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Admissions Pressures

With more than three times the number of students applying as there are slots in each freshman class, UGA’s admissions office labors to shape a student body that is not only ­academically talented, but also broadly diverse

Sharron Hannon

Melvin Hines arrives on the third floor of Terrell Hall damp from the downpour soaking campus on a Thursday night in mid-January. He has come to the admissions office to join other students—all members of the Georgia Recruitment Team—who have volunteered a couple hours of their evening to make phone calls to targeted prospective students and encourage them to apply to the University of Georgia.

“I’m really interested in getting students to come to UGA, especially from south Georgia,” says Hines, a junior from Albany with a double major in economics and political science. “I want to let people know what a great place this is.”

Hines stations himself at a computer and is given some preliminary instructions on how to pull up information from the admissions database on students who have sent competitive SAT scores to UGA but have not yet submitted an application. With just two weeks until the Feb. 1 deadline to apply for fall 2005, one of Hines’ messages is that time is of the essence.

Kenneth Linsley, a UGA alum and one of two admissions counselors on duty, estimates that up to 200 calls will be made this evening. “Of those, we’ll have about 50-75 good conversations—where we find the prospective students at home and ­really connect with them,” he says. “We give our student callers some training in how to use the computer system, but basically tell them to be themselves when they make the calls and give their honest perspective on UGA.”

Student-to-student contact is very effective, says Nancy McDuff, who is in her 10th year directing the undergraduate admissions process at UGA. “Our current students are our most important recruiters,” she says. “They’re the ones who can really sell others by talking about their classroom and co-curricular experiences.”

Current students are prominently featured in the new viewbook and other ­recruitment materials produced this year and will be enlisted to participate in chat rooms when a revamped admissions Web site is launched. Each spring, about 100 students are selected to be part of the Georgia Recruitment Team and then asked to help with various activities—from evening “call outs” to twice daily information sessions and special recruitment events held on campus to visiting their former high schools to talk about UGA.

Hines, for example, has gone back to Albany High. “It’s tricky to find a UGA holiday when school is still in session there,” he says. “But it’s really fun to talk about what you like about UGA. I sign up for as many recruitment activities as I can.”

During fall and until the Feb. 1 ­application deadline, that can be quite a few. In the past year, the admissions office has expanded its recruiting ­efforts with a special focus on targeted geographic areas in Georgia and out of state. Within the state, that includes south Georgia and parts of Atlanta and the northeast Georgia area—particularly high schools that have not previously been “feeder” schools for UGA. Out-of-state recruiting, besides focusing on neighboring states, now also includes the Washington, D.C., area, plus selected locales in Louisiana and Texas.

“We also find we do well in drawing students from other college towns, like Ann Arbor,” says McDuff. “We find those to be places where people value education and are looking for value in education. The fact that UGA not only is ranked among the top 20 public ­universities in America but also makes a lot of magazines’ ‘best value’ lists makes us attractive nationally.”

In fact, UGA is among the schools to which SAT test-takers nationwide most often request their scores be sent. According to the College Board, UGA ranked among the top 20 most popular schools in 2004 across ­several demographic groups, including ­African-American males.

While UGA has no trouble filling the 4,500 or so slots generally available in each freshman class, the ongoing challenge is to shape the class to match the university’s vision for its student body. That vision not only includes ­attracting students with stellar academic credentials, but also those who bring special talents or creative abilities, who have demonstrated leadership in school and community activities, and who can contribute to “a broadly diverse learning environment.”

Like other selective public universities, UGA has struggled to define its goals for institutional diversity and to devise a strategic process to attain them—one that will stand up to legal scrutiny. After a ­federal appeals court ruled in 2001 that the affirmative action policy UGA had used for some years was unconstitutional, the admissions office had to stop giving academically qualified applicants any edge based on race. That same year, the University also dropped other preference factors, including legacy status.

A subsequent Supreme Court ruling in a case involving the University of Michigan left the door open for universities to consider race as one of several factors for admission, providing certain standards set by the court were met. Since then, a faculty committee has worked on developing a new set of ­admissions criteria to increase diversity in the student body. The committee drafted a statement, which was approved by the University Council, recommending that four diversity ­factors be considered in evaluating freshman applicants: race and ethnic background, where they live, their native language, and the range and quality of their experiences and backgrounds.

In an October 2004 letter, the state attorney general’s office said the recommendations appeared to follow the guidelines ­established by the Supreme Court, but advised that UGA needed to better define its need for more diversity on campus and to set a goal for achieving “critical mass” in order to guard against another legal challenge.

While a faculty task force continues to research and debate how to do that, the ­admissions office is precluded from using race and ethnicity as an individual factor in selecting students for the freshman class that will enter in fall 2005. That leaves many worried about UGA’s minority enrollment, particularly of African-American students. It’s a concern shared by other selective state universities that saw their ranks of black freshmen dip in fall 2004. Some viewed it as fallout from the June 2003 Supreme Court decision, while others pointed to the impact of rising tuition and a restricted applicant pool of minority students with strong SAT scores.

“We’re all shooting for the same small group of students,” admits Ted Spencer, chief ­admissions officer at the University of Michigan.

Newspaper reports that UGA enrolled barely more than 200 African-American students in its freshman class last fall tended to mischaracterize the issue as a problem of students not wanting to attend UGA. In fact, the number of African-American applicants was up from the previous year and the “yield rate”—the percent of accepted students who enrolled—was a respectable 48 per cent.

What many failed to take into account was that the ­freshman class that entered UGA in fall 2003 was unexpectedly large at just over 5,200. That year, the yield rate for all students spiked to an all-time high of 58.6 percent, with a jump in yield across all ethnic groups.

“We still haven’t really figured out what caused that,” says McDuff. “But since our enrollment target is 32,500, we had to take measures to make sure it didn’t happen again.”

That meant instituting a waiting list—and ultimately ­admitting nearly 700 fewer freshmen than the previous year while total applications rose from 11,804 to 13,269. “It’s very tough when you have to disappoint so many students and their families,” says McDuff, who finds herself on the receiving end of phone calls from irate parents after admissions offers go out in the spring. “But with the combination of our enrollment cap, Georgia’s population growth, and UGA’s rising national reputation, the competition to get in is only going to get more intense.”

Accordingly, McDuff’s title recently changed from ­director of admissions to associate vice president for admissions and ­enrollment management. “Admissions is never an exact ­science,” she admits, “but we do a lot of statistical modeling to predict outcomes as best we can.”

McDuff was understandably pleased to hit the targeted enrollment for 2004 while at the same time enrolling the most academically prepared class in UGA’s history—and one that also reflected diversity in race and ethnicity. Over 15 percent of last fall’s entering freshmen self-identified as other than Caucasian, with the largest increase in enrollment coming from students who checked “multiracial” on the application. The growth in that category—and the fact that a number of applicants (more than 400 last year) chose not to answer the question at all—make it difficult to get a completely accurate picture of UGA’s racial breakdown. What McDuff does know for sure is that her office continues to work harder to diversify the applicant pool.

Last fall, with an infusion of funds from the senior administration, ­admissions purchased names from four list sources to target more than 9,000 multicultural high school students in Georgia, half of them sophomores. Those students are getting personalized e-mails, letters, and print materials encouraging them to consider UGA.

At the same time, admissions counselors are expanding their contacts with students at career fairs and in their schools. Sholon Rucker, a UGA alum who covers about 60 metro ­Atlanta schools, says he’s rarely in his office in Decatur. “I try to put myself in front of as many students as possible,” says Rucker (BBA ’98), who has set up a hot line for high school counselors who need to reach him in a hurry. “I can’t go into a mall these days without some student coming up to me and saying, ‘Hey, it’s Mr. UGA.’”

Rucker also started holding information sessions in ­Decatur on Saturdays. In Athens, the admissions office began offering weekend sessions during the fall at the Visitors ­Center. Between the travel and the weekend and evening hours, admissions counselors are among UGA’s hardest-working ­employees. The trouble is that there are only 14 of them.

“A couple years ago, I heard a presentation at a national conference about how much schools were spending on recruitment per student,” says McDuff. “According to this study, public universities were spending an average of $800 per ­student. At the time, we were spending just over $200. Since then, UGA has been faced with several rounds of budget cuts and admissions has not been spared.”

Provost Arnett Mace is well aware of these financial ­constraints. “We’re in the process of evaluating the level of funding for admissions as well as other key support and ­academic units of the university,” he says. “Increasing the ­diversity of the student body and the university community is certainly among the top priorities of this administration.”

Among the goals of the University’s current capital ­campaign is to ­increase the number of scholarships that UGA has available to attract highly qualified students. Though ­nearly all in-state students enter UGA with the HOPE scholarship, tuition ­and fees account for less than one-third of the total cost of a college education. And the HOPE Scholarship doesn’t help out-of-state students like D.J. ­Johnson from Memphis.

As an African-American male and National Merit Finalist with a perfect score on the National Latin Exam, Johnson could have had a free ride to any number of schools in the country. “D.J. was being very heavily recruited,” recalls Vice Provost Jere Morehead, who lured Johnson to UGA with the offer of a prestigious Foundation Fellowship. “What really convinced him to come here, besides the Foundation Fellowship, was our faculty in the classics department. They really made him feel welcome and wanted when he visited campus.”

There is general consensus that it takes a village to successfully attract minority students to campus. Speaking at a January faculty forum convened by the admissions office, Provost Mace reminded those in attendance that this is a responsibility shared by every member of the university community—from students to faculty and staff to alumni.

“We interact with people every day,” said Mace. “My hope is that we’ll all take every opportunity to talk to young men and women about the attributes of this institution and what it takes to get here.”

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photos by Dot Paul (M '97)

Click on image to enlarge

Melvin Hines, a junior from Albany, is among the Georgia Recruitment Team members who call prospective students to encourage them to attend UGA.

Prospective students and their families are encouraged to visit campus for information sessions and a tour.

McDuff, who has headed undergraduate admissions for the past 10 years, goes over applicant status reports with senior staff members Bob Spatig and Karen Webb.

Half of UGA’s admissions counselors are alumni: (clockwise from left) Milly Legra (ABJ ’02), Wade LaFontaine (BBA ’99), ­Melanie Washington (AB ’01), Eric Johnson (ABJ ’86), Ginny Barton (BS ’04), Sholon Rucker (BBA ’98), and Kenneth Linsley (AB ’01).