Campus & Community / Magazine Feature

Universities changing undergraduate recruiting strategies

It used to be that students didn’t think about college until their senior year of high school, with the more clueless waiting until just before they graduated to apply.

But today’s students have pretty much identified their first-choice college midway through their junior year, admission officials say. That shifting timeline has forced universities, including DU, to adopt more strategic and costly marketing approaches in order to compete with other schools and secure a freshman class that meets institutional goals.

The National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC) reports that admission offices are reaching out to students earlier in their high school careers, targeting a diverse audience of high-achieving students with integrated direct mail and online solicitations, investing in online resources for today’s Web-savvy students and hiring marketing personnel to hone branding messages.

According to a national study by enrollment and marketing consultant Noel-Levitz, the median cost to recruit a student to a four-year private university in 2005 was $2,073 — up 10 percent from 2004 and four times as much as public universities spent per student.

That’s because private universities are in a race for the best students, says Tom Willoughby, DU’s vice chancellor for enrollment. Admission offices have to talk to these high-achieving students sooner and more often, he says, to imbed themselves on the short list of colleges they are considering.

“Early on, we really need to build awareness and demonstrate the value of DU,” Willoughby says.

It’s a courtship that costs money, he notes. DU spent $2,351 per undergraduate student on recruitment in 2005.

Extending the University’s courtship with high school students also means more staff and resources devoted to printing, Web development, electronic communications, admission processing and high school and campus visits.

“What DU is doing is just jaw dropping,” says Bill Royall of Royall & Company, a higher-ed recruitment and marketing firm that consults with DU.

While higher education institutions in general have to compete to maintain the status quo, he says, the competition gets fiercer with universities like DU that have a vision for academic excellence that includes geographic and ethnic diversity. Some private universities are spending 10 times as much as public universities, says Royall, to reach students who fit their university profile.

Increased marketing efforts at DU are aimed at creating the largest, most diverse pool of applicants possible in order to select the best students, Willoughby says. In 2006, DU purchased 200,000 names of prospective students, targeting high-achieving sophomores, out-of-state students and students of color. 

The number of undergraduate applications to DU increased from 4,534 in 2004 to 5,820 in 2006 — 28.4 percent in two years. The representation of students of color in the incoming class during that same time period increased from 15 percent to 18 percent.

The standard higher-ed marketing tool kit, the NACAC says, includes online marketing to reach students earlier in their decision-making process, as well as increasing public relations resources, high school visits and recruitment of out-of-state and international students.

Although DU employs similar marketing strategies, the University has focused more on campus visits than high school visits, Willoughby says. Bringing students to DU to see for themselves the beauty of the campus, the excellence of instruction and the range of diversity tends to seal the deal, he says. More than half of the students who visit DU end up enrolling, he says.

Because increased marketing is expanding the applicant pool, many private universities are raising their selectivity to the increase academic standards, according to NACAC. DU is no exception. During the past five years, grade point average, ACT and SAT scores, and ethnic and geographic diversity have risen with each incoming DU class.

But while quality is increasing, quantity is not. DU has capped first-year enrollment at about 1,100 students for the past three years. It was then that DU saw its first wait list — a list that grew to 500 students last fall.

It may seem counter-intuitive to spend so much money on recruiting applicants while capping enrollment, Willoughby admits. But a large number of applicants is needed, he says, to recruit the very best students to DU.

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