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Why We Do It: Summer Thoughts for Liberal Arts Admissions Teams

Admissions Directors at Liberal Arts Schools, the Fate of the West Rests in Your Hands.

Hyperbolic opening sentence to a web article?  Check.

Honestly, though, we really should revisit the importance of our work in order to recharge ourselves for the mission-critical tasks that are just one season away.  Admissions can be a grind–the exhaustion of the Fall roadshow, the relentless pace of Winter, and an emotional rollercoaster during the Spring; happy calls, angry calls, heartbreaking calls.  It’s a blissful grind, then blessed Summer sets in.

Lest we be tempted to kick back–kick back excessively, anyway–for a few months, we must re-engage with the big picture before diving back into web design, mailing lists, event plans, and the rest of it.  Summer is, in part, for reconnecting with our “why.”

Maybe this is my effort to do so.

Admissions Folks, This One’s for You

Admissions team members of liberal arts schools, this post is for you.

Incidentally, what is a liberal arts school?  In my mind, for what it’s worth, a good liberal arts school draws upon the best of the Western tradition and endeavors, with some success, to introduce its students to a broad understanding of reality, employing the full scope of their human reason, while, very importantly, teaching them the best way to live.  This latter, normative aspect is not an ethereal, externally imposed set of values–it’s a code for life rooted in the way things are. Science teaches virtue.

*An asterisk: a true liberal arts foundation increases the value of its students to the market and, thus, their employability.  There’s no reason a solid education can’t deliver both the moral and the expedient.

Though liberal arts schools are budding all over the country, our work as enrollment managers remains a challenge. The common core types have a strongly vested interest in our failure.  We are decentralized and celebrate subsidiarity; not an ideal market development for the one-size-fits-all approach to publishing. Moreover, big tech has done a thorough job of conditioning our market, parents mainly, to believe that all tech is good tech at any age.

Over and above the external challenges, because our schools are young, we, the admissions team, often find ourselves balancing teaching, with coaching, with bus driving, followed by late night budget sessions–maybe for our schools; maybe for our households.  Lord knows we don’t do this for the money. We are entrepreneurs, for crying out loud, and the risk/reward calculus is difficult to tabulate given that our reward is incarnate in the the lives of our students, our communities, and our nation. So worth it, right?

Here are three more “why’s” to motivate us this summer, and sustain us next year.

It Does Take a Village and We Source the Materials

Parents from abroad have shared with me how isolated they sometimes feel raising sons in the US.  We are hyper-connected, but hyper-lonely all at the same time. Families are separated by distance and schedule, and our young people have lost many of the formative influences that graced their ancestors.  

Our schools can counter this by weaving together what our headmaster has described as “a conspiracy for the good”, i.e., parents and teachers working together, often clandestinely behind the backs of our unsuspecting young wards.  A less sinister descriptor of this relationship might be that of a village, where neighbors know you by name (and won’t hesitate to give you, or your parents, an earful when you deserve it).

The good village supports the family supporting the boy.

It does, actually, take a village to raise a boy, and admissions directors gather much of the raw material for their villages’ cottage industries:  the complete and integral human formation of every student. Aided by the power of grace, our teachers can work miracles, but their work is made more or less difficult by the state of mind of pupils entering class on day 1 and, perhaps more importantly, by the state of mind of their families.  This is why The Heights interviews every single parent and applicant seeking admission.

Furthermore, we have to bear in mind that our students themselves are among the most important “teachers” at our School.  By that I mean that our students learn not only from faculty, but also from each other, both for better and for worse.

So, recruit aggressively and choose wisely; each choice represents a new formative input into your village.

We Crowdsource the Survival of the West

The liberal arts require patrons, and, in the educational space, tuition from a grateful community is an important form of patronage.  The admissions team fosters the relationships that make this possible. Each and every enrollment that comes to The Heights is received with both humble gratitude and, importantly, the firm conviction that it’s worth it. Otherwise we wouldn’t be doing what we do.

Rabbi Daniel Lapin in his book Thou Shalt Prosper, describes the dollar as a “certificate of appreciation.”  It’s a brilliant way to think about currency. We give greenbacks to folks who provide something we value.  The dollar is a hard-earned thank you note.

Here’s the rub, though.  The liberal arts, as a pursuit, have been in decline for, say, 500 years.  Because contemporary culture does not necessarily value what we offer to the extent that it once did or, given the tenor of much popular literature, once will, we really do have our work cut out for us.  In marketing speak, we have to sell the hole, not the drill. Only in this instance, we’re not creating a need–we’re highlighting one that exists in every human heart.

So, our mission is twofold.  First, to find those families who value the liberal arts and, second, to introduce families to the liberal arts–perhaps for the first time!  What a great calling! You are an apostolic salesperson, and, even if a student is not ultimately destined for your School, you can still improve his life with your materials, content, and approach.

We are ambassadors, not only for our schools, but also for our tradition generally. Our “good arts” have a bad rap right now; they are perceived as antiquated, ethereal and, what is worst, impractical.  Imprecise definitions of the Arts of Liberty have rendered our work more difficult, but also more important.

Our schools are laboratories of the arts.  Without them, our parents and faculty lose a rallying point for the discussions and friendship that are crucial to the continuity of our tradition.  The deeply valued tuition dollars that your work reaps don’t just sustain a faculty–an independently sufficient reason for work of the highest caliber–they also protect a space, a culture, and a way of life.

So protect us; ideas matter, and your enrollment sustains a community devoted to the right ideas.

A Student Needs your School, But His Parents Haven’t Heard of You

Somewhere out there is a boy whose life your school could change.  Unfortunately, his parents haven’t heard about you yet. He is sitting through a lackluster curriculum with far too few recesses in his week, let alone his day.  He is being trained, not educated, and his individual mentoring is nil. If you fall asleep at the wheel, he might never have the opportunity to read Tolkien, understand his government, or fall head over heels in love with the world of ideas or his faith.  Often times that romance needs an introduction, and your faculty is a wonderful matchmaker.

To compound matters, this young man in question might be in a real position of power some day.  He needs this education; we need him to have this education because prudential statesmanship is a possible fruit of zealous and rigorous study of the arts of liberty.

But, for now, that student’s parents don’t know any better.

All this to say that in addition to seeing your role as one that supports your fellow-faculty and/or your school as a whole (important no-brainer “why’s”), you should also see your work as a direct service to the individual applicants who cross your path, regardless of which final decision goes out.  At The Heights, we hope that every family learns something new and grows in some way through their admissions experience. We fall short all the time, but this is our goal.

It’s important to consider individual applicants because on a daily basis we risk reducing our work to a numbers game.  Number of students, tuition dollars, grants, seats, enrollment management, numbers, numbers, numbers. Don’t let that happen.  The number must remain the means to the end of the human flourishing of each student that inquires to your school; both those who enroll and those who don’t.

Serve each family aggressively.  Not only is it good business practice, it’s good for your soul, good for your nation, and good for every family who clicks “submit application.”

Hit it Hard this Summer and Reconnect with Your “Why”

Implications for us during this, the final month of summer:  we have to stay sharp. We have to be ready to bring our “A-game” in the Fall because each time we are asked, “so, why study the liberal arts?” the generational continuity of our tradition hangs by the thread of your words.  We will all market ourselves aggressively in a few months, but let’s study well lest we cast a broad net without being prepared to take the haul.

Find your “why,” hit the books, and then, once you’ve drilled your foundation back into the bedrock, dive into those spreadsheets.  They really do matter, actually.

Here’s to one more year.

Last summer I read these books.  Take a gander, custodes:

  • Tribes by Seth Godin:  Admissions teams build tribes, “a group of people connected to one another, connected to a leader [or tradition or faith], and connected to an idea.”  Godin gives us an interesting take on tribe building, which is what you do every time you put a packet in the mail.
  • All Marketers Tell Stories by Seth Godin:  We use a marketing tool as old as the Odyssey by employing the art of story.  It is our job to help parents understand the opportunity you are offering–that of weaving their child’s life into the Western Tradition.  This book is not all on point for us, but it’s a fun, easy read on a beach and will, at the very least, get the creative wheels turning.
  • Deep Work by Cal Newport:  This book is a must read for every admissions team member.  Our coms-saturated duties place us at risk of cerebral destruction by email.  Newport outlines a strategy for carving time out of the shallows for Deep Work.  This is also an important arrow in your quiver for questions about when your school introduces iPad’s.  Here, never, but Newport gives some great reasons why we should be skeptical of consumer facing technology in education.
  • On Duties by Cicero:  The most well-read book of the past 2,000 years (aside from the Bible, of course), Cicero offers in a systematic and accessible way, the contours of the life well-lived.  It is a letter to a young man, and we are in the business of educating young men. Read it for your students, your parents, and for yourself.
  • The Order of Things by Fr. James Schall:  If you are feeling a bit disoriented existentially and need to accompany Bilbo up above the Mirkwood canopy for a look at the forest, pick up this book.  Schall provides an overview of, well… everything. And, in true Fr. Schall fashion, offers myriad book suggestions all along the way.
  • The Millionaire Next Door by Thomas J. Stanley:  Despite your fifteen year old car, realize that, with the right decisions and outlook, contentment as a teacher can lead to both peace of mind and financial peace (yes, a subtle reference to Dave Ramsey’s Financial Peace University–required reading for every young teacher).

About the Author

Rich Moss


Rich is the Director of The Heights Forum and the Director of Admissions at The Heights School.

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