional birth rates mean that the number of students who graduate from high school each year is decreasing in the Midwest and Northeast and increasing in the South and West. So Carleton’s admissions staff is focused on spreading the word about Carleton in areas that will have more college-seeking students in coming years. That means more staff visits to places like Seattle, Denver, Atlanta, and Dallas.

More students of color are applying to college than ever before—a trend that is likely to continue since the Census Bureau projects that by 2043, the majority of the population in the United States will no longer be white. Whereas people of color were 15 to 18 percent of Carleton’s student body 15 years ago, that number hovers around 23 to 26 percent today.

Carleton—along with colleges around the country—is seeing more applications from students in low-income families and from those who represent the first generation of their family to attend college. The admissions staff wants to ensure that students and families who are less familiar with college find the support and information they need throughout the application process and once a student arrives on campus.

“It’s no secret that colleges want to have a diverse mix of students on campus. But it’s important that people understand that diverse doesn’t mean only racial diversity,” says Rhemi Abrams-Fuller ’08, senior assistant dean and coordinator of multicultural programs in admissions. “I work with people of color, but I also work with low-income students, first-generation students, LGBTQIA [lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, intersex, and asexual] students, and students from rural areas and other underrepresented communities on our campus. When we talk about how best to serve students, we want to consider as many facets as we can. We’re especially trying to reach out to the students who don’t have anyone advocating for them, who don’t know anything about elite colleges—liberal arts or otherwise.”

In addition to more students of color, Carleton enrolls an increasing number of international students, who now constitute 8 to 12 percent of each incoming class.

“When I started at Carleton in 2000, international students made up only 1.5 or 2 percent of each class, and most of them were on full scholarships funded by a Starr Foundation grant,” says Charlie Cogan ’82, director of international recruitment. “Now we’ve got more of a mix—both economically and geographically,” although Carleton still enrolls more students from South and East Asia than any other global regions.

“The hardest part of my job used to be going to places like Singapore or Korea and explaining the concept of a liberal arts education and how Carleton would provide a comparable education to Harvard or Stanford,” says Cogan. But the liberal arts have become more familiar—and popular—worldwide, and international applications to Carleton have tripled in the past 15 years. “We’ve become a dream school for international students who need financial aid. So the challenge for us today is to parse down a huge batch of exceptional applicants to the number of scholarship offers we can afford to make.”

Dollars for Scholars

Income, tuition, and financial aid trendsIncome, tuition, and financial aid trends Photo: Craig Johnson

Supplying financial aid is an ongoing challenge for many colleges. As more students from low-income families come to college and more middle- and upper-middle-class families seek help to cover growing tuition and fees, admissions staff members are feeling constrained by financial aid budgets. Carleton promises to meet the full demonstrated financial need of every enrolled student for all four years. To ensure that it can meet that pledge, the college set a policy in 1993 that makes meeting the full need of every enrolled student a top priority, even if it means having to admit some students on a need-sensitive basis after the financial aid budget has been exhausted.

Rod Oto, director of student financial services, argues that very few American colleges and universities can claim to be need-blind—to make admissions decisions with no consideration of students’ finances. Today, especially, a family’s income can have an impact on many aspects of the college application process—from exposure to AP classes and test preparation to the accessibility of extracurricular opportunities. “Carleton might never be need-blind,” Oto says. “But we are committed to enrolling students from low- and middle-income families, and we make sure we give them the aid they need to come here.”

By establishing key financial aid metrics in its 2013 strategic plan, Carleton is continuing its commitment to supporting low-income students while increasing the number of middle-income students on campus. Toward that end, the college is working toward a goal of allocating an additional $6 million per year to financial aid and increasing the percentage of scholarships funded by endowment returns from 28 percent to 40 percent. “My biggest concern is with the students who don’t even look at Carleton because of its cost,” says Oto. “We want all qualified students to at least consider Carleton. Some people may not realize we’re willing to give almost the entire cost of tuition to a single high-need student, but we do. And with a bigger budget we’ll be able to help more students.”

The Big Picture

With all of these changes—both at Carleton and nationwide—flexibility has been key to the admissions team’s success. They have been willing to try new things—often before Carleton’s peer schools do—and they are constantly evaluating what is and isn’t working.

Adam Webster ’00, associate dean of admissions, contributes to those efforts by crunching data and fine-tuning processes. Currently, for example, he’s collecting evaluations from the rest of the staff on the effectiveness and efficiency of their travel itineraries, testing a new type of online marketing, and researching strategies for finding and attracting more humanities students to keep Carleton’s liberal arts environment balanced in a time when the sciences’ popularity is booming. Meanwhile, fellow associate dean Jaime Anthony ’06 is spearheading an overhaul of Carleton’s admissions communications—from print brochures and websites to e-mails and social media—to better complement the communication styles of today’s teens.

Behind all the strategy and data lies a dual objective: better understand Carleton’s prospective students and provide them the information and support they need to make an informed decision about what college is best for them, whether it’s Carleton or another school. “We do our best to identify the people who’d do well here and to convince them to come. But then we have to let them decide,” Webster says. “Seventeen- and eighteen-year-olds can be really unpredictable. I might find an applicant I think is a perfect fit for Carleton, and he or she won’t even respond to our offer of admission. You can plan the class as much as you want, but it’s still a bit unpredictable—and that’s what makes our jobs interesting,” he says.

As Carleton’s dean of admissions since 1987, Thiboutot has led his staff through economic booms and recessions, the proliferation of technology, and the growth of Carleton’s national profile and reputation. “We’re always thinking about a variety of goals and considering how we can make the admissions process better,” he says.

Thiboutot’s strategy has included departing from a traditional admissions committee model, which involved every member of the admissions staff sitting together for a month or more to discuss every application. At Carleton, smaller groups evaluate a portion of the applications, and then the committee meets as a whole at the end of the process to review each group’s decisions and fine-tune the class. “We’re always working to maximize our ability to consider every application, while also being efficient,” Thiboutot says.

Although Thiboutot and his team have embraced new methods and strategies and charted new courses, their primary goal remains the same: find, recruit, and enroll the best class of students for Carleton.

“It’s wonderful to get to know students in an interview or through their application materials. We see fascinating people who have different drives and talents and curiosities,” Thiboutot says. “I often find myself thinking, ‘Wow, I hope they choose to continue developing those talents and abilities at Carleton.’ ”

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