Why do we do this?

Ken Anselment
May 23 · 9 min read

For the past several years, right around April 30, I have had a phone call with one of my counterparts at another small liberal arts college in the Upper Midwest. We check in with each other on this particular day, the day before College Signing Day, the nationally-recognized deadline for students to commit to many colleges here in the States.

This year, my colleague initiated the call.

“Hey, Ken. How are you? How’s your team?”

And then we get to the real reason for the call. It’s the dance many enrollment managers have before May 1, trying to determine if they have company in the misery or celebration they anticipate after May 1.

“How are things looking for you?”

We both acknowledged that the Class of 2019 was, well…

Photo credit: Fred Thornhill | Toronto Star File Photo

…this particular critter might give them a run for their money when it comes to pacing.

We also admitted with a heavy sigh that the classes of 2020 and beyond are likely to be equally methodical, deliberative, and pokey. I don’t remember if it was my colleague or me who sighed the next thing first — I think we may have done so simultaneously:

“Why do we do this?”

Each year, college admissions professionals set a course we believe will lead to success, whether it’s a student landing at a college option that fits them well, or it’s a class of new students that meet our institutional wants and needs.

In that way, we’re kind of like NASA engineers in the Mars landing business (hat-tip to Matt Inman of “The Oatmeal” for gloriously detailing the Mars lander mission scheduled for a November 2019 completion).

Using our best intelligence, we calibrate our instruments, and set a course at the beginning of each cycle — one that will take many months to complete — and launch…

From The Oatmeal: On November 26th a Mole Will Land On Mars

and we won’t know until the very last minute if our calibrations were correct…

From The Oatmeal: On November 26th a Mole Will Land On Mars
From The Oatmeal: On November 26th a Mole Will Land On Mars
From The Oatmeal: On November 26th a Mole Will Land On Mars

…and by the time we do know, it’s too late to do anything about it.

Speaking of metaphors.

I was at a conference of the Wisconsin Association for College Admission Counseling held in La Crosse, Wisconsin, in May 2019, where I gave a spoken version of this written piece. It was a lovely event planned by colleagues who care about the admissions profession. They chose a theme, “Building Bridges,” a metaphor no doubt inspired by the local topography, a confluence of the three rivers ambling through this bluff-bordered valley in the region’s Driftless Area.

I’ve always enjoyed bridges, and the Golden Gate had always been one of my favorites…

Photo credit: Rich Niewiroski Jr.

…at least until this year.

Screen grab from YouTube

(Thanks, Aunt Becky.)

By now, most of us have heard of the Scandalously Scandalous Scandal in college admissions (a.k.a., the “Varsity Blues” sting operation that caught the “Full House” star and a gaggle of other wealthy parents using money and fraud to get their kids into some of the nation’s most highly selective colleges).

It was a side show to an otherwise normal year in College Admissionsland.

If normal for you means driving along with the knowledge that the road ahead is going to present some challenges…

Photo credit: Alan S. Hart

…especially when it gets wet or frosty.

Many of us in the higher education space are familiar with Knocking at the College Door, a report by the Western Interstate Commission on Higher Education, which tracks census data to project what the demographic landscape will look like in the future.

The following chart graphs the projected number of students who will graduate each year from high schools in the Midwestern United States. On the far left, we have 2001; on the far right, 2034. We hit a peak of 777,000 graduates in 2010, and have been on a downslide since then, with a modest bump up to the red arrow, where we are in 2019.

From “Knocking on the College Door” WICHE

Looking ahead for the next six years, we will see another decline that ramps up to a nice rise in 2025 before we start to see in 2026 the lingering effects of the 2008 economic recession — the moment when, 18 years prior, financial concerns forced Midwesterners (and the rest of the country) to rethink how (or whether) to raise a family. The number of high school seniors is projected to drop 9% in just four years.

And the demographic picture is pretty grim around the country.

This is why we see headlines like this:

(Oh, US News, you’re so cute when you invoke the end of the world. It gives you something to do when you’re not ranking all of us.)

Speaking of rankings, we continue to get breathless stories about the most highly selective colleges in the country, the ones most often spoken about at cocktail parties.

These stories will likely continue in coming years despite demographic declines, because, well, herd mentality is a real thing.

Just to make things extra special, the federal government has some issues with the National Association for College Admission Counseling…

…and its belief that students should be free from high-pressure tactics in the college-decision making process.

And, there was the matter of the Upper Midwest’s never-ending winter.

Photo credit: Kellie Hatcher/Offset

But here’s where I offer a glimmer of goodness.

I had an epiphany this winter when I was out clearing my driveway for the 47th time.

My snowblower had died right as I approached the final five feet of my driveway — you know, the part where the snowplow triples your work by relocating the heavy, slushy stuff from the road onto your driveway.

I believe I shook my fist angrily at the sky, punctuating each skyjab with a different color from the swearword spectrum, and then shuffled with frustration back to my garage to grab my shovel for what I knew would be a back-breaking task.

And then it hit me.

I could complain about the fact that I had to shovel.

I could go back inside, wrap myself in a blanket, stare out the window and wait for it to melt.

Or I could find gratitude — even joy — in the fact that I could shovel, that I actually had the gift of reasonably good physical health that permitted me to be able to do this hard work in the first place.

Which brings me back to my colleague’s lament that started this article:

Why do we do this?

Because we get to do this.

We college admissions professionals get to help college-bound 17- and 18- and 25- and 30-year olds (and their families) at a critical point as they discern how and where they will spend some of their most formative years, where they will begin writing the next chapters of their lives.

It’s a privilege for us to do so.

There are so many things we cannot control about our work:

  • Media stories that focus on the things that scare us about college admissions;
  • Demographic changes;
  • The whims of the government;
  • The hearts and minds of college-bound students and those who care about them.

But we have a choice:

We can allow ourselves to get drawn into those things we cannot control. Become absorbed by them. Waste energy getting angry or depressed by them. Rage tweet about them.

Or, we can control the things we can control.

And it starts with a mindset shift. I call it “The Blust Imperative.”

Photo credit: Roby Blust at Regis University

Roby Blust is currently the chief enrollment officer at Regis University in Denver. He was my boss when I worked in the Marquette University admissions office for a number of years. Roby is one of the kindest, smartest, and most thoughtful people I’ve ever worked with.

He would always remind us throughout the year that we needed to do three things:

  • Take care of yourself
  • Take care of each other
  • Take care of our institution

Do those three things, and the rest will take care of itself.

College admissions folks are not only in the Mars landing business…

Photo credit: Louisville Courier-Journal

…we’re also marathoners. Every year we start off on a long journey together, each heading toward a distant finish line.

Some years we’re going to feel like this:

Photo credit: The Telegraph

Some years we’re going to feel like this:

Photo credit: REUTERS/Paul Childs

If we take care of ourselves along the way — nourishing* and pacing ourselves, knowing where our limits are, and when we can push through them — we will have more moments like the first runner, even if we’re not the one breaking the tape.

*Nourishing will mean different things for different people: meditation, reading, running, biking, service to others, mountain-climbing, whatever.

And when it comes to taking care of each other…

Photo credit: The Guardian

Sometimes we’re the runner on the right.

Sometimes we get to be the runner on the left.

We need to take care of each other. Check in with our colleagues. How are they doing? Are they taking care of themselves as we are taking care of ourselves?

We can be a little kinder, a little more patient — especially when things are getting more stressful. A little empathy goes a long way.

And when it comes to taking care of our institution — whether it’s our school, our association, or our profession — we should look for places where we can help people understand the facts and the truth. One way to do so is to remind people that news stories about college admissions tend to focus on the sensational and the exceptional.

For example, I like to quiz people whenever I can about the percentage of four-year colleges and universities in the U.S. that admit more than half of their applicants. Their answers usually begin like an auction with a really low opening bid, like 10% or 20%.

And they are usually surprised to learn the answer is more than 80%, according to NACAC’s 2018 report, State of College Admission.

Likewise, I like to ask how many colleges admit fewer than 10% of their applicants.

According to the Pew Research Center, only 17 did so last year (yet these colleges tend to get a disproportionate amount of the media coverage, as if they are the norm).

One last way we can take care of each other in the marathon of college admission is to always celebrate the work, regardless of how or where you finish.

Photo credit: Boston Globe

We have a tradition in the admissions office at Lawrence University — launched by our director of admission, Mary Beth Petrie — every May 1, regardless of “how things look,” we will celebrate the work.

A dear friend of mine, Dannie Kennedy of Worklab, once told me that you can always take responsibility for the process and the work, but you cannot always own the result, because so many things will be out of your control.

Work hard. Work smart. And celebrate it. Together.

And remember one more thing…

Photo credit: Fred Thornhill | Toronto Star File Photo

Each of the students we work with is on his or her own journey. And while we professional admissions folks may have seen this journey dozens, hundreds, or even thousands of times, we need to remember that it is the first time for each of the students we have the privilege to work with.

Some will have everything work out perfectly (and quickly).

Others may take longer.

Embrace the turtle.

Because we get to do this.

Ken Anselment is Vice President for Enrollment & Communications | Dean of Admission at Lawrence University in Appleton, Wis.

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