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Are We Confusing the Higher Education Consumer?

Discount rate, net price, average indebtedness, college rankings, early decision, highly selective, selective, open admission, AP credits, dual credit, enrollment fees, deposits, graduation rates, completion rates, we’re No. 1, they’re No.1 and the list goes on and on!  Are you confused yet?

Add in the fact that most students are applying to between 5-7 colleges and universities and receiving information from three times that many. We have all heard the stories of students receiving five mailings in the same day and getting calls from a variety of admissions counselors, faculty or coaches all in the same night. At a minimum, a student might be receiving information from 20 institutions and, on average, 20 pieces of communication.  Mailing, email, texting, phone calls, personal notes...if you don’t have your calculator handy, that is 400 pieces of communication, and I guarantee you my estimates are low! 

There really are uniform standards in the admissions business, with some schools requiring essays, some making decisions based upon self-reported information, test optional and, again, the list goes on and on. Throw in high schools moving away from class rank or even traditional grade point averages and you understand why our high school consumers and their parents are confused. Don’t even get me started on the media and their negative portrayal of higher education debt, without acknowledging the effect of graduate/professional school and for-profits on being the largest contributors to the rising debt. 

So, the challenge we have in higher education is how to simplify and make this whole process less confusing for the consumer. 

How do we effectively communicate what makes each institution distinct, while at the same time formalizing the process to reduce the clutter? 

In the free marketplace we live in, this is probably only wishful thinking, but we need to make an attempt.  In my utopian mind, I still believe the foundation of our profession is based on assisting the student in finding the “right fit” institution. I have many more questions than answers and continue to struggle with this issue on a regular basis.

How do we move a very important investment decision away from what is becoming, more and more, a retail purchase experience, with the only thing missing being the Sunday “best deal” coupon in the newspaper? In the very competitive recruitment environment we live in, it's difficult for all of us to ignore trying to look different, when doing so means more communication rather than less.

So, with no answers, I simply suggest that we all be thinking about these issues and try to determine how we can best serve our student consumers in making this very important investment decision.  I’m very proud of our profession for always looking to what is in the best interest of our students.  

J. Todd Coleman is the Assistant Vice President for Admissions at Wartburg College. His 30+ years of professional experience encompasses higher education admissions and alumni relations. 

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