I loved watching Family Feud when I was a kid. The need to think quickly on the first showdown, the spontaneous family dynamics, and playing along at home with anyone who would join me. Over its 40+ year history, guests and gimmicks and hosts and networks have changed, and there have been some dark, quiet years when the show was scrapped, but today it is as lively and fun as ever.
If you have never watched the show…who are you? And what kind of incomplete life have you been living? Scratch that- if you have never watched Family Feud, you can check it out on ABC, Hulu, download the Feud Live app or view some priceless clips on YouTube.
As a quick refresher, the game starts with a prompt: “We asked 100 people (insert a random prompt here).” The contestants attempt to name something that they believe would receive the most mentions.
Let’s give it a shot.
“We asked 100 people what the most important letters in college admission are…”
In this case, I think the “number one answer on the board” would be GPA. Trying to think like the majority my next response would be SAT and ACT. The odds are those three would account for 70%+ of the answers.
But if you changed the initial prompt to: “We asked 100 admission officers what the most important letters in college admission are…” the number one answer on the board would undoubtedly be —IPs. Internet Protocol address? Uhh…no. IPs are Institutional Priorities.
IPs, Institutional Priorities.
The outward-facing Mission and Vision Statements schools publish on their sites are lofty, well-crafted, broad, and aspirational. Institutional Priorities connect to mission, but they are more functional, specific, and quantifiable. As an admission dean/director, IPs influence the entire funnel – from prospects to enrolling students.
Prospects/Recruitment: In recent years, as an example, many states and regions of the country have been losing population. They know that to achieve the most basic of all IPs– a certain class size– they need to grow their college’s brand beyond their geographic area, create new markets, and bolster enrollment from feeder schools or cities. This is one reason you see so many regional recruiters from the Midwest and Northeast living in Atlanta, Dallas, California, etc. Why do some colleges consistently visit some states twice a year and yet have not physically been to others in decades? Number one answer on the board—IPs.
A new Provost is hired at Sample College. She looks at the undergraduate enrollment and sees that in recent years the population has been becoming increasingly female- a general trend in higher education. While ten years ago, the school was 55% women, it is now over 60%. In the Provost’s interviews, discussions with faculty, and conversations with employers, she’s learned that re-establishing more gender equity is a goal. Voila. An IP is born and you can bet in her first few conversations with her admission dean, she is asking for a list of actions for how they will accomplish this institutional priority.
Suddenly, Sam gets a postcard in the mail from Sample College, while his fraternal twin Samantha does not—even though she competed Sample’s sample online interest form and cheers for the Sample Salmons every Saturday.
Marketing: Let’s say Example University (Home of the Fighting Ex’s) adds a Nursing major and hires a new ambitious business school dean charged with significantly growing the B school. You can bet EU is investing in publications, digital marketing campaigns, texts, social media efforts, and other resources to achieve those goals. Why do you think you’ve started seeing “Example Means Business” pop-ups on your screen and feed lately? Do I think Example should put a picture of a kid in a suit and briefcase having his blood drawn? No. But trust- Instagram takeovers will show plenty of pictures of EKG machines and stock market graphs in the year ahead.
Admission deans have been hired and fired based on their ability to meet specific institutional priorities: raise our standardized test score average, decrease our admit rate, eat into the market share of our biggest rival. As I said before, IPs are functional, specific, and quantifiable. On average, I get one or two job postings for admission/enrollment jobs each week. IPs are a significant piece of those job profile summaries.
Admission Decisions. At the beginning of the year, all admission deans are given a target number of students to enroll: 500, 5000, etc. Right on the heels of that information are subgoals…the numbers within the numbers…the IPs.
My alma mater, UNC-Chapel Hill, is legislated to enroll 82% of its students from North Carolina. Since the majority of applicants don’t hail from the Old North State, it is absolutely easier to get into UNC from Concord, NC than Concord, NH. This is true at Georgia Tech as well. Our Georgia admit rate this year will be four times that of non-Peach Staters.
If you are a senior awaiting an admission decision from a more selective school, this means your test score, GPA, number of AP courses, or any other purely academic metric is not going to be the entire basis for your admission decision. Yes, holistic admission means more than the academic numbers, but it also means other numbers play in, i.e. IPs. This is what admission deans mean when they say they are looking to “select” or “shape” a class. If Admissions was a language on Google Translate, “shaping a class” would convert to “IPs drive our process.”
How do you know what a particular school’s institutional priorities are?
When I bring up IPs on panels or in conversation, the first question is always, “How do I know what a school’s IPs are? ” At that point, I shift from the most important letters to the most commonly used phrase in college admission… It Depends.
Sometimes these will be overtly stated in webinars or presentations. A few years ago, I was on a panel in Denver with a dean from the northeast and he literally said, “We are trying to increase the number of students from Colorado. Why do you think I’m here?”
Sometimes you will see IPs reflected on websites. If a school is using a sliding scale that correlates the amount of financial aid dollars (i.e. scholarship/merit money) with test scores, it is clear increasing their SAT/ACT average is a goal.
Sometimes you can just ask. Now, if the response is they want Chemistry majors from Nebraska, their response may not help, but admission officers welcome questions in virtual sessions or while you are on campus. “What are your goals for the next class?” “What are you trying to grow or improve here?” Put your own spin on it, but just know you can absolutely ask this type of question.
Sometimes you won’t know. If an enrollment manager has been instructed to reduce the discount rate, enroll fewer students from your state, or decrease the number of students with first and last names that both start with M…Well, sorry Matthew Martin, you’ll just be left to think it was the fact that you didn’t take AP World Geography.
If you are a junior, obviously I’m telling you to move to Nebraska and indicate Chemistry as an intended major. Secondly, spend copious amounts of time analyzing the last decade of Common Data Sets for the colleges you are considering in order to determine their strategies and trends. No- please don’t go down those speculative rabbit holes. All of what I’ve said over the years holds- your job is to understand your goals, your interests, and your priorities, and apply to colleges where you would be excited to attend. I could write another few thousand words about this, but since I already wrote a book and blog for the last seven years, I’ll let my body of work stand.
If you are a senior, many colleges will release decisions in March. If you are denied from a selective college, my hope is you won’t question your academic ability or lose sleep trying to figure out what was “wrong” with you or what you “could or should have done differently.” IPs mean admission decisions do not translate to “We don’t think you are smart” or “You could not be successful here.”
I didn’t ask 100 admission deans what words they would use to describe students they were forced to deny based on supply and demand and IPs, but here are my top three answers:
You won’t see all of that in deny letters. You won’t really hear the voice of the dean/director whose signature is in your portal. But even in disappointment, my hope is you will know all of this is true. Instead of second-guessing or dwelling on things outside of your control, focus on the places where you are admitted. They clearly saw the same match and fit you did when you applied. They probably did not use the words “Institutional Priority” in their letter, but you are one. And that is something to celebrate and be excited about.