The Growth of Part-Time Readers

Institutions with surging applications find that they can't manage them all without help. Some admissions leaders worry about the trend, but most accept it.

August 8, 2022
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Admissions offices are gearing up for another year and planning for the annual influx of applications. Highly competitive colleges and universities, which receive applications from tens of thousands more students than they could ever accept, experienced a surge in applications over the last two years and expect that trend to continue. This means they'll need to hire more people to read more applications.

At many colleges, that means hiring more part-time readers. Most admissions offices at competitive colleges have been doing so for decades, from well before the pandemic. But the numbers are going up.

At the Georgia Institute of Technology, about 60 part-timers will be hired this year. Richard A. Clark, director of undergraduate admission, 15 readers were hired five years ago compared to three to five readers a decade ago.

At the University of California, Irvine, 180 people were hired as part-time readers last year. They shared the work of reading 142,000 applications (actually twice that number since admissions officials say every application will be read at least twice) with a staff of 50 full-time admissions staffers.

Dale Leaman, Irvine's executive director of undergraduate admissions, said the reality is that there is no way Irvine, or most other colleges with booming applications, could afford to hire enough full-time readers to handle all of their applications. He expects to hire 200 part-time readers for the next year.

Why not push for more full-time hires? "No one is going to want to hear about that," he said.

At Irvine, and at other colleges that use part-time readers, there are certain kinds of people who are sought for the jobs. They include retired admissions officials, and those who work as high school teachers and college counselors. They are generally hired in the fall, and work through the end of the admissions season in April. Some work close to full-time hours, and others much less.

Colleges have different procedures for training application readers. At Irvine, new part-time readers first review 20 files from the previous year with senior full-time staff explaining why students were admitted or rejected. Then the new recruits review 10 more applications and explain why they would admit or reject them, with senior staff reviewing their decisions.

To deal with conflicts of interest, the part-timers are banned from considering students applying from school districts where the readers work. And all applications are reviewed blind, with no names attached to them.

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The part-time reader isn't so much admitting a student, as recommending whether a student should be admitted, Leaman said. Each application is reviewed by two people, and if the two disagree, a third staff member is brought in. Irvine also carefully considers if one reader (full time or part time) has a significantly different reaction from the other reader.

"I think that our process works exceptionally well," Leaman said.

Molly A. Jacob, executive director of enrollment management services at the University of Rochester, said the university has always used part-time readers.

She said she hired eight to12 a year, and expects to hire closer to 12 this year, to meet the expected increase in applications.

While the readers may be remote, she said "we require in-person training," including a discussion of "how Rochester reads." It's important that they are reviewing applications the same way as full-time staffers, she said.

They only do "first reads" of applications, all of which are then read by a staff member.

At Dickinson College, Molly Boegel. assistant vice president for enrollment, said the college had tried to avoid using part-time readers, but hired two during the last two years of the pandemic. She said the preference is to have every application read by a full-time staff member, but it was just impossible to do so during the pandemic. She's not sure if the college will hire part-timers this year or whenever the pandemic ends.

Critic of the Practice

While most admissions officials appear to be fine with hiring part-timers, there are critics of the practice.

"No college offers the information during their process. 'Well, when our office gets your application, we may outsource it to another person off-campus,'" said an associate director of admissions at a selective private college that gets plenty of applicants. "It certainly has the feeling to me that colleges are more interested in the collection and outcome of application reading, but not the process itself."

The official, who requested anonymity, said his college traditionally hired five or six part-time readers. The college hired nearly 20 readers last year and he expects the number to go up this year.

In theory, the part-timers are just recommending an outcome to a full-time staffer. But he said as some recommendations arrive just before the deadline, they don't get the attention they deserve.

He said about 10 to 15 percent of applications were read by part-timers in past years. In the class that was admitted this year, he said the percentage was more like 25 to 30 percent.

"Do people have a right to know?" he asked. "Is anyone concerned about this?"

Angel B. Pérez, CEO of the National Association for College Admission Counseling, said he was not worried about the situation.

"I have heard that the surge of applications has led to hiring more part-timers," he said.

But he said it is possible to do so responsibly and to avoid conflicts of interest.

Said Pérez: "I trust my colleagues."

 

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Scott Jaschik

Scott Jaschik, Editor, is one of the three founders of Inside Higher Ed. With Doug Lederman, he leads the editorial operations of Inside Higher Ed, overseeing news content, opinion pieces, career advice, blogs and other features. Scott is a leading voice on higher education issues, quoted regularly in publications nationwide, and publishing articles on colleges in publications such as The New York Times, The Boston Globe, The Washington Post, Salon, and elsewhere. He has been a judge or screener for the National Magazine Awards, the Online Journalism Awards, the Folio Editorial Excellence Awards, and the Education Writers Association Awards. Scott served as a mentor in the community college fellowship program of the Hechinger Institute on Education and the Media, of Teachers College, Columbia University. He is a member of the board of the Education Writers Association. From 1999-2003, Scott was editor of The Chronicle of Higher Education. Scott grew up in Rochester, N.Y., and graduated from Cornell University in 1985. He lives in Washington.

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