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LOS ANGELES — It’s no secret that Americans are doubting the value of higher education these days.

Perhaps that’s why years of dramatic enrollment declines, mounting student debt and threat of a recession led American Council on Education (ACE) president Ted Mitchell to issue sharp warnings last week to a group of college administrators.

“What do families need most? It comes down to three words: jobs, jobs and jobs,” Mitchell said at a conference convened by the Rossier School of Education at the University of Southern California (USC). He called for stronger messages from college leaders about the value of a degree, along with more transparent financial aid letters, improved college and career counseling and clearer transfer pathways – all topics we’ve been reporting on for years at The Hechinger Report.

“The voting public thinks we care not a whit about whether our students have gainful employment, they think [colleges] just want our money,” Mitchell added, emphasizing a major theme that emerged from focus groups he convened at ACE.

Related: How higher education lost its shine

Combating public skepticism over college’s worth, and confusion over how admissions and financial aid works, came up repeatedly during the conference. USC, where estimated annual costs now top $85,000, also happens to be ground zero for bad admissions behavior, thanks to the Varsity Blues scandal that exposed a web of lies and corruption around elite college admissions.

“Higher ed is getting a major black eye every time we turn around,” Sharon Alston, the former vice provost for undergraduate enrollment at American University, said during the annual exchange of new research and ideas.

“Have you yet heard of a college president who was fired for a lack of campus diversity?”

Jerome Lucido, USC Center for Enrollment Research, Policy, and Practice

Student rejection of costly bachelor’s degrees (sometimes in favor of high-paying trade jobs), along with political attacks and interference about what can and cannot be taught, also emerged as hot topics, as did confusion over “test optional” policies and other factors contributing to post-pandemic enrollment declines.

There was deep concern about how to admit diverse freshmen classes at selective four-year colleges if the Supreme Court overturns the use of race-based college admissions. The upcoming ruling is one reason in-person gatherings like this one with so-called “enrollment managers” have become critical.

Related: College admissions is already broken. What will happen if affirmative action is banned?

Enrollment managers, employed by colleges to oversee admissions and financial aid, have a name problem that speaks to the crisis facing higher education. After all, the term enrollment management can reinforce perceptions that colleges care more about their own bottom line than their students.

None of this should be surprising: Higher education is, among many other things, a business, and it’s well established that merit aid too often goes to rich students with high test scores and to wealthy out-of-state students who boost university revenue, according to Stephen Burd of the New America Foundation, who is editing and contributing to an upcoming book with Harvard Education Press about the little-known field of enrollment management.

“It’s remarkable that despite the pivotal role enrollment management has played in transforming how colleges recruit students and award financial aid, few people … know what it is or what it does,” Burd told me.

“We moved the needle, you can move the needle. People thought we couldn’t but we did. It’s a lot of hard work, it cost money, but we did it.”

Youlonda Copeland Morgan, former vice chancellor for enrollment management at UCLA

The Varsity Blues scandal did little to help public cynicism. That’s partly why Robert Massa, a former college vice president and adjunct professor at USC, noted that enrollment managers — even those who push hard to admit more Black, Hispanic and Indigenous students and those from low-income families — get a bad rap.

Massa even referenced remarks by the late Gordon Winston, who was an economist at Williams College, who called enrollment management “a brilliantly analytical process of screwing the poor kids” by devoting fewer financial aid dollars to those who need it and doling out merit pay to those who don’t. Massa emphasized, though, that “it is the exact opposite of what we are trying to do.”

Many of the enrollment managers I spoke with in Los Angeles pointed out that they are not the ones who set policies and make big decisions. Some fight hard for qualified low-income students who need aid and deserve to be admitted. Still, they are often overruled by college presidents and trustees, who don’t approve ideas like eliminating early decision or alumni preferences, and are instead preoccupied with sustainability, prestige and moving up in rankings.

“What do families need most? It comes down to three words: jobs, jobs and jobs.”

Ted Mitchell, president of the American Council on Education

Nonetheless, conference speakers were exhorted to take more leadership in creating diverse classes and finding ways to reach out to and retain poor and underrepresented students, first by Pedro Noguera, dean of the Rossier School at USC, then by Youlonda Copeland Morgan, former vice chancellor for enrollment management at the University of California, Los Angeles.

Morgan, who tried vigorously while at UCLA to diversify its student body, gave a rousing speech about building relationships with faith-based leaders and local businesses to help students get ready for college. She spoke of setting up college advising meetings with students at local Starbucks to explain essay writing and financial aid applications, and working with high schools and churches to recruit students who might not otherwise apply.

“We moved the needle, you can move the needle,” Morgan said. “People thought we couldn’t but we did. It’s a lot of hard work, it cost money, but we did it.”

Related: After Varsity Blues scandal, lots of talk about overhauling college admissions. Will there be action?

Others at the conference urged figuring out ways as well. “If Pell is a priority, you’ve got to budget for it,” said Cornell B. LeSane II, vice president for enrollment management at the College of the Holy Cross, referring to federal grants for low-income students. LeSane and many others at the conference pointed out how woefully inadequate today’s Pell allocations are in meeting student need, or lamented that their institutions have limited aid pools.

Mitchell of ACE pushed for replacing notoriously confusing financial aid letters, noting that letters should spell out how much aid a student will actually get as well as the difference between grants and loans. “What’s it going to cost me? Every aid letter should be able to say that. And not just for now, for next year, and the year after … We need to fix this,” Mitchell said.

The need to address these sorts of obstacles has long been on the minds of both Massa – who told me after the conference that “we’ve been having so many of the same conversations today that we were having twenty years ago” – and Jerome Lucido, the outgoing director of the USC Center for Enrollment Research, Policy and Practice and the conference’s organizer. Lucido dutifully compiles an annual list of ideas, suggestions and best practices for change, including a code of ethics.

This time, he urged boldness.

“Have you yet heard of a college president who was fired for a lack of campus diversity?” Lucido asked the audience. No one answered.

This story about enrollment managers was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for our weekly newsletters.

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