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For Stanford's new admissions dean, the fun is just beginning

STANFORD -- The last essays have been signed; the last letters of reference have arrived. By Jan. 7, nearly 13,000 applications for next year's freshman class had been opened in Stanford's Office of Undergraduate Admissions, with more to come.

Reading those files, and choosing the 2,700 applicants who will be offered admission, will be a physically and mentally draining exercise for admissions office staffers from mid-January until late March.

For Stanford's energetic new dean of undergraduate admissions, though, the fun is just beginning.

"I have to admit that I am very much looking forward to the folder readings," said James Montoya, 38, who is in his fourth month at Stanford after having been dean of student life at Vassar College.

"For me the challenge is going to be in facing the reality that fewer than 20 percent of these applicants are going to be able to benefit from a Stanford education."

Although he has extensive experience in college admissions, including oversight of admissions at both Vassar and Occidental College, Montoya's job at Stanford will be of a different scale.

At Vassar, there were about 4,000 applicants per year, of whom 40 percent were offered admission. Most files were read by three staff members, who then gathered around a table to discuss each candidate individually.

"Of course, we can't do that here; the numbers are too great," Montoya said. "But I would like to see a process develop at Stanford that will include more group discussion than we have seen in years past, perhaps for students whose personal qualities are outstanding, yet they may have one too many Bs on their transcript for us to feel entirely comfortable with a decision to admit at the outset.

"I want to make certain that, while we emphasize academic excellence in the admissions process, we also pay serious attention to personal qualities."

Coming home

Montoya knows from personal experience what it's like to find a thick acceptance letter from Stanford in the mailbox.

A native of San Jose, he earned two Stanford degrees: a bachelor's in Spanish in 1975 and a master's in education with a concentration in administration and policy analysis in 1978.

At his undergraduate commencement, he was awarded the Lloyd W. Dinkelspiel Award for outstanding service to undergraduate education at Stanford, including work as a resident assistant and as a member of the Committee on Undergraduate Admissions and Financial Aids.

"It feels great to be back," he said, in his office overlooking the Old Union courtyard.

"I missed the good running weather and the California cuisine. I've been spending a lot of time exploring restaurants. Palo Alto seems a lot more exciting to a 38-year-old administrator than it did to a 17-year- old student."

Some of his culinary outings have been in student dormitories, where he has gotten to know the latest generation of students and answered their endless questions about the admissions process. On many of his lunch hours, he runs in the campus foothills with a small group of Chicano staffers.

Less enjoyable has been the time spent figuring out how Undergraduate Admissions will deal with its share of the university's $43 million budget deficit. Last year the office was asked to cut 7 percent of its $1.79 million annual budget; this year it must cut an additional 13 percent.

"Much of our conversation in recent months has been focused on maintaining the integrity of the program in the face of fewer resources allocated to admissions," Montoya said.

"If there is a good side to budget cuts, it is that it gives us an opportunity to think about restructuring the way in which the office functions."

One budget-cutting idea would be for Stanford to share more of its outreach/travel costs with other universities. For example, breakfast meetings with high school counselors are being sponsored jointly by Stanford, Harvard, MIT and Georgetown.

The Admissions Office also may host more regional information programs for potential applicants, and send admissions staffers out to fewer individual high schools than the 600 visited last fall.

Publications will be revised as well, and the university may have to rely more on current students and alumni volunteers to spread the word about Stanford.

"Certainly we need to be open to change," Montoya said. "Our staff will be reduced next year, and therefore we have to explore new ways of maintaining an effective outreach effort."

Major challenges

Montoya and his staff also are dealing with two issues facing college admissions offices across the country: tuition costs and increasing competition for the nation's top students.

Stanford's average annual tuition increase from 1981-82 to 1991-92 was 7.8 percent, compared to an average of 9.4 percent for most private colleges and 9.0 percent for most public colleges, according to a recent national survey.

Still, at $15,102 this year for tuition and $6,159 for room and board, a Stanford education is no small investment.

"I fear that we are losing students before the application process even begins - top-notch students who are choosing not to apply to Stanford because they are convinced that Stanford is not affordable," Montoya said. "These are the students I feel we have to target."

Fortunately, Stanford's commitment to a need-blind admissions policy remains strong, despite the university's recent budget difficulties, and federal and state cutbacks in aid to undergraduate education.

The policy ensures that Stanford students are admitted without regard to their ability to pay, and that every effort is made to meet their computed financial needs through grants, loans and part-time jobs.

"I am currently writing a newsletter to high school counselors, and the lead article affirms that Stanford remains committed to need-blind admissions, and will maintain that commitment for a long time to come. I feel very happy that we are still in that position - there are few deans of admission who can make that claim," Montoya said.

Montoya also plans to step up Stanford's efforts to attract the nation's most talented students. Competition for next year's top applicants (born in 1975, the bottom of the 1970s baby bust) will be especially fierce.

"Our competitors - the University of California, MIT, Harvard, Yale, Princeton and other Ivy League schools - are all becoming increasingly aggressive in terms of recruiting the most outstanding students," Montoya said. "Their admissions staffs are larger, they do more traveling and have much larger travel budgets, and many rely upon alumni programs to supplement the activities of the admissions office.

"At Stanford, we are and continue to be in a luxurious position regarding the number of students who are interested in us. However, I think that if we want the very best to continue to apply and decide to attend this university, we are going to have to make certain that they have timely information that will allow them to understand that Stanford might be the best place for them."

Montoya is especially keen to explore a heretofore overlooked source of potential applicants - community colleges.

Currently, he said, 85 percent of African Americans, Native Americans and Mexican Americans who enter post-secondary education in California enter community colleges. Yet fewer than 10 percent of those go on for a four-year degree. Of Stanford's 119 new transfer students this year, just 23 came from community colleges.

"We want to try to further develop our contacts with community colleges, to see how we can be helpful to them in inspiring more students to go on to four-year institutions," Montoya said.

This spring, for example, Stanford will be initiating a program in which outstanding students who transferred to Stanford from community colleges will sit down with community college-bound students and talk about their future options.

"Hopefully, other independent colleges and universities will also make more concerted efforts to identify top talent at community colleges and encourage transfer admissions," Montoya said.

"That's one of the advantages of being the dean of undergraduate admissions at Stanford. People look to Stanford as a model and a trend-setter."

Holistic approach

Unlike most other admissions staffers, Montoya likes to read applicant files straight through, without making any notes. Then he closes the folder and conjures up a picture of the student in his mind.

"I prefer the more holistic approach - getting to know the student first," he said. "The challenge is to understand a whole person in a short period of time."

For Montoya, as for former deans of admission Fred Hargadon and Jean Fetter, the strength of a student's high school transcript is the single most important factor in determining whether an applicant will gain admission to Stanford.

"We look for a challenging course load, breadth and depth, as well as the level of accomplishment," he said.

High scores on the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) scores also are helpful, as demonstrated by this year's freshman class - 23 percent scored 700 to 800 on the verbal portion of the test and 59 percent scored 700 to 800 on the math portion.

In extracurricular activities, Stanford is more interested in the quality rather than the quantity of involvement. "I look at a student's ability to be committed to an activity, as well as depth and level of accomplishment," Montoya said.

Particularly important are public service activities, such as tutoring underprivileged children, planting trees or working with the homeless - activities that show a student's commitment to the world beyond his or her high school.

"A complete lack of public service in a student's application would be noticed, absolutely," Montoya said.

"That by itself would not necessarily prevent an outstanding student from being admitted - there might be a student who worked 20 hours a week to support the family, or who might be extremely devoted to music or athletics and didn't have the time.

"But when you see a student who is not only an outstanding musician but has found time - made time - to be involved in volunteer work or public service, in my mind, that student really shines."

In addition to the transcript and information on extracurricular activities, Stanford requires two letters of reference from each applicant's teachers, and several essays.

One essay question this year asks applicants what they would do if they were given a one-year, all-expenses-paid fellowship to pursue any interest. A second option asks them to describe a familial, cultural or national tradition that has specific significance to them.

"Since we don't conduct admission interviews, this is one of our few opportunities to get a sense of the student's personal qualities and characteristics," Montoya said. "In addition, the essay can also tell us something about that person's level of maturity, insight and/or creativity, while offering us a more tangible sense of her or his writing abilities.

"There's no doubt about it, in reading the essays I learn a lot about what it's like to be 17," Montoya added, with a smile. He particularly savors "that rare combination of vulnerability and strength that you sometimes see in 17-year-olds."

Above all, he finds the applications inspiring. "That's one of the greatest benefits of this position - to be inspired by the optimistic nature of students," he said.

"These students are going to change the world, and I think it's great that they feel so positively about the way in which they are going to do that."



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