The Pandemic and Admissions
Stressed, disillusioned, burnt-out. Is anyone feeling this way after more than 10 months of readjusting your careers and lives to a completely new way of doing business? I don’t blame you and I’ll join you in raising my hand. I work in education, more specifically private education, and even more specifically admissions at an independent elementary school. Sounds kind of cushy, right? However, when it seemed that most people I knew were cleaning their closets, hopping from streaming service to streaming service, and visiting every beautiful lake and National Park they could drive to, I was having a hard time showering and feeding myself. In fact, I have never worked harder in my life. Shooting videos, compiling archived photos, interviewing families, redesigning every one of our yearly events, designing new virtual assessments — there was quite literally nothing we could rely on doing the same as we had in years past. And I wasn’t alone! Every person I know working in education (not to mention healthcare and other frontline professions) have reinvented everything they do and have still not gotten off the 2020 treadmill.
Last summer, although our admission team and I intellectually realized that all of our events were likely to be virtual, none of us were ready to believe it would actually turn out to be true. In June, one of my colleagues said, “By January, we’ll probably be able to have prospective families on campus.” But then came closed campuses, virtual tours, virtual visits, virtual interviews, and yes, virtual kindergarten screenings. We just toasted 2021, and California is living through some of the darkest hours of the health crisis. It is almost certain we will end our admission season this year just how we ended last year’s — completely virtual.
We are not alone at my school or in my local professional consortium in the Bay Area. In general, the admission profession has been through the wringer for one reason or another — from preschool directors struggling to create outdoor classrooms to reopen to colleges facing admissions scandals, from rising supreme court cases on the legality of affirmative action to increasing demand in gap years and continuing COVID outbreaks. Overall, inquiry numbers are dropping nationally and tuition hikes have been far outpacing wage growth for years. There are increased internal pressures to bring in critical revenue, which competes with enrollment priorities, and enrollment priorities compete with each other. With all that, it’s easy to understand why our admission colleagues are losing sleep. As Yogi Berra once said “The future ain’t what it used to be,” and it sure ain’t for the admission profession.
However, here is where I am going to take a turn that may surprise you. Stressed, disillusioned, and burnt out was how I was feeling before the pandemic. The process we designed for ourselves and our prospective families is so ambitious (to be kind) and presumptuous (to be real) that it took having to throw it all out to see some fairly glaring flaws. Like a dysfunctional family that collectively decided never to question their unhealthiest practices, we had all become “nose-blind” (as the Fabreze people say) to the sweaty, steamy room. That sounds harsh, vulgar, and unfair. We’re thoughtful people and these are really good schools we are talking about. Really good schools.
On the other hand, there was the experience we had created for families. In our Bay Area region, when families are looking for a kindergarten program for their five-year-old, they are typically advised to apply to between five and seven schools. Then, with the array of events offered, they generally choose to visit each of the schools in-person roughly three to five times each. Next, they are required to schedule five to seven “playdates” for their child depending on individual school requirements. Given that most families in the astronomically expensive Bay Area need to be in dual working partnerships, this means that one or often both parents/guardians need to take time off from work an average of 20 times over a four-month period, sometimes to drive a half-hour, usually midday, for a thirty-minute in-person interview with an admission officer. Both parents’ presence preferred. World-class educators, skilled learning specialists, highly successful parents, and yes, even their five-year-olds, somehow agreed that this was all ok. This is simply called “the process.”
What do you think? Does that sound like a “process” that is slightly over-valuing its own importance? Does it sound like something only the ultra-rich and semi-retired can embark on? As an admission person, I can confidently tell you that none of us want either of those things to be true. In fact, admission people are some of my favorite people, most of whom work tirelessly toward equity and care deeply about not perpetuating injustice and elevating unearned privilege. They are people I proudly call my friends and colleagues. It is also a process that seems to have intensified with every passing year, often with intentions of becoming more inclusive or helping families get a personal look at each individual school. The result is a process that overtaxes families and creates barriers for those who can’t afford or don’t know how to engage in this intense way.
So where are those “rainbow” linings promised in the title? When COVID hit, although I may have been a sorry sight for my colleagues in Zoom meetings, we rolled up our sweatshirt sleeves and, overnight, found another way. We found other ways for working parents to visit our schools without needing to have “the talk” with their boss about a couple of dozen missed meetings. We found ways for families new to the independent school community to take a peek at our schools from the comfort of their own Zoom meeting instead of visiting schools set on campuses that look like colleges and can feel elitist and intimidating. We found a way for parents to send us videos of their five-year-old in pajamas drawing a person and counting out household objects — just one set of short videos they could send to all of the schools they applied to.
To our surprise, the benefits weren’t limited to saving people time and minimizing stress and missed work. At our school, we actually found that there were ways that our connections with families were enriched. Virtual events with small-group breakout rooms allowed families to hear about what really mattered to them and not what mattered to the guy who asked the first question at a crowded event in the gymnasium. Instead, prospective families found themselves in intimate zoom rooms with current parents, teachers, and alums who could address their specific questions. For example, they could explore what it felt like to be working or middle class at a school with such a high price tag, or how their daughter would find her voice and confidence in a STEAM program. Parents were able to see the school on their own time and in an engaging way through faculty, curriculum, and campus videos of their choosing. Our admission team agreed that the virtual interviews with parents were just as illuminating and personal as when we walked down the hall to pick them up from our lobby. Never did we ever imagine that this would be true.
And, it wasn’t just my school that saw upsides. Although we are fortunate to have a delightfully collaborative group of admission directors in the Bay Area, the level of collegiality here was next level. Our Bay Area Directors of Admission group locked arms with upwards of 75 schools agreeing to share an early childhood video assessment, which we miraculously co-created and agreed on in just a few months. In one fell swoop, we erased separation anxiety for the kids and scheduling and “off day” performance fears for the parents. And did I mention eliminating five to seven school visits depending on individual school requirements?
As it turns out, the Bay Area admission community does not have a corner on the collegiality market. In fact, our consortium got the idea to create a video assessment from groups in Massachusetts and Connecticut that bravely made the leap in the spring — just a couple of months into the pandemic. After twenty years in the admission field in the San Francisco Bay Area, I’ve never felt more respect for or affinity with admission colleagues in North Carolina, Tennessee, Massachusetts, or Connecticut. Our amazing national professional organizations like NAIS, EMA, AISAP, ISM, and INDEX served as resources, cheerleaders, even therapists, by hosting sessions for us to swap stories and share ideas about how we would make events work and fill our pipelines. Not once was there an iota of competition or the urge to hold cards close to the vest. We had the same challenges and with Zoom and flash surveys becoming ubiquitous in a blink, we also had the ability to connect and to connect often about our failed attempts and occasional wins.
As I look back at this year, a personal “rainbow lining” is that I am even prouder to be part of this profession. I’m proud of myself and every time I think about how proud I am of the admission team at our school, I am reduced to tears. So, no regrets for not doing something sooner. I just hope we can take these lessons and envision a post-COVID admission world where we don’t need to get out the Febreze to live with our requirements anymore.
Let me be clear. There are far more things we miss about being in-person than we like about being remote. Yet it’s fascinating that it took a global pandemic for the admission profession to break the glass on the “emergency box,” take a good look at our practices, and find a more humane way to approach what we ask of parents. As one of my fellow admission directors, Tara Boland, at Cathedral School for Boys recently wrote, “We are up against well-intentioned and long-held practices, many of which had very good reasons for existing. But this is a great time to question why we approach admissions the way we do, and not be afraid to edit and even throw out some of our practices.”
Next season, I hope admission offices can safely open again, and maybe we will even use name tags and serve coffee as families tour our campuses with students learning in classrooms and our amazing faculty teaching in-person. But I also hope to see a full complement of video and virtual tours, shared screenings, options for Zoom interviews, and especially intimate virtual evening events that don’t require parents to scramble for babysitters and feel pressured to push to the front of the room to shake my hand. If we know that “the process” and its associated steps and barriers exclude families we want to attract, it seems foolish, even irresponsible not to heed the lessons we’ve learned. If making independent schools accessible to a wider range of families is a “rainbow lining” that materializes out of this doozy of a year, then ultimately, I hope we can all take a few breaths and agree that this experience changed our profession, and changed it for the better.
This article was first published on the EMA (Enrollment Management Association) Blog in February 2021.