Q&A With Higher Education Author Jeff Selingo: “Who Gets In & Why”

By Owen Daugherty, NASFAA Staff Reporter

Jeff SelingoBest-selling higher education author Jeff Selingo today released his latest book, "Who Gets In & Why," which details his time embedded in multiple college admissions offices getting an inside look into the selection process. In writing the book, Jeff followed a group of high school seniors as well as those behind the scenes, including the marketers, financial aid consultants, and rankers to provide a comprehensive view of the application and admissions process. Below is a Q&A with Jeff, lightly edited for length and clarity. 

How will COVID-19 change admissions and the enrollment picture in both the short- and long-term?

In the short-term, there will be much more instability in enrollment and two trends will likely emerge. First, students will stay closer to home to go to college. Over the past three decades, colleges and universities in the U.S. broke free from their local roots and looked farther afield to attract students outside their traditional markets. Those days were ending anyway for some institutions as the student populations most willing to travel — with higher grades and test scores and upper-income families — were shrinking in the overall pool.

Now, more students will stay put for safety and financial reasons. Students and parents don't want to be stuck in a faraway state if they need to pack up again at a moment's notice if campuses close. Clearly, the economy is either going to be in a recession or stuck in neutral for the time being and cost will play a big role in students staying close to home. 

Second, value is going to play a much larger role in student choice — it already was before the pandemic. What am I getting for the money I spend? That return on investment question is going to be on the minds of more families.

In the longer term, I see a growing divide between the "haves" and "have-nots" in education. As affordability continues to be at the forefront for many families, those institutions that have the resources to provide aid and the return on the investment — they have the programs or name brands where there is demand — will be the winners. We know demographics are already shifting in the U.S., with a drop-off in the number of high school graduates. 

One of the things you highlighted in the new book are the ways through the admissions process in which schools look for full-tuition payers, whether through early admissions programs, need-aware admissions, as well as where they recruit, including international. How is that changing now, especially on the international front with the Trump administration and now COVID-19? 

Colleges and universities will be looking for full-pay students now more than ever because of the financial hit of the pandemic. International students — and for public institutions, out-of-state students — provided a financial cushion for much of the last decade. Full-pay students did, too, but at most institutions the number of full-pay students was already falling.

The demand for higher education around the world is too great and can't be met by most countries. It will take a pause, however. The numbers won't go up and likely will continue to fall. And to revive international enrollment, colleges and universities will need to diversify those student bodies. There was too much of a focus in recent years on certain countries because of their huge populations. It was easy. Institutions will need to look to new parts of the world to recruit the next generation of international students. There will be a first-mover advantage, I believe, for those that do.

You've said that higher education can be stubborn to change. Do you think the pandemic is causing a collision course where college will have to change? Or is the industry just too ingrained? Do most colleges go back to "business as usual" on the other side of this?

I don't think so. The pandemic has only accelerated trends that would have faced most higher education institutions at the end of this decade anyway because of changing demographics in the U.S. So colleges that had five to six years of runway now have two to three years.  

COVID-19 has exposed the shortcomings of the higher-education model in the U.S. where basically every institution copied each other: two- and four-year degrees, standard academic calendars, and mostly residential education. So what happens in a pandemic? First, the uniqueness of a residential campus in a specific geographic location is diminished by distance education. It's difficult to differentiate your institution's brand from another college's when everyone is at home learning online. While students will return to physical campuses en masse one day, the new normal in higher education is likely to be a mix of online and in-person.

In your estimation, how will the pandemic change the financial aid awarding process? Will aid offices have less data points to use when assessing students' needs?

There are two trends aid offices will be confronting in the years ahead. First, there will be more volatility in family income given the massive disruption of the pandemic on employment. That will make prior-prior year less useful in the short-term and increase demands on already financially strapped institutions. We were already seeing an increase in gapping before the pandemic. I can only imagine that increasing and thus putting pressure on overall retention and graduation rates. I think schools will need to rethink how they package, particularly for those cohorts of students they gap significantly, because I think those families will take fewer risks and may not come, or if they do enroll, end up staying until graduation. 

Second, many colleges rely on test scores to award merit. Hundreds of thousands of students haven't been able to take the ACT/SAT in recent months. More than 400 colleges went test-optional, either temporarily or permanently, in the middle of the pandemic. Once we get through this admissions cycle or even the next two or three and their world doesn't come crashing down because they didn't require a test score for admissions, I think you'll see many schools remaining test-optional. 

We tend to talk about test-optional only in the context of admissions. But aid offices will need to figure out other ways of awarding merit aid in the future and it's not clear they can follow the admissions office in their holistic review of applicants since that takes time and resources.  

In what ways did your reporting highlight how admissions offices are talking about equity in their selection criteria? And how much weight is put on the financial need of applicants?

When I first approached institutions in 2018 with this book project, I went to two dozen campuses with my request. Nearly every one refused. Some admitted they didn't want their inner workings revealed to the wider world. With conversations about inequity a major issue in the political sphere, a few worried about exposing how they shaped their class based on the financial need of applicants.

Lafayette College was one of the few I found willing to show me how they make financial aid trade-offs in selecting a class, and I feature them in a chapter in the book. What makes Lafayette's process interesting — and you'll have to read the book to find out more — is that they don't just go through the pile of tentative admits at the very end to knock out those they can't afford. It's a very deliberative process that happens over the course of several weeks in regular decisions that give staff members a chance to keep students they really want in the pool.


Publication Date: 9/15/2020

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