SEATTLE — What does it take to be admitted to the University of Washington? If Philip Ballinger could boil it down to one word, it would be this:
Or try a fishing metaphor. The UW’s director of admissions, a consummate Alaska outdoorsman, describes the best applicants as salmon, swimming upstream tirelessly against the current to meet their goals.
“Going with the flow is not sufficient,” he said. “Being a fish heading downstream just won’t do it.”
These are tough times for college admissions directors. The cost of tuition has skyrocketed. Popular articles question the value of a four-year degree. The state’s flagship university has made room for more international students, attracting top scholars and millions in extra tuition dollars — but sometimes raising the ire of local families when their children don’t get in.
Starting in December, Ballinger and his staff of 42 will begin sorting through an estimated 26,000 college admission applications, the majority of them from out-of-state, with perhaps as many as 6,000 coming from outside the country.
A veteran of nearly 25 years of college admissions, Ballinger has gained a reputation as a thoughtful, scholarly director who has shaped and strengthened the diversity of the student body.
Fishing metaphors come naturally for Ballinger, 55, who was born in France and grew up fly-fishing in Alaska. His background also includes six years in the Catholic clergy, four of them as a priest, and there is still something of a priest about his manner — genial and gently self-deprecating.
Ballinger read 2,135 college applications last year, but says he’s not the most prolific reader; that honor belongs to assistant director Robin Hennes, who read more than 5,000. They both consider the job a “privileged glimpse” into the lives of young people — one that makes them hopeful about the future.
“You have these students who must be a new species — they’re astoundingly accomplished, and you can’t understand how that’s possible for a human being,” he said.
Ballinger has gained a national reputation among college admissions officers for his depth of knowledge and understanding of the issues.
He’s “a scholar and a professional,” said David Hawkins, director of public policy and research for the National Association of College Admission Counseling (NACAC), a 13,000-member organization of college admissions professionals.
“He is an eminently reasonable person,” said Hawkins. “He really tries hard to understand as many approaches as he possibly can. Those two things together make him a rarity, in some ways.”
Earlier this year, Ballinger was named by the NACAC to head a commission studying international student recruitment.
The Chronicle of Higher Education, a national newspaper that covers higher education, described him as “widely regarded as one of his profession’s most thoughtful members.”
The UW’s Ed Taylor, vice provost and dean of undergraduate academic affairs, has worked closely with Ballinger in Seattle and also fished with him in Alaska. Fly-fishing, said Taylor, is a good metaphor for who Ballinger is.
“There is an art and nuance to fly-fishing,” he said. “There is a precision that is required in fly-fishing and a depth of understanding, that understanding of the nature of a river, of what goes on underneath the surface of a river.” Those qualities also describe Ballinger’s skills as an admissions director, Taylor said.
Ballinger led the school’s transition from an admission system that selected students based solely on SAT and GPA scores to a more holistic system that was introduced in 2005.
The new approach gives special weight to the difficulty of classes a student takes and the context of their educational environment.
It’s a system that aims to admit students whose diverse backgrounds together offer what Ballinger calls a richness of experience — “an entering freshman class where being a member of the class is an education in itself.”
Even with the holistic review process, the class’s academic profile has risen — the average GPA for an incoming freshman last year was 3.75; in 2005, it was 3.69.
The number of underrepresented minorities in the freshman class has grown from about 8 percent a decade ago to nearly 12 percent last year. That’s a good measure of its success, he said.
Calls from parents
But every spring, there are disappointments.
Ballinger’s least-favorite job is answering the calls of parents whose children did not get into the UW, and who are crushed by the experience.
Answering those calls is “tough — it should be,” he said.
“It’s someone’s child, who’s been wearing a Husky sweatshirt since they were 2, and going to football games, and this is their place. And they don’t get admitted. And they’re pretty good students. And that hurts, it hurts.”
The UW came under fire more than a year ago when state cutbacks caused it to reduce the size of the in-state freshman class.
As a way to raise revenue, the UW increased the number of nonresident students, who pay more than twice the tuition rate. Angry parents whose children didn’t get in blamed the university for giving seats away to nonresidents.
“It’s exactly wrong. It’s perfectly wrong,” Ballinger said. If the UW didn’t increase the number of nonresident students, who in effect subsidize in-state students, “we couldn’t bring in as many resident kids,” he said.
That said, the state Legislature passed a law in 2011 that required the UW to enroll a minimum of 4,000 in-state freshmen every year.
Taylor said his fly-fishing trip to Alaska revealed a side to Ballinger that few get to see — the confident outdoorsman who is comfortable fishing in the wild.
There aren’t many people he would trust to lead him on a fly-fishing trip in grizzly country, Taylor said. Ballinger is one of them.