On schools' minds: competitors and parents

Competition and consumerism in higher education are the most powerful forces in the admissions process today at highly selective schools, says Willis "Lee" Stetson.

"The entire admissions process has developed into a competitive marketplace," he says. "We're all competing for the same students. It's becoming even more selective. Parents are asking more probing questions. They want truth in advertising."

He should know. For the past three decades, the dean of undergraduate admissions at the University of Pennsylvania has been recruiting the cream of America's high school senior crop.

In a recent interview, Dean Stetson addressed key issues in the intensifying fight to attract the world's best young minds.

"At our [Ivy League cost] level, parents are very involved in the process," he says. "They care a great deal about spending $32,000 a year to go to school.... They want to know whether the quality of the education will be worth the investment."

With parents and children now shopping for higher education, marketing has grown more intense. Penn, for instance, has expanded admissions operations from 10 regional directors in the early 1980s to 16 today, plus four overseas officers. There has been a 50 percent increase in travel in the past decade.

Also relatively new to higher education - yet not unlike the old "miracle-mile" concept in which auto dealerships congregate along one stretch of highway - top schools now operate at times in concert, while still competing fiercely.

Since 1991, admissions deans at Duke, Georgetown, Harvard, and Penn have barnstormed together in spring and fall. Overall, the deans and the regional directors travel to 100 cities over 20 weeks.

"All admissions officers talk about how to play the selective college admissions game," he says. Yet joint travel yields "an exponential increase" in visitors. About 12,500 people attended 50 group presentations this fall. And all that marketing has expanded the applicant pool at Penn from 7,500 two decades ago to 17,000 today - yet the pool is academically stronger.

"People say to me: 'Why are you recruiting? You have many more applicants than you have spaces for,'" he says. "You're always looking for the best. You want the finest."

The dean also weighed in on other issues facing campuses:

* On rollbacks to affirmative-action admissions:

"We've been very watchful of the situation in California, Texas, and now Michigan. We are committed to affirmative action at Penn.... We're watching what's happening to affirmative action - but we are not intimidated."

* On libel suits against high school guidance counselors - and the impact on the frankness of recommendations of student capabilities: "We read between the lines, looking for subtleties in their recommendations. We look for recommendations that are really just 'damning with faint praise.' We might also call the counselor and maybe get more straight information that way. We realize they [counselors] are very vulnerable.... We have to be careful. But it's not something we can't work around."

* On fake or purchased admissions essays:

"Most, but not all 17-year-olds tend to write a certain way. They tend to have a certain level of maturity in their writing. Our philosophy is that if it looks like a 40-year-old attorney wrote the essay, chances are he or she probably did.... There is a developing market for essay-writing companies. And we're very concerned about that.... Generally though, my estimate is that 5 percent at most are doing something untoward."

* On what applicants need most to know: "They need to realize everybody is handled individually by an admissions officer who is their advocate - somebody who is personally reading every word they wrote.... There are no guarantees. But hopefully we can explain to students that it's a fair and honest process."

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