Thinking about supply and demand

I've frequently been thinking about admissions in terms of supply and demand lately.

I came across this news article about how national college enrollment rates are declining, and many universities--especially small, private, non-profit universities--are scrambling to make sure they have enough students.

I also began reading a book called Selling Hope and College, from a writer who embedded himself in the admissions department of a small college that attracts primarily non-traditional students (older people, mostly in their late 20s and early 30s), to see how "mediocre" schools, which is most schools, attract and keep "mediocre" students, which is most students. The author points out in the beginning that "although every college and university has an Office of Admissions, some of those offices are tasked primarily with bringing people in, while some are tasked primarily with keeping people out." The book explores in depth an Office of Admissions whose job is to bring people in.  

I was reminded of this chart I found and tweeted back in May showing that fewer than 20% of colleges reject more than half their applicants

If you only read the major news headlines, you might think that there's too much demand for universities and not enough supply. The news is dominated by stories about the really, really low acceptance rates at places like Harvard and Stanford. But the reality is often the opposite: most colleges are trying to get people in, not keep them out. I don't blame the media for this. News by definition is limited to things that are out of the ordinary. "A million decent high school students you've never heard of get accepted to decent colleges you've never heard of for the seventieth year in a row" isn't exactly a great story. But still, when you're thinking about college admissions you'd do well to remember that there are lots of schools out there who would really like you to attend, and will do everything they can to give you more information and try to persuade you to go there.

How can you make the most of this balance of supply and demand?

Understand what you want. If the farthest you've made it in thinking about college is that you want to go to a "good school," then you're pretty stuck. There are literally more than a thousand good schools in the U.S., so you need to be more specific. You don't need to have figured out exactly what you're going to major in, where you'll live your first three years after college, and which posters you'll hang on your dorm-room wall. But you do need to give deep, serious thought to what size of school will be best for you, what regions of the country you absolutely must be in or absolutely will not be happy in, what sorts of extra-curricular programs you'd like to be involved in, and what kind of atmosphere and pace suits you best. And you've got to know which of your requirements you really insist on, and which of your requirements you'd let go of for a good offer.

One of the exercises I ask my coaching clients to do is to sit and daydream about college, from wake-up in the morning to social time on the weekends. You have plenty of expectations for your college experience, though you may not be very aware of them. Make yourself more aware. Also be aware of the blank spots in your daydreams, places where you literally can't imagine what some aspects of college might be like.

Understand what you can offer. Before going into any negotiation--and here we're talking about financial aid--you need to know where you stand. Talk to your family in an honest and detailed way about money so that you know what your limits really are. Pay no attention to the published price of a school and see what kind of a price they offer you. Be aware of what skills or knowledge might be of interest to schools that you can offer in lieu of money. 

Don't expect everything to be free. It's tempting to see the supply-demand situation and expect a free education to be possible. While many schools are definitely offering discounts and trying to lower their costs, full ride scholarships are still quite rare. Even schools struggling to attract students have to pay their staff and keep their buildings updated, and that costs money. Don't overlook good deals because you're waiting for a perfect one.

Don't ignore the materials you get. When you get marketing materials from a college, pay attention. That school has decided they're interested in you as a student. Too many high school students ignore the schools that go out of their way to get to know the student, often because it's a school they've never heard it can't be all that great. Groucho Marx famously resigned from an exclusive club with the line "I don't want to belong to any club that would have me as a member." It's a funny line from a funny comedian. But it's a really bad college admissions strategy.

Talk to people. The internet loves lists and rankings. College brochures love photos of classes being held under a tree and students in lab coats. If you really want to make a connection with schools and find one that wants you as much as you want it, you have to talk to people. Real, live people. If at all possible, go on tours and ask questions. Arrange interviews at schools, even if an interview is not required. Talk to representatives at college fairs and high school presentations. Seek out current students and alumni. Get to know a school, not just a ranking. 

When you're able to let go of the Am I Worthy? mindset and do some serious planning based on what you want and what you have to offer, you'll probably find there are plenty of schools looking for you just as much as you're looking for them. And thanks to supply and demand, those schools may be even more affordable than they were a few years ago.