Preparing to send a son or daughter off to college can be an emotional experience for parents, but this past fall the customary lump in the throat was accompanied by a distinct lurching feeling in the stomach—caused by the bottom dropping out of the world economy.
With many families staring potential job losses and steep declines in home values and investment portfolios in the face, it’s not surprising that some would blink at the cost of an education at a place like Penn, says Dean of Admissions Eric Furda C’87. “I was in New York in late September, recruiting students, and that was the multi-billion dollar question, really,” he recalls. “So what can we do [to reassure families], while these other things are going on around us?”
Soon after, some 110,000 high-school seniors in the U.S. that Penn considered potential applicants received an email signed by Furda and Director of Student Financial Aid William Schilling C’66 reinforcing what Furda calls “some bedrock principles: Need-blind admissions, need-based financial aid, no-loan financial aid packages this year. That student financial services will reevaluate circumstances in a family as they change, at any time.” An abbreviated version appeared in the online edition of The New York Times.
“We need to make sure that information on how to pay for a Penn education is getting out there,” to as broad an audience as possible, says Furda. “Let’s not think about this the same way as we have in the past.”
The incoming freshman class—the Class of 2013—was the first to be admitted on Furda’s watch as dean of admissions, a post he took on as of last July 1 [“Gazetteer,” May|June 2008]. If the economic turmoil represented a new wrinkle, the year was also marked by some important continuities, as well as steps to lay the groundwork for the office’s direction over the long term.
One of those steps has been to restructure the office itself. Furda quickly named as vice dean of admissions Quenby Jackson Mott, a former associate dean and regional director of admissions who spent nine years at Penn. He also brought in David Phillips as a second vice dean of admissions, to serve as director of information and management systems. Phillips had worked with Furda at Columbia University, where Phillips implemented the first digital imaging system used in the Ivy League in admissions, financial aid, and advising, as well as a number of other technological innovations.
Having a position analogous to Mott’s, in which the vice dean handles day-to-day management, leaving the dean to focus on more strategic concerns, has become fairly common among peer institutions, but for information and management systems to have such a central spot in the administrative hierarchy is more unusual, according to Furda. “Data and technology is really the backbone of what we do,” he explains, and that high priority should be reflected on an organizational chart.
Though far from being at the back of the pack, Penn needs to catch up a bit to institutions that were “ahead of the curve” in implementing new technologies to assist in admissions, Furda notes. The past year has been a transitional one, with the main focus on continuing the implementation of the online admissions staff information system (OASIS) that was already in process when Furda’s team came on board—replacing a system that was in place when he left Penn admissions for Columbia in 1991, he says.
For admissions officers, the new technology provides the most precious resource—more time. The volume of applications has grown enormously, and the time available to consider them has actually shrunk in recent decades. As recently as the 1980s, for example, Furda estimates that Penn received fewer than 10,000 applications, and admissions officers had until April 15 to make their decisions. Last year there were nearly 24,000 applications, and the deadline was March 31.
“You have to create the largest possible window for reading files,” says Phillips. “Managing the paper at the volume of applications we have … the amount of human labor it takes to get through it narrows your window. So the more you can do electronically, the more you open that window, and every file gets a better read.”
The same is true for secondary school committee members, who interview students on a volunteer basis, Furda adds. “Being able to just pop online and type in your interview, versus having to type something up, get a stamp, put it in the mail—that just helps ease the burden.”
While not without its challenges, the impact of OASIS has been “revolutionary for this office,” says Mott. “All the data was real-time, so literally at the end of every committee session, at the end of every day, we could take a snapshot and know exactly where we were with our numbers—whether it’s the number of admits per school, or per program, the breakup of male/female, geographic diversity, where we were with our SAT averages. It really gave us an opportunity to look at things more progressively through the selection process.”
A major future focus will be ramping up electronic communications between prospective students and Penn. “We haven’t even touched the website yet,” says Furda, “but we know that’s the number one channel for information that students go to.” Besides providing a variety of materials about Penn for students to digest, the goal would be to make the system increasingly interactive, changing as students provide more data on their interests and preferences, and as they move from curious visitor to serious prospect to applicant to accepted student.
“All of this just needs to be a cumulative building of a relationship,” Furda says.
Penn’s overall prospect pool at any one time numbers about 160,000, Furda says. That’s international as well as the U.S., and includes high-school juniors and sophomores along with seniors, plus the odd middle-schooler burning to know what math courses to take to qualify for Wharton or Engineering. Prospective students may receive up to 12 email messages from Penn. “Then they say, ‘Tell me more information.’ And then we fulfill those requests,” Furda says, all with the goal of “building that pipeline.”
Whatever the form of communication—whether in-person, direct mail, or electronic—Furda is also looking to broaden the audience that receives Penn’s message, in line with the Penn Compact goal of increased access. The office does targeted mailings to economically disadvantaged students, with a publication and DVD on Penn. Penn’s financial aid materials have also been translated into Spanish. A new associate-dean position has been created to focus on outreach efforts, and Penn this year joined QuestBridge, a nonprofit organization that matches academically gifted, socioeconomically disadvantaged students with 26 elite-school partners. In all, 64 students will enroll at Penn through the program. These students “are at the top of our applicant pool,” Furda adds. Admissions also expanded its traditional Exploring College Options tour to specifically target Native American students in the Southwest.
In the end, the economy didn’t appear to have much of an impact on applications to the Class of 2013. A slight drop in early-decision applications and a rise in regular-decision numbers left totals more or less flat compared to last year. But the incoming freshmen are Penn’s most diverse group ever, and the most academically gifted based on measures like SAT scores, GPA, and class rank, says Mott. (Official statistics were not available when the Gazette went to press.) Given the uncertainties of the past year, and the “high bar” set by the Class of 2012, “we were really pretty pleased,” she adds, though she acknowledges that the diversity numbers, while better, “are not where we want them to be.”
It’s too early to tell what the coming cycle will bring, says Furda. For schools like Penn with early decision programs, those may serve as an indicator. “I think a lot of what we’re talking about right now with the economy is, ‘Am I willing, or is my family able, to say this is my top choice, this is my single choice, early decision, at schools that give need-based financial aid.’” For the overall applicant pool, the key will be to “get out our messages of affordability, what are the value opportunities here.”
One result of the changed economic landscape may be that schools will need to do a better job of differentiating themselves. “How do we make [concepts like] interdisciplinary real for families?” he says. “What does it really mean, being able to graduate with experiences as an arts and sciences student and with courses in other parts of this campus as well? And I’m not just talking about the other three undergraduate schools, but the graduate and professional schools. What does it mean if you can graduate with a master’s degree after four years of study? Or maybe an incremental semester? I think those pieces are going to matter more to families.”
Looking back on his first year as dean, Furda calls it “challenging, but with lots of opportunities.” As the University continues to expand its outreach and to implement new technologies, he believes that Penn is poised to make a breakthrough in admissions. For one thing, Franklin’s vision combining the theoretical and practical is likely to resonate especially well in tough economic times. “I think the academic content is there,” he adds, “and our students are genuinely happy with their experience here.” He expects the impact on the applicant pool to be felt next year and even more the year after, “since we’re reaching out to rising juniors and seniors.”
Furda says he’s excited by the prospect of speaking to the Class of 2013 at Freshman Convocation in the fall “and celebrating their success up to that point, but also saying, ‘Here’s the challenge. Here’s some of the raw material that you’re all working with, now let’s realize this.” In the meantime, he welcomes “this brief pause that we call the summer” to “build on the framework that we have from this year, but also to really make sure that we’re building new momentum.”
That pause (such as it is) will be brief. The first Exploring College Options trip for the Class of 2014 is the third week in August.—J.P.