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Who values the liberal arts?

“Why did I have to take that math class?”

“First year seminar?  Are you kidding me? I don’t need to learn how to study!”

“Ugh, what’s the point of a common book? I want to be an accountant!”

“When will I need to know who was the 10th president of the United States?”

These questions are common of first-year college students, particularly those at a liberal arts school like Doane College, in Crete, Nebraska. And, to an extent, they are understandable. Today, possibly more than ever, I read blogs, articles, and comments challenging the value of a liberal arts degree. Enrollment managers and admissions professionals at liberal arts colleges around the nation, particularly those of us at colleges without national acclaim, address this question every day with prospective students.

But, truth be told, all of higher education is being challenged today relative to the value it brings. I’ve read research that justifies the value of a liberal arts degree, but also the value of a college degree in general. And for every article I find, I anticipate reading an online rebuttal. We want black and white data which gives us an absolute guarantee in the value, nevermind the fact that every student is different and controls in large part their ability to be successful both during and after college. Moreover, how many students have completed an undergraduate degree at both a liberal arts college and a public university in order to give what may be the best opportunity to create a real comparison?

So, instead of that elusive black and white apples to apples comparative data, liberal arts college admissions reps rely heavily on success stories, testimonials, quotes from HR managers who hire their graduates and CEO’s who believe in the liberal arts. This has an effect no doubt, and yet we all understand that the liberal arts college experience isn’t for everyone. And, for the moment, let’s keep the issue of cost out of this conversation because I think that muddies the water a bit and easily gets people wound up. Personally, I get a bit riled up when I read articles supporting liberal arts programs only to see crude, disparaging comments attacking those of us that believe in the value. Some will see value while others will not.

Here is my reality.

I’m from the small town of Wahoo in rural Nebraska. My graduating class was less than 100 students. I was a good student who participated in a number of activities including choir, band, Fellowship of Christian Athletes, football, basketball, track, and baseball. I had a paper route and detassled corn in the summer for money.  I took the ACT two times (only because my mom required me to do so hoping that I would get a higher score the second time and earn more scholarship money – nope!) and applied for colleges in the fall of my senior year. I applied to large schools and small schools alike to make sure I had “options”. Ultimately, I decided I wanted to continue to play basketball in college and quickly learned that not many NCAA Division I universities were calling me. But, that was okay because I was being drawn to these liberal arts colleges for some reason. The community feel and size quickly became appealing to me.

I enjoyed a class project my high school senior year in English Composition which required students to research a potential career. For me it was desktop publishing. This was an evolving profession in the early 90’s, particularly as computers really gained capabilities. I was not an artist, but for some reason graphics were of great interest. Ultimately I chose Morningside College in Sioux City, Iowa, as my college because it afforded me both basketball and graphic design opportunities while also offering the comfortable environment for which I was looking.

As a liberal arts college, Morningside required me to take a smorgasbord of courses that were not in my major; math, science, history, Spanish, and sociology to name a few. But, like most students I wondered why I needed those courses.  After all, I was an art major.  In addition, the college required me to participate in a speaker series which did not require homework but simply required me to show up and pay attention (the latter wasn’t always easy). And, my professors required me to participate in class. With only 20 students in my first-year English Comp class, the professor did not allow me to sit in the back of the class. He expected participation.  Even more scary, upper division classes required collaborative work in teams. YUCK! Finally, I was required to participate in a first-semester class which focused on study habits, adapting to college, and other trivial, yet ultimately useful information.  I was challenged every day and pushed outside my comfort zone while at the same time feeling supported by faculty and administration.

The above experience is not for everyone. But it was for me.

Although I enjoyed my major, it became clear to me during my senior year that I was simply not talented enough at graphic design.  I did not have the confidence necessary for it to be my ultimate career path. Can you imagine that feeling during your senior year? Yes you can, because many of you had it! It was at that time that I leaned on everything else that I learned through my college experience that prepared me to go out and find the job that started my career. Coincidentally – and like many others that I know – I found my first job as a result of a recommendation by a mentor at the college. This administrator helped me make a professional connection which landed me my first job. This is very common at small, liberal arts colleges. Who you know does matter!

I now work at Doane College, also a liberal arts college so yes, I “sell” this experience every day, but only because I believe in it as a result of what it did for me personally. I use math everyday, much more than I ever thought I would. I use graphic design much more than I thought I would, given my role as an administrator. I write more than I anticipated I ever would.  I wish I would have taken more Spanish and enjoyed history class more than I did. I value the lessons learned in a safe environment in college related to collaborative and group work because the real world is a challenge requiring people to work together. To this day I could call up or email my former professors across many disciplines at the college and they would reply.  Some receive my family’s annual holiday card. I’m glad I was forced to learn to study and use the library and research tools.

Bottom line is that a liberal arts education has been around for a long time and while it has evolved to meet the needs of today’s students, the foundation is still very present. We educate people to be life-long learners and adapt to the careers of tomorrow. We require students to take coursework that they won’t completely appreciate until 5, 10 or maybe even 20 years down the road.

A student with a 3.5 GPA in high school can likely be successful at both a large, public institution as well as a small liberal arts college. The true success is matching up the student with the type of college they want/need. So, the question is not whether liberal arts has a value, the more appropriate question is does liberal arts have a value to you?

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Yield better!

It’s 2014 and I’m all about resolutions for a new year.  This year, one of my professional resolutions will be to yield better.  It’s basketball season so if you don’t mind, I’ll use a basketball experience to make today’s point.

I was an average college basketball player who, like many, made too many mistakes and bad plays for my memory.  From a young age, I wanted to play college ball so I worked hard toward that goal trying to get better at every opportunity.  I had some talent and I was coachable!  I listened well, did my best to learn from my mistakes (provided I understood the mistake I made), and tried the alternative solution the next time I was in a similar situation.  That said, I distinctly remember multiple times during games when I would come off the playing floor only to hear my coach look at me and with intense frustration say, “Play better!”

I can’t help but relate that to an experience in enrollment management and understand to an extent why my coach said what he did.  I look at our current admission funnel reports seeing a somewhat stagnant inquiry pool, applicant numbers and yield percentages resembling a graph line similar to my favorite roller coaster (up and down over the last five years) all the while thinking to myself, “Yield better!”  Ah, but if it were only that easy.

I have not had one conversation with a colleague in higher education enrollment management who is interested in reducing enrollment.  We all want to grow or at the very least maintain size while becoming more selective.  Either way, we are often challenged with the notion of yielding better from our inquiry and applicant pools particularly this time of year.  Unfortunately for colleges, prospective students have grown very recruitment savvy.  They are much less likely to fill out inquiry forms from the mail or even online forms that have been pushed to them.  They are more interested in dictating the colleges that they want to consider and when they want to connect.  This change is impacting our ability to project yields as accurately as we may have even just five years ago.

Quickly back to basketball.  As I walked past my coach toward a place on the bench (his comment ringing in my ears) my head spins with potential solutions of how I can play better.  Today, I anticipate that same spinning in admission counselor’s heads as I push them to yield better.  I’m sure they are looking for solutions themselves.  But, as the enrollment manager at my institution, it is my responsibility to have the answer.  Similar to the coach, I should provide solutions which will yield better.

Over the course of the last 5 years, our inquiry pool has decreased.  At the same time, our applicant pool has increased and ultimately our yield on admitted applicants has fluctuated from a high of 29% to a low of 22% resulting in first-year classes between 337 and 287 students.  With a similar applicant pool to last year and an enrollment goal of 350 first-year students, it is clear that “yield better” is the obvious overall solution to achieve our goal.

So, what steps are we taking right at Doane College now to ultimately yield better?  First and foremost, we are spending more effort to focus our message on the value of a Doane College education by comparison to alternatives.  Second, we are working on the modes to deliver that message effectively utilizing traditional mail, telephone, web site, and social media.  Third, we are utilizing a new analytical tool that allows us to customize our message based on the specific interests of the student.  Finally, we are recalibrating our financial aid distribution, merit, need-based, and strategic funding, to improve our yield.  On the surface, these actions may seem obvious to others in enrollment management.  Nevertheless, the devil is in the details.  Like most enrollment management strategies, immediate results are elusive.  Our efforts require patience.  But, hope isn’t a strategy.  Enrollment management requires daily planning, monitoring tactics, and modifying our approach for better results.  Every day our admission office must make time to focus on tactics that will yield better.

Here’s to strong college enrollments across the US in 2014.  Cheers!

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The quest for the silver bullet.

Silver Bullet

Silver bullet?  What silver bullet?  I’ve been in higher education since 1998 working both in admissions and advancement.  I’ve participated in and directed discussions that lamented over what to do differently to achieve substantially greater results.  In almost every discussion it seems that we are most often looking for the one thing, that elusive silver bullet, which will turn water into wine.  As my Director of Admission says, “there is no silver bullet.”

He’s right but that doesn’t stop us from hoping that there is so these discussions continue.  Nevertheless, as realists we make sure we don’t spend too much time in imaginary land because it is highly unlikely that one strategic initiative from the admission office will achieve substantially different enrollment results.  Maybe it’s more productive to put time and energy into many strategic initiatives that help to move the needle together.  Staying true to my athletic background, I’ll use this analogy.  A star player can make a tremendous impact on a team; even win some games seemingly by themselves.  But, typically championships require a not only a few substantially talented individuals, but also a great “supporting cast”, a game plan that evolves adding new plays and different schemes, a crowd that supports the team, great coaching, and great ownership.  Great teams adapt and are always looking to get better throughout the season.  Teams that want to go from good to great, don’t make just one move in the off-season or even during the season.  Even those that are considered great must continue to evolve or complacency catches up.

This summer while in the same conversations of the past, we decided that we were going to try many new approaches with the plan that while not all will be home-runs, each of them together has real potential to help move the needle.  In fact, a colleague of mine challenged me.  He said, “Do one thing new every week.”  That proves to be very difficult but in the spirit of competition, I gave it a go.  It pushed (and continues to push) me every day to think forward.

We can easily put too much time and energy into one strategy and then we wait to determine if it actually works.  That’s frustrating!  I want to look for new ideas, new strategies, and continue to implement new programs anticipating that some will hit while others may miss.  I’m not arguing for the “throw it against the wall and see what sticks” approach.  We still have to have a critical eye.  But, I want continual forward thinking.  Every plan is a working plan which should be continually adjusted.  This approach is particularly difficult for me.  I’m one that likes to create a plan and then work the plan with limited deviation.  In the world of traditional college enrollment, we deal with the traditional year-long cycle – often it takes a year (or more) to see results from our strategies.  We assess the results and make changes and then go again.  I don’t feel I can afford to be that traditional anymore.  I need to be more flexible; more innovative.

A buddy of mine read my first two blogs and provided some well-deserved constructive criticism.  He said, “You can suck me in and, yet, really not offer specifics.”  In that vein, I’ll give some specifics a try.  Here are a number of our new initiatives:

  • We launched a new senior advantage program for area high school students to take college courses for $100 at Doane College in their senior year.
  • We eliminated high school transcripts as a requirement for admission.
  • We approved 2014/15 tuition in October rather than waiting till February.
  • We plan to roll-out a three-year graduation guarantee before the end of second semester.
  • We are rolling out a new branding campaign.
  • We are venturing into social media advertising including Google AdWords and Facebook advertising.
  • We are creating videos to have a presence on YouTube.
  • We will substantially increase branding signage on campus over the course of the next 12 months.
  • We created targeted visit events based on some of our strong programs rather than continuing to offer generic group visit events.
  • We restructured our financial aid policy.
  • We are implementing a targeted communications plan that integrates mail, e-mail, text, and social media.  (Some of you may be saying, “Well, duh!”  I get it, everyone has a communications plan.  I also contend that everyone’s communication plan can be better.  I’m simply acknowledging here that our communications plan was not as integrated as it should have been and we took steps to mitigate this.  Still, we have more to do.)
  • We have initiated a Transfer Task Force to assess our current approach to transfer students – there may be a Transfer Graduation Guarantee Coming!
  • As an institution, we are instituting a College to Career Center and hiring an Internship Coordinator – we know internships lead to employment.
  • We are holding admission counselors accountable for the recruitment of what we call “unleveraged” students – those students who are not coming to Doane for athletics, music, or theatre.

These are a few.  None of these independently will propel us to our goals.  This isn’t enough!

We are smack in the middle of recruiting and I’m continuing to push on what we need to change to be more effective.  The market place has high expectations.  Meeting those expectations simply puts us in the game.  We need to exceed those expectations.  Quick example:  If you’ve ever been to Doane’s campus in Crete, NE, and taken the tour, you might make the statement, “If you can just get a student to visit, you should have no problem with enrollment.”  This would seem to imply a silver bullet possibility.  However, our visit yield is very similar to national averages.  It’s true.  Our campus is amazing.  But, let’s not forget that the vast majority of students don’t come to college to sit under the tree and look over the beautiful pond as the sun slowly sets.  Getting students to campus certainly is a huge step but there is more to it.

Colleges must evolve with the needs of students and families.  Communication methods have changed substantially in the last 10-15 years.  Change happens so fast that we must adapt and fight the urge to do it the way we always have.  Stay tuned…I’d like to share the process that led to a new branding campaign.

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Okay, so you have the right people on the bus! Are they in the correct aisle, let alone correct seat?

Do you remember the feeling you get when you receive a bill or credit card statement and you get that incredible sinking feeling because the amount is way beyond what you anticipated?  I had this similar feeling when I modeled out first-year and transfer enrollment increases needed on an annual basis to grow from 1,100 students to 2,000 students in ten years.  Safe to say I had a significant knot in my throat and some uneasiness in my stomach.  I played with the numbers to determine how retention, transfer enrollment, and first-year enrollment all needed to increase and to what extent I needed to see those numbers increase immediately or if I could push them out a few years as new initiatives take root all the while feeling “okay” about the volume increase in a single year by comparison.  I have it plotted out year by year.  This is good if for no other reason to understand the reality of what we are trying to do.  However, I’ve got to be careful to not represent the model as representative of what WILL happen.  It’s just a model not my personal crystal ball!

With a working model designed, reality strikes initiating personal pains of urgency far beyond what I have experienced in the past.  And, consider this important fact; urgency isn’t necessarily shared by all at Doane College – at least not at this point.  I’m not being critical.  Rather, I’m acknowledging the reality.  Our interest in growth is proactive.  It’s a vision established by our President, Dr. Jacque Carter, who makes a great case for growth based on long-term stability and national presence.  It’s exciting!  But, our backs are not against the wall.  We are not in crisis mode.  We are not in financial dire straits.  That is good and we want to be even stronger ten years from today.

So, one of my continual challenges is to bring people to a significant level of urgency without the benefit (and/or drawback) of a “nothing-to-lose” mentality.  I contend that while all strategic visions will have their naysayers, these naysayers have a stronger presence when they truly feel there is a better alternative.  In our case that alternative may be the simple resistance to change.  At least when in panic mode, even the naysayers can struggle for a better alternative than a solution to a crisis.  As a result, they may not be helping but they also aren’t hurting.  In our current environment, doubt in our ability to grow can easily impede our urgency.

In order to create some urgency, I’m pushing operational change particularly in admission and marketing.  We are identifying what must change in order for us to grow.  How are we going to attract and yield students that we don’t currently get – both traditional and adult learners?  How will we grow our geographic market?  It begins to set in with our teams…this is on us.  No one will do this for us.  The cavalry is not coming over the hill.  But, this is not to say that admission can do it all independently.  It will be a team effort for sure.  Nevertheless, the teams responsible with leading our enrollment growth effort are admissions, marketing, and athletics.

For some quick perspective, when I first arrived at Doane, marketing did not report to me as VP for Admissions.  Marketing departments are structured different at each college and university.  Dr. Carter recognized my desire to bring the efforts of marketing and admissions more closely aligned.  I felt we needed to leverage a strong working relationship – a partnership – with our marketing department.   As a result, one structural move we made was to bring marketing, communications, and admissions under the same VP.  My position of Vice President for Enrollment Services and Marketing was created.  In addition (and also very critical to Doane’s enrollment), the athletic department also transitioned to report to the VP for Enr. Services & Marketing because student-athlete recruitment is currently a significant component to our enrollment plan.

Once departmental realignment was complete, it was time to begin focusing the departmental operations on common goals.  This also allows for enrollment accountability to be shared across a greater number of key decision makers at the institution.  After spending some time making sure people are in the right aisles, it’s time to get the bus out of PARK.

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Enrollment – What’s easier, growing 100% or doubling in size?

Confidence is an amazing personal trait.  With some people, confidence comes and goes.  However, consider the basketball player that doesn’t give a shot any hesitation even having missed the previous 10 shots.  The confidence that player has in his/her shooting ability never waivers – regardless of the competition.  They believe the next shot will go in.  They have unwavering confidence most likely based on achievements to that point.

I’m proud of my accomplishments professionally and feel that I’ve had enough success professionally that I should be pretty confident in my skill set and professional knowledge.  However, what we are attempting to accomplish at Doane College in Crete, Nebraska and what I have great responsibility for leading is something I have not accomplished nor do I know many who have.  We plan to double our traditional undergraduate enrollment within the next 10 years – yes, that’s 100% growth!  Admission directors and enrollment managers understand the gravity of this when put in the context of growing a first-year class from 300 annually to almost 600.  What you did yesterday won’t get the results you want tomorrow.  What’s even more obvious is that if it were that easy to grow a class 100%, it’s fair to say many schools would be doing so.

Safe to say there are many new initiatives at the college (not just in admissions) which will need to work in order for us to achieve our enrollment goals.  Nevertheless, my focus is on the actions we take specifically in the areas of enrollment management and marketing to achieve our goals.  I want to capture and share my experiences.  In that vein, I plan to blog at least two times each month.  I will share successes and failures possibly even frustrations.

While it’s true that I have confidence, I also have the anxiety of potential failure as a character trait.  This blog is not meant to be a road map or even a “look-at-me” experience.  I am not selling consulting and frankly I’m not looking for that either at the moment – I may need counseling or even consoling in the future.  I do know that the higher education landscape for enrollment managers is different from it was 10-15 years ago.  I’m anxious to share my experiences and hear about other’s experiences as well.  This is my journey.

My next blog will give a bit of a current situation update as a foundation from where we start.

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