Admissions director describes "historic, difference-making" class on its way to MSU in 2018

Jun 26, 2018

Michigan State University Director of Admissions Jim Cotter joins me on MSU Today to talk about MSU’s incoming class in the fall of 2018. “It’s absolutely historic. It’s a difference-making group,” he says.

Cotter also talks about MSU going to the Common Application and describes the declining demographic of college-age citizens in Michigan and across the county and discusses how MSU is adapting to this challenge.


When a student is choosing a college, Cotter says “it’s all about the fit” and adds that no amount of research online can replace the campus visit.

“If you're a young person looking for a place to stand, where you can make a difference, where you can be heard, where you have a voice, where you can change the world, Michigan State University gives one that platform.”

White:    Michigan State University’s incoming freshman class is predicted to be the largest and most diverse in the school's history with more than eighty-four hundred anticipated students coming in the fall of 2018.   It's great to have Jim Cotter back on MSU Today to talk about this. Jim is admissions director at MSU. Jim, good to see you.

Cotter:    Good to see you Russ, really pleased to be here today.

White:    What do you want us to know about this class? I imagine with some of the turmoil we're going through that's not a surprise to anybody. You must be heartened that so many kids still see the value of an MSU degree.

Cotter:    Oh, I don't think that there's any doubt about it, it's a tremendous tribute to Michigan State University in who we are as a world changing institution.

I often think about the fact that this incoming freshman class, joined by another fifteen to sixteen hundred transfer students, is really historic in many ways. It's a unified voice that can bring change to a campus that needs to, I think, look at itself and ask some tough questions and make some changes. Much like we do in society today, I think we continually have to evaluate ourselves and say, "How can we be better?"

What other institution has the opportunity to bring in ten thousand fresh minds and fresh perspectives to have an impact. When you think about the diversity of this class, the fact is that racially this will be the most diverse class at Michigan State University has ever brought to campus. The exchange of ideas, the exchange of experiences and perspectives, it's what make us an incredible place to learn and to grow.

I'm really excited about this fall cohort, it's historic. It's a true, I think, measure of success, moving forward it's a chance to build on a new foundation.

White:    Jim, one thing that's changing at MSU is you will be going to the common app. What is that and what should people know?

Cotter:    The reason to go to a common application is just to provide students with an opportunity to apply for higher education with a degree of ease that hasn't always existed.

You know Michigan State's application has always been a pretty easy one to fill out, but it maybe wasn't as far reaching as we wanted it to be. So a year ago we went to something called the Coalition Application, which is about one hundred thirty schools that have similar accomplishment rates in terms of retention and graduation.

The Common Application is even broader, it's several hundred institutions where students can fill out one singular application and apply to as many as ten institutions. We think that really does give us a bit more of a broad base in terms of attracting interest.

We know that the applicant pool next year will grow significantly. The challenge that we're going to have, or the opportunity maybe, is to determine amongst that increased application, who is really interested and who is maybe just a passing fancy.

We're excited about the Common Application. We're joining virtually everyone in the Big Ten who will go to the Common App by the end of next year. With the exception of the University of Illinois. Penn State and Michigan State are joining this year and we're excited to compare notes and work together as sister institutions and learn from this new process.

White:    Jim, you and I are both biased towards the green and white, but what do you tell people when they ask why MSU when they are considering a college?

Cotter:    If you're a young person looking for a place to stand, where you can make a difference, where you can be heard, where you have a voice, where you can change the world, Michigan State University gives one that platform.

You and I were smiling a bit earlier, I'm oftentimes quoting Archimedes and the fact that he once said, "Give me a place to stand and I will move the world." Young people wanting to move the world, who have big dreams and huge aspirations, this is a place to learn, to grow and to build that ability to change the world.

When you look at the diversity of majors, some two hundred areas of study, things that range from packaging to supply chain management to mechanical engineering to social work, we're very much in tune with the hard sciences but we don't ignore the people sciences.

The fact that this is an institution that continues to do world changing research every single day, whether it's breast cancer research, whether it's Parkinson's research, whether it's food research, this is an institution that is committed to making this world a better place. I think even despite some of our recent challenges, we're even more committed to that. We look at society, we look at people and we say how can we make this world a better place?

Many of the challenges that we deal with on our own campus are societal challenges, they're world challenges. If we can discover ways to work through some of the issues that we've had to deal with and face, we can use those lessons and share them globally and really have an impact and change the world.

Young people looking to be part of that, I don't want to say revolution, but part of that change certainly this is a place where you can do that.

White:    Well said Jim Cotter, MSU admissions director. Jim, this is not a new topic for you, but there was a fairly extensive Detroit Free Press article a couple of weeks ago about the declining demographic of kids who are college age. Describe that trend for our listeners and how is MSU adapting?

Cotter:    We've looked at that, and of course the fifteen public institutions in the state of Michigan work very closely together to talk about what's happening in the state. Both our friends in Ann Arbor and Michigan State University have something in common, that is we certainly treasure the students, the sons and daughters of the state of Michigan, but we also realize that it's important on our campuses to have a diversity of population in terms of geography. Historically Michigan State has had a very strong global reputation, bringing international students to Michigan State. We're increasing our domestic out of state view.

The decline in the state of Michigan, which is significant, will have an impact on us. One of the things that's really interesting is in 2014 there were about one hundred ten thousand graduates in the state of Michigan. This year we are down to about one hundred four thousand. Despite that fact we received about seventeen thousand applications from the state of Michigan in 2014. This year we received just under nineteen thousand. What that means is our market share in the state of Michigan continues to grow. Whereas we received fifteen percent of the applicants of the high school cohort in 14, this year we received over eighteen percent of all the high school graduates in the state applying to Michigan State.

There is a declining demographic, that is a challenge for all the institutions in the state, but Michigan State continues to have a very, very strong brand. It continues to have a very strong market share. That said we are very, very focused on looking outside the state to really provide the sons and daughters of Michigan with that diverse experience of meeting people whose backgrounds are vastly different than their own.

I say to people all the time that some of the most important things I learned at Michigan State as an undergraduate, and having watched my son Jimmy and my daughter Margo come to Michigan State. I know with your sons, some of the most important things they've learned were things they learned from other people that they hadn't experienced before. That richness of geographic diversity is important, not only because we see a declining demographic in the state of Michigan, which will continue until about 2029 when we bottom out around eighty six thousand high school graduates. It's important that we look outside the state, not just because of that demographic decline, but also providing a place where ideas can be exchanged, cultivated and nurtured.

White:    Jim, what's your advice for parents and children listening now, whether they are considering MSU or another place? Your expert advice on when they should start thinking about things and what should they start considering?

Cotter:    It's interesting Russ because it seems to be starting earlier, and earlier, and earlier. I'm an advocate for that. I think students as they begin to approach high school ought to be thinking about what kind of school they would like. Would they like a large public institution, would they like a small private institution, do they want to go to one of the schools in the state of Michigan or perhaps somewhere outside the state of Michigan? Even an international institution I know there are a number of schools in Ireland that are recruiting domestically within the United States.

I think it's not too early as a ninth or tenth grader, perhaps if you have an older brother or sister who are going through the process, maybe follow them through and learn what you can. It's all about fit, it's where do you fit in, where do feel comfortable, where do you feel a part of things because that's where a student ought to be seriously considering. Maybe you want to go to a school in the middle of a city and the University of Chicago, or Northwestern or Wayne State provide that opportunity. On other occasions maybe students would like to go someplace more rural. I talk about the fact that just outside Grand Rapids you have a corn field, a wheat field, a bean field, and a woods in the middle of Grand Valley State University, it's a great institution but a very different environment.

We tell students to visit, to try it on to see what the experience will be like. I love this place, I believe in this institution but I also understand that this isn't the institution for every single student. It behooves students to go to websites, to do a little exploration, to get on campuses, to try it on, to find out how that experience might be as they spend three or four or five or six years on the campus.

The other thing I tell students all the time is realize you're not just buying into the institution, you're buying into the region. If you look to go to a school in the Southeast or if you look to go to a school out west, you're not just buying into the campus environment, you're buying into the cultural environment of that region. Learn as much as you can about that. Realize that isn't all about what they teach because many students change their mind once they get on a campus. Kettering is a great institution, the old GMI, but it's probably not a very good place to go if you want to be a poet. I think you have to look around and find out what schools do well. But then decide, where is it you want to be.

The other thing I, and I know this is kind of a long answer, I also tell seventeen to eighteen year olds, a school could be overwhelming at the front end. But you are going to grow once you get there, so stretch yourself, perhaps take a reach. Maybe go a little further out there than you think you're ready for because during the course of time that you're on a college campus as an individual you will grow very significantly and be able to take on a larger chunk of opportunity perhaps.

Be cautious about under buying.

White:    Great advice Jim. You know you likely go to conferences that address this Jim, but I'm just curious, you've been at this game a while. Neither of us is a spring chicken anymore, but, how would you say the admissions game has changed the most over the years? We've talked about demographics, but what are some of the challenges and opportunities ahead?

Cotter:    I think it's interesting, higher education has become for lack of a better term a media darling, or perhaps a media scapegoat depending on how you look at it. It's not unusual to pick up the New York Times or the Free Press or the News or the State Journal and see that there's an article about college admissions, about the competitiveness.

I would tell you that there are some very selective institutions out there, but I think there's a frenzy among students that perhaps they fear they're not going to find a school. The reality of it Russ is fewer than twenty percent of the institutions in this country admit fewer than fifty percent of their applicants. The reality is over fifty percent of the schools in this country admit more than seventy-seven percent of their applicants.

There's a place for everyone, part of what a student needs to do is go out and to find out what's the profile of a student that might be admitted in an institution? Then find out if their record matches that. I think there is a great deal more focus on technology. I think the opportunities for students to go out and to find things without having to visit a campus initially are plentiful, although nothing in the world should ever replace the campus visit. Once you've done your homework and you've narrowed your school down to perhaps the University of Hawaii and Michigan State, visit them both. I remember our daughter Margo deciding that's what she thought she should have done as a senior. We said, "How about you investigate Hawaii online and we'll visit Michigan State."

The reality is, if you're seriously looking at an institution outside perhaps a five hundred mile zone, it's still critical that you get there and try it on and make sure that it's where you want to be. This is a very, very, savvy, sophisticated consumer that's looking at institutions. They're asking very, very good questions. I tell students all the time that if an institution can't answer the question you have on the front end, perhaps they never will. It's OK for a student to say to an institution, "What's your core value? What's important to you as an institution? What's your foundation? What principles on which your institution was built are most important to you?" I think those are heavy questions for a seventeen or eighteen year old but perhaps a parent could ask that question and students can make decisions accordingly.

White:    Jim Cotter as we close let's circle back and what do you want our listeners to remember about this incoming class in the fall of 18 at MSU?

Cotter:    It's absolutely historic. It's a difference making group. This is a place where one can grow, where they can learn, and where they can really establish a future. We talk about the opportunity for a student to come to Michigan State, and not only learn in our culture, but to go around the globe and learn from other cultures.

I think back to my own kids. Perhaps a couple of the most critical learning experiences occurred when our son Jimmy went to Africa and spent a summer in a remote village and our daughter spent a period of time in New Zealand and Australia. They began to understand that they weren't necessarily at the center of the universe. That there was a universe around them that mattered as well.

When we talk about undergraduate research, the fact that students will come here and be able to do research as a freshman, a sophomore, a junior and a senior, that's a critical, critical point of influence that students can have. This is a place where individuals will learn about themselves and about other people. There are a lot of great schools in this country, and around the world, but this is an institution that was built for undergraduate students, they are a priority when they get here. I'm incredibly excited about the voices of each and every one of these ten thousand new young people who will come to this institution with dreams, with aspirations, and they will learn how to succeed and wear it well. They'll learn how to stumble and pick themselves back up again.

When we look to August when the students arrive on campus, to me it will be my thirty-fifth class watching students come to this campus. I can tell you, I will be as excited in August of 2018 as I was in August 1984 when the first freshman class that I witnessed came in here. It's hard not to think about when I came here as a new student and all the things that tend to lay in front of us and think back to the opportunities that originated right here in East Lansing Michigan at Michigan State University.

White:    Jim you always get me fired up, I'm ready to go reapply.

Cotter:    We'll take your application!

White:    That's Jim Cotter, he's director of admissions at Michigan State University and everything we have talked about is online at admission.msu.edu. Jim, again, great to see you.

Cotter:    Good to see you Russ. Thank you very much, Go Green!

White:    Go White! And I'm Russ White for MSU Today.

MSU Today airs Sunday afternoons at 4:00 on 105.1 FM and AM 870.