Q&A with Eric J. Furda

Eric J. Furda, dean of admissionsPhoto credit: Candace diCarlo

Student applications to Penn reached an all-time high of 26,800-plus this year, showing a 17 percent increase from last year’s application cycle. From now through April, Dean of Admissions Eric J. Furda and his staff will evaluate each and every one of the hopeful students’ applications, with an eye toward building what Furda calls a “multi-dimensional” class of 2014.

It’s a long and mindful process that Furda knows from personal experience plays an important role in the life of every student who has requested a place at Penn. It wasn’t that long ago that Furda himself was an undergraduate in the College, studying international relations. He graduated in 1987, and stayed on campus to begin his professional career in college admissions. After working as a regional director from 1987 to 1991, Furda joined the admissions team at Columbia University, where he eventually rose to become the executive director of admissions and then the vice president for alumni relations.

Furda says his days at Penn changed his life. He is still best of friends with teammates from his varsity lightweight football days. And these days, when he speaks to potential students and parents about the opportunities the University has to offer, Furda says his passion is sincere.

“Anyone who has been around this place understands that it is special,” he explains. “The intellectual mix, the physical assets of the campus and City of Philadelphia, it’s special, and it’s my responsibility to tell that story to as broad an audience as possible [and] to find the students who will continue that legacy, because at the end of the day, education is about developing human capital.”

Recently, the Current sat down with the dean to talk about what is behind the record-breaking increase in applications, not only at Penn but also at several other Ivies, what his staff has done to make the Penn Compact’s promise of increased access a reality and what admissions officers take into consideration when sculpting a new freshman class.

Q. This time of year is crunch time for your office isn’t it?
A.
It’s always pretty intense. But, yes, the most intense period is the last two weeks of February and the month of March. Literally, the admissions officers right now are reading applications at least six days a week, anywhere from 12 to 14 hours a day. We are selecting candidates out of a pool of some 23,000 applications and doing that through January and February and into March until we go into committee for about two-and-half or three weeks. Then, we send decisions out April 1. Keep in mind that this comes after the staff processed applications during the winter holidays. And prior to that, there was Early Decision, during which we have about six weeks to make about 3,000 decisions. The summertime is busy, too. It’s when people can take time from work to visit college campuses. Overall, we have almost 55,000 visitors a year come through.

Q. Your staff does this at the same time that they also concentrate on recruiting future classes, right?
A.
Yes, the best way to think about our recruitment year is as two cycles going at once. There’s the current-year cycle, targeted towards 11th and 12th graders with an emphasis on 12th graders. This cycle has clear deadlines like Nov. 1, early decision, Jan. 1, regular decision, with a Dec. 12 decision posting, and an April 1 decision posting. Between April 1 and May 1 we do intensive on-campus recruitment for students who have been admitted with six days on campus called ‘Penn Previews.’ That’s when the students and their parents come to Philadelphia to get an idea of what life on Penn’s campus is like. These students will have a number of options, and there is a one-month period during which these families are going to be making this important decision. By July 1, the class is wrapped up.
The other cycle is what I’ll call the prospect phase. Here we are in February, and this is when names become available to us from PSAT and ACT. We’re getting names of sophomores and juniors who have exhibited academic profiles that we feel would be competitive, and what we start at this point are e-mail and print campaigns. This year we made sure we were reaching out to students through e-mail and print campaigns to make sure that when students start their college-search process, Penn is on their lists. So, we are never just thinking about one class.

Q. Don’t you make recruitment trips throughout the year, as well?
A.
Domestically, we cover just about every state. The fall and spring are typically our on-the-ground time, when we visit schools through our Exploring College Options program, traveling with Duke and Georgetown and Harvard and Stanford. We might be doing college fairs. We might be doing single Penn events, visiting four local high schools a day someplace. If you were to look at our travel over the last couple of years, you’d be hard-pressed to find an area where we haven’t had physical on-the-ground contact.

Q. You came into this job at an interesting time in technology development. Are you finding that social networking is becoming an important tool in attracting students?
A.
One of our communications priorities has been to promote Penn through social media sites. As is expected, this is best as a grassroots effort by Penn students. However, there is also an institutional role in the communications department and the admissions office. All of this moves at a rapid pace, and we are continually thinking about how to best position Penn in those spaces that are so very different, especially for a traditional Ivy League institution. For example, we participated in The New York Times blog, ‘The Choice,’ and in the Wall Street Journal/Unigo.com online college panel a few months ago. That has helped drive more traffic to our sites, and has created alternative buzz for our recruitment messages.

Q. Has the impact of this new technology surprised you?
A.
I can still remember when applications first went from paper to floppy disks, and now we have nearly 100 percent of our applications online and we are reading them online. If you take a look at everything that has changed in the past 20 years, it’s staggering how those changes have impacted the business of college admissions and recruitment. One of the greatest impacts we’ve seen is in the number of applications we are receiving and processing. When I was here before, in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, Penn was probably receiving about 7,000 applications. By the time this goes to print, we will have received over 26,800 applications. So, the way we can contact students, the way students can learn about us, all that has changed significantly.
With the most recent changes in technology, we are seeing a revolutionary change in human interaction, and this is something that will provide us with new opportunities in recruitment and evaluation. As this technology becomes more accessible to everyone and as costs go down and more and more people have access to these resources, why shouldn’t every student have, for example, the opportunity to have some type of one-on-one interaction with us? Of course, we can’t just jump on everything that comes along. We have to think about the cost, and be aware of how the institution will be positioned.

Q. This year, Penn’s application numbers are at an all-time high. What have the application pools looked like in the past?
A.
There was a five-year stretch, from 2002 through 2007, where the pool grew about 25 or 26 percent. The last couple of years it has been flat. Now, we have a 17 percent increase.

Q. Why are we seeing these large increases not only at Penn, but also at other Ivies?
A.
I think one of the reasons we are up this year to the degree that we are, starting internally, is that we started reaching out earlier and we started reaching out more frequently. We were more aggressive in the fall recruitment phase through communication and marketing than we’ve ever been, while building on what Penn has always been successful at doing. Penn has always been one of the premier institutions in college admissions for on-the-ground recruiting. The amount of travel that we do, the breadth of travel that we do that has been a signature of Penn for 30 years. So, trying to build on those successes, while also thinking about enhancing the electronic and print outreach, and being very strategic, that’s the internal piece of why.
What are the outside influences? I think there are market forces that are influencing the college landscape right now. One is the common application. Because of technology, it’s easier to apply for schools with the common application than if you needed a single application for every single school you are applying to. Now Penn, like most of our peer institutions, has a supplement to the common application.

Q. For those of us who went to college a while back, what is the common application?
A.
It’s online. Basically it takes the questions that every single school is asking, along with a range of essay questions, and the students only have to complete it once. It gives them the opportunity to more efficiently apply to a greater number of schools. It’s been around for a while.

Q. You said there were several outside influences. What are the others?
A.
One is increased globalization. Students are applying to us from a broader array of countries, and we have seen tremendous increases in our applicant pool in some targeted places like countries in Africa, Brazil and China. Domestically, we’ve seen an increase in applications from California because of the state budget situation. State funding cuts in California have forced public universities to raise tuition rates dramatically, making students consider more seriously whether they should attend a private school like Penn. Demographics show there are fewer high school graduates today, but they are applying to more schools.

Q. Are there regions of the nation you target more than others? Someone told me that in every class you try to have someone from each state. Is that true?
A.
Yes. But what is most important is that if you are admitting a student from a region, you want to know that student is bringing some kind of experience to the learning environment that couldn’t be captured some other way. When we talk about a class we are admitting, we focus on academic achievement and the impact a student will make at Penn. We look at what students have done outside the classroom, and we try to find a diversity of interests and backgrounds to build a truly multi-dimensional class of about 2,400 students. What we don’t know, and this where the chemistry comes in, is when you mix them all together what will come out. That is really the exciting part of this job. Are we achieving what we hope to achieve when we admit a class? Are our students learning from each other because we have people from 50 states and 77 countries?
What I find the most satisfaction in, after 20-some years of doing this, is that students whose applications I first read in 1987 are 40 years old now and they are doing some pretty special things. I love seeing how all the students grow in their four years here, how they grow intellectually, or how they grow after they study abroad, or how they come to Penn thinking they are interested in one area of study but discover something completely different. And, seeing the parents and seeing how special the Penn experience is for them, too. I know that for my family it was a big deal for me to go here, and to see other families experience this opportunity, that’s why we do what we do.

Q. It must be hard to say ‘no’ to so many applicants.
A.
Of course, I do not take pleasure in denying over 80 percent of the students who apply. It’s a real challenge to know that so many students are invested in this process, and for many Penn is their top choice, and you aren’t able to fulfill that dream for them. What you hope for is that early in the process you help them figure out how to create options and choices for themselves. These decisions are powerful and emotional, but for the most part, students who apply to Penn are going to be okay.

Q. If that is the painful side of this job, what is the heartening side?
A.
One of the best parts is finding those students who, early on, never thought of applying to a place like Penn because they thought maybe they couldn’t afford it, or they thought Penn was not the right type of place for them for whatever reason, and helping them discover their own interests, and showing them how Penn can deliver on those interests and expand on them.

Q. Is Penn’s no-loan financial aid program a big draw?
A.
I think we still need to get that story out more broadly. In non-applicant surveys we are still seeing that some students are not applying because they feel they can’t afford a Penn education. But, I think we wouldn’t be in the good position that we are in today if we weren’t able to say that we are committing $120 million in need-based financial aid and that students have the ability to graduate debt free, which will free up greater opportunities for them career-wise and graduate school-wise. It’s a powerful message that we continue to promote.

Q. Do people try to influence you?
A.
There’s a great deal of responsibility that comes with this job. You have to have the institution’s best interest at heart, and the students’ best interests at heart, even though that’s going to play out with some students not getting in. You have to be able to make decisions. You are going to be thoughtful, but you have to be able to move through the process.

Q. How many people sift through the nearly 27,000 applications?
A.
We have about 20 admissions officers. Each officer is responsible for a geographic region. That’s their recruitment region. Recruitment involves what I’ve talked about already, it also involves alumni relations and working with volunteers who interview candidates. It involves being the primary contact and a liaison with the secondary schools. It requires an understanding of what those schools are like, so when you are evaluating applications you have that context. We give regional directors a great deal of responsibility. We’ve been fortunate to be able to hire really strong people. The regional director will be the first evaluator of an application. Depending on their recommendations on an application, it goes through further avenues of evaluation. No application is read by just one person and admitted.
The decisions that are most intense are those of the candidates whose applications go to committee, where multiple people have a conversation. The committee is comprised of a chairperson, who is a senior member of this office, the regional director, a director of a different region, a representative of the school or program, and for some programs like our coordinated dual programs there are multiple faculty members and program directors. There can be 12 people in the room. Otherwise, students are reviewed in subcommittees, where a number of individuals take a look. At the end of all of that, you take a look at every decision and at this point you will still have more students than you can admit.

Q. So then you start narrowing down the class?
A.
We use the word ‘sculpt.’ We make decisions, and look at the full class one last time, and about three or four days before we post the final decisions we say, ‘Okay, this is the class that we hoped for.’

Q. Can you talk about the diversity of the application pool?
A.
When I first started in college admissions, when you talked about diversity, it was always, ‘How many students do we have from this group and that group?’ Now, you talk about diversity in very different ways because, let’s face it, the racial and ethnic makeup on campus is very different than it was 10 years ago, and certainly 20 years ago when I was here. Of course we still have to consider the inequities in this country. There are still students who are attending schools that just don’t have the opportunities that others have. And what does that mean when you get to the application process at a place like Penn? We have a heck of a lot of work to do to make sure that some of our outreach happens even earlier, so I can talk to a young student in sixth grade and say, ‘If you want to be an engineer this is what you have to do.’ The same thing with socio-economic outreach.
I’m very proud that we are working with the Posse Foundation this year in Miami, targeting students in the Miami-Dade County school system, one of the largest public school systems in the country and one of the most diverse. The Posse Foundation has been around for 20 years, and it’s been highly successful in working with urban public schools identifying students to places like Vanderbilt University, Bryn Mawr College and the University of Wisconsin, a flagship state university. Penn is the only Ivy League school to sign on with the Posse Foundation. What’s the driver here? The demographics of the U.S. are changing, Miami-Dade County is one of the epicenters of that growth and the Foundation is going into urban public schools, getting the Penn message out to students who may not otherwise think about a place like Penn.

Q. What makes the Posse Foundation different than visits to schools you regularly do?
A.
You have the buy-in of the entire school district. Even as Penn we wouldn’t be able to just call a superintendent of schools and say, ‘We want your academic and college counselors to nominate students to our one school.’ We are able to do this now because of the track record of the Posse Foundation, and because of the need for bright students to see that there are opportunities at different kinds of schools. Other schools partnering with the Foundation in Miami are Hamilton College and Mount Holyoke, so the students are learning about three very different places. It is opening avenues that these students may not have considered, and it gives them assistance in the process.

Q. The Early Decision numbers were also up this year, weren’t they?
A
. This is the first year Penn has been up in Early Decision applications in three years. We increased our pool 6 percent.

Q. There have been schools that have backed away from Early Decision. Why is Penn still using it?
A.
Princeton used to have Early Decision, and it no longer has an early program. Harvard used to have Early Action and it no longer has an early program. But, institutionally Penn has always valued Early Decision because—and I know there are people who will disagree with me on this—you want to start building a class around students who clearly understand you, understand themselves and say this is where I want to be. For the institution, Early Decision is a way to shape that class through students who are making Penn their first choice.

Q. Tell me about the international outreach you’ve been doing.
A.
Penn has always been a leader in international admissions, based on relationship building. We don’t just do a fly-over and say, ‘Send your students our way.’ India is a great example. We have a true academic tie to South Asia. We have one of the first departments of South Asian studies ever developed, we have the Center for the Advanced Study of India, and we have a physical presence in New Delhi [the University of Pennsylvania Institute for the Advanced Study of India].
Ideally, we like to find a place where there is some intellectual or academic tradition with Penn, faculty members, alumni, maybe current students. We look at areas where we have an alumni base and start building relationships, being sensitive to needs of the students, their financial needs and their academic interests. Seventeen percent of our application pool is from outside the U.S., and about 14 percent of our class any given year is from outside the U.S. We work hard at Penn to make sure that when the international students do decide to come here, they have a good experience and there is community and support. When I travel and I meet the parents, they want to know that their son or daughter will be happy, that their peer group is unparalleled and that the students in the class will learn from each other.

Q. Tell me the difference between what people generally think admissions is all about, and the reality of what it is about.
A.
I think the perception from the outside is that it’s wood-paneled-walls-tweed-jacket-stuffy-room decision-making, and that the numbers, the test scores, drive the whole process. I think it would surprise people that our admissions officers spend the kind of time that they do with each application. There are actually people on the other end who care about the stories they are reading, while making very difficult decisions. One of the things I tell students and parents is that their success as an individual, and whether they are a good parent, has nothing to do with whether you get a thick envelope or a thin envelope.

Q. As a Penn student, you played lightweight football for four years. What is that?
A.
It’s now called sprint football and, essentially, it’s pure amateur athletics in the best sense. It’s guys who aren’t as big as their classmates on what we call the heavyweight team. It’s a varsity sport. You’re putting on the pads and you’re playing in between the lines and it’s 11 on 11. I lettered for all four years. Now, I’m on the board. I go to the events, and donate a small amount of money, and also stay connected through my friends.

Originally published on February 18, 2010