Dean Meiklejohn’s Favorite Number

Scott Meiklejohn

 

As thousands of high school seniors across the country wait to exhale, there is a collective sigh of relief among those working within Bowdoin’s Admissions Office. With the lion’s share of the work behind them, they mail decisions to prospective students tomorrow. Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid Scott Meiklejohn reflects on the process, the sea of numbers those who cover college admisions will be talking about — and the one he calls his favorite.

Yesterday was March 21st — although it was hard to believe with temps near 80 degrees in Brunswick. I’m pretty sure some of our campus visitors (including a family from Hawaii) thought they’d taken a wrong turn near the Mason-Dixon Line. But it was a great day to be showing off the campus during March break, with no snow anywhere and the crocuses already blooming in front of H-L Library.

On the eve of an important admissions date, and since I’ll soon be asked about all kinds of admissions stats and figures, I wanted to share some thoughts about my favorite piece of admissions information.

On Friday, we mail our decisions to applicants for the Class of 2016. It’s a huge day in our office, marking the end of a long period of careful evaluation and decision making about the entering class. Bowdoin received 6,716 applicants this year, a new record and an increase of 2% over last year’s figure.

Like last year, we will send admit packages to about 16% of those who applied. The New York Times started hounding us last week for this year’s results, and they’ll soon publish charts that report (probably) increasing numbers of applications and sinking admit rates at some of the country’s most selective colleges. Apps up, admits down … that’s part of the story, and it does indicate something about a college’s popularity and selectivity. To the extent that we think about a bigger applicant pool, though, we’d just like to see increased applications from students who compete strongly for a place in the class. More for the sake of more — simply to drive one number up and another down — isn’t what we’re trying to do.

My favorite number isn’t yield (the percentage of students offered admission who say yes and enroll at Bowdoin), although I spend plenty of time thinking about this number in the weeks leading up to mail day. We analyze past years and try to estimate how many of the approximately 800 admitted students will say yes to our offer. Weird science. Higher yield is a good thing, but not the featured item here or what keeps me awake at night.

Our financial aid commitment: that’s a big and important number. We are providing more than $28 million in need-based, need-blind, no-loan aid to Bowdoin students this year. It’s a tremendous investment and makes a huge difference in our ability to enroll talented young people who can’t afford Bowdoin. I drove a couple of hours north yesterday to meet with a very smart and deserving young Mainer who would require full support from the College to attend Bowdoin. It is fantastic to be at a place where I can have that conversation with no hesitation, knowing that Bowdoin could support him for all four years to the full extent of his need. But financial aid is not the number I’m thinking about.

Number of Bowdoin’s Facebook likes? Nope.

Appearances by “McDreamy” in a Bowdoin T-shirt? Popular in certain demographics, but no.

Our food ranking? Very important but not at the top of my list.

My favorite bit of admissions data is the number of different high schools that send us at least one applicant each year. This year, that number is 3,065, a 6% increase over last year. So, we had a 2% increase in applications but a 6% increase in the number of schools represented in the pool. Interesting.

The high school figure matters because it is (more than applicant volume or selectivity or lots of other admissions figures we see published) the most important way of measuring the College’s expanding reach. Over the long haul, I think we serve Bowdoin best by expanding the high school number. And my theory is that if that number grows — not only from our efforts here in the office but also from all the factors that sustain Bowdoin’s profile as a place of excellence — then the application number will, in some direct and positive relationship, take care of itself. That thought is what guides much of our strategy, travel planning, and use of resources in admissions.

Think about it this way: if we saw a 10% increase in applications, but the high school number stayed flat during that same time, we’d simply be drawing more applicants from the same places. That’s not a bad thing. There are some excellent schools that send us multiple applicants, and they should send us even more. (Hey, we’re a great place!).

But, if that same 10% applicant increase came instead with a 15% increase in the number of different schools represented — that would be a different and much more important sort of progress. If you asked me if, five years from now, if I’d rather see 8,000 applicants or 4,000 high schools … well, honestly, I’d probably say both. But if I had to choose between the two, I’d pick the high school result.

A decade ago, by the way, the high school number was just over 1,800. So this is not a new idea, and Bowdoin has been expanding its reach over many years, thanks in part to loyal alumni and enthusiastic students from more and more locations. We had more than 1,300 applications this year from the West and Southwest alone — enough to fill the first-year class almost three times — and there were nearly 900 applications from abroad.

About 30 years ago, when I was promoted to a job with responsibility for people and programs on another campus, my father asked me, “How’s it going?” Full of enthusiasm for my new station in life, I answered, “Great!” There was a pause. Then he asked, “How do you know?”

Bowdoin’s attention to and success with the high school number is a big part of how I answer that question today. And that’s why the number 3,065 is the dean’s favorite.

Comments

  1. stephen f.loebs says:

    I am interested in the data on public high schools and private schools. You do not mention this disaggregation, yet I expect it is important.

  2. George Maling '52 says:

    I was planning to ask the same question as Stephen Loebs. I agree that it is important, and would like to see the data.

  3. Scott Meiklejohn says:

    This year’s applicant pool was 61% students from public high schools and 39% from parochial and private schools. We had 4,111 applicants from 1,981 public high schools, 784 applicants from 407 parochial schools, and 1,821 applicants from 677 private schools.

    The two schools with the largest number of admits to the Bowdoin Class of ’16 are a New England private school and a West Coast public school.

  4. Stu Roberts says:

    Scott,

    That is a great number!

    Best wishes, Stu

  5. John P. Sheehy '70 says:

    Great job Scott … I encourage a number of my patients ( I’m a Pediatrician) each year to look at the “small college in Maine” … all who have taken the bait and attended, had a great experience and continue to promote Bowdoin!

  6. Walter Gans '57 says:

    Fantastic, Scott. Congrats to you and your fine staff! What’s the % of early decisions this year?

  7. Dietmar K. R. Klein ´57 says:

    Dear Scott
    the amount and quality of efforts to select the next Class of 2016 is just amazing and highly recommendable. Yesterday, prior to getting to know the reference to Murray´s latest book, I bought it in Frankfurt am Main, what a coincidence! A final question: What are the relevant numbers of foreign students who have applied and who have received an admission letter, somewhat broken down by their country of origin?
    Best regards Dietmar

  8. Kath Mixter Mayne says:

    Good for you! Happy to increase the number since my son Sam is coming from a small public high school in mid-Missouri.

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