An article in the Chronicle of Higher Education features the change that has taken place in the college admissions process, citing a number of colleges as examples, including Hobart and William Smith.
In discussing the Colleges and the strategy embraced by Vice President for Enrollment and Dean of Admissions Robert Murphy, the article notes: “In the past, presidents led, professors taught, and admissions officers recruited. To better meet the enrollment challenges that liberal-arts colleges face now, Robert Murphy has changed that equation. At Hobart and William Smith Colleges, in Geneva, N.Y., practically everyone engages with prospective students. ‘One big admissions office,’ he says. ‘This is a campuswide thing.'”
Among campus-wide initiatives, the article points to the involvement of faculty members who speak at campus events, participate in recruiting trips and e-mail or call prospective students who have expressed an interest in their discipline.
When he took the reins in admissions Murphy’s goal was “to build better relationships across the campus,” according to the article.
“Hobart and William Smith’s admissions officers now spend more time in key geographic areas, such as Boston and New York City, that produce about three-quarters of their applicants-and less time elsewhere. Soon about half the staff will work remotely, to spend more time visiting students. In April, after acceptances go out, the admissions staff-often Mr. Murphy himself-hits the road again to meet with the accepted students, sometimes at Starbucks.”
Murphy is quoted: “Showing up more and more really helps.”
The article also describes Murphy’s unique role overseeing the Salisbury Center for Career Services, meeting with alums to establish internship and shadowing opportunities for student and helping to move the admissions message to one of outcomes.
“The campus tour used to start at the colleges’ first library; now it begins at the career center, where families learn about its extensive, four-year Pathways program to prepare students for the world of work,” according to the article.
Murphy is quoted, “When I stand up and talk to parents, I tell them I’m not going to bore them and insult them by saying how nice the trees are and how nice the buildings are. If you’re the dean of admissions now, you’d better be able to talk about outcomes.”
The full article follows.
Chronicle of Higher Education
In Admissions, Old Playbook Is Being Revised
Eric Hoover and Beckie Supiano • September 16, 2013
To solve a mystery, one must search for clues. So in August, St. Mary’s College of Maryland polled the 1,700 teenagers who had been offered slots in this fall’s freshman class. The underlying question: Why had so many of them decided not to come?
St. Mary’s offered students a chance to win an iPad if they answered a handful of questions. Those who planned to enroll elsewhere were asked what, if anything, the college could have done to sway them. All were asked whether parents, friends, and high-school counselors “spoke positively” about the college. Also: “What news have you recently heard about St. Mary’s?”
Lately the news hasn’t been good. In May the public honors college announced that it was about 150 deposits short of its goal of enrolling 550 freshman and transfer students for this fall. The deficit was projected to cost as much as $3.5-million in lost tuition. Budget cuts followed. The president and the top enrollment official left. A few months later, the college’s bond rating was downgraded.
Enrollment shortfalls happen somewhere every year. One as severe as that at St. Mary’s, however, is rare. Still, when a college announces a big drop, admissions officers thousands of miles away take notice. Especially now, with doom in the higher-education forecast, uncertainty haunts the profession. Every year presents a new puzzle: how to fill a class and bring in enough tuition revenue to run the college. Nobody wants to preside over the next big shortfall; nobody wants to lose his job.
A bad year prompts guesses over who or what is to blame. Recent news reports have described enrollment crises as a result of uncontrollable forces: weak economy, demographic shifts, technological change. In those renderings, small, tuition-dependent residential colleges are done for-the first casualties of the higher-education bubble bursting.
A college, though, is to a large extent responsible for its own success or failure. Admissions officers can’t control who graduates from high school, or how much money a family chooses to spend on a degree. But many decisions made by enrollment chiefs-and the presidents and trustees to whom they answer-can greatly influence a college’s year-to-year enrollment fortunes. Wise choices can bring prosperity. Poor choices can lead to empty beds and layoffs.
Yet knowing the difference between sound strategies and iffy ones has become more difficult. And the natural laws of college admissions are changing. In short, the old playbook doesn’t work the way it used to. Some popular policies have led to short-term success but also ushered in unforeseen problems.
For a long time, colleges have chased more and more applications, touting ever-growing totals as a sign of their desirability. But those piles sometimes produce only the illusion of prosperity. A double-digit increase in applications might precede a double-digit drop in freshmen.
Colleges that have embraced marketing with every arm are finding that even the slickest campaigns don’t always deliver deposits. Recruiting farther and farther afield can help plug enrollment holes-or become an expensive wild-goose chase. More colleges have outsourced recruitment strategies to consultants, who sometimes peddle the same tricks, saddling campuses with a generic approach.
Meanwhile, college leaders tend to see enrollment managers as magicians who can somehow bring in the perfect class and bolster the bottom line. But even as those managers devise intricate recruitment strategies, many of them find that they can’t hit their goals without administrators, professors, students, and alumni also making the case for prospects’ futures on campus and beyond. Among families, the obsession with “getting in” to the right college is surpassed only by “getting out” with the right job.
In this era, “know thyself” is good advice. After unexpected shortfalls, St. Mary’s and other colleges have been forced to re-examine their admissions policies and marketing strategies, to rethink their whole approach. Although external forces-the economy, bad luck-are often cast as the culprits of a crisis, some of the most essential clues to what went wrong lead right back to decisions made on campus.
Determining cause and effect is a challenge in college admissions. Recruitment is a tangle of tactics; the impact of each one is hard to gauge. And even the measurements colleges do have aren’t as meaningful as they once were.
Not long ago, Stephen Mortland could tell his Board of Trustees in March or April almost exactly how many freshmen would show up the following fall, based on the number of applications, acceptances, and deposits. Now he can’t-at least not confidently. “The predictability year to year is gone,” says Mr. Mortland, vice president for enrollment management and marketing at Taylor University, a Christian institution in Indiana.
Take 2012. In February deposits were down, and he told the board to brace for a class of only 450 students, well short of the goal of 485. Yet 505 came. This year the university aimed for 485 freshmen and got 465.
The notion of annual enrollment cycles, with recurring patterns, Mr. Mortland has concluded, is no longer a useful way of thinking. Now he encourages administrators and trustees to look not only at the total number of applicants, but also at, say, the growing racial and ethnic diversity within the pool.
Real-time data can tell a college more than an application tally can. What growth has there been in applicants planning to major in elementary education this year? Based on historical data, how much more or less likely are they to enroll than those in other majors? Who visited last week? How many prospects are on the Facebook page right now?
Still, the allure of inflating applicant pools is powerful. Several years ago, Taylor introduced a “fast app,” a partially filled-in, one-page form that let students apply quickly. Applications soared. “Everybody felt great, everybody was smiling,” Mr. Mortland says. But the strategy did not help the college enroll a bigger or better class. He worried that the application made Taylor seem like any other place. “A lot of expense, a lot of energy, but the same result,” he says. The college ended the experiment after just one year.
Although application totals are important, some enrollment leaders have come to describe them as fool’s gold. “It’s partly our fault,” Mr. Mortland says. “For years we’ve made that the metric.”
Go-to tactics to raise the total-marketing campaigns, fast apps-are less tempting than they used to be, he says. “We’ve gotten tired of just going to the enrollment quiver and picking out strategies, another consultant, another viewbook, another Web site. We’re more open to saying, You know, this doesn’t work.”
Many colleges have long relied on one or more higher-education consulting firms to help shape recruitment plans. In some cases, those contracts have engineered major enrollment turnarounds. Still, consultants’ forecasts aren’t always right. Some enrollment leaders say a college can become too dependent on outside advice. And when loads of clients are all trying the same thing, the same way, what advantage does that bring?
When Tom Delahunt came to Drake University, in 2005, consultants advised him to cast a wider recruitment net, given the demographic projections in the region around Iowa. “All these people were saying, ‘Tom, you’re gonna have to find other markets-California, Texas, the mid-Atlantic,'” he says. At the time, Drake had two admissions officers based in Chicago, and a consultant had recommended adding four more, in Dallas, Denver, St. Louis, and Southern California.
But Mr. Delahunt, vice president for admission and student financial planning, scrapped that idea and eliminated the Chicago-based positions. His plan: Establish better connections with prospective students who weren’t so far away, including those from small towns and high schools that had sent relatively few applicants to Drake. The admissions staff doubled down on Iowa and surrounding states, which has helped the university grow-and diversify-its student body. “We didn’t really recruit there before, because the analytics were telling us it wasn’t worth our time,” he says. “But it was.”
Strategies that succeed at one college might not work for a competitor. There’s no guarantee they’ll even work at the same college for long.
An enrollment manager can’t ever sit still. Last year inquiries and applications to the University of Denver leveled off after years of growth. Public and private colleges it competes with were discounting tuition more heavily, says Tom Willoughby, vice chancellor for enrollment. And Denver’s strategies-like searching for students in specific geographic markets-weren’t working as well anymore.
“If we didn’t do something different,” Mr. Willoughby says, “we were probably going to lose market share.”
So Denver decided to expand its reach, looking for students who fit its criteria regardless of where they lived. Starting last summer, the private university, which draws more than 60 percent of its students from outside Colorado, searched for students nationwide, buying more names, mostly from the College Board and ACT, than ever before.
That shift is the main reason Denver was able to bring in a larger class this fall, Mr. Willoughby says. Last year’s class was 1,214, about 20 students short of the goal. This year’s will be about 1,420, he predicts.
Denver also dug into its data to see if other practices were serving it well. Like most colleges, it doesn’t have the resources to meet the full financial need of every student it admits. So it was “gapping” some admitted students, offering them less aid than would meet their demonstrated need. That had unfortunate consequences, Mr. Willoughby found. Of students who started with a gap of $10,000 or more, only half were still enrolled at the end of their third year. Keeping enrollment up isn’t just about recruiting students, but retaining them, too.
This year, instead of admitting the students it wanted most and then awarding aid, Denver became need-aware for the bottom quarter of its class. The students who previously would have been admitted with a significant gap were instead wait-listed or denied. The move has led to candid conversations with families, some of whom appreciated the university’s honesty, says Mr. Willoughby.
“We had to be realistic,” he says, “about who could afford us and who we could realistically afford.”
Enrollment managers are powerful figures on campus. They have a lot to do with whom professors will teach and whether the college will have enough money for raises this year. Still, that power has its limits.
Bringing in the class requires four things, says Robert A. Sevier, a senior vice president at Stamats, a consulting firm. Two of those things, recruitment and financial aid, are the purview of an enrollment manager. The others, a compelling brand and programs that students want and competitors don’t have, are not.
Even so, it’s awfully tempting for a college to blame admissions when something goes wrong, says Cal Mosley, vice president for admissions and financial aid at the College of Saint Benedict and Saint John’s University, in Minnesota. After all, he says, colleges usually approach budget issues from the side of increasing revenue rather than cutting costs. Some presidents and boards expect admissions to solve all of their problems-say, by bringing more students, at a lower tuition-discount rate to the same old campus. He calls that “a failure of leadership.”
In the past, presidents led, professors taught, and admissions officers recruited. To better meet the enrollment challenges that liberal-arts colleges face now, Robert Murphy has changed that equation. At Hobart and William Smith Colleges, in Geneva, N.Y., practically everyone engages with prospective students. “One big admissions office,” he says. “This is a campuswide thing.”
Mr. Murphy, vice president for enrollment and dean of admissions, took the job in 2009. Hobart and William Smith had raised their tuition-discount rate significantly but had still fallen well short of their freshman-enrollment goal. Mr. Murphy, who had long worked for PepsiCo, retooled his recruitment strategies with customer service in mind.
His goal was to build better relationships across the campus. Early on, he rejected the notion that more applications would help. Converting those in hand was the key, he told the trustees. “I’d seen all these people chasing apps, saying ‘Oh, we had a 20-percent increase,’ but their net revenue was lower,” he says. “That’s a disease in the system. What was going to solve the problem was getting applications that we could yield, kids in our wheelhouse.”
Hobart and William Smith’s admissions officers now spend more time in key geographic areas, such as Boston and New York City, that produce about three-quarters of their applicants-and less time elsewhere. Soon about half the staff will work remotely, to spend more time visiting students. In April, after acceptances go out, the admissions staff-often Mr. Murphy himself-hits the road again to meet with the accepted students, sometimes at Starbucks. “Showing up more and more really helps,” Mr. Murphy says.
In 2009, Hobart and William Smith received 5,200 applications; since then the numbers have held steady at 4,500. The colleges have become more selective, bringing the acceptance rate down. And the yield-the share of accepted students who enroll-has risen to about 30 percent, from 18 percent four years ago. That’s the last time the colleges went to the wait list.
To achieve this, the admissions office enlisted the help of dozens of faculty members. They speak at campus events and go on recruiting trips. When a prospective applicant expresses an interest in chemistry, the admissions office forwards her name to a chemistry professor, who promptly calls or e-mails her.
Mr. Murphy, a former director of career services at the colleges, meets regularly with the heads of banks and advertising companies. The purpose of that networking? To pave the way for internships.
Hobart and William Smith have recast their recruitment pitch to emphasize career development. The campus tour used to start at the colleges’ first library; now it begins at the career center, where families learn about its extensive, four-year Pathways program to prepare students for the world of work.
Nobody’s trying to vocationalize the college’s liberal-arts offerings, says Mr. Murphy, who still oversees the career center. But describing how Hobart and William Smith plan to help students translate their skills is crucial in dealing with consumers often skeptical of liberal-arts colleges.
“When I stand up and talk to parents, I tell them I’m not going to bore them and insult them by saying how nice the trees are and how nice the buildings are,” Mr. Murphy says. “If you’re the dean of admissions now, you’d better be able to talk about outcomes.”
Enrolling a class is a never-ending experiment. Asking what didn’t work and why is part of the job, especially after a rough year. An enrollment drop means that administrators must take a hard look at their choices over time.
At St. Mary’s, officials are trying to draw lessons from this year’s shortfall. It coincided with the first admissions cycle using the Common Application, and applications for the freshman class rose 14 percent over the previous year. Sometimes such a spike can throw off projections of yield, although it’s not clear how, or if, that was the case for St. Mary’s. A shift in financial-aid strategy seems to have been a major factor: The college stopped awarding merit scholarships to many core students, a move that turned some of them away. And in recruitment, the college was stuck in old ways that had come to seem distant to some families.
After the news in May, college officials were shocked; now they’re resolved, says Joel Wincowski, interim vice president for enrollment management and dean of admissions. “There’s acceptance on campus, no panic,” he says. “We’ve pulled together as a group.”
Mr. Wincowski, who arrived in June, is a former enrollment officer who works for an interim-leadership firm that sends him on fix-it missions. His charge was to make changes in the admissions office while the college searched for a new person to lead it. Over the summer, he and his staff shored up this fall’s class, ultimately enrolling a total of 481 new students: 384 freshmen and 97 transfers. Although that’s still short of the goal of 550, the staff managed to cut the initial deficit in half, reducing the financial impact on the college.
Personalization is the new mantra, Mr. Wincowski says. That’s in part because of the survey of accepted students, most of whom had enrolled elsewhere. Question 13 asked what St. Mary’s could have done that would have made them choose the college. The most common response: “better interaction.”
“We were somewhat nonexistent in Facebook and Twitter,” Mr. Wincowski says. “We didn’t text anyone, and we behaved somewhat as if we were a large state institution, sending people out on massive tours.”
Now a social-media plan is in the works. At a recent open house, 140 prospective students signed up to text with admissions officers. The college has extended campus tour guides’ hours so that each tour includes just one or two families. And every student who visits now gets a one-on-one meeting with an admissions officer.
The admissions staff will also visit more high schools. Last year, Mr. Wincowski says, admissions officers visited several high schools in 11 of Maryland’s counties, but just two high schools in the other 13. That will change, he says.
On the small campus, many people are pitching in. When sign-up sheets for lunches with prospective students were circulated among professors, a semester’s worth of slots filled up in just a few days. That let the admissions office make an unprecedented offer to applicants: Schedule lunch with a faculty member on any Monday or Friday. An English professor volunteered to write the text for a new viewbook, telling Mr. Wincowski he would do it free because he loved the college so much.
Although Mr. Wincowski is encouraged, he’s also frank about the challenges St. Mary’s faces. For one thing, he says, the college must rethink its financial-aid strategies. The shift in tactics this past admissions cycle put more money into need-based aid and offered larger grants to the highest-achieving students. To do that, the college reduced the number of small merit scholarships to middle-of-the-pack applicants.
“We gave up our bread-and-butter students,” Mr. Wincowski says. “We threw a lot of money at other students, who, when I look at the surveys, are going to Penn, Princeton, Cornell, Davidson.” St. Mary’s couldn’t compete, he says. “To spend that kind of money to draw those students away, the strategy didn’t work well at all.”
A $2,000 scholarship might not seem like much to take off the table from one year to the next. But the parents of a child with solid grades and a 1240 SAT score might see it differently, Mr. Wincowski says. “If you take that away, you’ve lost what the parents want to talk about. It’s a small amount of money, but it means a lot.”
St. Mary’s new enrollment chief, who starts in October, won’t have the easiest job. For one thing, St. Mary’s competes against other public colleges with lower price tags, as well as private colleges that can discount more aggressively.
When Moody’s Investors Service downgraded the college’s bond rating this month, it cited “a sharp and unexpected drop” in incoming freshmen and a “softening of demand.” But in the long term, Moody’s projects that St. Mary’s will be able to stabilize its enrollment and revenue under new leadership.
Next year, regular-decision applicants will get verdicts by February 15, closer to when many of the state’s other public colleges let them know. The goal is to send scholarship notifications then and, when possible, complete aid offers, too.
Meanwhile, St. Mary’s has broader messages to convey. Many students, its survey showed, didn’t grasp its identity as an “honors college.” On his first day there, Mr. Wincowski asked the admissions staff to explain what the term meant. “It was hard for them,” he says. “No wonder students don’t know what it is, because we have a hard time articulating it ourselves.”
New marketing materials will do that, by showcasing graduates’ success. “St. Mary’s was an institution that didn’t brand,” Mr. Wincowski says. “We hadn’t been telling the story.”
As at many colleges, a conundrum has led to a search for clues, some of which are inspiring new strategies. If history is any guide, some of them will work-at least until next year.