By Curtis Morisaki
Imagine trying to get out of the college admissions bubble and finding yourself sticking with and going back to the profession. Seth Allen, Vice President & Dean of Admissions at Financial Aid at Pomona College, can attest to that journey.
Wanting to escape the New England bubble, Allen chose to attend Johns Hopkins University. He didn’t have a clear sense of what he wanted out of college but knew he liked analytical subjects. “I had one of those fortunate college journeys, that as I started into my major and talked to advisors and peers I looked into taking courses outside my major area.” After declaring an economics major, he started to explore different subjects of interest in art history, creative writing, and sociology.
Following his graduation from Johns Hopkins, Allen started to work in the admissions office. He remembers his old director telling him that he needed to stay in the position for at least two years. Allen thought about exploring new avenues in higher education, but was offered a promotion he couldn’t refuse at Johns Hopkins.
While working at Johns Hopkins, Allen completed his graduate degree in Applied Behavioral Science and transitioned to work in institutional research. In hindsight, he says learning the architecture and power of technology have been helpful. However, the desire to connect with people influenced Allen’s decision to go back to admissions. “After a couple of years I realized the work wasn’t connecting me to people, like I was able to experience in admissions.”
Allen tendered his resignation from Johns Hopkins and accepted a consulting position. At the same time, his old supervisor invited him to apply for the Director of Admissions opening at Dickinson College. “On a whim I decided I would accept the offer and was hired as their new director of admissions.” Allen spent eight years as the Director and later Dean of Admission at Dickinson College before his next professional position.
Serving on the Common Application’s Board of Directors allowed Allen to meet enrollment management leaders at other institutions. One board colleague, the Dean of Admission at Grinnell College, was retiring and asked Allen to apply for his position.
“I realized that for years I had been advising students to get out of their comfort zone and explore a little bit. Living in the Northeast, I wasn’t doing that, so I decided to take a bit of my own advice.”
After four years at Grinnell, Pomona recruited Allen for an open enrollment management leadership role in 2011. Though Allen wasn’t necessarily looking for new opportunities at the time, Pomona’s unique position of being part of a consortium of colleges right next to each other sold Allen on the opportunity.
Supporting colleagues in their personal professional development is one of the challenges Allen faces in his role. He realizes that it’s hard to fulfill normal duties and add on additional challenges and opportunities. He says, “There are no easy answers, but I have found time.”
Allen’s role allows him to enjoy the different rewards of working in college admissions. He is able to speak with individual students to see what gets them excited about their college experience and think at a higher level on policy and changes we can implement in the profession.
“I’m in a fortunate position to work with incredibly talented colleagues here in admissions and financial aid. They allow me to have a broader impact on the profession. I have time to be a mentor through WACAC’s LDI Program, be on the initial Board of Directors for the Coalition Application, and in the past I was fortunate to be on the Board and a Past President of the Common Application Board.”
The drive to put together a cohesive class and challenge of selecting students each year motivates Allen to continue working in admissions. “I always describe the admissions profession as a surprise around every corner in what we do and I never take for granted that next year is going to be the same as the previous year.” He describes the work as the human condition because we are in the middle trying to bring students together and form interesting learning communities.
Allen works with more than 20 staff members at Pomona College. “I like to surround myself with people that have opinions and their own ideas.” He describes leading a team of admission professionals as challenging because he wants to have team members that challenge him, just as much as he pushes them.
Odds & Ends
The future of college admissions work for Allen involves needing to challenge ourselves to think differently about what is merit, potential, and intelligence. He says we are primarily using the same metrics used 60 years ago, but the world is more interconnected than ever with the technology we have today.
“Future college admissions work is going to be more entrepreneurial, figuring out and coming up with different definitions of best and good-fit students.” Allen states that we need to look at students differently if we are going to serve our institutions, country, and world well.
Allen suggests new professionals ask a lot of questions, like how others got into the profession or how they elevated to their position. For everyone, he recommends we sign up for everything. “You have no idea what direction that (the opportunity) will lead you in. If I was too certain, I would have missed pathways and experiences that I treasure more than I would have ever imagined.”