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Creating a Community

Enrollment Management isn't just about identifying factors that lead to academic success. It's also helping to create a vibrant campus community.

Mike Sexton is vice president for enrollment management at Santa Clara University. In a career of nearly four decades, he has been in the classroom as a teacher and managed admissions applications for several universities around the U.S. He was recently interviewed by Jane McMillan of KCBS Radio about how students should prepare for the admissions process and what goes into the choice to admit a student these days. An edited transcript of the discussion follows.

How can students decide which colleges to visit ?

By the time they get to be juniors, most students have talked with their high school counselors and have a long list of the campus visits they would like to do. I think it’s a wise idea to start locally and say, “I can visit small, medium, and large institutions right here in the Bay Area before I'm going to invest in a plane ticket to fly back to Washington, DC, or to Miami.”

Students today need to be self-reflective. They need to know what they like about their current high school environment. What do they not want to give up? Small classes, access to faculty, those kinds of things. Don’t rush into “What college am I going to go to?”

What has changed in the admission process since you began in this field?

The college process has changed a lot over the years. Many of today’s parents went to college when we used to graduate about 2.2 million students from US high schools, half of whom went to college. Now we graduate 3.3 million high school students and two-thirds of them go to college. So it's a very different environment. Selectivity has increased a great deal.

Do eleventh and twelfth grade students need to know what they want to major this early ?

Not necessarily. Eleventh grade students in California should have a baseline curriculum to make sure that they take courses that are necessary for the University of California - A through G requirements. Other than that, for students, the junior year is about keeping options open—taking challenging coursework, preparing to take that fourth year of math, things that might matter if they decide to consider business or engineering. When we're evaluating candidates, our job is to say, “What has the student done with what's available to him or her?” “How have they challenged themselves?”

Can you give us some insight into the admissions process?

In the admission process, we basically ask two questions. The first one is, “Can we predict academic success for the student?” We base that on that three to three-and-a-half year's worth of high school work.

The second question is more important. How do you go from this admissible stack to the admitted stack? At some colleges that receive 45,000 applications, probably 44,000 of the students could come and do the work, but they're only going to admit 4.7 percent. That's where the rest of the story comes in. This is one of these processes where the student can do everything right and still not be guaranteed of getting what they want because of supply and demand.

What will help a student get to the first, second, or third college of choice? Is it the recommendation letters? Is it the essays? Is it extracurricular activities?

I'm glad you said “first, second, or third choice” because I think one of the problems is, even though they start the process early, students should not “fall in love” too early. There's a lot of exploration to be done, both internally with the help of their school counselor to see the viability of their record; how they've done; are they ready for things to change?

Our job in admissions is to enroll a class of individuals. If I'm doing a presentation to students and I say, “How many of you want to go to college with really interesting people?” all of them raise their hands. I usually say, “Well, you have to be one of them.”

First and foremost, we have to be able to predict academic success before we get to these other factors. We’re looking at how the student is going to be as a member of our community. If our students were all the same, that would be incredibly boring, both to them, to our faculty, and certainly to us reading their applications.

What should students be doing to write that part of the story for themselves?

In addition to academic success, what would make them a good community member is some evidence of their commitment, of their passion. We would much rather see one or two things they've really spent time on—developing a skill, a talent, and have some in-depth reflection on that rather than somebody who joined 10 clubs to get 10 pictures in the yearbook. We want depth, not breadth, of involvement.

How heavily do SAT scores weigh against a good GPA and a great well-rounded set of activities and community involvement?

We consider the SAT, but to us the best predictor of how somebody is going to do at a university is the three-and-a-half years' worth of work in their high school. Performance over time predicts future performance. An SAT is three hours on a Saturday morning. The core academics in high school is the starting point. We realize standardized tests are not everybody's best friend. There are now over 800 institutions that have some version of “test optional” admissions. Fairtest.org will give you a list and their criteria.

How do most universities cull through applications? Is it an algorithm that scans for certain words?

No, applications at selective institutions are read by real people. It is a labor-intensive process. UCLA had 100,000 applications! They hired over a 100 part-time readers to actually put their eyes on them, to verify things, and to highlight the good and the bad for a second reader who follows. When we are training staff, we do have a rubric of what we're looking for in terms of curriculum and the essay and the recommendations, but it is not an algorithm where only numbers and ratings equal final decisions.

What impact should financial considerations have on a student’s college choice?

Getting admitted is half the battle. Paying for it is the rest. So it must play a part, but college should also be looked at as an investment. It's probably going to involve some of your dollars and some of the university's dollars and some may actually be supported by my tax dollars—helping to give you federal grants, loans and work study. College remains a very strong investment, a great return on your investment. A college education is going to pay dividends the rest of your life.

Any other final words of wisdom ?

I can tell you that it all works out. There is a college experience for everyone. From the minute children are born, parents are preparing them to leave us. The college process is good practice.

My credibility with parents goes up because I've had two students go through college, graduate in four years and, they're both tax-paying adults living outside of my home!

A frequent presenter at professional conferences, Mike has been involved in numerous state/regional associations. He has been on the faculty of the National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC) Advanced School Counselor Institute and co-directed the NACAC Admission Mid-Management Institute. Mike was on the College Board’s College Planning Advisory Board for the “Big Future” web site. His admission work has taken him to 47 states and 22 countries. He has been a faculty member of the College Board International School Counselor Institute and traveled to American embassies and international schools on behalf of the US State Department’s Overseas Travelers’ Project Guidance Committee.

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