Admissions for the Greatest Generation

0559_001In a recent blog post I wrote about the changes in the admissions process between the baby-boomer era and the environment faced by millennials today. Recent conversations with several alumni reminded me that earlier generations had their own unique admissions experiences–and that the changes in admissions are very often just a reflection of the changes we see in the broader world.

When visiting alumni, I almost always ask them how they came to Saint John’s.  Not surprisingly, many talk about family connections.  “My dad is a Johnnie.”  “My brother was there, so I went, too.”  “I come from a long line of Johnnies.”

But for first generation students that, of course, cannot be the story.  In these cases, the stories vary widely, but I have noted a common thread for alumni from what is often called The Greatest Generation–those who grew up during the Great Depression, many of whom fought in WWII, and raised families in the 50s and 60s.  For these Johnnies, the Catholic identity of Saint John’s was central to their decision.  Many have told me that is was a parish priest who directed them to SJU, in some cases even driving them to campus for a visit and helping with the admissions process.  In other cases, the Catholic identity was not part of the student’s decision–because it was not their decision!  I recently had an alum tell me that he had not wanted to go to Saint John’s, but it was the only school his Catholic mother would allow him to go to.  During his first year he roomed with a cousin who was at SJU for exactly the same reason.  Both ended up transferring, not because they were unhappy, but because they wanted to study engineering.  Both remain loyal and generous non-degree alumni.

This conversation reminded me of an advertisement that I was given a year ago.  As you can see, it comes from the Bulletin of the Diocese of Fargo from 1909.  It confidently asserts, “Catholic Parents know it is their duty to give their Boys a Good Catholic Education in a Good Catholic School.”  Clearly, in that era, it was assumed that parents were largely making the educational decision for their sons and “duty” to the Church was a powerful determinant in such matters.

Today we know from our internal research that students and their families make decisions rather differently.  First, students have a bit more say in the process.  Second, while our Catholic identity still matters for many, in the 21st century a simple reference to “duty”  to the church is hardly sufficient to fill an entering class.  Third, there is more Catholic competition.  The University of Mary in North Dakota, St. Scholastica and St. Mary’s were all founded after 1909 and that little school on Summit Avenue, the University of St. Thomas, is no longer the upstart it was in 1909.  These additional options all make our Benedictine character and monastery an important point of differentiation, beyond being Catholic.  Finally, today our residential and liberal arts academic model is well articulated and important to our Catholic and non-Catholic students, in a way that a Catholic mother of yesteryear may not have fully understood when her son tried to explain that SJU did not have the  engineering program he wanted.

Students today are looking for a constellation of characteristics in their college. Being Catholic may be a plus factor for some, but it is not deterministic in the way it may have been for mothers of an earlier era.

By |February 8th, 2016|Categories: Higher Education||0 Comments

Admissions: Now and Then

tour-1This is the middle of admissions season at colleges and universities. Some schools let all their students know of the admissions decision on a set date, often in March, but most places, like the College of Saint Benedict and Saint John’s University, have a rolling process where we typically give students an answer within a few weeks of receiving their completed applications.

For schools with a rolling admissions process, the courting begins in earnest after the students are admitted. In bigger metro areas, events are held for admitted students and their parents to give them more detailed information about the educational experience they can expect.  I attended a couple such events in the Twin Cities recently.  In one case, General Mills was our host and, at the other, Best Buy generously let us use space at their headquarters.  At both events there were several hundred guests, counting admitted students and their parents.  Our admissions team had also invited faculty members, staff, coaches, recent alumni and current students to meet with prospective students and their parents.  There was a welcome from both presidents, a panel in which current students talked about their educational experience at CSB and SJU, and a session on financing a liberal arts education.  There was also plenty of informal time for the admitted students to talk to faculty, coaches, staff and alumni, as well as meet some of their potential classmates, an especially important consideration for many students.

At smaller institutions, like CSB and SJU, our admissions staff also work diligently one-on-one to stay in touch with the students they have recruited and shepherded through the application process, especially students who for geographic reasons might not have access to events like those described above. Often using the most current social media, our counselors regularly reach out to admitted students to answer questions and share news for our campuses.  This process requires a sensitivity and deft touch that balances our desire to let students know of our ongoing interest – without making them feel like they are being stalked.

There is a retail aspect to the process that is quite different from when I was a student in the late 70s and early 80s. At that time, you chose a few schools to apply to, likely based on some mailings you got after taking the ACT or SAT.  Then you sent in a paper application to maybe half a dozen places, if that, and you visited some schools, if they were in driving distance.  Then you got an answer.  If the news was good, you got the proverbial “fat envelope” with information about costs and financial aid, how to apply for housing and maybe some information about registering for classes.  That tended to be the last you would hear from a college until you committed to attending by sending a deposit check.  You (and your parents) were left to sort out the decision on your own, with the limited information you had been sent.


Part of the change is simple demographics. For the baby-boomer generation, college was a sellers’ market.  There were plenty of students seeking places and without too much effort most schools filled their classes with the growing numbers of high school graduates attending college.  For millennials, especially in the upper Midwest, higher education is now a buyers’ market.  The population of high school students has trended downward, bottoming out in MN in the last couple years, while the number of seats at college and universities has been stable or even grown.

A second change is in the technology of admissions. Communicating through the mail in the 1970s and 1980s was just more expensive than email or a text.  A wealth of information that is easily put on a website now had to be culled down to a few pages when putting it into a slick, glossy admissions view book in the past.  Retail admissions was just not affordable in the snail mail and long distance phone call era.

Finally, and most importantly, there has been a change in how students and their parents view the college search process.  Rather than tending to view a college degree and the attendant experience as a homogeneous product, as most baby boomers did, there is an increasing belief, grounded in reality, that the four year undergraduate experience can and does vary widely.  A four year residential, liberal arts experience is not the same as earning even the same bachelor’s degree in the identical major at a big research university or a comprehensive mid-size school.  As a result, parents, students and often high school counselors are spending more time seeking the right “fit” for the bachelor’s degree experience.  The typical entering first year college student has visited (sometimes starting in the sophomore year of high school) and applied to more schools (about 5 schools on average in the case of CSB and SJU) than they did in the past.  They also have greater access to information about the experience they will have at each school.  They come to us as better informed consumers–even if they chose not to use this information fully or may, possibly, focus on the wrong things.


So the question that educators, parents and students might well ask is whether the current admissions process generates better outcomes for students and/or colleges. A recent article in the New Yorker calls the current process “poisonous,” though laments such as these tend to focus on admission to the most highly selective institutions in the country and they often come from the rarified world of the upper, upper middle class on the coasts.

My observation, which is shared by most of my colleagues at Saint John’s and Saint Ben’s, is that the outcomes are better than in the past. Student know more about the wide range of options available to them and are encouraged to think carefully about their choices during the admission process.  The resulting applicant pool includes a more geographically, economically and ethnically diverse mix than in the past, resulting in a more diverse entering class and a better learning experience for all students.  Fewer students come into our institutions and are surprised by the expectations we have of them and the experiences they will encounter, which helps retention.  The more complicated admission process results in better information for applicants, which results in a better “fit.”

For those who regret the time, energy, expense and occasional pressure that can be part of this new admission world, to object is like complaining about weather or gravity: it is simply part of the world in which we live.

By |February 2nd, 2016|Categories: Higher Education||0 Comments

Pace Thomas Wolfe, Americans Can and Do Go Home Again: Implications for Admissions

q1361I recently had a conversation with an alumnus who told me of his pleasure and surprise that both of his adult children had recently decided to move back to the Twin Cities.  He and his wife were delighted at the prospect of spending more time with their children, children’s spouses and any grandchildren that might arrive on the scene in the future.  The surprise came from the fact that these young adults, the children and the spouses both, are very well-educated, with bachelor’s and graduate degrees, earned in places far from Minnesota.  Furthermore, the spouses had no family or geographic ties to the state of Minnesota.

This Johnnie alum had every reason to expect that his talented children would be part of the middle and upper-middle-class educational diaspora–living and working in far flung locations where their talents and education took them, unrelated to where they were raised or where their parents lived.

Yet at the same time, there is strong evidence that family ties still bind.  Jon McGee, the Vice President for Planning and Public Affairs at the College of Saint Benedict and Saint John’s University, shared a recent article entitled, “How Far is it to Mom’s? For Many American Adults, Not Far.”  The article was originally published in the New York Times, but it was widely reprinted across the country, including in the Minneapolis Star Tribune.  The article looked at recent demographic data and concluded:

The typical adult lives only 18 miles from his or her mother, according to an Upshot analysis of data from a comprehensive survey of older Americans. Over the past few decades, Americans have become less mobile, and most adults — especially those with less education or lower incomes — do not venture far from their hometowns.

The article does note the data reveal important differences by income and education:

The biggest determinants of how far people venture from home are education and income. Those with college and professional degrees are much more likely to live farther from their parents than those with a high school education, in part because they have more job opportunities in big cities, and especially if spouses are juggling the career aspirations of two professionals.

But the authors note some common threads across demographic groups, including “multiple generations leaning on one another for financial and practical support,” “baby boomers need more care in old age” and a “growing number of two-income families seek help with child care.”

I think there is a further demographic phenomenon that plays a role in this trend: smaller family size. I may be too influenced by my Catholic upbringing, but when I was growing up it was not at all unusual for families to have five, six or even more children, while for families of my generation and younger, three seems to be in the upper bound, with only rare exceptions.  This changed family dynamic can affect little decisions, “Should I go home for Christmas if there will be no one else to celebrate with mom and dad?” as well as larger ones, “Where should I make my professional life?”

2015-09-11_Family_Weekend_SJU_Football_Game_and_Campus_050This changing dynamic for adults was on Jon’s mind in part because he also knows something about how college students make their college choices.  The empirical evidence on college choice reveals that “58 percent of high school graduates attend college within 100 miles of their hometown, while 72 percent stay in-state, according to Niche Ink. Only 11 percent of students venture more than 500 miles from their hometown.”

In this matter, students at the College of Saint Benedict and Saint John’s University are similar to their national peers. About 80 percent of our students are from Minnesota and many of those are from Central MN and the Twin Cities.  We are working hard and have had some success at becoming more national (when I was a student in the late 70s, coming from Iowa was considered exotic), both as the demographics of the Midwest become more challenging and because a more geographically diverse student body provides a better education for all our students.

If Americans, even highly educated ones, are becoming “less mobile,” this presents an additional challenge in attracting out of state students to Minnesota.  If a young person thinks that in the long run they will ultimately make their professional and personal life near their parents, they may be less inclined to go out of state, to say nothing of across the country, for college.  If a college’s networks tend to be local, as they are for all but the most national schools, and the possibility of a romantic entanglement might lead to a couple being forced to choose between two geographically distant sets of parents, it can be perfectly rational to stay close to home, even is there might be an educationally better fit further afield.

One way that alumni can help with this challenge is to let the Johnnie and Bennie network expand geographically.  This already happens when our California or Chicago alumni assist our students with job searches in those areas, but it also happens when our local Minnesota alums who work for national organizations help current students connect with the right person in their Texas or New York or San Francisco offices.

There is no easy solution to making our job networks more national, but the generosity and support of our great alumni is a good start.  As the alum I mentioned at the beginning of this post discovered, it is not impossible for students to get a great education far from home yet still make a satisfying and successful professional life near family, if that is their wish.

By |January 11th, 2016|Categories: Alumni, Economics, Higher Education||0 Comments