A message from Admissions
Recently I added Mark Twain's quotes to my homepage for my Google account. Each day I am treated to a new quote from the master. One quote that really caught my attention:
"All schools, all colleges, have two great functions: to confer, and to conceal, valuable knowledge. The theological knowledge which they conceal cannot justly be regarded as less valuable than that which they reveal. That is, when a man is buying a basket of strawberries it can profit him to know that the bottom half of it is rotten."
This might be a good starting point to share some of the things we learned this past summer.
My office employed George Dehne & Associates -- one of the nation's best higher education consultants -- to conduct a telephone survey of admitted students and to perform an operational assessment of our recruitment practices
Although these efforts revealed that our basket of strawberries -- by which I mean, our recruiting practices, not our students -- looks pretty good on the surface, it also revealed we may have some strawberries getting pretty mushy. It may profit us to take Twain's advice and look carefully below the surface.
The good news: the college is at full enrollment, the first-year class is the fourth largest in the college's history and is more diverse than ever. Dehne's review concluded that we had a good shot at a record year last year:
"Given the quality of the admissions and recruitment operation and the college's commitment to marketing the new strategic plan there is no question in our mind that if two of more of the [one-time problems they identified*] had not been in play this year the new student enrollment goal would have been met once again."
We could stop at this surface evaluation and try to sell it, but it would be not be in Augustana's best interest to do so.
The news from below the surface: While it's not the case that "the bottom half of it is rotten," Dehne did find serious problems. They conducted phone interviews with hundreds of students whom we had accepted but who chose to go elsewhere. By any measure, they were an academically desirable group. Their answers give us good guidance on where the problems lie.
Here's what we learned:
- The most important factors in deciding where to attend college include: strong majors, a desirable location, the campus visit and personal relationships.
- We were not doing a good job of representing our strengths in any of those areas.
- Cost is a significant issue.
- Neither Senior Inquiry nor Augie Choice is well understood.
Here are some of the more-detailed findings behind each of those bullet-points.
- We are not effectively communicating the strength of our majors. Non-enrolling students are twice as likely to choose a college over Augustana because of the perceived strength of the major. In fact, 10% of our non-enrolling pool indicated "offering a stronger major" could have convinced them to enroll.
- We also learned that Rock Island is perceived as negative. Fifty-one percent of non-enrolling students say our location is "worse" or "much worse" than their enrolling college. Even 23% of our enrolling students believe our location is "worse" or "much worse" than their second choice.
- The campus visit is powerful, but one-third of our accepted students did not visit the campus. Nine percent of our non-enrolling student-visitors described campus as "ugly" and "old" and were turned off by the visit. The silver lining is that 16% of students indicated they chose Augie because of the visit. And, 96% of our enrolled students described the visit as having "greatly" or "somewhat" increasing their interest in Augustana.
- We learned that relationships really matter. First, relationships with faculty members play an important role. Twenty-five percent of our non-enrolling student wanted to meet with a faculty member, but could not or did not. Of the students who did not meet with a faculty member, two-thirds went elsewhere. We also learned that other relationships matter, too. Non-enrolling students described less positive relationships with admissions and athletics than did enrolling students. Despite this bad news, we also learned that our faculty members are very effective in meetings when they do occur. For example, 8% of our enrolling students chose Augiustana because of "professor, quality of the faculty." None of our non-enrolling students indicated the same about the college they chose. Also, 83% of our students said meeting with faculty "substantially increased their interest in the college."
- We learned that finances are important, but value is even more important. Fifty-five percent of our non-enrolled admitted students would not attend even if the cost of Augustana was equal to the institution at which they are enrolled. Another 38% indicated more financial aid would not have convinced them to attend. These figures suggest that there is more to the decision thanbottom-line cost and that adopting a strategy of "buying" students is unlikely to yield results.
- We learned that two major initiatives are not well understood and present some marketing challenges for us. Three out of four of our enrolling and non-enrolling students indicated that they did not know enough about either Senior Inquiry or Augie Choice to form and opinion about the programs. Considering the resources we have committed to these programs, this is not good.
The Office of Admissions and our recruitment program will need to changes in meaningful ways. At the tactical level we need to do the following things:
- Focus more intently on developing personal relationships with prospective students at every stage of the funnel;
- Reach out to members of the Augustana community (faculty, staff, coaches, alumni) to assist in the recruitment process to help connect prospective students to our campus in stronger ways than we have done in the past;
- Be strategic in our approach and use of financial assistance;
- do a better job communicating with faculty partners and pushing for broader recognition of the important role of recruitment;
- improve communication with faculty who host and meet with prospective students.
We have already taken some steps by appointing departmental liaisons from the Office of Admissions for each department; implementing a system that allows us to track prospective student meetings with faculty and report back to the faculty member at the conclusion of the year; and continuing to encourage the president and dean to ensure the faculty welfare committee explicitly recognizes recruitment in the tenure and promotion process.
There are important considerations for the broader Augustana community, too. Some things to consider include:
- emphasizing the strength of each major;
- emphasizing access to internships;
- emphasizing career preparation;
- reframing how we think about the Quad Cities to highlight the unique learning assets of our community;
- refocusing our message to promote positive outcomes;
- sharpening our story about what makes Augustana distinctive and why programs like Senior Inquiry and Augie Choice are relevant and advantageous.
There is much work ahead as we face an increasingly uncertain future shaped by demographic shifts and economic tribulations. In the days ahead we need to be more intentional in shaping and telling our story. We need to respond to and use the knowledge of what's below the surface to ensure prospective students have a more immediate and more complete sense of the Augustana story.
Excerpt from Dehne Executive Summary-August 2008
- The admission recruitment business is cyclical. There are always going to be good and less good years. Projecting what 2,200 fickle adolescents are going to do with their myriad college choices and influencing those decisions makes roulette seem easy.
- A $2,000 price increase in a down economic cycle without a corresponding increase in the tuition discount rate for scholarships and need-based aid shifted the risk curve. There was a change in the College's market position based on price without a corresponding change in the competitiveness of the financial aid program.
- The value proposition to justify the price increase was not developed early enough and was not conveyed in an understandable way to the target audience.
- There was staff turnover and some turmoil created by a change in office culture as the College moved to a professional 21st century admissions recruitment model. As a result there was less meaningful personal contact with prospects and applicants in some key areas of the Augie market. We believe that this deficiency is a result of a staff exclusively focused on what we call "application management," at the expense of "prospect management." The issue is not either application management or prospect management, but the timely realization of a productive balance between the two. (See Recommendation #2 that follows below.)
- There was not a unified campus-wide effort put forth to do everything possible to convert what was a more than sufficient size prospect pool into Augustana first choice applicants and enrolled students. This was in part due to a lack of complete buy-in to the strategic plan on the part of some faculty and many of the coaches as well as some communications breakdowns between admissions and some members of the faculty.
W. Kent Barnds,
Vice President, Enrollment & Communication