Higher Ed Under Financial Pressure: 2015 Survey’s Surprising Findings

College admissions directors face challenges as they strive to meet their yearly enrollment goals. Matthew Phelan reports on Inside Higher Ed’s Survey of College and University Admissions Directors — and the good and bad news for prospective students.

It really might be time to consider going back to school.

That's among the more self-evident conclusions to be drawn from the Survey of College and University Admissions Directors conducted this past August by Gallup on behalf of Inside Higher Ed.

For the third year straight, a significant percentage of college admissions directors and enrollment officers, from public as well as private institutions, have told Gallup that they were “very concerned” about meeting their school's new student enrollment goals. Their concern was reportedly even higher this year than last, with 51 percent reporting serious stress over their enrollment goals in 2015, compared to 47 percent last year. A majority of admissions directors also reported that their schools had not met their enrollment goals by May 1, 2015.

The vast majority of all admissions directors — 62 percent — also said they were not “prioritizing an applicant’s ability to pay in making admissions decisions,” a figure that was notably higher for public universities, at 82 percent.

All told, the survey's results this year, and historically, do suggest that college is something of a students' market right now. If you were nervous about applying to schools, but seriously considering the idea, now might be the time to dive in.

A Quick Note on the Survey Methodology

The fact that these responses from Gallup and Inside Higher Ed's survey are remarkably consistent with the previous years' data speaks well to their accuracy, because — as has been the case with this survey over the years — its limited sample size can create some wobbliness in the results (a wider “margin of error,” in other words, or “confidence interval”).

As in 2014, by far the biggest, most well-supported statistical finding from this year’s survey was that, by and large, university admissions and enrollment officers lacked the inclination to fill it out. Gallup invited 2,575 admissions directors via email to complete the survey, and 264 took them up on it: 107 public institutions, 151 private institutions, and five for-profit colleges, meaning that a little less than 90 percent of admissions directors said, “No, thanks” when they saw this survey invitation in their inboxes (one institution could not be classified as public, private, or for-profit because of missing information).

As Gallup's pollsters warn in their introduction, “gaps in coverage of the sample, along with the participation rate, mean the results from this sample represent the views of those who participated in the survey and cannot, with a high degree of confidence, be projected to the broader population of admissions directors.”

As uninspiring as that may sound, the margin of error for this sample size is about ±5.72 percent, which is to say that the results, at least, have something like a reasonable chance of reflecting the true percentage breakdowns of these opinions, for the specific 2,575 U.S. colleges and universities whose staffers were sent the survey.

So, that's roughly the grain of salt you should take with these numbers. The survey's main statistics come with the implicit qualifier of “give or take about five or six percent.” That margin of error can be expected to vary for many of the granular breakdowns of the survey's answers (e.g., How many admissions officers for doctoral programs at public universities answered a particular question with “strongly agree”? Or, how many admissions officers for four-year baccalaureate programs at private colleges answered that same question with “strongly disagree”?).

The Good News for Prospective Students

Admissions directors were, by and large, looking to expand their recruitment efforts, the survey found, a trend in keeping with the previous year's results.

A majority of respondents (61 percent) were hoping primarily to recruit more full-time undergraduate students (up from 58 percent of respondents last year though, again, that three percent may not mean much).

Comparatively, it's worth noting that both this year's and last year's surveys determined that many admissions officers from two-year schools felt that some of their programs, such as automotive technology and nursing, have “highly competitive admissions.” In 2015, 62 percent of respondents from these admissions departments said that they admitted less than half of the qualified applicants for their competitive two-year programs. For aspiring students who have previously failed to get into a two-year program — or for students debating whether to pursue a two-year or a four-year degree — a logical conclusion from this might be to consider seriously applying to a few four-year programs.

Admissions officers this year also expressed an interest in expanding their recruitment efforts targeting other student groups, with 47 percent hoping to increase recruitment of transfer students, 39 percent hoping to attract more out-of-state applicants, and 36 percent looking to increase outreach efforts to minority students and international students. Where outreach criteria were concerned, the respondents seemed fortuitously ambivalent about students’ ability to pay fully for their education. For the 28 percent of respondents looking to increase their recruitment of lucrative full-pay students, there was a countervailing 27 percent looking to increase students recruited with merit scholarships.

In fact, an overwhelming majority either “agreed” (36 percent) or “strongly agreed” (44 percent) with the statement, “Merit scholarships are an appropriate use of our institution’s financial resources.” Very few respondents reported that recent financial pressures were forcing them into favoring full-pay students or factoring a student's ability to pay into their admissions calculus. That said, public universities were more vehement on this issue than private colleges.

A marked indifference to standardized testing metrics was another notable trend in students' favor. The admissions and enrollment officers surveyed were basically split on the question of whether or not tests like the SAT or ACT should be optional for applicants. That split — with roughly 41 percent either “agreeing” or “strongly agreeing” that submitting the test scores should be optional, and 44 percent “disagreeing” or “strongly disagreeing” — ought to give prospective students some peace of mind. (Respondents representing two-year public institutions went even further, with a clear majority, 58 percent, believing it might be appropriate to consider prospective students without reference to their high school transcripts.) Given these results, it might be a better allocation of time and stress for students to focus on their applications essays, which a large portion of admissions and enrollment officers say they take very seriously, judging from the the previous year's Inside Higher Ed survey (the survey does not ask the same questions every year).

Veterans and minority students topped the list of potential applicants whom admissions directors felt deserved special consideration, even if they were to apply with lower grades and test scores. Curiously, admissions directors at public institutions were more inclined to feel this way about veterans, and admissions directors at private colleges and universities were more inclined to feel this way about minorities.

Overall, the trend was a greater open-mindedness toward — and eagerness for — prospective new students.

The Bad News for Prospective Students

Among the more disappointing findings from this year's survey was that admissions directors seem perfectly comfortable with the idea of significant student debt, despite the fact that 76 percent of respondents also thought that their institution was losing potential applicants over debt concerns. An even higher percentage of admissions officers — 87 percent — at private colleges felt they were losing students over debt worries. Even still, 41 percent of admissions directors reported that they felt anywhere from $20,000 to $40,000 in debt was a “reasonable amount of loan debt from all sources” for an undergraduate student pursuing a four-year baccalaureate degree. When paired with last year's survey question about “gapping” — the practice of accepting students without giving them sufficient financial aid to enroll — it's clear that many colleges and universities are expecting students to bear a significant financial burden for their education. (To briefly review last year's results on gapping, 72 percent of admissions directors from private institutions said they used the practice, compared to 39 percent at public colleges.)

It was no exaggeration when Inside Higher Ed titled their own review of this year's survey findings “Pressure From All Sides.” And while the stark financial picture those results paint obviously lends some clear advantages to applicants, there are clear disadvantages too — like this student debt issue.

For many of the admissions officers surveyed, the active recruitment of out-of-state domestic students and international students (both of whom typically pay higher tuition at public universities) was an integral component of their school's financial strategy and plan to meet their enrollment goals. This may present an advantage to international students and out-of-state students comfortable with taking on some extra debt, and thus far only 21 percent of the admissions directors have reported that they've received political or public pressure from their state to stop affording out-of-state and international students an advantage.

The longer the policy persists and/or expands, however, the more likely it is to face a backlash from prospective in-state students and parents whose taxes help to fund these public universities. As The Atlantic recently admonished state policymakers, “these phenomena [of admitting increasing numbers of out-of-state and international applicants] suggest that public colleges and state governments are effectively tiptoeing away from their mission of providing their residents with a quality, affordable education.”

More unambiguously negative for most prospective students was the survey's finding that about one in four admissions directors say that senior-level administrators (24 percent), trustees or board members (22 percent), or development office representatives (26 percent) had attempted to influence decisions in favor of certain candidates. Befitting stereotypes most of us have about the Ivy League, this pressure was reportedly more common at private institutions. While the survey did not ask whether or not such attempts were successful, admissions directors were asked if allowing that pressure was ever a “reasonable” thing to do “in moderation . . . to promote financial support for [their] institution,” of which 44 percent responded that it was never appropriate, while 33 percent disagreed.

Additionally, while a majority of directors reported that their college investigates disciplinary records on prospective students, which may include criminal records, less than half of those respondents (43 percent) said that they had been provided with “special training on how to evaluate disciplinary or legal information.”

And finally, in keeping with previous years, admissions directors responding to this year's survey displayed a tragicomic and immeasurable mixture of dishonesty and cynicism on a particularly loaded pair of questions. When asked if their institution held Asian applicants to a higher standard on admissions criteria, one percent of private and zero percent of public institutions copped to the allegations. And yet, when asked if they believed that other institutions engaged in this discriminatory practice, 51 percent of private and 33 percent of public college admissions directors expressed their opinion that their counterparts did.

The findings were similar to last year's, when 99 percent of admissions officials claimed that they had not falsely reported standardized test scores to boost their college's ranking — while almost exactly that same majority — 93 percent — were simultaneously convinced that other schools had boosted their reported standardized test numbers, along with other admissions data.

The Basic (TL;DR) Conclusions

Colleges and universities are under a lot of financial pressure, like just about everyone else these days.

They're worried about meeting enrollment goals and are largely in favor of merit scholarships — and these things can certainly work in a student's favor. If you are looking to go as an out-of-state or international student, things look even better. Colleges really want you (though, granted, their motives are, in part, economically self-interested). Aspiring students with a criminal record have cause for concern, as might Asian applicants potentially, as well as students looking to avoid acquiring too much student loan debt. It's hard to know with certainty just how concerned students should be, however, given the low response rate to the survey.

Hoping perhaps to lessen their debt, or curb their expectations, students have flocked to practical two-year degree programs rather than traditional four-year programs, with the unanticipated result of making those programs hotly competitive. Given that there are plenty of practical, employment-friendly four-year degrees out there, these students might be well-advised to broaden the range of programs they're willing to consider.

Regardless, if you would like to take away an incredibly sturdy, if not entirely useful, finding from this report, here you go: It's an iron-clad fact that admissions directors do not think particularly highly of one another, and they don't have time for Inside Higher Ed’s email surveys, either.

Now, with this advice from Matthew Phelan, try using Noodle to find the best college based on what matters most to you.

Questions or feedback? Write to us at [email protected], or leave a comment below.

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