Monday, November 21, 2011

Saying No

[Disclaimer: if you’ve never worked for a highly-selective school, you may find this post annoying but take it as a way of seeing that the proverbial grass is not always greener on the other side.]

It is always interesting to me what response—if any—a given post will generate. Needless to say, not much gets posted in the comments section of the actual blog but I do get some feedback from friends and colleagues who email me directly.

The last post about deciding what is best for the student versus deciding what is best for the school got me more feedback than I expected, and from a couple people who have never responded. I wasn’t even sure they read the blog but I guess they do. Several people mentioned it is the hardest part of the work we do.

From my humble perspective, I respectfully disagree.

I had the honor and opportunity this summer to spend some time with the Head Master from Eton College in England and Mrs. Little. We spoke of a number of things, professional and otherwise. But on the topic of admissions, we agreed that our greatest challenges came from explaining to the parents of a perfectly acceptable candidate why their son (Eton being all boys and all) was not being offered admission. Those are the most difficult conversations: when you agree that the applicant is more than qualified, when you can point to no short-coming or area in need of improvement, and simply must blame the numbers. Parents and applicants are left deflated and at a loss. In the end, it would actually have been easier for them if we could point out some flaw or some insufficient score or grade, so they have something to cling to or blame. Or fix.

But the hardest part of this job is when no such flaw or grade exists. The hardest part is when if you had 20 more spaces, the child in front of you is one you would haven taken without hesitation. All you can do is comment to the parent about institutional priorities that have nothing to do with their child and remind them that their interest, in part, stems from the highly selective nature of your school and the cap you put on grade sizes.

I remember the year we had more sibling applicants for a particular grade than we had spaces. Forget disappointing, frustrating and/or angering complete strangers. The Admissions Committee had to decide which current families we were going to disappoint, frustrate, and anger. It was a most difficult decision as all the candidates were known to us, at least through their siblings and parents. It was subjective, personal, and heartbreaking. We had to work hard to be objective and reasonable. I remember it like it was yesterday. It was very difficult work and challenging conversations but it was also personally rewarding to be part of a team of colleagues who genuinely and sincerely wrestled with what was best.

That’s what makes it the most difficult job we have to do in our profession: saying no and explaining that no to an otherwise deserving child. When your door says director or dean that is one of things you and only you can do, or should do. You have to look a family in the eye, try and understand, and prepare to take on whatever reaction may come.

As I said in my last post, it’s our job. It’s just not always pretty.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Tricky balance

In this recent post on The Choice, Pamela Horne from Purdue University says that awarding merit aid is about helping the institution, not rewarding the student. It’s nice to see that kind of honesty. It is true at some level, isn’t it? Institutions set aside scholarship funds in order to reward students…whose enrollment benefits the institution.

It’s the tricky balance we aim to strike in admissions and scholarship. Is our job to do what is best for the applicant or for the institution? Sure, it works out great when the applicant who really wants that offer of admission is a student you’d love to enroll or the applicant (and/or their parents) who thinks they are deserving of a scholarship is actually deserving of a scholarship.

That’s the easy work.

But what happens when you don’t think offering admission would be best for the applicant or best for the institution? Or best for both? What happens when what would be best for an applicant—namely to get out of their current situation and into one of our excellent schools—is not what would be best for our school?

On the surface it sounds harsh but the reality is that we are not serving our schools (or our current students for that fact) if we offer admission out of pity, out of false hope, or simply because we like a kid and/or their parents. If that kid is going to struggle, if we are not able to meet their needs, or if we feel we can not be partners with the parents, then we have to say no for the sake of our school. And for the sake of that applicant.

Inappropriately admitted kids are a drain on resources, are taxing to teachers, and can negatively impact the experience of our other students. Furthermore, inappropriately admitted applicants can result in that student having academic if not also personal set-backs. Issues of confidence and self-esteem are quite tender and fragile at certain ages. And when that kid does not return for a second year, we have set them up to move on to their third school in three years. Not healthy. Not helpful.

Who doesn’t want to help kids? Who wishes they could find appropriate homes for all applicants? Who hates being the mean guy or the bad cop? We all do. But we do it because it’s our job.

It’s not always pretty.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

St. Andrew's Hong Kong

It’s a beautiful empire (as in British, not architectural style) church, having served the elite of England when they lived in and occupied Hong Kong. The corner stone was laid by Lord somebody and the opening christened by Bishop somebody, etc. etc. You get the picture. It is steeped in history, has an imposing and grand presence, and speaks of elitism.

Is that St. Andrew’s or is that our schools?

What was interesting about St. Andrew’s is that on the inside it turned out to be everything you didn’t expect from the outside. In place of the altar was a large, flat screen monitor and in the side aisles you also had flat screen monitors. In the tradition of great American evangelical congregations, everything was projected—hymn lyrics, bible passages, and even the announcements were pre-recorded with video showing you the way to the coffee afterward.

The congregation was diverse, in every way possible. There were the expected white ex-pats plus the Hong Kong locals. There were ages and genders and everything from coat and tie to sweat pants and tshirts. It was a warm and welcoming group, especially for 8:30am. At the lone point when we had to open a book, I had two thrust at me, turned open to the appropriate page, to be of help to the obvious visitor in their midst.

I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised as the night before when looking at their website, it was like none other I’d seen. And having spent 22 years in admissions and traveling, I’ve looked at many a church website in a far and distant place. They have four services on Sunday and each had a very detailed description of what would happen, how long the service ran (most helpful as I had Sunday morning interviews scheduled), and who would be in charge. You knew if there were hymns or not, communion or not, coffee afterward or not, etc. They were described as traditional (which turned out to be relative with a monitor in place of an altar!), modern, and progressive. How helpful. How welcoming!

Schools that worry about or even struggle with attrition could learn a lesson from St. Andrew’s. They have gone out of their way to make anyone and everyone comfortable with coming there and comfortable with staying there. They exist with great success (Four services! Oh and they are in a $30mil building campaign, too.) despite their imposing history and exterior. They break the stereotype of colonial Anglican churches and succeed in doing so. Certainly some schools could benefit from doing the same.

Anticipate questions in advance (we all know what they are) and proactively provide the answers thereby making everyone who enrolls feel welcomed and safe. It’s not a bad model for enrolling and retaining students…or parishioners.