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  • Dr. Mary Darden

Part I - Pivots for Success: Reforming the Admissions-to-Graduation Relationships

Updated: Apr 23, 2019

Our company, Higher Education Innovation (HEI), works with colleges and universities to conduct research on what they need to thrive. During the past three years, we have encountered a number of significant trends that we believe may be beneficial to a large number of colleges.

Research data indicate that a majority of colleges in the U.S. have experienced declining enrollment over the last decade. Most have struggled to obtain a handle on how to even slow the bleeding. We have identified some common consistencies that could help explain the losses.

First, it is important to recognize some major trend changes in the area of admissions and enrollment. For many years in the history of higher education, this was a long, arduous process. College bound students prepared for and explored options over a long period of time. Most applied early within their senior year in high school, waited until late winter to begin hearing acceptances (sometimes longer) and then generally made a decision by late Spring of their senior year.

Today, most students make a decision to attend college, search online at the options, and usually make a choice within less than two weeks.

In addition, the way that colleges connect to colleges and the processes that admit and enroll them have changed drastically, particularly for the colleges that are growing and thriving. So, in addition to studying colleges with declining enrollment, HEI has also been studying colleges who are rapidly growing – many of them for-profit institutions – to see what the variances are and to help find tools for success.


From research and 25 years in higher education administration, it has become clear that fear is the greatest barrier for students aspiring to enroll in college. Of the many hundreds of our students that I interviewed over the years, I never met one who was not at least somewhat afraid during the application process. Although there are variations in degree and sources, the presence of fear has remained consistent in our current research.

A rapidly increasing number of our students are non-traditional, older, with families and fulltime jobs. A significant number of them have attempted higher education and either did not succeed or complete. They are afraid of failing again. Many are fearful that they will not be able to afford college or pay off student loans. A common fear is that the added burden will impact their jobs and/or family. There is often anxiety about being able to rise to the academic challenges, particularly in math and writing. Unfortunately, a number of institutions take a more distant role in dealing with students and tend to see them as adults who need to process through and cope with these very real fears and issues independently.

To prevent fear from determining the outcome, supportive relationships are critical. Usually, the first contact is the admissions counselor, but for whomever it is, it is critical that the students’ fears be heard. Students need to hear that their fears are not only common but are actually the rule. They need to know that there are a number of caring people at the institution who will care for and encourage them.

And then, that needs to happen. Beginning with the first contact, there needs to be a consistent and supportive outreach role from the people who have contact with this student. It needs to become a part of the institutional mission.


Mary Landon Darden earned a doctorate in Higher Education Administration from Baylor University, is author of the book: Beyond 2020: Envisioning the Future of Universities in America published by the American Council on Education and Rowman and Littlefield, and is the President of Higher Education Innovation, LLC, (HEI). HEI’s mission is to assist affordable non-profit colleges and universities with critical pivots to enhance future thriving.

Phone: 210-202-1104

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