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New blog post: Is social media is the new cocktail party for parents engaged in the college search? #emchat #admissions #highered

At Augustana College we use a number of tools to track what people are saying, writing and blogging about the college. It’s helpful to know what’s out there, to track trends and celebrate good news or prepare for bad news. These tools track all sorts of things, and an alert I received today really got me thinking.

Yesterday one of the alert services provided a link to a parent’s Facebook page on which Augustana was included. The parent had listed several other colleges and universities, too. The post, which I will paraphrase, includes a list of colleges this parent’s student is considering. Plus the post includes the academic and co-curricular interests of the student.

It’s a fascinating list of colleges—ranging from the super-selective to the local public university. The list includes 20 colleges in Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Ohio, Missouri, Tennessee, Kentucky and Wisconsin. Colleges range in size from 800 to 5,000.

What is most interesting to me about the post, though, is that the parent asks for advice on how to decide, compare and even negotiate with colleges.

Presumably, this parent is asking for advice from people who he trusts to be informed and have the best interest of his student in mind. However, the replies are what you might expect – both biased and anecdotally based.

I am very tempted to follow the parent, so I could continue to monitor the post. I am curious to see if anyone makes a good case for Augie among those who post.

I guess this really shouldn’t surprise me at all, considering how people use social media. But, this particular post may suggest a new way to gather information about colleges and the college search.

It seems to me that discussions on comparing and negotiating with colleges were once reserved for the cocktail party circuit. These questions were reserved for close friends or those who one knew had recently navigated the process. These questions were held in reserve—somewhat like one’s voting preferences. However, this post suggests otherwise.

While I know plenty of people who have queried their Facebook friends for dating, dining, vacation and voting advice, what do you think? Are you ready to ask for advice via Facebook about important issues, like your student’s college choice?

Please complete the poll below:

Let me know what you think? Is social media the new cocktail party?

W. Kent Barnds aka @bowtieadmission

Which is more the more worthy liberal arts course, Calculus 1 or Spanish 101? #highered #liberalarts

Last week, I participated in a discussion on campus related to our strategic planning process. These often can be laborious endeavors that revolve around magical thinking and dreams that will never come true. This particular session did not; it was excellent, and the level of engagement on the part of the Augustana College campus community was terrific. I witnessed a great deal of critical and creative thinking and thoughtful discussion. While there were many things that stood out and are worth noting, one exchange in particular is on my mind this morning.

I had the benefit of working with faculty members from mathematics, Spanish, business administration, education and psychology. Their perspectives and inquisitive nature towards one another and me, as an administrator, was eye-opening and refreshing. The exchange that caught my attention was when a math professor asked a Spanish professor, “which course is more liberal arts-oriented, Calculus 1 or Spanish 101?” This was not a confrontational question.  It was a question that deserved (and deserves) discussion.

The response to the question was, “neither and both.” That’s a fitting answer for a complicated question and is a pretty typical answer on a college campus. It also was particularly fitting for these two faculty members who both are affable and deep thinkers. However, the answer also reveals the predicament we face in higher education today.

In my view, the question was intended to measure the two courses against what typically is thought of as the liberal arts canon. When measured against the canon it’s likely that neither of these introductory—or as The Chronicle of Higher Education reporter Jeff Selingo calls them, “commodity courses”—would contribute much to the liberal arts.

Why? In this particular case, I think it is because when we think of Spanish 101 and Calculus 1 we think about content, rather than what these courses, both of which are typically taken in the first year, seek to accomplish in regard to skill development.

Now, I have to be careful here and I know it; I am not a faculty member and I am not a guardian of the academic program. But, here’s my thought about how to make sure that both of these important courses are considered to be equal contributors to the liberal arts.

  1. Think of the content portion as secondary to the skill development.
  2. Expand course descriptions for each to include the primary and specific skills the course will develop (Peter Hart’s list of skills employers want might be a worthy guide for this).
  3. Specifically cite the student learning outcomes (from the nine identified by the faculty in 2012-13) associated with the course.

What if?

…Spanish 101 was described as, “Within the context of preliminary study of the Spanish language, students will gain: 1.  An understanding of global context; 2. The ability to work in teams; and, 3. The ability to apply knowledge and skills in new settings.

…Calculus 1 was described as, “Within the context of the study of calculus, students will gain: 1. The ability to think clearly about complex problems; 2. The ability to analyze a problem and develop a workable solution; and 3. The ability to understand numbers and statistics.

I am sure it would be necessary to say something more about the content in each of these courses, but the skills identified above frequently are cited by employers as being important in new employees. Furthermore, they represent those skills that liberal arts colleges are particular adept at developing.

What do you think? Should we connect all course offerings to the “liberal arts” by emphasizing the skills developed?

W. Kent Barnds a.k.a. @bowtieadmission

New blog post: Tough questions about #tuition cuts and freezes. #highered #college #admissions

In the last few weeks there have been several reports of colleges that are cutting or freezing tuition. Here’s a pretty neat announcement from Belmont Abbey College and here and here are announcements from Wittenberg and Mount Holyoke about tuition freezes. Given the growth in tuition (and the media attention surrounding the high cost of higher education) these reports have been met with a great deal of praise (as they should be).

However, I have to admit to being very curious about what these colleges are doing (or stopping) in order to freeze or cut their tuition?


So far, I’ve not read much “inside higher education” commentary about these practices. I think the silence is because so many higher ed. administrators are hesitant to heap on too much praise or criticism.

In this case, too much praise could elicit calls to do the same; and, too much criticism is pretty dangerous because we all may need to follow.

I am hesitant to write about it myself because my “crystal ball” is so cloudy about the vexing problem surrounding the perception of high cost in higher education.

However, I offer a couple of questions I’d like to have answers to so I can be more thoughtful in responding to those who are asking when we will follow the lead of the freezers and the cutters.

If I were a journalist covering all of this (which I am not), I’d ask the following questions?

  • Will the net-cost to attend change or remain the same for students?
  • Will you be reducing institutional financial aid? If so, by how much?
  • Do you expect to net more revenue per student (or overall)? If so, how and why?
  • Is this a short- or long-term plan?
  • Will this reduce a student’s need to borrow for college?
  • Can you project future increases?

If I were a student or parent of a student considering one of these college (which I am not), I’d ask the following questions?

  • Are you making cuts to any programs or services in order to do this? If so, which programs?
  • How will my experience be different from the experience of a student five years ago who was paying more to attend?
  • Are you cutting financial aid in order to do this?
  • What will future increases be?

As a college administrator, I want to ask.

  • Does your plan entail growing enrollment and therefore making up for lost revenue by attracting more students? (Do you have the resources and facilities to accommodate growth without adding to your expenses?)
  • How will you continue to offer financial aid to increasingly financially needy students?
  • How will you continue to offer pay raises to faculty, staff and administrators?
  • How will you meet inflationary demands on operating budgets and operating expenses—particularly benefits, health care and energy?
  • How will you maintain your physical plant without increasing revenues to address plant depreciation?

I know higher ed. is competitive, but it would serve us all to know how the cutters and freezers are doing what they are doing. They probably know something the rest of us don’t. I want in on it.

W. Kent Barnds a.k.a @bowtieadmission

New blog post from @bowtieadmission: What does it take to recruit students to majors within the humanities? #admissions #highered #college #humanities

As a graduate of Gettysburg College with a major in political science and minors in Spanish and history, I am a passionate advocate for the liberal arts. Following my time at Gettysburg I’ve devoted my career to promoting and advancing colleges with a historical emphasis in the liberal arts (Elizabethtown College and Augustana College).

However, there have been several occasions when my commitment to the liberal arts has been questioned. These questions often focus on recruitment and promotional materials and typically involve accusations of deemphasizing or not fully appreciating the humanities. Throughout the last nineteen years I have often heard that we “just need to market the humanities better.”

I agree. But, I am still struggling with what exactly that “better marketing” looks like. (I suspect most who are calling for better marketing may also be struggling with the vision, too.)

A little more than a year ago, Daniel Fusch, of Academic Impressions, contacted me to ask for my reaction to some media attention about the decline in students majoring in the humanities. He asked me for my views on what could be done. You can read Daniel’s piece and my comments in the article, “Recruiting for the humanities.”

Daniel based much of his piece on an essay I’d been working on for years and I thought I might share it with you today.

I am interested in your thoughts on this subject and welcome your comments.


W. Kent Barnds @bowtieadmission

What does it take to recruit students to majors in the humanities?

This tome has been in the making for years and I thought it might be a good chance to clarify my commitment to the liberal arts and offer my views on how to make traditional liberal arts programs more attractive within a very competitive and often “drive-by” marketplace.

The fuzziness of the liberal arts does not help

Whether we (advocates for the liberal arts) like it or not, we cannot ignore conventional wisdom, which suggests that “liberal arts” is often viewed as nothing more than a proxy for “small, expensive and private.” Within the general college-bound public, the understanding of the liberal arts is fuzzy (small, expensive, etc.) at best and distorted (focused exclusively on fine arts) at worst. Despite our best intentions, noblest desires, and most sincere efforts, the higher education community at large has been unable to adequately educate the public about what the liberal arts is and what liberal arts colleges do.

The problem of limited understanding of the liberal arts is compounded by virtually every college across the nation possessing their own heartfelt definition of liberal arts. Furthermore, at any liberal arts college across the nation it would be a struggle to gather ten people in a room and come up with a consensus definition of the liberal arts—let alone a definition that would resonate with and attract students. As depressing and discouraging as this may be, it is largely a condition that is out of our power to successfully and positively influence. So, holding out hope that we alone can define the liberal arts is probably not a wise strategy.

However, giving up is not a wise strategy either.

Liberal arts+ helps, but only at the “corporate level”

It is my opinion that liberal arts colleges that have professional programs enjoy some advantage, not to mention distinction, in the marketplace. The combination of liberal arts programs with professional programs seems to be a fairly powerful combination and strengthens both programs at the same time. But, with some intentionality any program can distinguish itself.

Several years ago, I attended a conference during which admissions people were offered two minutes to describe their institution in front of an international audience of 150 conference attendees. At the time, I was working for a small college in Pennsylvania of about 1,500 students. I began my presentation describing my employer as “a small, liberal arts college in Pennsylvania.” I then thought to myself, I just described 60 of our competitors! It was critical for me to find some way to distinguish the college for which I worked from the other 60 smallish, liberal artsish colleges in Pennsylvania.

Because ours is an academic enterprise, first and foremost, I looked for features of the academic program that distinguished the college from others.  First, liberal arts colleges offering professional-oriented programs, regardless of the combination of programs, enjoy some immediate distinction from other liberal arts colleges, at least in the crowded world of marketing to college-bound students. One can think of this as “the liberal arts+” advantage.

While I recognize that this may have been libelous for liberal arts purists for whom the liberal arts and its breadth means everything, it has been interesting for me over the years to watch “pure” liberal arts colleges develop cooperative programs (engineering, medicine, business, allied health) and professional tracks (pre-law, pre-med, articulation agreements for CPA and MBA, etc.) to compete with colleges that are more professionally-oriented. These “pure” liberal arts colleges have done so in order to compete for the very best students, who often seek a “strong major” above anything else in choosing a college. This liberal arts+ advantage is often cited by admissions officers who are charged with the task of distinguishing a college from many other places with very similar characteristics. It would not be uncommon to hear someone at say, that “We offer majors in all of the traditional liberal arts, science and humanities with some distinctive program offerings for a liberal arts college in areas like business, occupational therapy, communications, education and social work.” These + majors offer a distinguishing characteristic for the college that is meaningful to a new audience, which may often begin with the following “I know you are a liberal arts college, but what makes your college stand apart from the rest?”

If we chose to compete at the institutional/corporate level by deemphasizing our academic programmatic distinctions, we will choose to compete based exclusively on the college’s reputation. In most cases colleges outside the top 50 national liberal arts college or top universities will lose most battles to colleges perceived to be a “tier above.”

Competing at the “corporate level” is tough.  Places with greater resources and name recognition, will with much greater frequency “win” the student who is undecided or who wants to study English, history, anthropology, Spanish, Classics, philosophy or political science. Unless a traditional program is markedly different (i.e. foreign language study at Middlebury, music at Oberlin), it is unlikely that a college will compete on anything other than prestige and reputation.

Colleges are more likely to successfully compete for and win those students who want an environment similar to that which is offered by the institution with a greater reputation, but wish to study communications, accounting, music therapy, education, business, social work, communication sciences and disorders or occupational therapy. In these cases, it is possible to compete for students at the departmental level rather than at the corporate level and the distinctions of the program can and will transcend the prestige factor.

Majors in the humanities need a hook

It is my opinion that traditional programs in humanities need to do more to develop distinguishing features and shape those features into meaningful benefits to students in order to compete at the department level. They need to develop a “hook.” Some will say, “you mean a gimmick.” Nope, I mean a hook; just like the hook needed to capture the attention of a peer review committee for a journal or a publisher considering a book proposal.

Majors in the humanities need a hook!!!

I contend that most majors in the humanities have a built-in hook, but it is not always emphasized in a way that resonates and equips the major to stand out sufficiently to attract students.

The proposition for studying English, history, music, art, languages, religion, etc. needs to be strengthened by the hook or several hooks in order to successfully articulate why the program is better and different here than at a place that might win the typical reputation battle described above. This will become increasingly important as demographic shifts occur and colleges further professionalize their curriculum based on market conditions.

We need to identify why studying in the humanities here (at Augustana College, which is where I work currently) is different or better than studying elsewhere.

Some suggestions for majors in the humanities

I offer the following suggestions for the consideration of those in the humanities:

  • Develop a common and distinctive element within all of the humanities programs (i.e. require a semester abroad as a major requirement in order to fulfill a degree in the humanities)
  • Develop a team-taught core course(s) for all humanities majors that provides a basic cross-disciplinary overview and introduction to the humanities and humanistic approaches
  • Promote and emphasize cross-disciplinary collaboration within the humanities
  • Offer significantly greater curriculum flexibility (have fewer required courses within specific majors). Many students who are interested in the humanities resist too much structure of required majors and may want to explore several areas of the humanities.
  • Create a general humanities major that enables a student to design their own program within the humanities in consultation with faculty mentors. Some students attracted to the humanities may be motivated by greater flexibility in shaping an interdisciplinary major within prescribed parameters.
  • Create partnerships with professional programs to make it easy, attractive and meaningful for students to earn a major or minor in a humanistic discipline. (Make your case to your colleagues for why a major or minor in your discipline will inform the professional program a student is studying)

None of these things may be particularly innovative. But, the suggestions are grounded in the idea that we need to be able to offer some meaningful symbol that we can point to that represents to the market that the way we deliver instruction in the program better or in a more distinctive than any another place. Another way to approach this is to ask the question, what does a student get from studying history at my college verses what the same student may get at college?

The bottom-line is that we need to find a way to compete at the departmental-level in areas that are common from campus to campus. If we don’t compete at the departmental-level and offer something distinctive to our students we are subject to the marketplace’s perception of reputation.


A useful or a valuable degree? #highered, #admissions

*This is the second post of several I will offer relative to the worth/value of higher education.

I think it is rather difficult to make the argument that a college degree, regardless of the institution where is was earned is not useful.

In fact, a recent Chronicle of Higher Education article cited Pew Research that confirms this:

“A curious thing happened when college gradu­ates were asked about the value of their own degrees, however. In the Pew survey, 84 percent of those with degrees said college had been a good investment; only 7 percent said it had not.” (2011, Chronicle of Higher Education)

You can read the whole article here.

While I find all of this interesting and am really, really pleased that college graduates value their experience afterwards, it’s much more difficult to convince prospective students that they should look beyond a useful degree when selecting a college.

To be frank, I think it’s difficult for many to differentiate between a useful degree and a valuable degree. Some might say “big deal,” but for those of us who represent colleges priced in the top 15 percent of colleges nationwide, it is a big deal. We are challenged daily to identify those characteristics and experiences that makes us worth the price we charge.

In essence, we are challenged daily to convince prospects and parents that the degree offered by our institution is not only useful, but worth more or is more valuable than a degree offered by another college.

This is hard work!

I’ve thought about this quite a bit as the pressures mount to generate more net tuition revenue per student each year and have been attempting to frame this discussion. I’ll test some thoughts out on those of you who are reading this.

How in the world do we convince 18 year-old and their parents that the degree we offer is more valuable than the degree offered by another college?

About one year ago, Rev. Peter Marty, the senior pastor at the church I attend, delivered a sermon that got me thinking more intentionally about the differences between a useful and a valuable degree. His sermon differentiated between one’s “possessions” and “treasures.”

Pastor Marty included examples like the following:

House = possession…………..Home and family life = treasure

Job = possession……………….Having meaning/purpose in your work-life = treasure

Bank account = possession..Friends = treasure

Car = possession……………….Freedom = treasure

Religion = possession……….Faith =treasure

Calendar = possession………Time = treasure

As one could imagine, there was a compelling explanation of the subtle differences for each of these and I had several “aha” moments on that Sunday morning.  I began to connect this idea of possession vs. treasure to the idea of distinguishing between a useful and a valuable college experience.

To further my premise, I developed some example that might be accessible to everyone in understanding the difference between useful and valuable.

A bicycle is a very useful mode of transportation, but it’s not particularly valuable for a long trip or in a rain or snow storm. Isn’t a motorized vehicle a more valuable mode of transportation? There is a value difference, right?

What about eyeglasses? One can pick up a pair of stock reading glasses in any pharmacy, but if you are near-sighted those glasses are not going to be very valuable, right? A customized prescrpition is needed to make a pair of glasses valuable.

There are many other examples that could be offered, but a picture of useful vs. valuable begins to emerge with this sort of story-telling about everyday items. Is it possible to do the same in higher ed? Is it possible to make the case that one experience is more valuable that another?

I believe it is possible. And, I think it’s possible without diminishing the fact that a useful degree is useful.

Let me offer two examples that we use at Augustana to try to illustrate the difference between useful and valuable.

Studying anatomy

One could study anatomy by playing the game Operation, which might be useful to get the basics. It would be better and more useful to study anatomy by using a text book and learning from a teacher. Is would be even more useful and valuable to actually be taught by the professor who authored the text book (as would be the case at Augustana because of Dr. Bob Tallitsch’s text). And, finally, wouldn’t it be worth more to not only learn about anatomy from the author of the text being used, but to have full access to hands-on learning in a cadaver lab?

There is a different between useful and valuable. Which would you choose? Which will serve you the best over the long run?

Learning about the Mississipi River and water ecology

One can learn a lot about the Mississippi River (arguably our the country’s most important water resource) by reading available books and watching documentaries about this waterway. Reading about and watching programs about the river can be useful to those who are interested in learning more.  But, is reading and watching worth as much as learning on the river? How can one argue that actually being on the river conducting research with Dr. Ruben Heine is not worth more and more valuable than reading a book about the river or watching a documentary?

For those of us who believe in what our colleges do and believe we are worth the sticker price; we have a responsibility to prove our worth and demonstrate it in meaningful ways. We have to connect our value/worth with a student’s value.

If I were counseling a student, I’d encourage him or her to ask the following questions:

1.      Is the academic course of study rigorous enough so that I’ll graduate with a solid body of knowledge?

2.      Are the teaching practices and philosophy sound and tested?

3.      Does this college have a reputation for graduates who succeed in the paths they choose?

4.      Within the college’s expectations and requirements, is there flexibility so that I can follow my interests if they change?

5.      Does the college offer the kinds of out-of-classroom experiences I want to broaden my horizons?

6.      When I graduate, will I have a basic set of intellectual tools for my next steps, not knowing what those might be right now?

7.      When I tell people I’m a graduate of (you name the college), will that help me gain their good opinion?

For those of us who are feeling the pressure to prove our worth, we’d better have great answers to these questions.

The challenge is to make sure the degree earned from your institution is perceived to be a treasure rather than solely a possession.

W. Kent Barnds

Summer visit days and a glimpse of the Class of 2016 and all that could go wrong

This week at Augustana College we are hosting a week of campus visit days. Each day of the week features different academic programs and disciplines and provides our visitors with an idea of what Augustana has to offer them should they choose to apply and enroll. For me, summer visit days are an eye-opener reinforcing the reality that the Class of 2015 is behind us and the work on next year’s group must begin in earnest.

It is this time of year that I begin to wonder what the next recruitment cycle will bring for Augustana and for the admissions profession as a whole? I find myself asking many questions.  These are a few questions on my mind on hump-day of a week of campus visits?

How long will prospects continue to buy in to our philosophy that it takes more than one campus visit to get to know a college? Will their patience last through an open house, followed by and interview and an overnight visit? Will family finances continue to support robust visitation before a student applies? (more…)

Social Networking and making the transition to college–newly single!

It’s transition season.

High school graduates are transitioning from high school senior to first-year college student throughout the US. My own institution has hosted nine days or summer orientation. These programs are helpful for colleges and the students in transition and have been around for a long time.

Recently, I’ve been reading more and more about the importance of social media in helping students transition successfully. A number articles, including this excellent one from the Courier-Journal, highlight the benefits of social media and Class Facebook sites. These sites enable transitioning students to ask questions, gather feedback and connect with classmates before all of those ice-breakers that await them in the fall. All of this is good, but it also has the potential to add some interesting post and situations to the mix…and we all get to witness these. (more…)