An article in this week’s Chronicle of Higher Education features the Hobart and William Smith Colleges admissions process as it was implemented last year, to enroll the Classes of 2014. The article notes Bob Murphy, vice president for enrollment and dean of admissions at the Colleges, focused the past year’s efforts on the age-old business acumen that “businesses are built on relationships.”
It quotes Murphy, “We had to develop a connection with students fast and not let go, without being obnoxious and aggressive. So we decided we would personalize the admissions process.”
The full article, detailing a number of changes to admissions, follows.
Chronicle of Higher Education
A Campus Embraces ‘Old-School Admissions’
Eric Hoover • June 6, 2010
Bob Murphy knows big business. For 27 years he worked for PepsiCo, locked in a global rivalry like few others. “It’s pretty competitive,” he says, “fighting with Coke every day.”
Recently he took his first job in college admissions, where competition has a different complexion. Consumers have thousands of choices, and all the price tags vary. Still, his instincts told him that what’s true in one industry is true in another: Businesses are built on relationships.
Last October, Mr. Murphy became vice president for enrollment and dean of admissions at Hobart and William Smith Colleges, in Geneva, N.Y. He was hired to solve a problem. Like many private liberal-arts colleges, Hobart and William Smith raised its tuition-discount rate significantly in 2009, but it fell well short of its freshman enrollment goal. With the economy still sagging, the outlook for this spring looked bleak. Something had to change, he decided.
“We had to develop a connection with students fast and not let go, without being obnoxious and aggressive,” he says. “So we decided we would personalize the admissions process.”
The strategy might sound simplistic, even trite. After all, many admissions counselors have long considered relationship-building a crucial part of the job. With its relatively small applicant pool, Hobart and William Smith has always given prospective students plenty of one-on-one attention. How much more personalized could it be?
What Mr. Murphy imagined was not so much cultural change as systematization-the marriage of personal contact and commercial efficiency. Although many colleges have cut their travel budgets and pulled back on high-school visits, Mr. Murphy’s staff members took the opposite tack. They engaged faculty members in the recruitment process more than ever before. And they embraced the art of the handwritten note.
Over the years, college admissions has become an increasingly complex enterprise, built on predictive metrics, multimedia communications, and an ever-increasing volume of applications. As enrollment outcomes have become more unpredictable, however, many colleges have sought ways to make the process more intimate, tailored to individual interests.
At Hobart and William Smith this year, that meant focusing on a simple goal. When a prospective applicant expressed any interest in the colleges, Mr. Murphy says, “we wanted to make sure you knew we were listening.”
‘People With Influence’
After accepting the job last summer, Mr. Murphy went on a long road trip. From Massachusetts to Maryland, he visited more than 100 secondary schools, taking college counselors to breakfasts, lunches, and dinners. At each stop, he talked up Hobart and William Smith. “He was thinking back to his Pepsi days-he wanted to meet the people with influence,” says Matthew J. DeGreeff, director of college counseling at the Middlesex School, in Concord, Mass.
The visits were also about listening. Mr. Murphy wanted to know what each counselor thought of Hobart and William Smith, and how they might better appeal to students. Over and over, he heard the same advice: In a crowded market, you must clearly state who you are and how you’re different from everyone else.
That’s especially important when trying to reach students, Mr. DeGreeff told him. Each year, one or two Middlesex graduates enroll at Hobart and William Smith, but many students at the school don’t even consider attending college in upstate New York. “Getting kids in New England beyond the Hudson River is a challenge,” the counselor says.
Mr. Murphy did not travel alone. He brought faculty members who could talk at length about his colleges’ unique curriculum and their tutoring and mentoring programs. The trips were one way in which the admissions office engaged faculty members.
“In the past, there have been a few faculty members asked to do things, but what Bob has done is to really spread that out to more people,” says Jo Beth Mertens, an associate professor of economics, who spent two days visiting private high schools with Mr. Murphy in New York City.
This year the admissions staff created a questionnaire for faculty members that asked whether they wanted to participate in recruitment, where they were from, what languages they spoke, and the types of students they might like to contact.
The questionnaire netted 50 volunteers. It also revealed which faculty members had grown up in the South, who had been the first in their families to attend college, and that a professor of environmental studies spoke fluent Chinese. Such information often proves useful in the recruitment of particular students.
When a prospective applicant revealed that he or she was interested in chemistry, for instance, the admissions office forwarded the student’s contact information to Christine de Denus, an associate professor of chemistry. She recalls one student with whom she spent at least four hours communicating, in person and by phone and e-mail, from last fall to this spring. The young woman, a basketball player with an interest in science, finally decided to enroll during her second visit to the campus, in March.
“The admissions office came to us and said, ‘We need your help,'” Ms. de Denus says. “And there were all these people who helped.”
Since last fall, Mr. Murphy has preached the importance of assembly-line efficiency in following up with prospective applicants who visit the campus, or who speak with admissions counselors on high-school visits and at college fairs. The follow-ups took the form of letters, e-mails, and telephone calls.
As soon as students schedule a visit, an admissions-staff member is assigned to meet them upon arrival. Families who walk into the visitors center unannounced are greeted by admissions counselors, often by Mr. Murphy himself. “We were almost manic every time someone walked through the door,” says Margaret Popper, associate director of admissions.
Last year Hobart and William Smith hoped to enroll 575 freshmen but ended up with 548. To get those students, the colleges spent what Mr. Murphy describes as a “painful amount” of money. After that disappointment, says John Young, director of admissions, he and his colleagues considered various ways of avoiding a similar outcome in 2010. Should they buy more names of high-school students? Expand into new markets?
“The traditional thought is ‘Get more apps,’ but that wasn’t our problem,” says Mr. Young. “We had the apps; we just weren’t converting them well. So what we did was more of a return to old-school admissions. In the days when schools didn’t have 10 times the applications they needed, this is how admissions was done.”
In the end, Mr. Murphy and Mr. Young opted to stick to their traditional recruitment territory-and to spend more time there. The admissions office spent more money on travel, and counselors made follow-up visits to each area, where they scheduled interviews with interested students who had not visited the campus. Sometimes they just had coffee with a high-school senior they had met months earlier. They focused most intently on about 1,100 students, having three or four conversations with each one over the course of several months.
Hobart and William Smith used other strategies, too. For one thing, the colleges increased their financial-aid budget. In 2009 students who were offered $20,000 merit scholarships did not yield at a high rate. So Mr. Murphy doubled the number of offers, which netted more students. This spring the colleges also indulged more requests for financial-aid appeals.
Still, Mr. Murphy and Mr. Young attribute their enrollment outcomes to better outreach. This spring the admissions office enlisted current students to make about 3,000 telephone calls to applicants who had received acceptance letters. The colleges had aimed to enroll 600 freshmen this fall; as of last week, it had 647 deposits. The increase came despite the facts that the number of applications, 4,600, was about 400 fewer than in the previous year, and that the colleges had accepted 2,800, almost the same number as in 2009.
Mr. Murphy also made another change. At the end of the campus tour, families returning to the admissions office are presented with a chocolate-chip cookie. A small touch, but it can’t hurt when you’re trying to build a relationship.