In 2014, as part of a strategic visioning exercise, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, Blacksburg, put this question to a cross-representation of the campus community: If Virginia Tech remains a relevant, top-tier institution, what do you think it should look like in 50 years?
The faculty, staff, and students who participated represented a wide range of disciplines and worked together to produce a white paper that helped shape new strategic goals for the school related to diversity and inclusion. One of Virginia Tech’s strategic goals specifically relates to undergraduate enrollment: By 2023, the university wants 40 percent of each entering undergraduate class to come from underserved and underrepresented populations.
Kicking It Up a Notch
Even though the school hired a vice president for inclusion and diversity to operationalize this goal and launched the InclusiveVT initiative to further its commitment to community, diversity, and excellence, by 2017 Virginia Tech still hadn’t changed much about its admissions process. The problem soon became clear: We had wanted to achieve a different result, but we had continued to work in the same ways. The school kicked its diversity efforts into high gear by transforming its enrollment management practices to more effectively support the institution’s strategic goals.
Virginia Tech’s first step was to contract with the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers (AACRAO) to conduct an operational audit of the admissions office. The audit included a review of structure, job descriptions, communication and social media engagement, and technology, along with a comparison to best practices in those and other key areas.
The assessment team’s findings provided a guide for what we needed to do and where to start. Institutional leadership agreed on the five highest priorities and decided to push forward with all of them in 2018:
Installing a new CRM system. The operational review revealed that Virginia Tech was approximately 15 years behind in its admissions technology. For example, some of our databases didn’t talk to one another, which made it difficult to track, measure, and benchmark key metrics. Closing this technology gap meant we could no longer take small steps, but instead needed to leap forward. So, we fast-tracked implementation of a new CRM, and within 90 days we had the new system in place.
Launching a new admissions platform. Virginia Tech is a member of the Coalition for College (coalitionforcollegeaccess.org), a consortium of more than 150 institutions that have made a specific commitment to student diversity. The coalition provides online resources to help students learn about, prepare for, and apply to college. Through the coalition’s college application program, students can easily distribute materials to participating schools, but Virginia Tech had been slow to adopt it. In conjunction with the new CRM, we went live with the coalition’s platform in August 2018, just in time to process applications for the fall 2019 class. Virginia Tech now uses the coalition application exclusively.
Introducing self-reported academic records. To make life easier for both students and school counselors, Virginia Tech now asks applicants to submit their academic records (courses, grades, and test scores) through the Self-Reported Academic Record website. Students sign in, navigate to a prepopulated list of subjects, enter the coursework reflected in their transcript, and report their grades. We use official documents to verify students’ grades and scores in the summer, after they have accepted the school’s offer of admission. This change has also created great efficiencies in the office, accelerating the application review process by several weeks.
Adopting a holistic review process. When determining who is admitted to Virginia Tech, we now consider more than grades and test scores, asking undergraduate applicants to write short essays in response to four questions designed to highlight personal drivers, strengths, abilities, and life experiences. This Ut Prosim Profile—named after Virgina Tech’s motto “Ut Prosim,” which means “that I may serve”—is limited to 120 words maximum, and each essay requires two readers beyond the admissions staff.
Our campus community enthusiastically embraced this opportunity to provide input about who is admitted to Virginia Tech. The 187 people who completed the training on how to score the essays represent nearly every corner of campus, from faculty and facilities to IT and the business office. And it is not a small commitment: For fall 2019, Virginia Tech received about 32,000 undergraduate and 3,000 transfer applications. We completed the holistic review process in 130 days, with at least two members of the campus community assessing each essay.
To help ensure the holistic review process is randomized and blind, we put technology in place to enable the assigning, reviewing, scoring, and averaging to occur electronically. If the two readers of an essay are within certain thresholds in their scoring, the system averages the two scores. If their assessments vary dramatically, the system assigns a third reader.
Reengineering on-campus visits. Not all of our efforts to revamp enrollment management involved a technology upgrade; some simply required challenging the status quo. As an example, we used to link the number of people who came for daily campus tours to the size of the bus used; we turned people away once the bus reached its capacity. And, in the past, Virginia Tech offered only two tours per day. These practices artificially limited the number of visitors we could welcome, even though the campus visit plays an important role in predicting a student’s decision to enroll. After removing these limits, we saw the number of campus visitors climb by 78 percent from the 2018 admissions cycle to the 2019 cycle.
Above and Beyond
For fall 2019, Virginia Tech anticipated an overall freshman admission yield of 31.7 percent. We ended up at 36 percent, with the biggest increase coming in full-pay students. As a result, our discount rate remained steady, falling below our expected benchmark. We also had a higher-than-expected yield for international students, whose acceptances of admission rose 60 percent above our target.
The increased number of campus visits helped contribute to the record-breaking size of the fall 2019 class, which as of the first day of classes numbered 7,737—17 percent more than the anticipated enrollment of 6,600. Albeit harder to measure, another contributing factor was certainly the announcement in early 2019 that Amazon.com Inc. was building one of its headquarters in Northern Virginia and that it would be partnering with Virginia Tech’s nearby Innovation Campus to develop a talent pipeline.
In addition, in 2018 we received a $33,000 grant to create the Virginia Tech Access Tour from the Coalition for College. On the Virginia Tech Access Tour, representatives from our admissions, access, and financial aid offices gave presentations to students, parents, and high school counselors at 27 sites around the state explaining how the changes to Virginia Tech’s admissions process have improved accessibility and made it easier for students from all backgrounds to apply. We have received positive feedback about the tour, which leads us to believe that the tour has contributed to the higher acceptance rates among in-state students.
In terms of underserved and underrepresented populations, including first-generation and Pell-eligible students, as of the start of the semester, we registered a 20 percent increase in one admissions cycle (494 additional students in 2019 compared to 2018). The transformative effect of all these changes is a direct result of the contributions of Virginia Tech’s enrollment management team in the undergraduate admissions office and the support of Virginia Tech’s College Access Collaborative and financial aid and registrar’s offices.
By changing our admissions process, we have made promising progress on providing a more accessible, enriching experience for students from all walks of life.
SUBMITTED BY Luisa Havens Gerardo, vice provost, enrollment management, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, Blacksburg.