Photo by Jakob Owens on Unsplash

One question I get often since Who Gets In and Why was released last year is why the three colleges where I was embedded for the book let me inside their process. After all, I approached two dozen campuses and all but these three—Emory, Davidson, and the University of Washington—declined my request.

Last week, I got to ask that question—and many others—as I reunited with a few characters and colleges from the book at the annual meeting of the National Association of College Admission Counseling. NACAC, as it is known, represents enrollment deans, admissions officers, high school counselors, and independent counselors.

Yes, we gathered in-person(!)—in Seattle (and online at the same time). It was like 2019 in Louisville, the last time this group was together in real life—although much smaller this time around. It was announced at the opening session that some 3,800 people were there. That’s about 60% percent or so of the number who show up in a normal year depending on the location.

? It was good to be back in person, although the conference presented awkward social moments—do we shake hands, fist bump, or stay six feet away? Thankfully, NACAC provided us nifty buttons to wear to display our preferences (see a picture at the end of the newsletter).

☕️☕️☕️ Good morning, and thanks for reading NEXT. Today’s edition is 1,200 words and a 4 1/2-minute read. If someone forwarded this to you, be among the more than 50,000 subscribers who get NEXT via email and LinkedIn every other week by signing up here.


? Free College Resources. I teamed up with AIG, which sponsored two free conversation guides on finding the right fit in a college, knowing what to look for in a campus, and determining the value of a degree.

? The conversation guides are now out and you can download them here.

? Two virtual events this Thursday, September 30.

? For students, parents, and counselors in the college search: At Noon ET/9 a.m. PT, Rick Clark and Brennan Barnard will be joining me for NEXT on LinkedIn Live. Besides living admissions in their day jobs on both sides of the desk, Rick and Brennan are co-authors of the new The Truth About College Admissions Workbook, which follows on their popular 2019 family guide on admissions.

  • To watch, go to my LinkedIn page or click +FOLLOW on my profile to be notified when we’re live (the conversation will also be archived there).

? For campus technology and academic leaders: At 2 p.m. ET/11 a.m. PT, I’ll be leading a webinar for the ed-tech company, Class, to talk about my reporting and research over the last year about designing more resilient institutions and improving the experience for all learners.

How Transparent Should Admissions Be?

Holistic admissions is both a blessing and a curse for colleges that practice it, especially this past year in the midst of Covid. A holistic process looks at both academic and non-academic factors in an application, allowing institutions to take a variety of factors into account when evaluating prospective students.

  • The blessing is that it gives institutions a tremendous amount of flexibility to lean into their priorities in admissions—whether that’s more full-pay students or more men or more humanities majors—all under the cover of holistic review.
  • The curse is that to a skeptical public, holistic admissions is confusing and secretive at best, and nefarious and illegal at worst.

What’s happening: In a year when nearly every aspect of the college admissions process was upended by the pandemic, holistic review was a savior for admissions offices faced with applications from students who had very different high school experiences because of Covid-19. As a result, the admissions process seemed even murkier than usual this past year.

Why it matters: Public trust in institutions reached new lows during the pandemic. Admissions is the front door to college. It’s when much of the public has their first interaction with higher ed and forms those initial perceptions.

  • Every heartbroken applicant denied by their dream school thinks they deserve to know why—but do they?

? It was a question I posed last week when I moderated my panel at the annual NACAC meeting: Should colleges do more to own their processes and have comfort with the imperfect and human judgment that is the admissions process?

What I heard: An opaque process=more flexible for colleges.

  • The priorities of colleges change from year to year and they want to have the ability to shift their admissions criteria in response.
  • The more details colleges put out there, the less flexibility they have in tweaking their criteria without hearing complaints from those who already acted on the previous guidance.
  • Case in point: test optional. Many colleges that aren’t requiring test scores during the pandemic are hedging about whether they will go back to their old policies, because once they do, it will be difficult to change course.

—If we’re “completely transparent, we lose track of our narrative,” said Tim Fields, senior associate dean of admissions at Emory University. “We can’t tell the story how we want to tell that story. A lot of that story—the legacy, the history, the reputation of those institutions—is tied to that narrative.”

—Part of the story that colleges like to tell is that they’re selective enough to actually use holistic review. “Some colleges say they use holistic review when they’re really admitting students who meet a cutoff for GPAs or test scores,” said Paul Seegert, director of admissions at the University of Washington.

—What colleges look for sends a message to students. If colleges say more will students and their families respond accordingly? “If you’re admitting based on major, do you broadcast that a student who lists classics or French is going to be admitted with a lower academic profile?” Seegert asked.Some people might use that to get their foot in the door, but that’s not in their best interest.”

—The contradiction that is often apparent in admissions is that colleges are very transparent in what students and families need to do when it comes to applying “but not in what happens next,” said Diane Campbell, the college counselor at Liberty Common High School in Colorado. “I wish we had more explanations for why this is happening. If I’m going to write more essays, how are you going to use them, what do you want to know?”

Bottom line: I’ve experimented giving specifics about our admissions process,” Seegert said. “But when you give specifics then someone says ‘But I know someone who…”

  • “It’s so frustrating not to be told why,” he said, “but you can’t with holistic review because it’s not one thing” that pulls a student in or pushes them out.

My why: I asked the representatives from Emory and UW the question I led with above—why they let me into the process.

  • We feel good about our process, said Fields from Emory, “and very selfishly, it was a way to get our name out. We’re not Vanderbilt in the SEC or Duke with Coach K.”
  • At the University of Washington, “we had lots of internal discussions,” said Seegert. The media people were really concerned, he said. So were people in the admissions office who were worried about being interrupted during a busy time of year.
  • “In the end,” Seegert said, “I don’t know how I got everyone on board.”

Slow Growth at Selective Colleges

If you read this newsletter, you know that I’ve talked often about how we often equate a college’s small size with its quality in the U.S. I’ve argued before that given demand and a rising population of people who need to go to college that selective colleges should open their doors wider—even just a bit.

A new working paper out this week by the National Bureau of Economic Research, “Why Don’t Elite Colleges Expand Supply?” finds that top colleges care more about prestige as measured against their peers than any other factor when it comes to setting their enrollment numbers.

The chart above in the paper caught my attention: it shows that for colleges in the bottom 25% of SAT selectivity, enrollment increased by 61% between 1990 and 2015. But the four colleges that appear at the top of the annual U.S. News rankings—Harvard, Princeton, Stanford and Yale (HPSY in the chart)—increased their enrollment by only 7% even as their applications skyrocketed.


All Higher Education is Local
All Higher Education is Local

We often refer to the “higher ed system” in the U.S. But it’s not really a system and it’s mostly controlled by the states. On the latest episode of Future U., Michael Horn and I return to a favorite format—the reporters’ roundtable—and welcome journalists to talk about what’s happening on the ground in California, Michigan, and Mississippi.

? If you have a question for me and Michael about the future of higher ed, ask it here. If we choose to answer it on a future episode, you’ll get a Future U. Tervis tumbler.

The Abrupt End of an American Partnership in Singapore
The Abrupt End of an American Partnership in

The National University of Singapore pulled out of a decade-long joint college with Yale University this month. As Karin Fischer asks, if one can say “thanks, and so long” to Yale, one of biggest stars in the higher-education firmament, what does this mean for other American colleges and their global ambitions?

Employers are Loosening Degree Requirements. But Will It Last?
Employers are Loosening Degree Requirements. But Will It Last?

The percentage of job postings requiring degrees fell to 7% this June, down from 11% the year before. Experts weigh in on whether it’s market churn or a longer-lasting shift is underway.

And here are those NACAC buttons I mentioned at the top…

I chose red.

? Are you a counselor at a high school or represent a parents group in the Los Angeles area? I’ll be there for speaking engagements next month and have an opening or two on the calendar. Reach out if you’re interested in learning more.

Until next time, Cheers — Jeff

To get in touch, find me on TwitterFacebookInstagram, and LinkedIn.

Jeff has written about higher education for more than two decades and is a New York Times bestselling author of three books. His latest, Who Gets In and Why: A Year Inside College Admissions, was published in September...