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Matthew Lopez’s career as a molecular biologist stopped cold while he was a junior at the University of Colorado Boulder, which he attended in the late 1990s.
As a work-study student in the financial aid office, Lopez’s boss told him he’d make a lousy doctor but would excel in admissions and recruiting.
Turns out she was spot on.
Twenty years later Lopez is Arizona State University's assistant vice president of enrollment services and executive director of admission services, where he oversees approximately 170 full-time workers and 200 part-time staff and volunteers. Last month he finished his two-year tenure as president of the Association of Chief Admission Officers of Public Universities (ACAOPU), a 75-member coalition of the country’s top admission officers.
ASU Now recently caught up with Lopez before the fall semester kicks into high gear to discuss his unlikely career, how the admissions process has changed in the last decade, and what students need to know about getting into college.
Question: I see you have a degree in molecular biology. So how did you get into this line of work?
Answer: Although I loved what I studied, and would do it all over again, I found out pretty quickly that I’m not research material, and the concept of attending medical school was not a good fit.
I was a campus tour guide as an undergrad at the University of Colorado Boulder and actually worked in financial aid, and kind of fell into enrollment services that way. I had a great mentor named Dr. Barbara Schneider who told me, “Matt, I think you’d be a terrible doctor. Why don’t you come and work for us?”
I started in financial aid in 1998 as part of the counseling team and left CU Boulder as their associate director of undergraduate recruitment and interim director of international recruitment in September 2012. Boulder had lots of different challenges, and I had a wonderful, well-rounded admissions experience. I was always willing to take on challenges and just jump into things, figuring out things as I went. When my boss asked for volunteers, I’d raise my hand and off we went. The same can be said during my time as director of admissions at the University of Utah, and my time at ASU has presented even more amazing opportunities and I love being here. I have already been very blessed with opportunities that most admissions folks don’t get to have.
Q: Your tenure seems to coincide with states dramatically cutting university funding, propelling them to become more entrepreneurial. How has the admissions industry changed in the last decade?
A: My career has definitely seen a change in universities having to become more tuition reliant. There has also been a significant shift and focus on retention. At Boulder we tried to bring in a freshman class that was as close to 50 percent nonresident to ensure that we were able to provide wonderful experiences for our students. The students from Colorado benefitted from this … they still do. Around the same time, technology changed our industry, an easy example was moving the old paper admission files to a digital environment. There have been tremendous advances in communication methods and other technologies that connect us to students, especially in the ways they want us to connect with them. The last 20 years have been a really interesting time for enrollment managers. Our industry has professionalized and universities have created separate enrollment units, often times ones that report to the most senior leaders. ASU has had this structure for almost a decade now, but many universities are still making these considerations.
The most successful admissions directors are folks that can spin on a dime, can think quickly, are aware of the institutional brand, can process the brand, communicate it in digestible and relevant ways to high school students, transfers, adult learners, and parents. They also have to have strong data skills and an understanding of market trends in order to analyze, strategize and make enrollment predictions.
Q: Your two-year term as president of the ACAOPU ended last month. What is their charge or mission?
A: The idea behind ACAOPU is the need to create opportunities for admissions directors to be connected to peers from large public flagship universities. The older generation is starting to retire and there’s more need for the industry to be connected and supported. To be selected to represent and lead this group has been one of my greatest accomplishments.
ACAOPU has grown over the last 15–20 years with an approximate membership of 75 members, with the top public schools in the room. We get together three to four times a year and share our ideas, challenges and best practices with each other.
We learn from each other and really challenge one another. It’s almost cathartic to be able to hear from people going through the same challenges. Our world is one that’s very stressful and intense and has high stakes. The members are very close and when we face challenges, we can pick up the phone and call each other ... support each other. Or we can come up with an idea and just brainstorm or walk through a problem. Education is changing so rapidly that it’s good to have others to ask, “How did you deal with this?”
One of the accomplishments that I am most proud of during my president-elect and president roles is the focus on creating professional development opportunities for our staff. We created an annual intensive professional development session called ACAOPU Summit that is designed for middle managers from our offices. This gives them an opportunity to network but, more importantly, provides an in-depth experience that hopefully will strengthen their tool set and encourage their growth so they stay in enrollment management. This year, during our time at the University of Tennessee, the summit theme created a program designed for our staff who have the aspiration and promise of becoming the next generation of admission directors. They were able to get a hands-on look into the work, the challenges and the joy that the enrollment world brings. Another activity that we’re looking at introducing is an opportunity to swap a few staff members for a week and embed them into other university offices so the staff get an inside peek at the operations and inner workings of another school. I am really excited about this opportunity as well.
Q: I assume your line of work is cyclical?
A: Historically yes, but it’s changed over time. It used to be that the summer months were our “slow” work periods but now it’s all blended together and we’re never slow. We are now in the summer and trying to firm up fall 2018 enrollment, making sure students show up to orientation, making sure the students who committed to ASU are actually registering for courses, making sure they’re taking the procedural steps that are required of them, while also supporting and encouraging them. We’re also recruiting rising juniors and seniors in high school, hosting thousands of campus visitors and analyzing data from the last cycle to make adjustments, so we are constantly in motion.
We have a big role in the recruitment and admission of campus immersion undergraduates and we process and assist the admission for graduate degree programs and ASU Online. We are always busy and we should bring in a great new student class to the four valley campuses this fall — approximately 12,500 freshmen, 5,000 transfer students and 3,400 master’s degree students. It is a little early to predict ASU Online enrollment but the early indicators appear to be extremely positive.
Q: This sounds so different than when I attended ASU. Back then you filled out an application and if you didn’t do it right, you were out. If you didn’t sign up for your classes in time, you were out and had to take another course. If you didn’t apply for your dorm room, you were out and had to find somewhere else to live. Today sounds much more customer friendly.
A: In the admissions world, you are correct. Our approach has changed. Many of the folks we interact with have other opportunities and alternatives, so we need to ensure that we are assisting them properly through the process.
The application historically has been looked upon as a gate, and applicants had to suck it up and good luck, you’re on your own. At ASU, we’ve taken a new look at that process and have the attitude that filling out the application should only be 15 minutes of their life. Our mission is to get every student that qualifies to ASU, which means the application process must be simple. We want to get them to the part that’s important — the information they need to feel comfortable and to be successful. We don’t want our students to go through hurdles, we want them to find their place. We know if we get them to ASU, we can change their lives and they can change ours.
We still have a lot of work to do on our end. The process isn’t as seamless as I’d like it to be. We’ve got to get there and meet the students’ needs, and hopefully that means one day the admission process will look entirely different.
Q: What are some important tips for high school juniors and seniors as they prepare for college?
A: Students are only in high school once, so they need to take advantage of those years. They need to take good courses, ones that are across many topics and challenging, and know what it means to be a lifetime learner. They should also not forget to take advantage of all the social opportunities and events, being a part of their community and contributing positively to society. And, remember to take math and science and other rigorous courses their senior year.
They also have to remember that admission officers are making judgements on their ninth, 10th, 11th grades, and in some cases, their senior years, so their planning needs to start early.
Those that have the means to visit ASU should do so, if they can’t, we’ll come to them or make every effort so they can experience ASU. At ASU, we assign an admissions recruiter to everyone and we take pride in getting to know our applicants and providing personalized opportunities. We don’t want this to be a stressful situation and we hope they get to know their admissions contact. In the end, I’d rather students spend their time making sure that ASU is the right fit for them. College is a wonderful time of self-discovery and personal and academic growth. Those who understand and embrace this will do well.