Wes Waggoner’s “ad interim” has been stripped away, so he’s here to stay. Waggoner had served as the associate vice president ad interim since July 1, 2015. The ever-cheery administrator took the time to give his thoughts on SMU’s low yield, questions of diversity, and the future of college admissions. Also: great movie recommendations below.
I know that you’ve been involved with SMU for a while. How did you wind up here?
Actually, I’ve worked in college admission – in one role or another – for almost 25 years. I discovered this career through an extracurricular activity. I was a tour guide in college. I started as an admission counselor at my alma mater Tulane University in New Orleans. In addition to 10 years as a high school counselor, I’ve also worked for the University of Tulsa and TCU. I like to say that I had always worked for schools that start with the letter “T” then finally I moved up in the world (and in the alphabet) when I came to SMU.
This is a transitional time for SMU. A new provost has just taken office. How do your visions for the university align?
The Provost and I strongly agree that SMU is on a tremendous, upward trajectory on many fronts. We are both committed to ensuring SMU is the school of choice for Dallas and the nation’s brightest students from all backgrounds. Academic excellence and diversity of all types are important to me, the Provost, but most importantly to SMU.
SMU has a high number of admitted students, but few accept their offers. One source places the number that accept admission offers at 24%. What can be done to improve SMU’s yield?
The list you cite from USNWR also shows that some of our highly ranked peers (Tulane, U of Miami, Boston University and others) actually have lower yield rates that SMU does. Often as the size and quality of a University’s applicant pool increases the yield decreases. Our task is to improve our efforts to make SMU the first choice school for the best students who apply. The Admission and Financial Aid Offices have a number of initiatives to make this happen, but we also need SMU students to share their great experiences with friends and other admitted students. We have great students! Your stories from the Hilltop will convince more great students to come to SMU.
Our freshman retention rate is also concerning—89%. That means 150 students leave after their freshman year. What are some of their reasons, and what can we do to keep them?
First a correction – the information at niche.com is old. The current freshman retention rate is 90.3%. That’s a strong number, but at SMU we always want to do better. Students choose to leave for a variety of reasons – from change of major that SMU may not offer to a desire to return closer to home. Likewise, many students, almost 400 each year, choose to transfer to SMU from another school.
We’ve made strides in geographic diversity and are holding steady for economic diversity, but we’re falling back in racial diversity. Could you take some time to give your general thoughts on minority student grievances, diversity, and freedom of speech?
I’m ecstatic! The students who have shared their concerns have done so with an appropriate amount of emotion, while also displaying professionalism and responsibility – both to themselves and to the SMU community. I am pleased to see a University-wide conversation and commitment to increasing diversity and inclusiveness on our campus. Over the last decade, SMU actually has made great strides in racial diversity as well. Less than ten years ago, the percentage of undergraduate students representing ethnically and racially diverse backgrounds was less than 20 percent. This year that number is 27% – higher than many if not most of our national peers. We’re not content with that because indeed that number has not continued to go up. In the last two years it has declined. But with the commitment of our students, faculty and staff as well as our alumni from all parts of campus, SMU can continue to be a leader in making sure all students have the opportunity for a great education.
What steps do you follow to study a problem before making a decision?
I tend to seek input from experts and practitioners—both quantitative and qualitative input. My colleagues are bright and talented professionals. Even when I think I have the answer, I always find that they have great ideas and insight to share. I make better decisions when I gather information from those around me.
Where is the country moving, with respect to admissions practices and higher education in general?
College admission is ready for a big change. I think the profession is still exploring what that change will be. The national conversation surrounding higher education will undoubtedly continue to be about providing great opportunity to all students. But we want to make sure we do it right. Have a look at news articles on the Coalition Application or the Harvard Graduate School of Education’s report “Turning the Tide.” Read about changes to financial aid surrounding the decision about “Prior Prior Year”. All of these are aimed at making college accessible to more and more students. That’s not a new ideal, but there are new ways to get there.
What are some of your favorite movies?
This interview was conducted by Arya McCarthy. Click here to see more of Arya’s work.