FEATURE : A conversation with Bill Shain—Admissions Consultant

Bill Shain knows college admissions. He worked in the admissions office at Princeton and went on to become the Dean of Admissions at Macalester College, Vanderbilt University, and Bowdoin College. Today, he owns an admissions consulting practice, William M. Shain Consulting. We were able to get a valuable perspective on marketing, recruitment, and admissions from one of the most knowledgeable professionals in the industry.

Tell us about your experience in college admissions.
I’ve always been fundamentally committed to what happens to students, and I still believe that you can do well and do good at the same time. I don’t believe this principle is as popular now as it was thirty or even twenty years ago.

How so?
Well, when I started out at Princeton, those of us who worked in the admissions office thought of ourselves to a significant degree as educators. Then I went to Macalester, and soon after, recruitment became much more competitive. First, the Fiske Guide to Colleges came out in the early 1980s, and this was the first guidebook that was widely read that had ratings of colleges and universities. Then the following year, U.S. News & World Report started publishing an annual issue of the top-ranked schools in the country.

Increasingly, the goal of schools was to be better ranked, and this caused admissions to be run more like a business; people started measuring a lot more things. So a profession that started as a balance between institutional needs and educational needs of prospective students and their families tipped heavily toward a focus on institutional needs, especially financial health. Admissions used to have a significant educational function and that is often negligible in comparison to its operation as a business. I think there’s more pressure in that direction every year. These days, deans of admissions whose numbers do not go up every year face the same fate as sports team managers whose won-lost records disappoint management.

It seems like the rankings have really owned some of these institutions.
What’s frustrating is that there are no published ratings that effectively measure teaching and learning. Something that really bothers me right now about the ratings is that the only criterion an institution can really impact is the admissions. Everything else requires a longer and slower process. To me, a better approach would be to ask, “What would be transformational for the institution?” and manage towards that, rather than making improvement in the U.S. News ratings a part of strategic planning.

So what do you think influences a student when choosing a college, and what should influence them?
I do think that recruitment has an impact on students, but I don’t think the amount of materials disseminated is as important as the personal connection the student feels with the school. Finding ways to be effectively personal for an admissions office can make a difference. When I go to a restaurant, for example, it’s important to me that it has character and a distinctive feel. I’d much rather go to an authentic neighborhood chef-owned restaurant than a restaurant that’s a national chain. But too many colleges these days seem to behave as if they’re a national chain.

Similarly, I think admissions offices should be aiming more at core users and preserving institutional traditions, and I think it would be much more interesting and commercially effective if schools were less afraid to be what they are, and say so. I’ve encountered relatively little effective institutional strategic planning in my career. Instead, the idea is just: get bigger numbers. Almost all institutions want more applications, but one does not hear them describe how this change will improve the quality of the institution. There’s a book called The Long Tail, by Chris Anderson, which explains the way the internet has changed commerce forever. In short, products aimed at a very small niche that used to have trouble connecting with the market can now do it. You can now be more successful as an idiosyncratic product.

So . . . what are some other positive aspects of change?
These days there is an internal journey, and students who do it thoughtfully benefit significantly. The college admissions process is something that you can learn from in a lot of ways. For instance, for most students it is the first major life decision that involves using your values to determine the best course of action. It’s also an opportunity to organize one’s activities towards a goal for a relatively long period of time.

In addition, the marketing explosion has generated a great deal more information and some of it is good. When I was looking at schools it wasn’t always easy to find the basic information you were looking for.

The point of admissions marketing and recruitment should be real interactions and real values and, for the student, a balance of heart and head. Admissions offices need to resist the tendency to dumb it down because the message will appeal to more people if it’s broader. I would advocate a thoughtful conscious approach towards truthful and distinctive imaging, and question how often this occurs.

You lose some very important things if you lose focus on what makes institutions distinctive and choose instead to promulgate what simply appeals to more people.

Contributed by Brenda