A profession that once relied on anecdotes and descriptive data now runs on complex statistical analyses and market research. Knowing how to decipher enrollment outcomes is a given; knowing how to forecast the future is a must. Which students are most likely to apply, submit deposits, and matriculate? At what cost to the college? How likely will they be to graduate? Such questions echo in the modern enrollment office, which is often supported by one or more institutional researchers, as well as consulting firms that sell recruitment strategies in various flavors.
Search the job listings for top-level admissions and enrollment openings, and you will find that many colleges seek a "data-driven" leader, someone who will develop "data-informed" strategies. This past winter, for instance, Pomona College, in California, began a national search to replace Bruce J. Poch, who had stepped down after 23 years as vice president and dean of admissions. Among the qualifications listed in the job advertisement: "an ability to analyze and use data to guide decision-making and measure results."
David W. Oxtoby, Pomona's president, led the college's search committee. The modern admissions dean, he says, must have a "technical, quantitative facility," the ability to delve into the relationship between a student's SAT score and her subsequent performance in college, or why some kinds of students are more likely to enroll than others. Moreover, Pomona had decided to merge its admissions and financial-aid offices (a change many colleges have made already). So the new dean would need to speak the language of costs.
Pomona interviewed a dozen candidates before hiring Seth Allen, dean of admission and financial aid at Grinnell College, in Iowa. Soon to occupy one of the premier jobs in admissions, Mr. Allen, 43, represents the next generation of enrollment chiefs. They've ascended during an era of high competition, learning how to market their colleges and massage the metrics that define success in admissions.
Although idealism may inform their work, they are clear-eyed realists. They are not introverts, for they must collaborate constantly with faculty members and other campus offices. They are diplomats who must manage competing desires: those of administrators who want to enroll more first-generation and low-income applicants, professors who want more students with high SAT scores, trustees who want to lower the tuition-discount rate. "Twenty years ago," Mr. Allen says, "there were not as many wants."
Drawn to statistics at an early age, Mr. Allen earned a bachelor's degree in economics at the Johns Hopkins University in 1990. He first worked as an admissions counselor for his alma mater, a cutting-edge laboratory in the then-burgeoning science of enrollment management. Mr. Allen learned how predictive modeling could project net tuition revenue, how many biology majors would enroll, and a hundred other outcomes.
Later Mr. Allen became the university's director of enrollment planning, research, and technology, a title that captured the profession's increasing sophistication. While most colleges were still operating in a pen-and-paper world, he helped create the university's first online admissions application.
In the 1990s, selective institutions intensified their recruitment of prospective students, and Dickinson College was no exception. As dean of admissions at the Pennsylvania college, Mr. Allen oversaw a surge in applications that enabled it to become increasingly selective. Average SAT scores rose, as did enrollments of minority students.
Moneyball turned out not to be a very big deal in baseball. A few underdogs did a little better for awhile, but ultimately the Yankees wound up back on top. I doubt if better statistical analyses of college applicants will change much in the visible world. When all the dust settles, Harvard will still be on top. But it would be very interesting to read those confidential analyses.
I like baseball statistics a lot, but the amount of public brainpower devoted to analyzing baseball statistics in contrast to real world statistics is striking. Brad Pitt is starring in Moneyball this year, but I've never even seen an economic professor's paper on the topic of what kind of college applicants give the best financial return to the college. These analyses exist, and I bet ambitious parents in Seoul are reading some of them translated into Korean right now, but Americans don't seem very interested in the topic.