The New College Application: When Students are Valued as Humans, Not Numbers


For some, applying to college is seen as an important rite of passage. Towards the end of high school most conversations revolve around plans for “after” and there is a lot of advice on how to master the college application process. Rarely does the conversation revolve around what is the best next steps a young adult should take based on what they want to accomplish in their life.

Rarely is there an invitation to reflect on whether or not someone “should” apply and attend college.

Having gone through the "applying to college" process myself and having worked in college admissions for both private and public universities, I know a lot about this world. While many institutions have good intentions when it comes to the college admission process, many students more often than not are seen as numbers, not humans. And admissions, which is a process that should help both a student and a school determine whether or not they are a good fit for each other (based on academic preparedness and a school’s mission, values, and culture) becomes a business with an emphasis on marketing and sales.

For most colleges, the admissions process is a flashy marketing beast where millions and millions of dollars are spent to get students to apply. Why? Because of tuition revenue. If an admission office doesn't enroll a certain number of students each year, it can cause major repercussions on a campus. That’s why each admission office uses a formula where admission requirements are set to maximize the number of students who can apply while still maintaining their perceived competitive rigor and value against other schools.

This keeps the focus on how efficiently and effectively a school can meet their number of applicants goal and not focusing on the overall experience and service of working with each student.  At the private university where I worked at, our goal was to bring in an incoming class of around 800 students (per year), so our target was to recruit 1200 - 1500 students to apply to achieve that enrollment goal. There were 10 of us whose sole responsibility was to work with all of these potential students and their families. Though I was able to establish great relationships with some of these students and their families, many students were able to apply and enroll with no one in my office ever making personal contact with them, much less had a personal relationship with them. They were just applicants...numbers toward reaching our recruitment goal.

At the public university where I later worked at, our incoming class number goal was at least quadruple that of the private university and I had only 5 other full-time colleagues. More students to recruit with less staff to serve them. Also, the admission requirements and applications were such that for a majority of the incoming students, we never made personal contact with them, or had a personal relationship with them.

While both places valued the idea of helping students determine whether we were a good fit for them, the sad reality is that because we were playing a numbers game, we built an impersonal process to make it simple to apply. At both places, students could apply and enroll without ever needing to speak to a human being. And when those students enrolled, they were assigned a literal number - a student ID number - as an identifier.

Why does this matter?

At Wayfinding Academy, we believe we are humans to be cultivated, not objects to be sorted. This begins with our how we designed our process to identify students that we think would be a great fit for our college, what we call our match making process.

Here is how it works:

Students will never be seen as numbers:
While many schools focus on growth and retention primarily for the purpose of  increased revenue, the Wayfinding Academy’s goal is to help students figure out their best next steps and what their overall experience will be in our 2-year program.. The number of students that we hope to have in each cohort (24) is based on research of the ideal number for such a community -- not based on revenue and profits. All of our operational costs and the number of staff and faculty needed to support this cohort is based on this number.

The first step of our match making process is that one of our crew members has a one-on-one conversation with anyone who is interested in applying to join us for our 2-year program. The goal of this conversation is to mutually determine whether there is a good match. Sometimes what the student wants to do would be best achieved through pursuing a path other than Wayfinding’s 2-year program and we talk that through together. Once we mutually determine there is a good potential match, the student is provided login credentials to access our unique, custom-built online application.

Getting to know students from their own voice:
We want students to help us get to know them better in the most authentic and human way possible. They don't need to provide paper credentials to prove their worth or to compete against someone else. Again what we are looking for is a good match. Does the student understand our unique program and sees value in what we have to offer? Do they display an ability to communicate effectively? A love of learning and willingness to stretch? Do they desire to have a great impact on our world? If students want to provide us with transcripts and test scores, we'll accept these as supporting documents, but we will never use them as the basis to determine who they are as a person.

One of the unique features of our application is the ability for students to respond to a question how they prefer, including a written response, audio, video, or through an creative piece. We want students to feel empowered to communicate in the way they feel is the most authentic representation of themselves.

An application process that benefits students:
We recognize that not all students who apply will come to Wayfinding. Our core values and mission compels us to try and serve students from the initial moment they connect with us. We strive to add value in all interactions with prospective students and designed our application to help determine your best next step even it ends up not being Wayfinding Academy’s 2-year program. It already seems to be working. Here are three comments we received from current applicants:

"I'd like to express how cool and awesome that application was. I so appreciate the cleverness and originality that are involved in it, that was rad!"

"I love the questions! I haven't thought of a lot of them before and it's challenging me to think deeper about myself and makes me think, wow(!) I've done some cool stuff'"

“It’s challenged me to think about what I really want to do, and if higher education is the right choice for me.”

In our application, every question was designed to encourage reflection about their lives thus far and we challenge applicants to think about issues and topics they may have not encountered before. Plus we invite them to question the world and its expectations and pose big questions to us. (an example section of our online application below)


Finally, throughout the entire application we always offer the “why” behind each section and question so they can better understand us and how each element aligned with our values and mission.

No test. No grades. No numbers.

One of the most influential things in my life was when someone saw the potential in me and encouraged me to write my own story and live my own life. They saw and respected me as a fellow human being.

Even before a student applies, we want them to understand that we see them as human beings, not numbers.

We want applicants to know we are already seen them as worthy. We just want to get to know them better, from their own voice and want them decide for themselves whether or not we can help them in their journey.

We want students to apply because they intentionally want to be a part of this movement to revolutionize higher education and turn it frontwards.

We’re looking for students who want to live their lives on purpose.

Does this sound like your kind of application? Apply to become a student today.

Our next priority deadline is May 15th which is also the last day to apply to be considered for our Wayfinding scholarships. Applications are accepted and reviewed on a rolling basis, so there’s still time to apply.

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Jedd Chang - is the Director of Creative Solutions at the Wayfinding Academy. He is an entrepreneur, outdoor enthusiast, world traveler, blogger, and a returned Peace Corps volunteer. His diverse professional experiences includes Admission Counseling (Pacific Lutheran University and Portland State University), Residence Life (University of Portland), international development, non-profit management, brand development, and tech consulting. He strives to help others become passionate about lifelong learning, personal development, and global citizenship.