Unlocking Higher Education: Navigating College Admissions with Kris Wong Davis of CMU

December 7, 2023

In this episode of FIN-LYT by EWA, Jamison Smith is joined by Kris Wong Davis, the Vice Provost for Enrollment Management and Dean of Admission at Carnegie Mellon University. Together, they dig into the intricate world of higher education, providing valuable insights and advice for students and parents embarking on the college journey.

Kris Wong Davis sheds light on the pivotal role of her office in the higher education process and underscores the significance of guiding prospective students through the admissions process, helping them understand what a university has to offer and ultimately determining if the university aligns with their aspirations. Kris and Jamison discuss how the college admissions process has changed in response to increased competition, surges in applications, more complex selection processes and the impact of the Common Application (Common App).

In addition, they discuss how parent and students can begin preparing for the process including gathering transcripts, listing academic honors, documenting extracurricular activities, and crafting compelling essays.

Listen in to gain valuable insights into financial aid through FAFSA, the importance of actively seeking scholarships, prioritizing passion over earning potential when choosing a major, engaging in active learning and more!

Episode Transcript

Welcome to EWA’s Finlit podcast. EWA is a fee only RAA based out of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. We hope all listeners of this podcast will benefit as we deep dive into complex financial topics that we will make simplified for you. And we hope that this really serves as a catalyst so that you can make the best financial planning decisions for your family and also save time.


Chris well, thanks for joining us on this week’s episode of the Finlet by UWA Podcast. Let’s just start very simply. Who are you? What do you do? What are we about to talk about? Why is it important?


Sure. So, my name is Chris Wong Davis. I serve as the vice provost for Enrollment Management and Dean of Admission at Carnegie Mellon University. What I do is something that very few people understand and know about, which is okay, because if I do what I do well, nobody has to know what I do. That’s the important part. And it’s important because there is no student who isn’t touched by the work of our offices somewhere, someplace, sometime in their career, if not daily, in some instances. And so what we do has a lot of influence on a good experience or a bad experience for students. So we always have to be paying attention to what that experience is and how we make it even better.


Awesome. Well, give us your. So what’s your background? Higher education? Give us, like, the snapshot of how long you’ve been with CMU and what you did before that, and then specifically your role with.


So I didn’t. There’s no traditional background that anybody has to get to this position. People come from all other aspects of higher education and outside of higher education, too, for this kind of role. And so I came through higher education, but I did it through several different offices and different universities. I did some time working in college access programming. I was an admissions counselor. I did some work in development and advancement and ended up getting pulled back into admission work and then finally into enrollment management work because I had such a passion for it. I’ve been at a number of institutions across the country through my career and really only joined Kearnegie Mellon in June. So June 1 was my start date. So I’m still relatively new to the institution, getting to know Pittsburgh.




Any tips anybody has to give me there? Because there’s no flat road or flat surface anywhere.


It is hard to get around. Well, very cool. So, basically, you work. Just dive into that a little bit deeper. If a student comes to connectie Mellon on the admission side, what are they coming to you for? What are you helping them with?


So, specifically, one of our offices in enrollment management is undergraduate admissions. And so that office is the office that really works with high school students, any prospective student, to understand what Carnegie Mellon has to offer them as an institution, as an educational experience, why they would choose us, and then, of course, through the application for admission process, and then after they’re admitted in the deciding, yes, Carnegie Mellon is the place that I want to go to spend the next four years of my undergraduate career. So it’s a long trajectory of interface with students through what tends to be a very stressful time for many high school students as they’re trying to decide what my next step in life is when it comes to higher education. It’s a really important office in how we work with families and high schools and students throughout this process.


Okay, thanks for sharing all that. I think that gives a lot of context. So I think it’s a very, like you said, stressful time for students, parents. When you’re looking at colleges, going on visits, what do you need to know? And that’s really what we’re going to take a deep dive into today, is, from your perspective, on the higher education side, what should students and parents be thinking about and doing as they approach this stressful time and making this big decision? So let’s just start first. Over the course of your career, you’ve been to these different universities and now wound up in Pittsburgh. How have you seen the landscape of higher education change, if there are any major changes over the course of your career?


Absolutely. So, obviously, I’ve been around for a hot minute. So when I started, it wasn’t this competitive landscape, especially not in the realm of admission that it is now. There are fewer applications. Admission wasn’t quite run as it is today, for important reasons. Fewer applications. It’s a simpler process. We drew lines under cut scores. That said, this GPA is in, this GPA is out. And it was a pretty rudimentary type of process that went through, which is good and bad at the same time. But as it’s become more competitive of a landscape, students are thinking about scholarships, they’re thinking about academic programs, they’re thinking of rigor and prestige and who they want to be associated with.


Applications have grown insanely high at many institutions, more than doubling and tripling in some cases, which just means it’s a harder and harder process to get through. Who is the student that we can, and we have room to admit. So it’s not really about selecting a student on the basis of their merit anymore. It’s thinking about how many students can we accommodate? What’s the right mix of students to accommodate with academic majors and coming from different backgrounds, whether it’s a geolocation around the world, whether it’s a geolocation in the country. There’s so many facets of how we think through that in a very large application pool, that it’s a very complicated process now, where it wasn’t that 2030 years ago, it was a much more simplistic process many years ago.


So it sounds like it’s just gotten much more competitive. Is that just because many more people have begun going to college?


More people. But I also think people think more deeply about it, maybe, than I’m going to denigrate my generation. I don’t think we thought about it as deeply. It was like, hey, if you get into college, good, go where you got in, no problem. But it wasn’t as deeply thought about, and certainly not the strategy that students spend time augmenting their reach. School and their safety. Schools and who else in the middle. So, students apply to more institutions now than they ever did before. And the advent of the Common app, which allows students to apply to multiple institutions through one application platform that didn’t exist many years ago, really has helped students broaden their portfolio of schools that they consider. And so that allows for this growth of applications, which is positive for students and complicated for institutions.


So you said that’s an app where you can apply for multiple schools at once.


Correct. The common application. It is called, affectionately, the common app. Abbreviated. And I don’t want to quote, there are lots of institutions. I want to say it’s over 800. It might even be 1000. Now, institutions who participate as members of the Common app. So a student will go through, fill out the basic form, select the institutions that they want to apply to. There are often some supplemental questions for each institution, but essentially, they’re not filling out all of those applications fresh. They’re routing their central application to those institutions.


Okay, that’s interesting. I didn’t know that existed. It hasn’t been entirely too long since I’ve been out of college, but things change fast. Yeah, I guess that makes that entire process a little bit less daunting and less strenuous if you can do one application for multiple different institutions. And I assume Carnegie Mellon is part of that.




Very cool. And then. Just curious. I know Carnegie Mellon is very prestigious, competitive. What’s the landscape like? How many applicants come in, and then what’s the acceptance rate? And how does that vary from different institutions?


Yeah. So we had about 34,000 applications last year, which is similar to our peerst and our competitors. But the institution is only enrolling a little over 1700 new students each year, so do the math. That’s not very many seats for 34,000 applicants. So our selectivity rate is sitting around 12%, 13% of applicants who get in, because it is just such a competitive environment for our academics, and certainly not in a place where we can choose to over enroll, because the actual campus can’t handle more students if we accidentally overdid it in the admission process. So we have to really carefully monitor how many students we admit so that we get the right number on campus. So it’s a very tricky mathematical equation that we go through to make sure who gets in.


And I understand how difficult that is for students and families to understand all the mechanics that are happening in the background. To get the academic programs, the numbers they need, the mix of students they need, and to build the right students into the class. Well, there are many talented students we simply can’t offer a seat to.


Yeah. Okay. I never really thought about the math. Know applicants to what’s, like, a normal, I don’t know, state school or a college that’s less competitive than Carnegie Mellon, what’s like, the general acceptance rate.


So it can vary everywhere from, there are institutions that we call open enrollment, where essentially, they’ll admit almost every student who applies within reason, and there are institutions that fall anywhere in between. So a lot of the larger public institutions can vary still, because you still have your UC Berkeley’s and your Michigan’s, who are public institutions, but still very selective, all the way to public institutions that aren’t nearly as selective. So you can range anywhere between a 20% selectivity at institutions, even public ones, all the way to 80% selectivity. So it really can change by the institution. And this is where I tell families, spend the time doing the research and understanding how each public and private institution fills out their class. So then you sort of know what to expect back in that process.


Interesting. So walk us through from a high level, from a student’s standpoint, what’s this entire process look like if they’re applying? We’ll use Crane Melon as an example. That’s obviously where you’re at. But from application to acceptance, what does that process actually entail?


So there’s multiple options for students to go through in that process. And so a student may apply what we call early decision one, which is our earliest window to apply. Those students have to commit to Carnegie Mellon if were to offer them admission. So many selective institutions in our peerstit all have early decision. It is the phase in which it is very selective. But we ask students to commit to us if we’re going to give them a place in the class at that time. Students may also apply early decision too, which is just the window after that in early spring, January. And there we also select students based on them committing to us and then we open for regular decision. Many institutions have these phased approaches where it can be early decision or early action.


We use early decision and then moving into regular decision. Students who are in the regular decision pool who apply after they can apply during the early decision window and select regular decision, they don’t have to commit to early decision. If they apply regular decision, then we release those decisions in March all at once. And so students won’t necessarily know right away what their admission decision is because we pull all of the regular decision together and fill out the class from those regular decision applications.


Okay. And then so let’s say somebody that’s getting ready to start their senior year, so that’s march of their senior year of high school. What’s the earliest that first phase? When does that start?


So applications for the common app for most institutions open in August. And so the application for next fall is already open for almost all institutions at this point of time. And students are working through filling out their application for admission, writing their essays, making sure they’ve got their transcripts in oRder, having, whether it’s their parents, an academic advisor, their counselor, review their application materials with them to ensure that they’ve met all of the requirements of the applications. The rolling deadlines for schools start somewhere around October 15 and can roll out from there. Our first one is the 1 November. And so students start to hit those deadlines for submissions in fall and then all the way into early spring.


Okay, so August of senior of high school would be when you’d want to start applying and think about this and then by November kind of have applications in and start to make sure you have a good grasp on that process.


Yes. Although my biggest piece of advice would be don’t wait until August of your senior year to get there. Really start early because you can look at the questions and the applications. You can start to be prepared for filling that out far in advance and have some essays ready and have some pieces of your application prepped so that you don’t feel the time crunch of I’m starting my senior year. Oh my gosh, I have so much to do. And now I have to start this application. You will have pieces of that ready and less stress going into the process if you do a little bit of prep work in advance. I’m speaking clearly to the students in that.


No, I think that’s great advice. What’s like, just a quick checklist of what are things that students or parents should have together? Transcripts, I assume. Obviously, you have to do the application essay. What’s just a quick punch list of stuff that they should have ready to go?


Sure. So we always ask students to list their academic honors. So anything they’ve received in terms of an award or an accolade, run a tally list of those, because sometimes as somebody’s filling out an application in the moment, they forget about things. So if you kind of keep that notebook of things running as you go so that it’s documented you don’t forget about something you really wanted to include. The same with activities. And so students have so many activities today, it’s easy to say, oh, there are five other things I forgot to list. And so, again, keep a running list of those things. There are only so many spaces on the application to fill out in both of those areas.


And so prioritize what are the most important things in either one of those categories that you want to convey as an applicant to the institution. But if you have them already compiled, then it’s easier to prioritize and figure out how you want to present yourself. The same thing with essays. Essays can change, and the essay prompts can change year to year. But if you have some frameworks of some things you would like to tell in your story to an institution, then it’s easier to begin to adapt that as you write your essay, as opposed to starting from scratch on every application.


So then from being on the side of the university, what are things that you would advise on? What are standout items? Is it purely high GPA, extracurricular activities? What are some things that you look for from an applicant to stand out?


So I think one of the things that is really important is that a student has challenged themselves academically in school and done well. Don’t take the easy road. Don’t only do the subjects that come easily, but did challenge themselves to take hard, rigorous classes, study, show persistence and resilience in that, because not everybody does well at every class. A mathematician may not do well at history, a history major may not do well in the sciences, but going ahead and stepping out of the comfort zone to challenge themselves academically is really important. And then being able to articulate why their interest aligns with the institution and draw from those academic experiences they’ve had in high school and how they can use that to be a strong student at that institution and align with what the culture and climate of that institution is.


Those are really the threads that we’re looking for in an application to understand what that student brings to the institution if were to offer them admission.


So, from what I heard is a wide variety of different courses throughout high school. So you’re not just focused one linear subject and then challenging from a standpoint of taking different difficulty levels throughout the variety of courses versus just like, okay, I’m going to take a bunch of math classes that are super easy and get a really high GPA because that’s what’s easy to me. Is that correct?


Correct. I would say that the GPA matters less than what’s underneath that GPA. And so, to your point, if you’ve taken a lot of EDZ classes just to have a high GPA, that matters less than a student who’s taken a lot of rigorous coursework, has a great GPA, but isn’t a perfect GPA because they challenge themselves with rigorous courses?


Okay, and then what about things outside of GPA and coursework? Like, what else are standout items or things you look for?


So going back to sort of those activities and things that students have done outside of the classroom, we do look for students who pursued and found out more about the areas that interest them. So if you have an area that interests you, did you get involved in activities that would help you to explore it further than just taking a class. Did you learn more about what it means? For instance, students often want to be veterinarians. Did you go and do something that would help you understand what it means to be a professional in that space, and how did those activities shape your desire to continue to pursue that? So we’re looking for that connection.


Doesn’t mean that all of your activities only have to be scripted around what you hope to do as a profession someday, because that can easily change once you get to college. But showing that you’ve had some intentionality in how you spent your time outside the classroom actually says a lot about what kind of student you’ll be when you get into higher education.


Okay, that’s interesting. So intention around doing things outside of the classroom that you could pull in to be applicable to whatever field you want to go study in?


Yes, absolutely. And or things that you were a leader in and shown ways in which you as a student have developed really good communication skills, great skills at bringing people along, working across all types of people. Those are also really important because you will be asked as a student to do those things in your classes. And have you been able to achieve some of those skills and learn from those things in your high school situation outside of your own classroom in high school as well?


Okay. And then let’s talk about standardized testing. I know this has changed. SAT ACT, I think is still they are still the correct the two tests? Yes, I think they’re a little bit different as far as what the scoring is or whatever. But how important are those alongside GPA?


So most schools, not every school in the country, but most schools, including Kearney Millenn, are now test optional. And so we recognize that a lot of students are still taking the exams, which is great because, and I will segue and say that those exams provide a student in and of themselves some information about how they’re doing academically at that point in time. It’s a point in time test, but it doesn’t mean that they’re required to submit those. If they choose not to submit those test scores, they don’t have to. It will not impact their admission review in any way negatively. But a student could choose to submit those and if they do, we take them and we work them into the consideration so we don’t weight a student against whether they submitted it or not.


We use it in context along with everything else a student has submitted if they so choose to submit their scores.


Interesting. Is that newer that you don’t have to submit standard test scores? I didn’t know that.


It’s really since the pandemic when we realized that students really couldn’t get the tests. For the most part, it was very difficult for students to test when there were no tests being held because it was all in person that institutions realized that we could provide more flexibility to students and that if they had it, we would take it. But if they don’t, that’s okay. We can still move forward. And so we stayed in this more flexible phase because we realized were able to adapt during the pandemic. Pandemic taught us a lot.


While we’re on the topic, how else has the pandemic remote learning like any other major shifts in higher education?


From that I would say that higher education, I love my profession. I love the people I work with. It’s a very slow to adapt environment. It’s not like the tech sector, which is moving and shaking all the time. But the pandemic proved to all of us that we can adapt far more quickly than higher ed is normally comfortable with. And so it’s a good thing to remind us as institutions that if we could do it in the pandemic, it may not be comfortable, but we still can adapt at a quicker pace than what were akin to before, which is positioning higher education now to start thinking about the advent of things like IA. AI, sorry, not IA. And what that’s going to mean to the educational environment. It’s already here.


So we really should be engaging with what this means for our students, for our faculty, for business operations. And because we came through the pandemic, I think we’re in a better space to wrap ourselves around that.


What have been the major, while we’re on the topic AI, how has that impacted students in college? What have been the major changes?


I think the thing that institutions are grappling with is that students are used to using AI already. They’ve used it in high school. High schools are still working through how they’re using it, but students are in this space. It’s something they’re comfortable with. Institutions haven’t yet come to grips with how students are using it. So we’re trying to meet in the middle of getting an understanding of what students are doing with AI and then how we can use it in the educational environment because they’re in that space. How do we then leverage it as an educational tool based on what the use cases are for students? And so it’s bringing the two together in a way that melds this adaptive technology into a new educational setting.


I would assume that Crane Mellon is probably ahead of the curve compared to most other institutions being as technology centric. Is that fair?


We would like to think so. As one of the probably incubators for how AI even started, we launched a lot of the framework for the advent of AI. We are now spending quite a bit of time ensuring that we are staying ahead of the game in multiple facets. And this is the really interesting thing, is AI isn’t just CS, it isn’t just engineering. It’s not even just technology. It’s how does AI intersect with our fine arts? How does AI intersect with something like psychology? And what is the psychology behind AI? And so we’re asking ourselves that, and I think that’s the important piece that the future of AI needs and our students moving into the future will need.


Yeah, very cool. I don’t know if this is true or not, or stuff just from stuff that you read in here, that high schools and colleges are kind of like running from it and not allowing students to integrate it. But very cool to see that you’re trying to figure out how to implement this and work alongside it and really help propel the technology in general.


Yes. It’s much like the calculator, right? The calculator came out, it was like, you can’t use the calculator in math class. You won’t know anything. And now people have calculators on their phones and don’t even think about it.


That’s true.


It’s not the evil.


Yeah, no, that’s a great analogy. Let’s talk about. So the cost of education has, I think it’s gone up like the last 20 years, like 7% a year for the average cost of tuition. Something along those lines. What’s your outlook on rising cost of college? Do you see that continuing? How’s that going to impact higher education?


So this is one of the most significant elements of higher education that each institution, but also as a conglomeration, we probably need to face sooner than later. We can’t continue to grow at a rate such that our constituents just cannot afford higher education anymore, because then we become inaccessible to so many. And so it’s balancing this need and demand for higher education with services in an era of rising costs. I think the post pandemic has been very difficult for higher education because inflation has put so much pressure on budgets, and continuing to deliver on expectations is difficult when you really cannot increase tuition at a rate like inflation have been increasing at.


That said, it’s also very expensive to offset tuition with grants and scholarship aid at the rate that students may wish to see that we are very cognizant at Carnegie Mellon of our needy students and the students who need support from us to be able to attend. And we’re committed to that. But there are still lots of students for whom that price tag seems daunting. And so, as a group of institutions across the country, there’s over 4000 institutions. It’s a conversation that’s really important for us to have, but also, I would say, for families to have early so that they understand where is the cost of education going? How do we prepare for it? And don’t wait until that senior year of high school to understand what the cost of education means.


As you’re applying, you’ll have a sense of it, and you’ll be more prepared for it than getting that sticker shock of, I never really understood what it would cost to go to college, and.


Then I’m glad you brought that up. So as far as, like the. I’ll call it the sticker price. If you’re going to buy a car, here’s what’s on the windshield. You may not pay that for the car, but as far as college, if you were to Google, like Carnegie Mellon tuition, how many students are actually paying? Is that the number students are paying, or is it. We don’t have to talk Carnegie Mellon specifically, but just in general colleges, are there a lot of grants or scholarships that are factored in? So when a parent or a student Googles the cost of a school, is that what they should expect, or is it below or higher than that? If that makes sense.


This is actually a national conversation as well. And a movement that I think is starting to happen, which is positive, is that it’s not always transparent what the cost of an institution is, because the cost is not just tuition. Cost of attendance is what families should be considering and looking for when they’re looking at institutions, because the cost of attendance is what the cost will be. All inclusive. Theoretically, you would hope it would be all inclusive. Some institutions aren’t all inclusive. But the intent of cost of attendance is that it includes housing, it includes a dining plan, health insurance, any academic fees that a student might have to encounter. If there’s a rec center fee at an institution, there are lots of smaller fees that fit in there that may not seem large, but if you add up, ends up changing that end price.


And so what you want to look at when you’re researching is an institution’s cost of attendance. So that is coupled tuition, housing, dining, and other associated fees in a way that gives you a more full picture of what that’s going to look like year to year while you’re in college. So plan for that for four years.


Cost of attendance is the number you should be looking for. Is that transparent? Is that like, if I were to Google that? Is that normally what you see?


Most institutions will have a cost of attendance page and will go through all of these pieces. There’s a movement in the country now to be more transparent on our costs, and many institutions are going back and looking at how do we help students to understand these costs so that it isn’t like buying a car. You walk in thinking you bought one thing and walk out thinking, I paid way more than I expected to. We don’t want that. We want to be transparent and help families understand what that cost structure looks like. So there’s no sticker shuck involved when that tuition bill comes.


Okay. And then as far as.


I went.


To a very small school and so my understanding of small universities, some of them are like in some financial difficulty because rising costs of college and giving scholarships out. So as we see the cost of tuition increase or has increased, maybe it will continue, maybe it won’t. Do you think that’s a viable, like, will there just be less colleges? Will less students be looking to go to college? What do you think a realistic result is of the rising cost of college?


So this is where it’s going to be interesting for the country going forward. We’ve already seen some colleges closing. We’ve seen some colleges starting to merge nationally because of those costs becoming prohibitive. For some institutions, especially those who might be smaller and might be more tuition dependent, it can be a real challenge to make the bottom line. And coupled that with, we’re just on the precipice of what we call the declining demographics. So there was a decline in birth rates for many years in the US, and so there will be fewer students graduating from high school in the future. And if there’s fewer students coming out of high school, applying to college, then there are fewer students going to college. And that’s assuming that college going rates stay the same.


If students decide to do something different than going to college, that could also shift how many students are going to college. So that pressure is going to cause institutions to make different decisions going forward and could impact how institutions shape and or size up or size down their offerings because of this pinch, essentially across the demographics.


Interesting. Yeah. So basically this is what everything I heard you just say and then just knowing that there is a rising population as baby boomers are now getting into their 60s, retiring birth rates declined. So it sounds like there were a ton of schools as a lot more people decided to go to college. Now less people are going to college, is becoming much more competitive, and now there’s going to be a little bit like some sort of compression into maybe less institutions and universities. And then I guess by nature, that would maybe bring the cost down, possibly.


It’s all market factors, right. And it goes back to, I’m thankful I had an undergrad in economics, because this really is all about market pressures and which variables push other variables. And so there are probably lots of unknowns. Do we go into an economic downturn? Do we go into an economic boom? What are the other factors also shaping this environment for higher education institutions and for those who are struggling? Is there a way to pivot in which they can create a new market to sustain on going forward? Those are the things that I think we need to answer for ourselves as higher education. What does that future look like? It may not always be as traditional as it’s always been for some institutions.


Yeah. And then as far as I would say, I don’t know, maybe there’s a movement towards. I don’t know if it’s a movement, but it sounds like just from talking to working with clients and them helping their kids go through the selection process for going to college or not going to college, it kind of sounds like there’s a shift. People are less. It used to be, from my understanding, kind of had this social pressure of, you have to go to college almost, and then now it’s like, well, there’s trade school as an option, all of these other things. So who would you say is a good candidate for somebody that, who’s a good candidate for that you would say should go to college or should look at going to college versus something else?


Sure. It’s so individual, I think, for that. What is that student interested in? What do they bring as a student to a learning environment? Because I think there is a mindset of learning that is necessary for anybody to go to college and succeed and feel like they’re getting out of it, what they wanted to get out of it. Not everybody loves to sit in a classroom and learn or even be in a lab space and learn, and that’s okay. Not everybody has to go to college and learn in that more traditional educational way. There are lots of avenues, but if that engages you have a lot of questions. You want to learn about a subject more, or you simply really have vast interests across a lot of academic areas.


That’s a great place to take those interests to higher education, explore, expand your knowledge. And for students who don’t know what they want to do, higher education is good, too, because you get exposed to more subject matter than you’ll ever get exposed to in high school. And sometimes doors are open that students never even knew about. And that’s actually the real win, is opening those doors of areas of knowledge that students never would have experienced had they not gone on to college. But it is bringing in that mindset of saying, oh, I’m interested in exploring these things, and let’s try this.


So then how important, I’m glad you brought that up because I think there is a lot of pressures on, okay, if you’re going to go to college, you got to know exactly what you want to do. How important is it to, I guess, know exactly what you want to study, what you want to do when you get out of it, versus just going in and being open minded to whatever opportunity presents itself and kind of just seeing where it goes.


Sure. So I would say although students are coached so strongly that they have to have that major in mind, they have to know their destination. College is really about finding their destination. You don’t have to have the answer before you even get to college. You really can find that as you go. And so many students, if you go out to YouTube and look at student stories, there’s tons of videos. I was watching some the other day about students who are like, I’m going into this profession and I never planned. I’m going to work in the tech sector. And I never majored in a tech major. But that’s because the tech sector needs students who have other types of background. And likewise, there are businesses and companies and startups who need students coming from all aspects.


And so just saying that you have this one defined major is the only thing that will make you successful is really misleading because there are so many opportunities for a vast array of educational backgrounds. Heck, I said I was an Ag econ undergraduate, and here I am as a vice provost for enrollment management. You don’t always know your destination when you’re in college, and that is okay. You will end up where you’re supposed to be. And I would take that weight off students, not to feel like you have to have that exactly right at the get go.


Yeah, no, I couldn’t agree more. And then as you progress through college and then out of college into your 20s, stuff changes so much. Absolutely. When you’re 18, what you think you’re going to do? Maybe you do, but a lot of people probably end up doing something totally different.




Okay, well, let’s look. So as far as from like a financial aid perspective, or we can even group in financial aid scholarships, what should parents and students know as they’re going through this admissions process with any type of grants, financial aid scholarships?


Sure. I will say one of the things is, again, prepare early, understand what this landscape looks like. If you are a student who has need, get your FAFSA in, and that is the federal application for Student aid. And that is a really important document for students to submit every year that they’re in college so that they can get access to federal student aid. There are many states who also have aid programs. Make sure you research those and apply to those. Those can get missed by a lot of students who aren’t thinking about the fact that their state that they live in may also have aid programs and sometimes gets overlooked when it comes to institutional level grants, scholarships, whether it’s merit or need based.


The thing I will say is that the era of the full ride merit scholarship is probably long past for most institutions, and we still see lots of families saying, but so and so was such a great student. Don’t they get a full ride merit scholarship? Most institutions can’t afford that. And so, really, merit scholarships are used on a strategy basis for a lot of institutions, and some institutions, like Carnegie Mellon, have moved entirely away from merit scholarships. We do not offer merit scholarships for the most part, and are instead spending our money on financial aid based around need. And that’s where we’re using grants and scholarships to fulfill a student’s need when they apply, because federal student aid doesn’t cover everything.


And so how do we ensure that the students who have need coming into higher education don’t have gaps where they can’t afford and they don’t have the ability to pay that check? And so we offset what the federal aid doesn’t offset, and we’re focused on that. More and more institutions are really taking a look at how they do that, and it’s kind of calling gapping students and covering that gap of demonstrated need for those students. More and more of that is where institutions are really committed so that there is equitable access to higher education for our students from all kinds of socioeconomic backgrounds. There are still lots of merit scholarships around, but they tend to be much smaller than what they were at one point of time.


In the heyday of full ride merit scholarships, you see more that 2000, $5,000 merit scholarships at other institutions.


Okay, so the FAFSA. What does a prospective applicant need to know about FAFSA? When should they fill it out? What are some things they need to know about?


Sure. So this year is the anomaly. So the Department of Education has been reformatting the entire application over the last few years, and this is the rollout year. It is almost always available October 1. This year. It is not because of all of that work in rebuilding a new application that is meant to be much more simplistic for students and families to fill out. In the past, I’ve had even colleagues who have PhDs and are research experts tell me I can’t fill out this form. It’s too complicated because it was very complicated. The intent now is a much more simplified application that is easier for families. The idea is that they will fill it out somewhere between the fall when it comes live this year. It won’t be live until later in the year. Up to usually around mid February.


Most schools will give you a deadline when you need to have it in to get packaged for your application cycle for new incoming students. And so that sweet spot is somewhere in February, march for most schools. Students will want to have that filled in and sent to all the schools that they’re interested in. So you can choose, as you’re filling out the FAFSA, multiple schools to send that to so that they get the documents back from the federal government, Department of Education, that says the student has submitted, here is their information, and now you can consider them for packaging for federal aid as well as institutional grant aid.


So FAFSA basically is federal student aid that the government would give a student, and then from what I heard, Carnegie Mellon would then kind of backfill whatever else the student. That’s where a lot of the assistance is coming for whatever else the student needs to make it affordable based on that.


Correct? Correct. We use the calculations from the federal calculation in the FAFSA to determine how much aid we can give the students beyond what the federal government has. There is also not all. CMU is one schools who use what’s called CSS profile, and it is an application that students can fill out that is similar to but not the federal government. And if students fill that out, it also calculates a need for students, goes to the institutions that a student selects, and allows us, again, to package for need based on the CSS profile calculation. So it’s a slightly different method. Not all schools do CSS profile. CMU does not all. Do all schools do the.


FAFSA? Should everybody fill out a FAFSA? Is that like a. I would say.


If anybody thinks that they might qualify for any type of federal aid, yes, they should fill out a FAFSA.


Okay. And then as far as grants or other ways so you have some federal aid, the school may give some aid. And then before you got to student loans, what are other ways that a student or prospective student could try to make college more affordable?


Absolutely. So I always tell students, start your search early on, scholarships that are available outside of the universities. So there are lots of entities, not for profits organizations that offer scholarships to students, but the students have to apply to those scholarships. And if you make it your business in high school to plan and prepare for applying for those scholarships, that can get you a long way in terms of compiling some funding outside of what the institution might give you. There are scholarships based on the interests and the activities you’ve participated in. Awards and accolades like science fair accolades that you may have gotten. There’s some science fair scholarships. So do research.


And anymore with Google and Google Search, there’s lots of ways to search for these entities and those scholarships and what those application deadlines are so you can optimize for trying to get in applications to all of those opportunities early.


Okay. Basically that’s just, you kind of just have to look for the scholarships and there’s no real like go on this website and here’s a list of them. You just kind of have to look and find them and see what you would qualify for.


Right. There are a few services that will charge you to do that. I would not rely on those services because I’m not sure that they’re as comprehensive as they may be and they may end up charging people who should not have to be paying to find these resources if they can be found for free. So some get sucked into this. Oh, I can just pay for this when you don’t have to. You could probably Google search most of it.


Okay, that’s good to know. Okay, two more questions. I have number one, how would you advise someone to balance studying something and pursuing a career that’s your passion, versus doing something where you can have a high earning potential?


I would say that I would choose the passion over high earning potential, although I understand what it means to students to want to be secure financially as an adult and in their own life. At the same time, if you don’t do what you love, you will never be happy and you will never be satisfied. And I’ve seen lots of students go out and go into high paying jobs, and four and five years later, they’ve left that industry and that profession because they just didn’t feel rewarded by what they were doing. And so if you early on identify what your passion is and find a way to make a good living at it doesn’t have to be an exceptional living, then you will be more satisfied with where you’re at as an individual than if you just chase a higher earning.


Some people can be satisfied with that, but the vast majority, we spend so much time of our lives at work that I think we all need to feel like we’re accomplishing something and giving back something meaningful to ourselves and to our work in what we do.


Yeah, I think that’s good advice. How do you see a lot of students? Is that how a lot of students come into college in general is like looking for? Do you think passion is a pretty big decision factor in what they’re going to major in or should students do or not really? And people should think more about that.


I would encourage students and families to think more about that. I do sometimes see students who feel so coached into certain trajectories of careers that I feel like they’re trying to own the passion, but it was never really theirs. They felt like it had to be their passion, and that’s their only choice versus having really explored academically. And this goes back to allowing yourself in college to explore the vast array of interests that you might have, as opposed to being too tunnel visioned, because you might find a passion you didn’t know you had for an area because you were never exposed to it. If you only thought this was the only path to get through education and to achieve what you were supposed to achieve. And sometimes leaning into that ability to be flexible and find a new passion is okay.


It doesn’t have to be that one profession that everyone said you should have.


Yeah, no, I couldn’t. Couldn’t agree more. So, as far as we talked a lot about, just like, agnostically, college admissions planning. So then, from a standpoint of Carnegie Mellon, what type of student should consider Carnegie Mellon?


Sure. So we are definitely looking for that student who is self driven, who has a lot of initiative, and is going to engage with the learning process. We want active learners to come into Carnegie Mellon and really take a hold of the knowledge that we’re going to offer. Passive learning just doesn’t get a student by in an environment like Carnegie Mellon. It’s rigorous, it’s challenging. Students have to work hard. I’m not going to shy away from those things. But a student who knows how to present themselves in an academic setting where they’re just going to take charge and dig into the content and study and learn and ask good questions. I keep telling students, ask questions. You never get to the real answer if you don’t start asking questions. So, again, active learning is really critical to being a great student at Carnegie Mellon.


And, of course, coming with a good academic background, that helps you prepare for being that kind of active learner.


Yeah, I think that’s great advice. I think that’ll propel students into their career. Being successful, being an active learner, being curious, asking the right questions. I think those are great skill sets to have and translate into life and full time career eventually. I think we covered a lot of really good tips for the admission process. Anything else that you want to add or that would be important for parents or students to know as they’re on the search for college?


I guess I would say at the end of the day, and it’s back to sort of that. Do you just chase one area or not? Is there are probably majors we don’t even know about yet that are going to be developing over time, over the next two 3510 years, because knowledge is moving at such a fast pace this year. So also, if you think you have to go one direction, those majors may come online and you may realize something really new about the world that’s only just emerging. And so that is part of what makes higher education so exciting to me. And also why I encourage students really come to the table open minded, because that, I think is the exciting future ahead of us.


Yeah, very cool. Well, thank you for joining us. I think that’s all a lot of really good information and hopefully can help guide a lot of parents and students through the admissions process. But is there.


Anywhere that you could.


Direct if anybody wants to find information on admissions or application process? Any resources out there that you would advise on?


Sure. We have our admission website. We would love anybody to come visit our website. But even better, if they have the opportunity, visit campus. I would say as a whole, the best thing you can do if you have the opportunity is to visit a campus, because that really helps you understand what the environment feels like, what the culture feels like, and see students and talk to students. More than anything, students talking to other students really helps them frame whether that’s the right environment for them or not. And so welcome anybody to come visit us or visit us online. We do more and more virtually too cool.


So in campus visits, virtual visits, and then just finding admissions page.




Awesome. Well, thank you very much, Chris. This was super helpful. Yeah, hopefully this is a good resource for people going through the admissions process.


I hope so.


And thank you for having me.


Thanks for tuning in to our podcast. Hopefully you found this helpful. Really hope this is as beneficial and impactful to as many people across the nation as possible. So hit the follow button, make sure to rate the podcast, and please share with any friends or family members that would also find this beneficial. Thank you very much.

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