The Other Retention: Keeping Admissions Staff on Board

Entry-level admissions counselors arguably play the most vital role in connecting with potential students, projecting the institution’s strengths and value, and helping to facilitate families’ crucial buying decision. But retaining the most skilled among them can be a challenge given their long hours, grueling travel demands, and (all-too-often) low pay. And when they go, the intellectual capital of their marketplace knowledge and established relationships goes with them. So what can be done to retain top talent?

Talk with seasoned admissions professionals and many will tell you that what started out as something to do for a couple of years (say, until going to grad school or figuring out what they really wanted to do) has turned into a rich and rewarding career. After all, being in a position to make a difference in students’ lives at a pivotal and stressful moment is immensely gratifying.

But retaining entry-level admissions counselors is an ongoing difficulty at most institutions. Many of these younger staff members leave after a year—creating problems for their departments that go beyond simply hiring and training a replacement. Among myriad reasons continuity in an admissions staff is important, there’s the risk that if high school counselors don’t know whom to talk with, then they may stop referring students to the college.

Fortunately, among admissions counselors who stay on for two or three recruitment cycles, many come to see this as a lifelong profession. How did they stay focused long enough to get past the initial hurdles and see the bigger picture of important, meaningful work? Interviews with admissions professionals spanning the associate, director, dean, and vice president levels help shed some light on what can be done better in order to retain talent and intellectual capital at various steps of the career ladder.

An Accidental Profession

In some ways the experience of DeVone Eurales, associate director of admission at Knox College (Illinois), is typical of many people in admissions. He began working in the admissions office as an undergrad and accepted a job there right after graduation, thinking he would stay for a year or two. But after 11 years, he’s in it for the long haul.

Not coincidentally, Eurales had a great admissions counselor when he was a student. If he called her, she’d call him back; when he needed help, she helped him. He and his family trusted her, and he still has birthday and Christmas cards she sent him 15 years ago.

Eurales has that same desire to make a difference for the students he works with, yet he says, “I think we’ve all been tempted at some point to leave college admissions. I grew up in a poverty-stricken area and had friends who didn’t make it to college, so I’ve thought about becoming a high school counselor or working with a community-based organization to help students navigate the process.”

But he has stayed in admissions because he continues to have fun, be challenged, and learn every day. For instance, “changes in technology and how students want you to communicate with them give you different ways to be versatile in your job,” says Eurales. He notes that because students now access information about colleges on their smartphones, admissions departments need tech-savvy people who are comfortable posting content to social media platforms like Twitter, Facebook, and Snapchat.

Evolving Job Requirements

Pete Littlefield, director of undergraduate admissions at Saint Leo University (Florida), agrees that one of the keys to job satisfaction in the admissions field is to never stop learning. “Ask questions, read widely from relevant publications, learn from colleagues and industry experts, and use new technology to engage with students,” he advises younger admissions staffers.

Unlike many, Littlefield went into admissions work as his first choice for a job after graduation. He started off giving campus tours as an undergraduate and has been involved with admissions ever since, reaching the director level five years ago.

Over the years, Littlefield has seen the admissions process evolve from “seasons” of traveling, reading applications, counseling about financial aid, and staving off summer melt to a steady onslaught of recruiting consecutive classes simultaneously as the number of high school graduates in some regions has declined. So not everyone is up to the task.

“Many people working in admissions have been tempted to leave at some point,” says Littlefield. “It isn’t like working at Google or another place with phenomenal work/life balance. In fact, it’s not the most stable profession, because you’re depending on the decision-making prowess of 18-year-olds.”

Stretched Thin

The ever-expanding list of duties for admissions officers can also take its toll.

Melissa Falk, associate dean of admission and financial aid at Muhlenberg College (Pennsylvania), believes that too often entry-level staff members are being asked to do way too much and are paid way too little for it. Because they’re asked to run really hard and fast for sustained periods of time, they often see working in admissions as a stepping stone on the way to something better.

Falk thinks a smarter approach is to recognize that young professionals are akin to customers in the old truism that it costs more to find new customers than to retain the ones you already have. She appreciates working in an admissions department with unusual staff longevity: She has completed 23 recruiting cycles, her dean 28, and the director of financial aid 32 cycles.

A Muhlenberg grad herself, Falk always wanted to change the world and do something she cared deeply about. As a student she was a campus tour guide, an upper class advisor, and a mentor to freshmen, and she enjoyed checking in at the admissions office every week for 15 minutes before giving tours.

After graduation, Falk temped in New York in the computer industry … and hated it. Within a few months, she quit, moved back to Allentown, and told the Muhlenberg admissions staff they needed to find a job for her.

“I wanted to give voice to students who could only speak through their file, and I knew that role would be nurtured here,” recalls Falk. “I was hired as a part-time admissions counselor and worked in financial aid the first year, yet I was so convinced I was meant to do this. Today, I can’t see myself doing anything else.”

Falk has immense opportunities for growth at Muhlenberg, which also helps explain why she’s still working in admissions. She has advised a class as well as clubs on campus, and she is connected to student life in other ways so she is able to contribute to students’ experiences.

But mostly, she loves being part of the big decisions when the college takes a chance on some students. “To see the transformative experience for them is powerful,” she says. “It’s amazing that we can change the direction of a life.”

Similarly, she notes that seeing younger admissions staff members evolve and grow personally and professionally is very rewarding, and she feels fortunate to mentor them.

Pathways for Advancement

Carlos Jimenez, director of admission for outreach recruitment at Colorado College (Colorado), picks up on this point about mentoring, since he senses that many directors and associate directors don’t do enough to mentor young talent during their first two years.

Jimenez believes anything beyond the entry level of admissions is a challenging area to break into, since it’s actually very competitive to move up to the associate director level. He’d like to show young professionals, particularly those from underrepresented populations, there’s a way to stay and grow into the profession.

“Sixty-hour work weeks, high-pressure work environments, and heavy travel schedules lead to turnover,” notes Jimenez. “While turnover brings new energy and can change the office dynamics and status quo for the positive, overall the challenges of it outweigh the benefits.”

Now in his 12th year in admissions, Jimenez himself considered leaving for graduate school, law school, or policy work, but decided he wanted to be more directly involved with students. He strongly believes it’s highly important work and feels he can make a difference in students’ lives by diffusing some of the pressure inherent in the admissions process.

Among the rewards of working in admissions, he counts seeing students from the inner city come to Colorado College, grow, and do great things; the personal and professional relationships he’s enjoyed with people in the field; and even the travel aspects of his job. (Growing up, his family took only driving-distance trips and visited relatives, not vacation destinations. Now he gets to visit all 50 states and go on some international trips—things he never thought he’d be able to do.)

Still, he recognizes the many challenges for those at the entry level who are working long hours, traveling constantly, and reading tons of applications while trying to maintain a good sense of work/life balance and keep the work from becoming all-consuming.

Sticking With It

“Get two years of admissions work under your belt, and you can do it for life.”

That’s what Eric Nichols, vice president for enrollment and dean of admission at Saint Anselm College (New Hampshire), tells people. First-year admissions counselors are often overwhelmed by the time demands of the job, so he urges them to give it two years.

Nichols didn’t start in admissions until a couple of years after graduating from college. He received an internship from his alma mater, Stonehill College (Massachusetts), to join its effort in helping bridge the gap for first-generation college students.

“I was a low-income, first-generation college student, and I wouldn’t have been able to afford college, but Stonehill took a chance on me. Now I get to provide opportunities to students like me,” says Nichols.

While helping students is a constant and critical role, as admissions professionals move up the ranks, their responsibilities to the institution expand to become just as important. There’s always pressure to enroll a class within the budget—and always a wish to do better next time. Because it’s impossible to please everyone even when enrollment targets are hit, Nichols believes a thick skin is helpful for those in admissions. Yet he enjoys the work precisely because it’s not easy.

“Admissions work is like putting a puzzle together,” he says. “Each year you have new pieces to work with and a new puzzle (aka, a freshman class) to build. I enjoy the challenge, and it’s rewarding to build a class in the competitive environment of New England higher education.”

Expanding Opportunity

Sally Richmond, vice president for admission and financial aid at Washington and Lee University (Virginia), agrees that enrollment management is the hot seat on campus. She’s been working in the admissions field for 21 years and—having been a political science major—feels her ability to employ diplomacy has helped her advance in her career and take on new responsibilities.

One of Richmond’s hopes is that people in the profession will be more open to different pathways into the field. She points out, “Just as we need to remove barriers to access for students into colleges, we also need to allow people with different backgrounds into admissions.”

In that vein, Richmond sees a sweet spot between turnover and retention among admissions staff. She believes it’s good to have a range of experience and that an office would become stale without turnover. Yet she thinks it’s the middle ranks—particularly, assistant directors or deans—that get squeezed.

Aside from working three years as a high school counselor, Richmond herself has stayed in admissions because it’s never boring, and mentors have afforded her incredible opportunities. She enjoys the vibrant and diverse qualities of the greater admissions community, where she has lifelong friendships and colleagues.

Reaching the Top

Indeed, it’s never boring in admissions! Tom Kepple, president emeritus of Juniata College (Pennsylvania), thinks higher education institutions are facing more enrollment-related challenges (such as right-sizing the institution, ensuring affordability, and dealing with public perceptions about value) than perhaps any time in the last 40 years.

Kepple now leads the American Academic Leadership Institute, which sponsors the Senior Leadership Academy to help those at or near the dean level move into vice-presidential or cabinet-level positions. Among the biggest challenges at that level is the need to see the institution’s priorities as the number one concern, compared to a more narrow departmental view.

People are nominated for the Senior Leadership Academy by their college president. Kepple has noticed that presidents care about retaining talent on the admissions staff because, as he puts it, “There’s a lot of churn at the bottom of the admissions pyramid.”

But at the same time, presidents recognize the need to help people get to the top level of enrollment management. So the Senior Leadership Academy broadens attendees’ exposure to the workings of an entire institution, and Kepple has seen that those who come from admissions are quite often already viewed as leaders.

Leading a Shared Effort

At institutions where most revenue comes from tuition, enrollment issues are already at the forefront of the cabinet’s attention. But it does require leadership to help a campus community realize that “it takes a village” to recruit a class.

Connecting with potential students and giving them a sense of the college’s value proposition—it’s the job of admissions counselors, but not only admissions counselors. When the institution can retain talent, skills, and intellectual capital throughout all of the admissions office’s ranks, it cultivates leaders who are able to marshal the entire campus community to help bring in a class.


SIDEBAR: Best Practices for Retaining Admissions Talent

The consensus among admissions and enrollment professionals is that when institutions can incorporate these practices for their admissions teams, it increases the likelihood of retaining the best staff members.

Pay them what they deserve. As the economy continues to improve, Sally Richmond, vice president for admission and financial aid at Washington and Lee University (Virginia), finds it more challenging to fill positions with entry-level salaries, which are on par with salaries for an assistant coach at the Division III level.

“Young staffers frequently leave the institution because of low pay for long hours,” observes Pete Littlefield, director of undergraduate admissions at Saint Leo University (Florida).

Or they stay at the institution but leave the profession. Littlefield has noticed admissions staff moving into the development or alumni relations department, where they can be paid more and leverage their connections among former prospects who are now graduates.

Recognize good work. Acknowledgement for going above and beyond helps staff feel valued. “Public recognition of their accomplishments is important,” says Carlos Jimenez, director of admission for outreach recruitment at Colorado College (Colorado).

Other non-compensation recognition could take the form of, for instance, a random day off, suggests DeVone Eurales, associate director of admission at Knox College (Illinois).

Identify paths for advancement. “To keep good people in admissions, college administrators need to get them thinking about admissions as a profession and not just a two-year job,” says Melissa Falk, associate dean of admission and financial aid at Muhlenberg College (Pennsylvania).

Otherwise, there are more obvious opportunities outside of admissions. “I’ve seen people leave admissions to go back to school, to go to the high school side of the desk, and to work for consulting firms and other higher education service providers,” notes Eric Nichols, vice president for enrollment and dean of admission at Saint Anselm College (New Hampshire). He thinks that’s why college administrators need to create clear pathways to move up in admissions.

Encourage personal fulfillment and work/life balance. “Show them how they can impact the college on a bigger, broader level,” advises Falk. “They don’t have to leave to feel fulfilled.”

Nichols notes that people can land in admissions spots that provide additional opportunities beyond recruitment travel and reading applications. “I’d encourage younger staff members to volunteer to take on special responsibilities, like working with transfer students, international students, or athletic admissions,” he advises.

Littlefield similarly points out a growing trend toward the use of regional admissions representatives who live in primary recruiting regions outside an institution’s home state—particularly in Chicago, California’s Bay Area, Southern California, and Texas. For the college, this arrangement allows immediate outreach on a greater scale and reduces travel time and expense. And for the staff member, it can help with work/life balance.

“Work/life balance is important,” stresses Eurales. “Counselors have to understand how to set aside time for themselves, so they can enjoy the job but not make it their entire life.”

Be intentional about mentoring. “Administrators need to be supportive and offer helpful feedback to younger staff,” advises Richmond. The mentoring relationship can connect them to a sense of community, adds Jimenez: “That builds camaraderie and connections so people stay in the profession longer.”