Admissions director notes success and future opportunities to draw more applicants
On a beautiful spring Friday, prospective students and their families buzzed inside Virginia Tech’s Visitor and Undergraduate Admissions Center.
A vibrant excitement could be felt throughout the Office of Undergraduate Admissions, which sat on the verge of its largest-ever Hokie Focus, an event for students offered admission to Virginia Tech. Nearly 9,000 admitted students and families visited campus over the weekend, doubling last year’s attendance.
Juan Espinoza smiled as he welcomed visitors. Virginia Tech’s director of admissions and associate vice provost for enrollment and degree management couldn’t help but grin as his office is beginning to see the fruits of the hard work it has put into lowering barriers to make the application process more accessible to prospective students.
The changes to the admissions process put action behind Virginia Tech’s mission to serve the commonwealth and also removed barriers that prevented more underrepresented, first-generation, or lower-income students from applying. As a result, Virginia Tech received more than 31,000 applications for the second year running, representing its most diverse applicant pool ever, an increase in test scores, and growth in the number of offers to “legacy” students with a Hokie parent or sibling.
In alignment with the enrollment growth plan, the university intends to admit 6,600 students for fall 2019, a 400-seat increase from last year’s class. Even with this increase, students who were offered spots have a strong academic profile, with an average GPA of 4.10 and average SAT score of 1320.
This year’s applicant pool represents a significant step toward the university’s institutional goal of achieving a student population that is 40 percent underrepresented and/or underserved by the 2022-23 academic year. Growing diversity among the university community not only exposes students to a broader cultural experience and prepares them to work in collaborative teams with partners from a wide variety of backgrounds, but it also creates an environment in which students can succeed on campus and after graduation.
“For the university, diversity means that our campus is viewed as a welcoming environment for anyone who wants to apply. Having an inclusive mission at Virginia Tech reflects our institutional and individual commitment to Ut Prosim (That I May Serve) in the spirit of community, diversity, and excellence,” said Menah Pratt-Clarke, Virginia Tech’s vice president for strategic affairs and diversity. “We value diversity and know that belonging enables success. Individuals need to feel a part of the community.”
Virginia Tech saw an increase in applications of 4 percent by first-generation students, 3 percent by Hispanic/Latino students, 13 percent by African American students, 19 percent by Native American students, and 16 percent by veterans.
The gains came about from a determined effort within the Office of Undergraduate Admissions to find and eliminate every obstacle that might get in the way of a potential applicant.
“In one of the first meetings we held here as a team, I asked everyone to look at the application process from start to finish and identify every barrier, no matter how small,” Espinoza said. “And then, as a group, we tried to figure out how could we either minimize each obstacle or eliminate it completely. It was a fantastic brainstorming session, which led to a lot of these changes. These have truly been transformational changes — changes that we think were needed to make the process more accessible, more fair, and more transparent.”
These results speak for themselves, said Jeremiah Quinlan, Yale University’s dean of undergraduate admissions and financial aid. Quinlan is chairman of the board of directors of the Coalition for Access, Affordability, and Success, on which Espinoza also serves.
“With a bold outreach plan and re-imagined admissions process, Virginia Tech has reinforced its commitment to students in the state of Virginia while setting a national example to improve access to higher ed,” Quinlan said. “The university's commitment ought to encourage prospective students from all backgrounds to consider Virginia Tech as a great option for earning a college degree.”
Virginia Secretary of Education Atif Qarni said that Virginia Tech’s admissions reform shows why the university is leading efforts to build out the “tech-talent pipeline” to meet the demands of a rapidly growing tech economy. As part of the deal to bring Amazon to Arlington, for instance, Virginia agreed to train 25,000 more students in computer science and related fields by 2039.
“There’s a lot of economic development in the commonwealth occurring in the STEM [science, technology, engineering, and math] field,” Qarni said. “We have gaps in Virginia for high-skilled jobs that are vacant. There are 400,000 STEM-related jobs, and that’s going to grow by 150,000 in the next five years alone. We can’t fill those needs without casting a wide net.”
Qarni closely watched as Virginia Tech reinvented how it does admissions. He liked what he saw.
“As I saw the process play out, this really lines up with the state’s priorities really well,” Qarni said. “In the STEM-related fields, we see a big gap for a lot of underserved groups. We need more women and more people of color, especially the Latino and African American communities, to go into those fields. We can’t fulfill the needs of industry without being sure we’re serving our underserved populations. I encourage other institutions to do things like Virginia Tech did this year.”
Those changes didn’t happen overnight. They took months of preparation and hard work, including extensive reviews and consideration of current practices and recommended best practices. In fact, Espinoza’s personal journey in the Office of Undergraduate Admissions stretches back 15 years, and his history with Virginia Tech longer still.
Espinoza grew up in the Washington, D.C., metro area, where he and his older brother were the first two of their family to attend college. Unlike his brother, who stuck pretty close to home, Espinoza wanted to move farther away. His parents, who had moved to the United States from Bolivia, were skeptical until the campus visit.
“I remember just getting out of the car and just looking around and thinking, ‘Wow, this place is so awesome,’” Espinoza said. “It was such a cool idea to me that there is such a beautiful place dedicated to learning, innovation, and service. And I just never forgot that feeling.”
Espinoza received two bachelor's degrees in political science and public and urban affairs from Virginia Tech. He went on to earn a master's degree in corporate and professional communication from Radford University.
Espinoza has 15 years of progressively responsible experience in undergraduate admissions and enrollment management, having served as an assistant director, senior assistant director, and associate director of undergraduate admissions. He has also served as inclusion coordinator and director of diversity and access initiatives.
In his most recent role, Espinoza led Virginia Tech's international admissions and recruitment efforts. Since his appointment as associate vice provost for enrollment and degree management and director of admissions, Espinoza has spearheaded the charge to reinvent the admissions model at Virginia Tech. These innovative changes have included the introduction of a new college application (Coalition), self-reported academic transcripts and test scores, a new holistic application review process, and an early action option for applicants. The goal of these changes was to make the application process more accessible and easier to navigate.
The process was driven in part by Espinoza’s own experience applying to and then attending college.
“Being a first-generation student, it just seemed really natural to be able to try to find ways to make this wonderful thing that I was experiencing available to everyone,” Espinoza said. “If you've never been through this and you don't have a lot of support, it's really intimidating. There are so many things that people assume you know that you just don't if you've never been told. So, we really make sure that as we're communicating with students and we don't make any assumptions on where their starting point is.”
The biggest change resulted from the shift to an application model developed by the Coalition for Access, Affordability, and Success. The change required an invitation from the Coalition, which looks for member schools that provide access, have high retention rates, have high graduation rates, and are affordable. The application is designed through the lens of a first-generation student. The application also included new essay questions created to build an “Ut Prosim profile,” named for the school’s motto, “That I May Serve.” These questions reflect the values that distinguish Virginia Tech and create additional metrics that match students to those values.
Virginia Tech also became the first college in Virginia to allow students to self-report their grades and test scores online. The change streamlined the time needed to process an application from six to eight weeks to, in many cases, one to two weeks. That allowed Virginia Tech to expand its application options from a binding early decision and non-binding regular decision to include a non-binding early action. The university received about 20,000 applications through the new early-action option, about twice as many as early decision and regular decision combined.
Many of the offers included financial aid notifications, included as part of greater collaboration between Admissions and the Office of Scholarships and Financial Aid to support students from admission to graduation. This collaboration includes a partnership with RaiseMe, a micro-scholarship platform to award students money for their achievements during high school.
A more broad-based change came with the training of 180 faculty and staff who reviewed application essays. In the essays, prospective students focused on leadership, service, resilience, and the ability to set long-term goals — all indicators of likely success in college. These volunteers from across campus read more than 127,000 essay responses.
The review process allowed Virginia Tech to expand the criteria used in the holistic review process to include students’ leadership, service, resilience, and ability to set long-term goals, while also building community support for incoming students.
“When you get more people involved in the review process, it becomes more transparent and more fair,” Espinoza said. “It has to be because there are more people asking questions. But the best part about it is that now, when we tell a student they've been offered admission, it's not just admissions saying, ‘Yes, you've been offered admission.’ I'm able to say it's the community that's been part of this review process. And they're saying to that student, ‘Yes, we want you here. We're excited about your potential, and we hope that we're a part of your journey.’ And that is a great message to send students, especially first-generation students.”
The changes to the admissions process are expanding access at Virginia Tech to a wider pool of applicants. And that, said Espinoza, supports the university’s land-grant mission and service ethic.
“I think it's going to continue to make the institution better and stronger,” Espinoza said. “As a land-grant institution, we came into being to serve all Virginians. These changes are aligning us very well with that mission. It's great to be part of this team. It’s a really great time to be a Hokie right now.”
— Written by Mason Adams