The road to modern admissions
In a time when prospective students are visiting and applying to more schools than ever before, it takes more than a brochure to attract them, and universities across the country, including Elon, are taking note.
Emma Sharer’s college search started with a nine-hour drive on a Sunday morning over spring break. By the time she and her parents, Robin and Donn Sharer, returned to their New Jersey home the following Friday night, they had visited at least six schools from their list of prospects, plus a handful of other campuses they discovered along the way.
And that’s only the beginning. The family is planning a trip out West to visit more colleges over the summer, before Emma starts her senior year in high school. “We just want her to see what’s out there,” Robin said as she toured Elon’s campus earlier this spring, adding that students nowadays are expected to visit as many schools as possible, particularly over spring break. “She’d feel like she would have missed out to go back to school without visiting any colleges. It’s the nature of the beast.”
So far the process has not been overwhelming, Emma said, though she expects that will change later this year once she actually starts applying to her top choices.
In a time when students are visiting and applying to more schools than ever before—and have more information at their fingertips than in previous years—the Sharers are the norm when it comes to the college selection process. Gone are the days when students relied only on publications they received in the mail or proximity to a school when choosing a college. “The admissions landscape is ultra competitive,” says Jeff Bennett ’98, a senior marketing consultant with the Charlotte, N.C.-based higher education marketing firm TWG Plus. “There are a lot of tools at people’s disposal and new technologies that seems to be advancing at a rapid pace. The Common Application makes it easier to apply to more schools, and students who fear they cannot get into the right school put in a lot more applications.”
Colleges and universities across the country are taking note, and Elon is no exception. Earlier this year, the university opened the Inman Admissions Welcome Center, a new two-story building adjacent to Moseley Center that houses staff members working in undergraduate and graduate admissions and financial planning, as well as the welcome center. The new building and other efforts to enroll today’s students are a continuation of a long process that began more than 30 years ago as Elon looked for a competitive advantage over its peers.
The starting point
When Joanne Soliday and Nan Perkins led the admissions office in the 1980s and 1990s, the outlook wasn’t particularly positive for colleges in the state. In North Carolina and Virginia, the traditional recruiting markets for Elon then, the number of high school graduates was dropping dramatically and if population trends were to be trusted, the market was projected to bottom out by 1994 due to low birth rates. “It was a tense time in admissions,” Perkins recalls. “The wisest college presidents were paying attention” to these changes, and adjusting accordingly.
Administrators at Elon decided to broaden their geographic reach to attract students along the Eastern Seaboard by raising the school’s profile in those areas with publications that highlighted its programs. The campus infrastructure was improved and entrance requirements were gradually enhanced to attract students with higher SATs. More emphasis was also put on bringing prospective students and their families to visit the campus. The efforts paid off as applications and the SAT average for incoming students rose. Elon emerged on the national scene, greatly expanding student recruitment and serving as a national model for effective communication with prospective students and families. But the work was far from over. “It’s a myth that if you get to a certain level, it’s easier to recruit students,” Perkins says. “You are just competing with different schools.”
Online communication revolutionized the way the university engaged with prospective students in the mid-2000s. Traditional letters and brochures were supplemented with targeted email campaigns and website content tailored to users’ preferences. The old model was simple—the university controlled the manner and the timing of communication to prospective students. But mainstream adaptation of electronic communication created a two-way conversation as students and their parents got in touch via email, social media and college rankings websites.
Students retain that control until and beyond the enrollment deposit deadline of May 1. They submit deposits at multiple universities, which makes the picture of the incoming class very uncertain. And at an institution such as Elon, where student tuition funds most of the operating budget, an uncertain picture of the incoming class impacts the extent to which the university can plan for the year ahead, says Susan Klopman, who retired in 2012 after 27 years of service to Elon, including six years as vice president of admissions and financial planning. Her tenure included the addition of several distinctive features that are hallmarks of Elon’s modern profile: the six Fellows Programs, expanded international recruitment, a growing focus on graduate education and the addition of an essay to the undergraduate application.
By the mid-2000s, the Admissions Office consistently received 5,000 applicants for each incoming class. Because all qualified applicants were admitted, the first-year class was full by early December. And even though quality applications continued to roll in, students were not admitted because there was no more room. The situation prompted Klopman to introduce a deadline-driven application process to ensure space remained for outstanding applicants who applied later in the year. “We needed every student to have a shot at admission here, and for the good of the institution, we needed to enroll the very best students who would help shape Elon’s future,” she says.
Finding success in a competitive market
As much as the means and the method of recruiting students has evolved in the past 30 years, to get the best of the best, Perkins, Klopman and Greg Zaiser ’90 G’95, the current vice president of admissions and financial planning, all agree the fundamentals remain the same—visiting campus and connecting with the Elon community are the main predictors in converting prospective students to enrolled students. According to 2012 figures from the National Association for College Admission Counseling, between 64 and 78 percent of colleges reported receiving more applications every year for the previous 15 years. At the same time, the percentage of students applying to seven or more schools also increased, going from 25 percent in 2010 to 29 percent in 2011.
The campus tour is also becoming one of the most important elements in students’ application and enrollment decisions. According to a 2013 survey of prospective Elon students, campus visits are the first tool families rely on during the decision process, followed by interactions with admissions staff and college websites. That’s why campus appearance cannot be understated, Bennett says. He considers admissions to be the front porch of an institution. “You never get a second chance to make a first impression.”
The expectations of what a modern campus provides are also high. Campus tour guides highlight the strength of Elon’s academic programs and facilities, such as the Koury Business Center, while also referencing the benefits the campus offers, such as the fitness center or the international food options available at Lakeside Dining Hall. It’s a delicate balance that takes strategic planning.
Above all, Zaiser says, Elon’s campus development reflects the school’s academic priorities. The Global Neighborhood—which blends residence life and academic programs—and the upcoming expansion of the School of Communications both incorporate intentional spaces for interaction with faculty and academic discussions. The students and families who visit Elon aren’t just looking for a pretty face, he says, they want a university designed to fully immerse students in their college experience. “When students visit campus, they really get a sense of the full Elon experience,” Zaiser says. “Students say, ‘I just had this good feeling about Elon,’ but that feeling is the result of an entire community invested in their well-being and personal growth.”
That personal growth experience, punctuated by demanding academics and relationships with faculty mentors, keeps Elon competitive in a challenging marketplace. Dual pressures of an increasing need for scholarship money and national conversations about the value of a college education are foremost on the minds of prospective students and parents, Zaiser says.
As Elon’s academic profile grows, so, too, have the number of ways the institution can shape the incoming class. That growth is guided by Elon’s strategic priorities such as a commitment to diversity and global engagement, and launching innovative graduate programs. The university has also expanded the scope of its recruitment plan to include growth areas on the West Coast, and has added two full-time staff members devoted to international students. “People think that because Elon is a hot school, success is automatic,” Zaiser says. “The reality is we have to recruit now more than ever. And it’s not just about filling seats; we’re very intentional about the ways in which we want to grow.”
The new admissions welcome center fits into that strategic thinking. The campus visit experience has witnessed exponential growth over the past two decades—going from 2,857 prospective students visiting campus in 2000 to 12,305 in 2014. And with strong growth in the number of incoming students from Illinois, Texas and California, plus well-established recruitment territories in the Northeast, a welcome center larger than the previous facilities in the Moseley Center became a top priority for the university. The fact that Elon chose to make the investment now, Bennett says, shows it is ahead of the pack. “What I like is that Elon makes smart decisions that are sound decisions. All decisions seem to be made for the long-haul,” he says. “This is the perfect building for their enrollment. I have a feeling everyone will have one of those in the future.”
So what’s next?
Zaiser says his wish list includes further engaging alumni in the admissions process, potentially via alumni interviews of prospective students. He sees tremendous value in creating conversations between prospective students and alumni who can speak directly to the Elon experience. “For most prospective students and families, it’s a given that Elon provides a quality education,” Zaiser says. “They want to hear about how Elon supports them after graduation, what the Elon name means in the world. Our alumni are in the best position to tell that story.”
Expanded opportunities for families to meet faculty are key as parents show more interest in knowing professors’ credentials and research interests. Programs like Explore Elon, which takes place on campus, and An Evening with Elon, which takes place in cities across the country, allow for such interactions to happen seamlessly. Zaiser says prospective parents ask economics professors about national labor reports, a sign they are interested in the faculty’s expertise as well as the kinds of conversations that will happen in the classroom. “They want to make sure students will learn both theory and application within their major,” he says.
Having programs in place to show the institution’s commitment to development beyond graduation is also among the most important factors families consider. Respondents to the 2013 Elon survey chose job placement and internships among the top five attributes influencing college selection. The Office of Admissions is very intentional, both in marketing materials and personal conversations, to share information about programs offered by Elon’s Student Professional Development Center. Programs such as bridges and “Destination …” are designed to help students transition from college into specific cities and regions. Further support is offered through the Office of Alumni Engagement, which last year hosted welcome events in 24 cities for recent graduates. Demonstrating that connection and support to prospective families is critical, Zaiser says.
Personal success stories are what resonate the most with prospective students—the knowledge that each student is valued and will be pushed by the Elon community to achieve great things. Time and again, Zaiser says, families tell him that Elon was the first university to return their email or phone call, to make extra time for detailed questions after a tour or to offer a warm welcome when they visit for a campus event. “This place, this university is a huge operation but we don’t treat it that way,” he says. “In admissions, our job is to get these students to campus and to select the candidates. But the entire community is invested in this work. I feel it every day.”
By Katie Degraff and Keren Rivas ’04