Driving the Next Action: How to Address the Next Decade’s Three Biggest Admissions Challenges

RJ Nichol
Jan 16, 2020

In light of decreased or stagnant budgets, inefficient operational processes and growing competition from programs and schools in other countries, it’s not surprising that the 2019 Inside Higher Ed Survey of College and University Admissions Officials recently revealed that most admissions leaders today are “very concerned” about filling their classes.

While every college or university faces a unique array of challenges that require customized solutions, admissions and program leaders from institutions across the country have successfully implemented a variety of innovative strategies and technology to help achieve some of their institution’s most critical short- and long-term goals.

Challenge #1: Doing more with less

University of the Pacific, for example, has been using Liaison’s Centralized Application Service (CAS™) in multiple programs for more than 20 years. While each version of a CAS is designed to meet the needs of a specific type of program or institution, they all have one thing in common: They provide applicants and admissions offices with an easy-to-use, cloud-based application technology that reduces paperwork, simplifies workflows and improves communications between students and schools.

“We have launched several new programs in just a few years, but we weren’t given additional staffing resources,” says Olivia Nash, assistant dean for Enrollment and Student Services at University of the Pacific. “Of course, it’s very difficult to manage multiple workflows and multiple systems. By going to an all-CAS model, we now have just one review tool. That saved us a lot of time and, honestly, a lot of overtime. It also cut down on our troubleshooting costs.”

St. Cloud State University, on the other hand, is a relative newcomer to the world of Liaison’s CAS. It recently joined GradCAS™, a single application portal that gives admissions offices an improved way to recruit, admit and enroll best-fit students while saving money and headcount each admissions cycle.

“We’ve already seen a significant increase in applications in a very short period of time,” says Sean Pitzer, associate director of Graduate Admissions at St. Cloud State. “In addition, some of our programs noticed very quickly that they began receiving a lot of applicants from students who were not already on their radar. Some of the students who found us would not have known about our programs before we joined GradCAS.”

CAS also made a meaningful difference at Weill Cornell Medicine, according to Matt Cipriano, associate director of Enrollment and Education Operations.

“Our previous process took literally weeks on end, with people working 80 hours a week to prepare applications for review. With CAS, we didn’t have to spend that time processing applications to get everything where it needed to be or send requests for letters of recommendation out — all those things were handled by the software itself or by Liaison’s services team.”

Challenge #2: Improving transparency

Having grown up as “digital natives” who expect immediate responses to their demands, today’s students and applicants want nothing less than timely, personalized information about the entire application and enrollment process. As you probably know by now, they’re not content to sit around wondering where things stand and waiting patiently for you to get back to them.

Also, they don’t want to guess about what motivates your admissions decisions. They want transparency in the process. And if you leave them scratching their heads, they’re likely to go elsewhere.

According to Katherine Ruger, assistant dean of Admissions and Pre-College Programs at Michigan State University’s College of Osteopathic Medicine, achieving transparency requires educating faculty and staff as well as applicants about admissions expectations.

“With internal stakeholders, we share what we’re looking for when we’re screening applications,” she says. “We provide an overview of what the admissions committee decision-making models are and what kind of applications we’re getting through the pool.”

“We also offer applicants the ability to come into the office and talk. That’s not to say everybody has to do that, but we’re finding it works pretty well for us. We will invite them to come in and talk to us about how to prepare their application and what the process looks like from our perspective. Also, if they’re not successful, we invite them to come back and talk to us about why that may have been.”

Challenge #3: Attracting and enrolling more international students

Although there were nominally more international students enrolled in U.S. colleges and universities during the 2018-2019 school year, the number of new international students dropped to a six-year low. Possible explanations include the high cost of a U.S. education, increased competition from schools in other countries and federal immigration policies that may be perceived as unwelcoming.

It’s worth noting that engineering students make up one of the largest categories of international students in this country — a fact not lost on those who work to bring them into the profession.

“I think some of the political rhetoric about immigration these days is potentially hurting the image of the United States as a welcoming country. That could have a dampening impact on international applications,” says Nathan Kahl, managing director of Communications and Society Advancement at the American Society for Engineering Education.

“People need to remember that a lot of international students stay here in the United States and become productive members of society,” he said. “They start companies. They create wealth. For instance, Elon Musk, who co-founded Tesla and several other companies, and Sergey Brin, co-founder of Google, fall into that category. I like to remind people, too, that there’s a long-held argument in engineering that when you bring a diverse set of perspectives and life experiences to a problem, it increases your likelihood of creating an elegant solution for that problem.”

Dr. Lorie Liebrock, New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology’s dean of Graduate Studies, says her institution makes extra efforts to ensure that international students feel welcome.

“We provide a focused orientation for our international students to illuminate the cultural differences that they may experience,” she says. “We invite faculty and staff to attend. In addition, our international director and our university president communicate regularly with international applicants, faculty and staff about what New Mexico Tech is doing, and can do, to assist international students.”

The school also hosts a Global Village Day featuring exhibits, food and other cultural offerings representative of students’ home countries. That, in turn, helps make international students some of New Mexico’s “best ambassadors” for recruiting new students.

“Because we serve a global marketplace, we also use EngineeringCAS™ to increase the number of potential applicants who can see our programs and process their applications,” she says, referring to Liaison’s Centralized Application Service™ designed specifically to improve marketing and enrollment initiatives for engineering programs. “In tandem with Liaison’s WebAdMIT™ portal, it allows us to make decisions and respond to students more promptly. That’s important, considering all of the documentation we have to collect in order to process international students.”

While it’s true that many of the challenges facing higher ed today would have been difficult to anticipate at the beginning of the last decade, we now have the ability to identify and implement meaningful solutions. Are your strategies for navigating the future still rooted in the past — or do they meet the expectations of today’s discerning applicants and students? Your institution’s success depends on the answer to that question.

RJ Nichol

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Over the last three decades, Liaison has helped over 40,000 programs on more than 1,200 campuses more effectively manage admissions through its Centralized Application Service (CAS™) technology and complementary application processing and support services. The higher education technology leader supports its partner institutions’ total enrollment goals by pairing CAS with its Enrollment Marketing (EM) platform as well as the recently acquired TargetX (CRM) and advanced analytics software Othot.