TCU’s hot and getting hotter
In our Q&A with Dean of Admission Ray Brown, he talks about application numbers, gender balance, the impact of athletics and more.
by Kathryn Hopper
Updated: Thursday, October 07, 2010
Admission dean Ray Brown: "As recently as a decade ago, TCU was about the ninth most selective school in Texas. Three years ago, we moved into the number two spot, second after Rice, in terms of selectivity."
When Ray Brown says TCU is still hot, he’s not talking about 100-degree Texas-summer temperatures. Brown, dean of admission, is simply crunching the numbers.
Ten years ago, TCU received about 4,500 applications for admission. This year, applications topped 14,000.
“In college admissions, if you increase applications two, three or even four percentage points in a year, you’re having a pretty good year,” Brown says. “If you increase 300 percent in 10 years, you’re really doing well.”
The university is benefitting from a “perfect storm,” he says, of stunning, state-of-the-art campus facilities, continued success in academics and fine arts, and the positive publicity brought by winning sports programs.
With applications up nearly 20 percent this year, it’s apparent that TCU is hot and getting hotter. Does that make your job easier or harder?
Yes. [laughs] At the risk of being facetious, the answer really is yes to both because we’ve moved from being a university that tried to attract as much attention as possible at one point, to one where that’s coming much more easily. The down side is that you’ve got a whole bunch of kids who aren’t going to get in. We had 14,000 applications this year and the freshman class is going to be about 1,800. No one here takes any joy in denying admission. We love kids and want to be part of this very important time in their lives, so telling them no is very, very difficult.
What nationwide trends do you see in college admissions?
Today there is this sense that it is difficult beyond belief to get into college, and that’s just not the case. The vast majority of colleges in this country offer admission to the vast majority of their applicants, but that’s rarely reported in the press. It is, however, increasingly difficult to get into the top schools. In the last 20 years, there’s been a clustering of applications to the more selective schools in the country. As recently as a decade ago, TCU was about the ninth most selective school in Texas. Three years ago, we moved into the number two spot, second after Rice, in terms of selectivity. We’re one of the schools students say is a great value for the cost.
Another trend is that everybody’s concerned about cost. I’m not sure that’s changed much, but when you throw in an economy that has been squishy in the last few years, that’s something everyone’s concerned about.
What is TCU doing to appeal to a wide range of demographic groups?
Texas is now a majority-minority state, and TCU is not as reflective of the population of the state as we probably should be. When [Chancellor Emeritus Michael R.] Ferrari came here in 1998, he started the Community Scholars program [which provides for 60 percent tuition to top students from select at-risk Fort Worth and Dallas area high schools]. We’re in year 11 of the Community Scholars program and now get many applications from students in schools that, 15 years ago, wouldn’t have even thought to apply. We truly have made inroads to the communities that house students of color in disproportionate numbers. This is an initiative this office is very interested in seeing succeed.
We also have programs on the local, state and national level for students of color. Some have failed, but most are working well. Last year for the first time ever, we cracked 20 percent enrollment for students of color. In 10 years, we moved from about 9 to 20 percent.
Nationally, more women are enrolling in colleges and universities than men, with women representing 62 percent of students nationwide. Are you happy with TCU’s gender balance?
It’s been an interesting conundrum. We’re a 60-40 institution; 60 percent female, 40 percent male, but given what’s going on in this country, that’s not too bad. Since the early 1970s, we’ve never been lower than 37 percent [male] in the freshman class. We’ve also never been higher than about 43 percent male in the freshman class for those same 40 years. We have tried all sorts of things to boost the enrollment of males. That said, the fact that we haven’t lost any ground is some sort of victory in itself.
Forty years ago, [national] college enrollment was roughly 62 percent men, 38 percent women; now it’s reversed. The country has caught up to us, and passed us really. In a way, we’ve held our own on that front. We’d love to enroll a higher proportion of men, but the most important thing is we want the best students, regardless of gender.
What geographic trends are you seeing with applications?
The geographic mix is starting to expand again. Back in the 1970s, colleges across the country had a much broader geographic representation in their student body than they did toward the end of the 20th century. That seems to be easing again and we’re benefitting from it.
There are all sorts of things going on; first and most notably, there are the serious issues that confront California. California is now many colleges’ number two state, and we’re no different. It moved into our number two spot about five years ago. What’s been odd is that five years ago we had 40 freshmen from California; this fall we enrolled about 155 freshman from California. It now has as many students in the freshman class as all our contiguous states combined. Why has that happened? I think LaDainian Tomlinson ’05 being in San Diego kick-started it. That we’re part of the Mountain West Conference and playing San Diego State and other Western universities contributed to it. A huge piece of it, though, is that we hired a person devoted to California, Betsey Hayes. She lives there, she spends all her time working there and she’s a remarkable admission professional. The students from California know her, they love her, and she’s done a terrific job for us out there.
In small markets like Idaho, we had a great year. We went from three applications to 12. We quadrupled our applications largely because we played Boise State in two straight bowl games. Students up there are learning about us.
The most unusual thing that happened to our applicant pool this year is we had a huge shift in the percentage of out-of-state students admitted and enrolled. When I say huge, it was a 10 percentage point shift. Normally if you have a shift of 2 or 3 points in your geographic mix, that’s significant. We went from our enrolled freshmen being about 70 percent Texans last year to this incoming freshman class being 60 percent Texans.
That’s a good/news bad news thing. We love our Texans; they’re our bread and butter. We absolutely want to be reflective of this state, but the flip side is we want a broad a mix of people so that our students will have that type of experience, so they’ll be exposed to different ideas, people who don’t look like they do, who don’t think like they do, who have different faith traditions, and different ways of doing things. That’s one of our primary goals.
You periodically address alumni groups. What do you hear from them?
They usually either want TCU to keep getting more and more selective because that enhances the value of their degree, or they don’t want TCU to be too selective because they have a son or daughter coming up and want to be sure they get into the university too.
So what do you tell them?
One of the things some alumni feel is that because they are alumni, that should counterbalance an overall mediocre application from a son or daughter. Let me explain. A lot of alums are very involved in the life of the university and there’s a sense that simply by virtue of that, it should count for enough to offer admission to a student.
The reality is we could fill our freshman class just with just legacy admits — two times over. Our applicant pool of 14,000 this year had about 3,500 students who had some TCU connection. Yes, we’re absolutely delighted that sons and daughters, nieces and nephews and siblings of TCU alums are applying to TCU in record numbers. Is it important to us? You bet it is. That’s one of the first things we look for. We want people who’ll be happy here. It doesn’t come as a surprise to legacies what this place is all about. They’ve done their homework. They’ve grown up here in some cases. It’s an important element that we consider, but its only one element of many that we take into consideration.
You’ve talked about the record number of applicants; can you talk more about the caliber of those applicants? Has that changed?
This fall class is setting records on many fronts — not only is it the highest number of applications of all time, but it will have the highest SAT of all time, the highest ACT and the highest class rank.
If we could quantify this, it’s probably a group of students bringing with them the most rigorous curriculum from high school this institution has ever seen, too. As an institution gets more and more selective, that one element — the rigor of the high school curriculum — becomes the most important player in the entire admission decision. All the other objective markers — the grades, class rank, and test scores — all those are much more popular, but the reality is those things are not the most important thing to us as admission officers. All those things, too, are at new highs.
Let me also add, however, that they are not significantly higher than they have been in the past. One of the things I get a kick out of is alums who hear about the success this university’s had and say, “Man, I’m glad I went to school when I did, because I’d never get in today.” Well, some might not, but the reality is most would have because even though we continue setting these records, the reality is there’s not a lot of difference. The biggest difference is the huge number of students who want to come here.
What’s been the impact of new media and the Web on admissions?
I could go on for days about this, but my abbreviated response has to do with my being a parent who has gone through this admission process twice in the last three years. I have a pretty good idea what kids and parents are getting in the mail and the kinds of contacts they have, and there is an evolution going on. It’s not only an evolution in what’s being sent from the colleges and universities, but more important, it’s an evolution in how students and parents are reacting to this.
More and more they aren’t looking at the literature being sent, unless we already happened to be in the set of colleges they are considering. It is unlikely that a brochure sent to a student is going to get him or her to take a look at you.
Students are becoming much more proactive in this process and are saying, “I don’t want to put myself on your mailing list.” So they’re not. Our inquiry numbers, for the first time in decades, are starting to decline. But that doesn’t mean these same kids are not interested in our school.
Let me give you an example. Five years ago we had an applicant pool of about 8,000 students, of those we had about 20 applicants for whom our first contact was their application for admission. We call them “stealth applicants” because for some reason, they just appear out of nowhere. Fast forward to last fall when we had 14,000 applications, fully 3,000 of those applicants are students with whom we had no prior contact.
We’re getting the word out some way and we know that’s largely the web. Students are looking at us on the web and they want to be in the driver’s seat; they want to be in control. They don’t want to be receiving e-mail messages from colleges, or calls or unsolicited mail. They’re taking more control of the process.
What about the parents? Where are they in this process?
Parents, whether they know it or not, play the most pivotal role in the decision the student will make. The literature out there confirms that irrespective of the type of relationship you have with your child, you’re still the most important influence in your child’s decision. If you have a great relationship with your child, that child is going to respect your opinion. If you have a lousy relationship, you still control the purse strings.
We’re quite keen on this application process being a family decision. Certainly it’s the student who is doing the work; certainly it is the student who should be doing the work in the application process and in college, but unless the student is paying for everything, it should be a family decision. So what’s happening? Because the application is now electronic in nature, nothing is handwritten. We have, therefore, lost the ability to know that what is being submitted to us is actually the work of the student. We’ve got a whole lot of parents out there completing the applications for their kids. Yes, that’s happening. When we find that the student’s e-mail address on the application form matches the parent’s e-mail, then it’s pretty clear what the role of the parent is for that particular applicant. That’s a huge shift, and it’s not one that’s good. I’m all for parents being involved in the application process, but I’m all for parents making sure their child is doing the work.
On the Web:
Admission's website - www.admissions.tcu.edu
Gallery of photos of the Mary Wright Admission Center
TCU is hot and getting hotter - a Q&A with dean Ray Brown
New Mary Wright Admission Center gives TCU a new front door
Volunteers help TCU recruit students around the globe