Is it time for college admissions to acknowledge and embrace its role as higher education’s sales division? Or is “sales” a dirty word that threatens the ethical standards that make college admissions a profession? Two posts in Eric Hoover’s Head Count blog for The Chronicle of Higher Education during the same week at the end of July highlighted the two horns of that dilemma.

The first reported on a presentation at the ACT Enrollment Planners Conference by Brian William Niles, founder of Target X, a CRM (Customer Relationship Management) company for higher education.  His presentation was titled, “Five Dirty Words You Need to Start Using (in Admissions),” with the five words being “customer,” “sales,” “competition,” “experience,” and “accountability.”  At least some in his audience found those words as offensive and obscene as network censors once found George Carlin’s Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television.

That post was followed several days later by a post about the release of a NACAC report, “Career Paths for Admission Officers: A Survey Report.”  That report, an interesting look at the challenges faced by our profession in attracting, training, and retaining good people, revealed that the culture of sales, with increasing pressure to generate revenue and potential collateral damage to ethical standards, is among the greatest concerns for members of our profession.

The tension within college admissions between sales and counseling is not new.  It was present when I entered the profession nearly forty years ago, never dreaming I would stay for longer than a couple of years  (a common story, according to the NACAC survey).  Even then there were admissions counselors using admissions as a stepping stone for a career in sales and others with a counseling orientation.    

Niles’ ACT presentation argued that admissions offices should embrace their sales missions, that thinking of admissions staff as sales force will lead to better training as well as better understanding of the needs and wants of prospective students.  He also argued that admissions officers should master the “elevator pitch,” able to explain their institution in 30 seconds.

I agree that it’s foolish to pretend that college admissions isn’t partly about sales, especially at institutions that are tuition-driven. But I don’t see evidence that admissions offices are giving short shrift to the sales dimension. I see far more young admissions roadrunners today arrive for school visits well prepared to do their sales presentation, but unable to converse with either students or counselors about anything other than talking points. 

The dinosaur in me wishes that there was less sales and more counseling in college admissions.  Admissions reps, especially those who are young, have credibility and influence with high school students, and I wish they would use that power to educate students about the admissions process and about the college experience.

Are the admissions-as-sales and admissions-as-counseling world views irreconcilable, an Armageddon where one side must win and the other lose?  Or is there a balance to be struck between the two?

There is nothing inherently wrong with admitting that higher education is a business or that there is a sales component to college admissions.  But are they more than that? 

Colleges and universities need revenue to stay in existence, but a college education is an experience, not a product, and the mission of any college or university is broader and more important than generating revenue or profit.  Economic considerations are instrumental to other ends, not the ends themselves.

College admissions has considered itself a profession dating back to NACAC’s founding more than 75 years ago.  Professionalism implies dedication to a set of values that extend beyond institutional interest, values that are the underpinning of the NACAC Statement of Principles of Good Practice.  As a profession, we recognize that we serve the public interest and not just our own interest.  Enrollment and revenue are important for our employers and for our institution’s health, but we have a more important charge to help young people make important, life-changing decisions about their futures.

From an ethical perspective, the issue is not whether an admissions office is engaged in sales but what that entails.  Are the admissions staffers engaging in ethical sales practices, trying to meet the student’s/customer’s needs, or are they trying to close a sale/build enrollment at any cost?

The difference lies in whose interests the admissions officer acts.  Clearly there is a responsibility to the institution, but that is not the only ethical responsibility present.  There is also a responsibility to the student’s best interests, and there is a responsibility to the profession as well. 

Many years ago I was hired as the Director of Admissions for an independent school that was in the midst of declining enrollment.  On my first day I met with a young man who was interested in transferring from another private school for his senior year.  He was a full pay, and he could have helped our football team, but his transcript told me he would struggle to pass math and graduate, so I advised him to remain at his current school.  Later that day my secretary pulled me aside and told me that the school had never before discouraged a student from enrolling. 

Allowing that student to come and fail could have damaged both him and the school.  Given the declining enrollment it would have been easy but short-sighted to admit him. The way to build enrollment in the long run was to build trust in the school program, including the admissions process.

The “sales culture” identified in the NACAC report isn’t about sales.  It’s a different gift from the business world, the pursuit of short-term goals in a way that’s short-sighted and self-serving.  College admissions is founded on public trust, and that trust is put in jeopardy whenever we act out of our interests rather than the public interest.  The dirty word is not sales, but rather self-interest.

So how do we defend our profession from an invasive species like the sales culture?  One of the answers is contained in the NACAC report.  The future of our profession lies in our ability to attract, train, and retain the next generation of leaders, counselors and admissions professionals who see our work as a noble calling and who are committed first and foremost to serving students.

The other solution is finding a way to reach out to our supervisors, the new generation of college presidents and provosts, and educate them about the values of the college admissions profession.  I suggested several years ago that NACAC develop programming for that constituency, and I continue to think that’s a good idea.