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May 31, 2012

One on One: Betsy Porter

porterAdmissions & Financial Aid director reflects on changes during her 34 years here

Long-time director of the Office of Admissions and Financial Aid (OAFA) Betsy Porter is preparing to retire next month, leaving behind a legacy of success. Porter’s accomplishments at Pitt include implementing a recruiting plan that has resulted in increasingly diverse and well-prepared freshman classes.

Chancellor Mark A. Nordenberg said: “For two-and-a-half decades, Dr. Porter has consistently recruited outstanding Pitt freshman classes, and we always will be grateful for her substantial contribution to the University’s unparalleled progress in recent years.”

Provost Patricia E. Beeson said, “It is difficult to think of a single individual who has done more than Betsy to shape the profile of the undergraduate student population on the Pittsburgh campus, thereby elevating the University’s reputation across the state and the nation.”

During Porter’s tenure, Pitt has seen a three-fold increase in the number of applicants to the Pittsburgh campus, a 170-point uptick in incoming freshmen’s average SAT scores and the near tripling the number of freshmen who were in the top 10 percent of their high school classes. She also is credited with diversifying the student body; in recent years, more than 20 percent of incoming freshmen have been minorities.

Porter joined Pitt in 1978 as a senior associate director, charged with integrating Pitt’s admissions and financial aid operations.

Prior to coming to Pitt, she served as associate director of admissions at Duquesne University, 1970-78.

At Duquesne, she was enrolled in a master’s program and working toward a career as a middle school guidance counselor, but there were few job prospects.

“I was within weeks of graduation and the program coordinator at the time said, ‘I know this isn’t what you want to do, but there’s a job in the [Duquesne] admissions office and you really should think about it, if only for a year or two,’” Porter recounted in an interview recently with University Times staff writer Peter Hart.

By taking that job, Porter launched a 40-plus year career in the field.

“There’s was no grand plan. I stayed at Duquesne eight years, and then the opportunity here opened up. To me, looking at the professional challenge of combining admissions and financial aid seemed to make sense at that juncture in my career. Also what made sense was the opportunity to pursue a PhD here,” which she earned in higher education administration in 1984.

A search committee chaired by Juan Manfredi, vice provost for Undergraduate Studies, is working to identify Porter’s successor. (See Feb. 9 University Times.)


University Times: What was the Office of Admissions and Financial Aid like in your early days at Pitt?

Porter: I got off the elevator Sept. 11, 1978, in the Schenley Hotel  (now the William Pitt Union) where the office was located and there were literally bags of paper right in the foyer. Paper everywhere. There was a line of students going all the way around the hallway and snaked all the way back and I remember thinking: What have I gotten myself into?

In those days, the primary terminology for admissions offices was enrollment management, which included recruitment, admissions, financial aid, registration. But those functions were not coordinated; staff barely knew staff from the different components, let alone worked together. For us, by combining admissions and financial aid into a singular operating unit, we were one step ahead.

But in the midst of combining those operations, both of those enterprises were also changing. In the ’60s and ’70s, admissions was pretty much of an October-to-May function, and financial aid pretty much of a May-to-September function. If you were an admissions counselor, you went on the road right after Labor Day and you didn’t come back to your home institution until Christmas. There was an enormous amount of travel. But how else could you reach high school students if you didn’t visit them in their high schools?

I say to my staff when I talk about the good ol’ days: “To you it’s going to sound like walking to school in the snow going uphill both ways, but we visited four or five high schools a day and then did a college night that night.”

So admissions was becoming a 12-month activity, especially when you added serious recruitment efforts to change both the profile and demographics of the freshman class, when you added the transfer-student component to that, and of course financial aid need was just exploding during the ’80s and ’90s. So what used to be two cycles that could be coordinated became 12-month cycles in both cases.

Were there any major turning points in your career at Pitt?

A pivotal moment was when Jim Maher became provost in 1995, and we were requested to write a strategic plan. Everyone in the office participated in the plan. It was our own way of saying to the University administration: “This is what we think tactically and strategically needs to happen in order for us to create what you’re looking for.”

Having the kind of campus that we had, [with the administration upgrading] our physical plant, was a real benefit to us for recruitment purposes. Campus visits are a major factor in successful recruitment. People want to talk to students and faculty, look at dorm rooms, look at the campus. Probably one of the best strategic decisions we ever made was the creation of the Pitt Pathfinders — students who were trained as recruiters. Their participation, in addition to the creation of the faculty admissions support team, and our Pitt alumni recruitment team — we have all the constituents who are very committed to representing the University of Pittsburgh from their perspective.

When I say: “This is an institutional success story,” I really mean that. The importance of faculty, for example, being willing to allow prospective students to come into their classrooms, to respond to [a discipline-specific] email. If you’re a non-responding institution, prospective students and families recognize that.

What specifically did your office do to raise the quality while also increasing the diversity of students at Pitt?

From 1995 on there was this kind of general mandate for everything getting better. There was nothing that ever came to us specifically [such as] you have to get this number of applications or we want to improve quality by this number of SAT points. It was always about the institutional goal, articulated in a variety of ways, where this institution was committed to improvement.

So our job was to say, “We have to do better at everything. And now we’ve got to sit down and figure out what that means.”

How do we get Pitt on the radar screen for students who are looking at places like Michigan, North Carolina, Virginia, UC-Berkeley?

There were a variety of strategies: Identifying high-profile high schools that produce wonderful students academically, and visiting those schools over time. There were communications that went out to thousands of high schools nationally; there were times when we brought groups of guidance counselors from certain areas onto campus for two-three days.

New York, New Jersey, Ohio, Virginia, Maryland, D.C. were our first stomping grounds, which we had determined was a wonderful target area for us geographically. There were certain areas in D.C. and Maryland that aided our diversity initiative, large numbers of counties where there are significant numbers of both Hispanic and African-American professionals, whose kids were in public schools.

We also began to build up Philadelphia and surrounding suburban counties, and then over time we began to add to that Chicago, Florida and places we thought Pitt might have some draw.

In some cases, it’s having alumni in the area who can be helpful to us, so that we didn’t necessarily have to spend a considerable amount of money to have professional staff go there. We could draw on alumni to go to some college night programs and college fairs in the area. And of course it comes full circle, because we had [former] Pathfinders, who now are all over the world, who are willing to step up and help us.

How does “The city is our campus” figure into your recruitment strategies?

It’s not rhetoric, it’s reality: The city is our campus. The reality is we’re an urban institution that’s not urban. We’re not in Downtown Pittsburgh. We’re not like NYU. The Pitt Arts program was an extension of that. Students can ride anywhere on the Port Authority transit with a Pitt ID. That opened up even a broader perspective. They can get to the malls. They can get to the zoo, Pirates games.

Then you have the whole dimension of internships and work experience — all those things that come from being proximate to a city. It makes a very compelling case.

It also enabled us to have a very clear distinction between Pitt and our primary competitor, which has always been Penn State. Our overlap now of applicants with Penn State has really declined. And that tells us that we’re both doing a very good job of providing information that’s of some value to families.

How have newer forms of communication affected your office’s operation?

When the web became available, there wasn’t this push toward: “Our entire recruitment strategy would rest on our web site,” or we would require students to apply online, as some institutions did. What we said was we want to have the best web site we can; we want to provide as much information online as we can. We want to enable students to be able to apply online, but we’re going to keep the print version of applications. We haven’t even now gone to requiring online applications.

I feel strongly about the parental role in the admission process, and there are still families that want to sit around the kitchen table and they want to read a viewbook and make certain that the program that their child wants is being offered.

Social media appear to be here to stay. Have you incorporated that kind of communication in your work?

My position on social media has been that the professional world of admissions and financial aid has no role in that. It’s strictly a mechanism where young people have figured out how to socially connect and communicate with one another. So, over the past half dozen years I’ve resisted it.

But the Pitt Pathfinders have a Facebook page and they do, regularly, communicate with prospective students — I think that’s appropriate. Although other institutions do it, I would not want my admissions counselors doing Facebook stuff with prospective students.

Likewise we have not moved — many places have — toward sending acceptance communications through email or through a portal. We still send acceptance letters in an envelope and we think it’s an important family event. I’ve talked to enough parents and I’ve been a parent myself: When things come in an email it doesn’t always mean mom and dad get to know about it. All of the on-campus housing application contracts go to incoming freshmen through their Pitt email account. I can’t tell you the number of students who miss the deadline because their parents didn’t know.

Have dealings with parents changed over time? Have you had more contact with so-called helicopter parents?

I happen to think it’s a good thing to have parents involved in the process of looking at, researching, gathering information about and helping their sons and daughters make decisions about their best placement for higher education. We’ve taken the position within this office to embrace that phenomenon, and we have a whole series of communications that go to parents of admitted students.

Regardless of how we might perceive the mind of an 18-year-old in terms of their level of responsible decision-making, I think they’re not prepared to make that kind of decision without some help. That typically would come from parents or siblings or guidance counselors or advisers. It’s also the reason we still reach out to high schools. We send staff out to try to build relationships with guidance counselors.

How about calls from unhappy parents?

Almost daily I’m on the phone with a parent who’s calling because their son or daughter didn’t get admitted. We take the time to educate them, to allow them to be informed about the process, to talk both generally and specifically about how their son’s or daughter’s application and credentials compare to their competitors, to give the institutional story of how we got to where we are and to allow them to understand that in some cases it’s not what their son or daughter didn’t do as much as what the other students who were applying did do. In most cases they’re pretty understanding. And we work with them to find a regional campus that’s a good placement.

Do students come to your office saying: I don’t have any money, what am I going to do?

Always. Our primary mission here is to provide services to families. We must be prepared for understanding recent legislation that has an impact on students and families and be able to provide appropriate information in a way that they can understand it. It’s really at the root of all we do.

If the federal government decides they’re going to eliminate the Pell Grant program, for example, we would obviously hate that, but we’d have to figure out institutionally what we’re going to do.

Is there a danger of pricing out a certain population? Have the economic demographics of applicants changed?

I think there is more responsibility for those at home to make more informed decisions that include the cost.

There are families who are in a financial situation where their sons or daughters can go anywhere and the family can afford to pay. There are some families where there’s no ability to contribute, so the choices are different for that family.

And a lot of it has to do with the decisions families have made financially over time. There are families that decided from the day their son or daughter was born to save; others have decided to take a vacation every year or buy a new car every two years. So you can’t make judgments on decisions families have made in the past.

What is affordable? What is reasonable? How much debt are they willing or able to assume in order to attend their chosen institution? It really is an individual family-unit decision.

We also have a fairly liberal transfer process. For students who are from Allegheny County, there are community college campuses. They can come to Pitt with 60 transferable credits and get a University of Pittsburgh degree. So there are ways to reduce costs and still attain the goal.

The administration has raised the possibility of going private. Would that decision have a big effect on this office?

It would require some strategic decisions to be made about pricing. And that would then dictate what the challenges would be here and what we would do. We may decide there’s a different set of institutions with whom we want to compete, for example.

Going private means that there would be less responsibility to Pennsylvania students and a broader responsibility institutionally to recruit more broadly. We would have to become even more of a national presence for recruitment purposes.

For the foreseeable future, I think our challenge will be how we communicate with the commonwealth the significance of us remaining state-related and what that means for the future of the commonwealth in terms of this generation and subsequent generations and their families. I think it’s important to the commonwealth to be able to retain the best and the brightest in Pennsylvania. If they’re educated here, there’s a better chance they’ll stay here.

How does this fall’s incoming freshman class look?

Our numbers have been good. Our applications are approaching the 25,000 plateau. The Pitt brand has made it easier to recruit high-quality students. As of May 1, we had 3,786 deposits, which is up slightly from the final enrollment figures for fall 2011: 3,721. Although May 1 is the deposit deadline, the final numbers change due to circumstances. We expect there will be some cancellations; there always are.

Have the recent bomb threats had any impact?

We don’t really know what impact bomb threats have had. All we really know is that the University will be fine come fall with the freshman class. Are there people who decided they didn’t want to come to Pitt because of bomb threats? Probably. Are there a few that will ask for their money back? Probably. But after all is said and done, the best you can say is that we demonstrated an institutional strength, faced up against a challenge like that, and we came out intact. The freshman class is intact for the fall.

What about future directions for this office?

We are continuing to stress that the University is committed to a holistic review of applications, which is really labor intensive. We really do read every application essay, for example.

We are working very aggressively to enable students and families to understand that if the Pittsburgh campus is not possible, the regional campuses are a reasonably good option for some of them.

There are challenges, of course. There’s the continued demographic decline of high school graduates from Pennsylvania; obviously, we need to do more with other areas of the country to replace the loss. There’s the issue of dwindling commonwealth appropriations, rising tuition and new public and private competition for us in recruitment. Because of the University’s reputation, we now have to battle the perception that “It’s hard to get into Pitt.” If a student you know is bright but doesn’t get admitted, you might not apply to Pitt yourself.

On the other hand, I think we’re operating from a position of real institutional strength.

Any final thoughts?

I think this place is capable of remarkable things. It isn’t just me believing that about the University; we have large numbers of people here who are very committed to the institution: faculty, staff and the leadership. I do think there’s also a very subtle element of institutional pride that emanates from those connected to the institution.

I’ve been very fortunate to have a senior management team that’s been in place with me for many, many years, and a middle-management team that’s been in place for several decades.

I think now I know what they mean when people say “a labor of love”: When you look back over a very long career and say, in spite of all the troubles, it’s been wonderful. It really has been that for me. Part of that is because of the admissions staff, but part of it is it was just the right fit for me.

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