Improved University Retention By Selecting for Mission Fit

The president of my university said that he wants the following strategy publicized.

The purpose of an admission application is to find good matches between students and the university. We want the application to be easy for people to complete, but to filter out those with low conscientiousness and those who aren’t a good mission fit. If the application is arbitrarily difficult or convoluted, then we’ll lose great applicants. But, if it’s not costly enough, we’ll attract students who are closer to indifferent about attending. Those are the freshmen who don’t return for their sophomore year.

I work at a small Catholic university. This recent year we had much improved retention. Multiple things were different, so it’s hard to say with precision what the important factors were. But we have a suspicion that there was one big policy change that made a difference. We started interviewing applicants for mission fitness. Our mission is public and on our website.

Immediately, I’ve just thrust all of your baggage and expectations into your mind. What kind of questions do we ask and what exactly are we looking for? What if the applicant isn’t Catholic? How long is it going to take? Are there comparable schools without a required interview? Will the interview affect funding?

Regardless of what we’re looking for in a student, we just weeded out the ones who don’t especially want to attend our university. They applied to see what kind of funding they would get or just to increase their options. That’s a big filter. Lot’s of people complete the application and then never schedule the interview. I’m convinced that this is a big deal and a saves administrative resources later on.

The proportion of people who are denied after their interview is quite small. This is where we all thought that the filtering would happen. But not much of it does. Most people who schedule the interview and meet have already been self-selected for mission fitness by virtue of bearing the logistical cost.

Something that is less analytically clean is that fact that when we interview applicants, we’re also giving them a treatment. We’re communicating that acceptance to our university is a scarce good. Applicants consider themselves lucky to some degree when they are accepted. We’ve endowed them with a gift and, like good lab subjects, they predictably exhibit loss aversion. They don’t want to lose the suddenly more valuable admittance to our university. I can’t say whether that affects our deposit rate (the proportion of acceptances who ultimately attend the school). But I suspect that – even if no one were denied after the interview – the interview process itself improves student performance once they arrive here.

This year our student retention is much better than previously. And far from being a trade secret, we want other universities to do the same thing that we’re doing, regardless of their values and mission. The interview policy causes us to find better matches between us and potential students. Partially because we filter applicants with the interviewer, and mostly because applicants filter themselves. Imagine if all schools had an interview. The cost of time and logistics alone would cause young men and women to prioritize and apply to fewer and hopefully better matching schools. Administrative costs would fall and retention would rise for everyone.*

*There is the possibility that the number of people who will not be retained anywhere will still apply and interview at universities. In which case, the interviewer would need to do more filtering under a regime of universal interviewing than under the current regime.

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