Wednesday, October 10, 2018

Where Are the Students?

By:  Patrick O'Connor  Ph.D

It’s early in the college application season, but college admissions officers are reporting a trend that could have a major impact on the way they recruit students.

College admissions folks refer to fall as “travel season”, the time when they leave their cushy college offices and head for the high schools of the students they serve.  Reps will schedule presentations for individual high schools, community-based presentations in hotel ballrooms, and family-based meetings through college fairs organized by individual schools and their districts—all in the name of getting to meet the students.

This long-standing approach appears to be losing some of its luster.  School counselors are reporting record drops in the number of students who ask to attend the high school-based meetings, choosing to remain in class instead of meeting with the reps.  Similar reports are coming from college fairs, where reps are reporting light turnouts of parents and families—even when the fair is held in the evening, or on the weekend.

What seems to be the culprit behind these low numbers?  Several counselors are claiming these events are the victim of “application creep”, where seniors apply to college earlier and earlier in the school year.  10 years ago, it wasn’t unusual for many seniors to apply in February of twelfth grade year.  Now, students are rushing to complete online college applications as soon as the portals open in early August, hoping to have their applications complete before school starts, in part so they can focus their fall on doing well in school and enjoying the rites of passage that come with senior year.

This approach to time management sounds downright mature—why risk rushing through college applications and studying less when you can take your time to apply in August, and have all the time you need to ace Physics?  On the other hand, counselors question if this practice is leading to hasty college decisions.  Can seniors make thoughtful college choices without talking to college reps, and doing the one-stop comparisons a college fair has to offer them right before they get their diploma?

Other counselors are already trying to respond to this trend, and their ideas are rather ingenious.

Hold a mini college fair at lunch  Some high schools decided a long time ago to schedule all high school-based college visits at lunch, so students wouldn’t have to choose between missing class and making college plans.  College reps hate these visits, since students are generally too shy to break away from their peers and ask questions, and the lunchroom is too noisy for reps to make general information sessions.

One proposed solution is to schedule more than one college for lunch visits at the same time.  Creating a mini-fair leads to strength in numbers, making it cool for students to get up and ask their questions.  This also makes it possible to put the colleges in a separate but accessible space—say, the library—where students can come and go, and reps don’t have to worry about flying French fries.

Move high school visits to Spring.  Other counselors are toying with the idea of having the colleges come in the spring, where they visit with juniors.  This would be a better fit with the current timeline of students gathering college information sooner, but it could still pose a problem with students wanting to miss class.

It’s clear students are making college decisions sooner.  It will be interesting to see how colleges respond to this trend in ways that make sense for the developmental needs of students.  

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